Friend or Foe: Yemen’s Salih Regime, Internal Crisis, and Counterterrorism

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By Stephanie Carnes – Located at the crossroads of the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, Yemen is one of the poorest Arab states and a major source of instability in the region. The government under President Salih currently faces myriad challenges to internal security, including an insurgency in the north, a separatist movement in the south, and widespread deterioration of law and order. Yemen is used by Al Qaida and has been a launching pad for terrorist attacks against US interests, including the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole at the Yemeni port of Aden. As the country’s prospects for stability erode, the capacity and willingness of the Yemeni government to work with the US on issues relating to counterterrorism are called into question.

In the north of the country, the government is mired in an anti-insurgency deadlock against members of the Houthi movement, which has roots in Shi’a Islam and was founded in the early 1990s primarily to counter the spread of puritanical Islam (Wahhabism) from neighboring Saudi Arabia. During the past decade, the Houthi movement and its followers have become a target for the government, and President Salih has accused followers of seeking to overthrow the elected government and restore theocratic Islamic rule in the north of the country. Violent clashes between members of the Houthi movement and government forces flared from 2004 to 2008. Recent reports have described government-sponsored destruction of homes, schools and mosques in Sa’ada governorate, and a rising number of internally displaced persons (IDP).

International human rights organizations have repeatedly condemned the Yemeni military’s actions in Sa’ada, particularly its indiscriminate violence against women and children in the region. The Salih regime’s democratic credentials are further undermined by muzzling of the press and general intimidation of Yemeni media outlets that attempt to cover the conflict. Frustration amongst Sa’ada residents has been exacerbated by the government’s failure to implement development programs and democratic reforms in the north. Such factors have generated support amongst tribespeople for the Houthi movement not necessarily because they espouse the same religious ideology but simply because the Houthis are challenging the regime.

In southern Yemen, formerly the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, separatist sentiment runs rife. Since unification of the north and the south in 1990, southern Yemenis have advocated the end of what they describe as military and economic domination by the national government. In these areas, reform was initially advocated in the context of the unified state; the rhetoric has now changed to focus once again on independence for the south. Previously peaceful protests against the regime, such as mass sit-ins, have recently turned violent, suggesting that the south has reached a breaking point with the government’s repressive policies. Similar to its response to the crisis in Sa’ada, the Salih regime has been heavy-handed in countering opposition in the south, using tanks and military aircraft. Some reports say that the government is also backing vigilante militias to intimidate southern opposition groups.

Further compounding the Yemeni crisis of state is the presence of Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has capitalized on the government’s inability to control much of the country. In January 2009, the Yemeni and Saudi branches of Al Qaida merged, showing that it can shift its operations to benefit from the lawlessness of semi-failed states as well as use Yemen as a staging area in the Arabian peninsula for future attacks.

As long as the Salih regime is embroiled in internal disturbances in the north and south of the country, its potential as a partner in counterterrorism initiatives is limited. With the resources of the government sapped by internal turmoil and instability, the Salih regime runs the risk of inadvertently giving free reign to AQAP to operate without restriction in Yemen as Al Qaida did in post-invasion Iraq. Moreover, the government’s homegrown counterterrorism initiative, a 2002 dialogue project to rehabilitate suspected Islamic militants through Islamic law and theology, has been considered largely unsuccessful after several ‘rehabilitated’ militants were found fighting against the US in Iraq. Perhaps most disconcerting, the Yemeni government has repeatedly refused to turn over Jamal al Badawi, a Yemeni citizen involved in the USS Cole attack, to stand trial in the US. Despite the $20-$25 million in U.S. foreign aid that Yemen receives annually, the government is reluctant to cooperate on counterterrorism, and the US should not assume that the Yemeni government has the political will or the necessary authority to rid the country of Al Qaida elements.

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Stephanie Carnes is a Research Associate with the Stimson Center’s Regional Voices: Transnational Challenges project.

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