Advancing a Free Society

Whack a Mole: What of Yemen?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Forget Afghanistan, the true sanctuary and playground for terrorism is Yemen, at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. The intercepted explosive packages mailed to Chicago synagogues last Thursday were but the latest troubles to come our way out of Yemen – Arabia Felix, happy Arabia, Yemen is not. It was a decade ago, it shall be recalled, on October 12, 2000, that two men in a skiff, in the port of Aden, struck into the USS Cole, killing 17 of our sailors, putting on cruel display the vulnerability of American power in the lands and the sea lanes of that arc of trouble in the Greater Middle East.

Geography alone should convey the challenge posed by Yemen. Pull down an atlas and see the gifts of Yemen – the very gift of its location. There it sits at the intersection of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Arabian Sea, east Africa a stone’s throw across the water. When the British cast about for a coaling station on the Suez –Bombay run, the choice had fallen on Aden, and there the British Navy had stayed from 1839 until the British retreat from “east of Suez” in 1969-1971. It was from Aden that the peace of the Persian Gulf was secured. The Yemenis lived by their wits, crushing poverty cushioned by what could be gotten from strangers, by the men of Yemen (particularly from the region of Hadramawt, the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden) taking to the road, looking for work where work could be had. “You will have to watch the Yemenis. They’re very fly, you know,” said Margaret Thatcher to a British couple being posted to Yemen. (You read it right, fly in the British usage, means keen, artful.)

In more recent times that artfulness of the Yemenis has turned less quaint by the day. The country is badly ruled, a military regime is run by a strongman, Ali Abdullah Salih, and his clan, they plunder the country at will. A secessionist movement plays out in the north, perilously close to the border with Saudi Arabia. Another secessionist challenge, a more deadly one, raged in what was once the radical republic of South Yemen. The Saudis next door have nothing but loathing for Salih – he had betrayed them in their moment of danger, in 19901-1991 when Saddam swept into Kuwait. But Salih keeps the ”peace” of the place, they need him to check the Saudi jihadists who slipped across the border to war against the House of Saud. The jihadists, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, are of immense use to the Yemeni regime. They can never bring it down, but they are a magnet for powers with deep pockets – the Saudis, and of late, the Americans. This is the quintessential racket, a brigand keeper of the peace, alternately winking at, then going after the forces of trouble.

A son of Yemen – he was actually born in New Mexico when his father was studying there – adds to this witch’s brew, the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Learned in the ways of the modern world, at home in American idiom, Awlaki provided the inspiration for three men who pulled off, or attempted, notorious deeds of terror against American targets: the Fort Hood shooter, Nidal Malik Hassan (now on trial for the murder of 13 of his fellow soldiers), the young Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab who tried to bring down a Northwestern Airlines flight over Detroit last Christmas, and the Pakistani-born naturalized U.S. citizen Faisal Shahzad convicted of attempting to set off a car bomb in Times Square. Awlaki and his family come from the apex of Yemeni society. The odds of the Yemeni regime hunting him down must be judged remote at best. Were the Yemeni regime to root out Al Qaeda, Yemen would be a forgotten place. The foreign entreaties and favors would come to an end.

Vast American treasure is invested in Afghanistan, and a huge American presence – all in the name of the war on terror. But Yemen reminds us of the Arab sources of the terror, Afghanistan was but a cheap rental that a Saudi of Yemeni ancestry made into a hideout for himself and his band of Arab jihadists. Contrast landlocked Afghanistan with Yemen with its proximity to the oil wealth of the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf, and there rises the inevitable thought: Is this war being waged in the right place after all?

(photo credit: TPapi)