America Retreats, al Qaeda Rises in Yemen

The evacuated U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen / AP
April 7, 2015

When President Obama name-checked Yemen as a success story during his announcement of strikes on the Islamic State in 2014, there was immediate skepticism from those who had been paying attention to the situation in that country, which at the time was threatened by a increasingly powerful Iranian-backed insurgency. Since then the skeptics have been proven correct, even as the White House takes a stroll onto Baghdad Bob territory with its position that all is well. The White House maintains a rosy line on the situation despite the facts that the U.S.-backed president has fled the country, the U.S. embassy has been evacuated (with Marines ordered to disable and abandon their weapons at the Sanaa airport, no less), we can't account for half-a-billion dollars in military equipment, and the U.S. special operations task force training the Yemenis on counter-terror operations has also retreated from the country.

With all the current chaos in the Middle East, it is forgivable to forget about Yemen. However, is not just one more dusty country being fought over by Shia and Sunni extremists, but also home to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the terrorist group most dedicated to killing Americans at home and on commercial aviation. If Americans are going to be harmed in a terrorist attack in the near term, it is more likely than not that AQAP will be the group responsible. All that we have left to fight AQAP now are drones based in Saudi Arabia and the Horn of Africa. The Washington Post reports that the Yemeni units trained by U.S. special forces have been "scrambled by the government's collapse," and that AQAP is taking full advantage:

The vacuum, U.S. officials say, appears to have allowed al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to focus on rebuilding its strength after years of U.S. drone strikes against its leaders. A prison break in eastern Yemen on Thursday freed as many as 300 inmates — including a senior AQAP leader — in an operation seen as part of a broader effort by the group to shore up its ranks. ...

The chaos would appear to give AQAP a major opening, a chance to ramp up terrorist plotting against the West while also asserting itself as the defender of Sunni Muslims across Yemen who are threatened by advancing Shiite-dominated Houthi militias. ...

"The initial evidence is actually that the Houthi advance has caused [AQAP’s] external plotting to be sidelined while they figure out how they’re going to deal with ... what appears to be an emerging civil war," said a senior U.S. military official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Fox News' Catherine Herridge reports that AQAP is coordinating with Somalia's al-Shabaab terror group, the organization behind the recent slaughter of students at a university in Kenya. Somalia was another country cited by the president as a successful model last September:

The intelligence source told Fox News that the affiliate is providing guidance to Somalia's al-Shabaab on how major plots -- like the attack at Garissa University College in Kenya that killed nearly 150 people -- can support their regional ambitions.

The intelligence source said Al Qaeda in Yemen is providing guidance and fighters, and sharing bomb-making techniques that account for the more sophisticated vehicle-borne explosive devices now being recovered in the region.

In mid-March, for instance, FBI investigators found a Toyota Hilux with IEDs welded to the floor and back-seat of a vehicle that had been tracked by the FBI from Somalia to Kenya.

Considering how sanguine Josh Earnest is about the whole situation, one wonders if the White House actually believes that the situation is manageable. After all, even though AQAP is estranged from the Sunni government run out of office by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, there will be no love lost between the Houthis and the al-Qaeda terrorists. With the U.S. stepping substantially out of the way, perhaps they will busy themselves with killing one another, while we retain capacity to deal with immediate threats to Americans through drone strikes and the sort of off-shore raids that killed Osama bin Laden.

Such an approach would combine a strategic vision of "off-shore balancing" with a dose of "terrorist whack-a-mole." But the problems with it are legion. Without the enduring relationships built by U.S. special operations troops, intelligence officers, and diplomats with Yemeni troops and government officials, the intelligence that leads to the drone strikes and raids will dry up quickly, even as AQAP gains breathing room to operate. Even when some intelligence that can drive an operation somehow comes into the hands of Americans, an entirely off-shore strategy is fundamentally defensive in nature. U.S. counter-terror assets become goalies guarding the net, and eventually something is going to get through. If AQAP has its way, it will get through on an airliner carrying lots of Americans. An on-shore presence, working with the Yemeni government, training its troops, developing relationships with its government, provides an offensive capability to take the fight to the enemy in a sustained way, with a Yemeni face. The American special operations base, before it was abandoned, no doubt provided an ideal staging point for quick-reaction forces that could help the sort of top-tier special operations forces that work to rescue hostages if such a unit got into trouble. From off-shore, everything will be harder now, and less effective. Our highly limited support in the fight against the Houthis will change none of this.

There was no reason that an on-shore strategy, properly resourced and aggressively executed, couldn't have succeeded in reducing AQAP to a scattered, ineffective ghost of an organization. But in the face of a challenge from Iran, rather than support the Yemeni government, the Obama administration simply abandoned it. Yemen is now witness to a regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Egypt on the one side, and Iran on the other. AQAP will only thrive in the chaos, its rise yet another disastrous consequence of the ideological and rigid devotion of Obama and his advisers to a nuclear deal. Not to mention a realignment in the Middle East that sees the U.S. withdraw and Iran take its proper place in the community of nations.