“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years,” President Obama assured the American people last September.
Just five months after President Obama touted Yemen as a successful example of his counter-terrorism strategy at work, Yemen has descended into a complete free fall.
The Shiite rebel group known as the Houthis, with the backing of Iran, has taken over Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. They caused the U.S.-friendly President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to resign last month, along with his cabinet and the prime minister.
Efforts by United Nations Special Envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, to forge a political dialogue between the Houthis and Yemen’s main political parties are going nowhere.
President Obama’s so-called “strategy” has backfired completely. Shiite Iran is gaining a valuable foothold on the Arabian Peninsula via its proxies, the Houthis, while al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Sunni jihadists who are determined to strike the U.S. homeland, is becoming stronger than ever. AQAP reportedly has grown to nearly1000 members, more than tripling in size since 2009 when President Obama began his first term. ISIS is also beginning to recruit members in Yemen, but does not yet have a local presence anywhere near the size of AQAP.
The Houthis and AQAP hate each other to be sure, mirroring the deep Shiite-Sunni schism found in the entire region. However, their common enemy is the United States. AQAP has tried repeatedly to attack the United States homeland. One of its leaders last fall referred to the United States as “the head of the snake,” and called for Muslims to unite against the “Crusader enemy.” Meanwhile, the Houthis’ slogan reads, “God is the Greatest. Death to America. Death to Israel. Damn the Jew and Victory to Islam.”
Things are now so bad in Yemen that the State Department announced on February 11th it was closing its embassy in Yemen for security reasons. To add insult to injury, rebels are now driving vehicles that belonged to U.S. embassy staff, and our marines were ordered to surrender their weapons before they evacuated. France and the United Kingdom are also closing their embassies.
Although exiting Yemen hastily in the wake of the Houthis’ take-over, the Obama administration is still claiming, in the words of the State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf, that the U.S. ally, President Hadi, “remains the president of Yemen.” That would be news to Mr. Hadi himself, considering that he resigned under pressure weeks ago and retains no power whatsoever.
The Houthis, Ms. Harf said during her rambling February 6th news briefing, do not deserve recognition “because they didn’t follow the process by which Yemen can change its government.” Yet at the same time, according to Ms. Harf, “the Houthis are engaged in a fight against AQAP as well, so there’s a lot of complications on the ground here.”
Ms. Harf could not give an intelligible answer to the question whether we are “working with a government that doesn’t exist but is recognized” by the United States or whether the U.S. is working with a de facto government that does exist but which the U.S. does not recognize, the one that the Houthis have established. Her incoherent statements encapsulate the lack of any coherent strategy on the part of the Obama administration in dealing with Yemen, much less the global war the jihadists are waging against anyone they consider “infidels.”
In an effort to consolidate their political power, the Houthis dissolved parliament and installed a cousin of the group's leader Abdel-Malik al-Houthi as the new president. But the cousin may be just a figurehead. Abdel-Malik al-Houthi appears to be the man really in charge of the Houthis’ take-over. He warned on February 10th that it was "in the interest of every power, domestic and foreign, to stabilise this country." He threatened “repercussions on the interests of these powers” if there were any “attempt to sow chaos or harm this country.”
Al-Houthi’s warning was certainly not directed at the Iranian regime, which views the latest developments in Yemen as extending its sphere of influence. Iran has been supplying money, weapons and training to its Houthi allies. Iranian Brigadier General Baqir Zada boasted that the Houthi victory in Yemen was “a historic victory for the Iranian Islamic revolution.”
However, despite the Houthis’ bravado and their patron Iran’s trumpeting of a great victory for the Iranian Islamic revolution, the Houthis’ control falls far short of extending to the entire country. The Houthis are expanding into areas in central Yemen that lie close to Yemen’s oil and gas infrastructure, but chaos is also spreading. Secessionists in the south of Yemen continue their own fighting, and other tribes in the country refuse to accept the Houthis’ assertion of power. And feeding like vultures on the carcasses of the fleeting Arab Spring that had given some Yeminis false hope, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has grown into a more potent threat than ever in spite of the Obama administration’s drone strikes.
According to an assessment of AQAP by the Council of Foreign Relations, “Analysts rate the Yemen-based group as the most lethal Qaeda franchise, carrying out a domestic insurgency while maintaining its sights on striking Western targets.”
The intelligence consulting organization known as the Soufan Group described what it called AQAP’s “lethal attributes”:
“What makes AQAP so dangerous is its success in exploiting the instability resulting from Yemen’s fractured, impoverished, and fragile conditions to consolidate its power base in the country’s ungoverned regions. AQAP’s strength also derives from its leaders’ domestic tribal connections, local resentment against the central government, and the appeal of its extremist jihadist ideology. That ideology espouses the goal of purging Muslim countries of Western influence and replacing secular ‘apostate’ governments—especially those in Yemen and Saudi Arabia—with fundamentalist Islamic regimes operating under strict sharia law. The group intends to achieve these goals in part through attacks that target not only Western interests in the region, such as embassies and energy facilities, but also the far enemy on the US homeland.”
The latest jihadist terrorist attack for which AQAP has taken credit was last month’s massacre at the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo.
If President Obama thinks that he can orchestrate some sort of internecine fight between the Iran-backed Shiite Houthis and the Sunni AQAP, while continuing targeted drone strikes to further weaken AQAP, he is living in his own dream world rather than in reality. Iran’s brand of Shiitism and AQAP’s brand of Sunniism differ fundamentally on Islamic doctrine, but they share a belief in absolute Islamic supremacy and the use of violence in support of their respective paths to achieving Islamic supremacy worldwide. For the Iranian Shiite theocracy, adding Yemen to its sphere of influence would constitute yet another milestone in fulfilling their end-of-times prophecy in which the imminent appearance of the Mahdi or 12th Imam will lead to final victory over the enemies of Islam everywhere. For al Qaeda as well as ISIS Sunni jihadists, a supreme global Islamic caliphate is the end goal.
Both paths require in common to reach their end goals the destruction of Western civilization, most notably the United States, and the killing or subjugation of all infidels.
Yemen exemplifies the failure of President Obama’s counter-terrorism strategy, such as it is, and the flawed assumptions on which it is based. When he cannot even correctly identify the enemy we are fighting and candidly explain its animating Islam-based ideology to the American people, he is at best just spinning his wheels. At worst his lack of real leadership is putting all Americans in danger.
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