Our Two-Faced Friends in Sanaa

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Jan. 5 2010 3:30 PM

Our Two-Faced Friends in Sanaa

The Yemeni government opposes al-Qaida jihadists, except when it's using them for its own ends.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Click image to expand.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh

The counterterrorism spotlight is now on Yemen, and policymakers are adding the remote Arabian nation to the list of Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, and other weak or failing states that are host to al-Qaida-linked jihadists. But Yemen's problem is not just weakness. The regime in Sanaa fights al-Qaida and like-minded jihadists, but it also knowingly tolerates and aids them—a situation the United States faced in Saudi Arabia before 2003 and currently faces in Pakistan.

Yemen's stability, always uncertain, is even more precarious today. Oil revenue is declining as Yemen's reserves dry up. As a result, the regime has less money to pay supporters and buy off opponents (and, oh yes, develop the country, never a high priority). Even more ominous, civil strife is bubbling over within Yemen. The "Houthi" rebellion pits Zaydi Shiites in the northwestern part of the country near the Saudi border against the government. The Zaydis are a Shiite community living in a Sunni-majority nation, but their beliefs and traditions differ from the better-known school of Shiism practiced in Iran. Although the community is religiously distinct, a desire for tribal autonomy is at the heart of the rebellion. Despite the regime's claims to the contrary, I have not seen a credible account that shows the rebellion has significant Iranian backing (admittedly, however, there has been very little reporting on this topic). As if that weren't enough, some disgruntled southerners are in revolt, bitter at their steady loss of power since North Yemen and South Yemen unified in 1990, and also at their loss in the 1994 civil war.

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Yemen's third problem—the most significant for the United States—is that Sunni jihadists tied to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula have made a home in the country. (AQAP claims credit for the failed Christmas Day attempt to bomb an airliner heading for Detroit.) AQAP draws on a history of al-Qaida violence in Yemen—in October 2000, for example, the group killed 17 American sailors in an attack on the warship USS Cole. In recent years, AQAP has mounted several other attacks against Western targets in Yemen, it has tried to kill a top Saudi official, and it has stepped up attacks on agents of the Yemeni regime.

The various rebel groups do not work together, and their agendas are not harmonious, but they weaken the state and stretch Yemen's military forces.

If the problem were government weakness, the solution would be simple: Strengthen the regime with aid, training, money, and other assistance. As always in the Middle East, however, the reality is more complex.

At times, President Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime kills or arrests jihadists, and it can use our help with these efforts, but before we leap, we should also recognize the other methods he has used to manage them. Princeton's Gregory Johnsen described past relations as "a tacit non-aggression pact." Under this approach, jihadists fight the United States or regional foes such as Saudi Arabia with little interference from the government, as long as they leave the regime alone. Indeed, some jihadists whom the government supposedly "re-educated" to renounce terrorism later traveled to Iraq to fight U.S. forces there. Murad Abdual Wahed, a Yemeni political analyst, declared, "Yemen is like a bus station—we stop some terrorists, and we send others on to fight elsewhere. We appease our partners in the West, but we are not really helping."

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