The U.S. Embassy in Yemen has closed one day after President Obama confirmed that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the failed Christmas Day bomber of Northwest Flight 253, was trained and equipped in Yemen.
The move points to the threat posed by Al Qaeda in Yemen. Already, Al Qaeda has struck the US embassy in Yemen once.
In 2008, it laid siege to the embassy, attacking it with mortars rounds and two car bombs – one detonated outside the gates and the second rammed into the embassy’s ramparts. The embassy was not breached, though 13 Yemenis and six terrorists were killed.
For Mr. Obama, though, the question of Al Qaeda in Yemen goes much deeper than Sunday’s decision to shutter the embassy temporarily. More even than Afghanistan, perhaps, Yemen goes to the core of his antiterrorism philosophy.
Defeating Al Qaeda
In Obama’s months-long reassessment of the war in Afghanistan, one constant remained: the goal he laid out shortly after taking office. “So I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda,” he said in announcing his original Afghanistan strategy in March.
Of all the places most often linked with Al Qaeda, Yemen is, in many respects, the place where Obama’s efforts might bear the most fruit.
Unlike Afghanistan, Yemen has a robust Al Qaeda presence within its borders. Unlike Pakistan, Yemen appears to be an eager partner for the US. And unlike Somalia, Yemen still has at least the trappings of a functional government.
It’s one reason the Obama administration is now pumping $70 million in military aid into Yemen – a number that will double next year, according to Gen. David Petraeus, the US commander of forces in the region, who was visiting Yemen Saturday.
“A strong case can be made that Obama has narrowed the focus on Al Qaeda,” said political analyst Ronald Brownstein on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday.
Yemen: where Al Qaeda is
Obama’s decision to send 51,000 more troops to Afghanistan has put his stamp on that war. Yet Obama knows he cannot dismantle or defeat Al Qaeda from Afghanistan, because Al Qaeda is no longer there – it is across the border in Pakistan.
With Pakistan either unable or unwilling to dismantle the terrorist networks of Al Qaeda and its allies in its tribal areas, Obama can only hope to keep Al Qaeda from expanding into Afghanistan again and growing stronger.
In Yemen, however, he can strike at Al Qaeda directly and has a partner that is apparently willing to do so.
A reliable partner?
In fact, Al Qaeda in Yemen was virtually exterminated in 2003, a year after the US killed Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, the top Al Qaeda operative in Yemen, in a missile strike. The new incarnation of Al Qaeda has arisen since 2006 amid distraction and neglect.
As was the case in Pakistan, Somalia, and Afghanistan, Al Qaeda gained strength in a country was preoccupied by other crises. Yemen remains troubled by a rebellion in the north, as secessionist movement in the south, and a 40 percent unemployment rate.
In short, the Yemeni government needs help if it is to take on Al Qaeda, which remains well down on its priority list.
Yet the Yemeni government appears willing to take on Al Qaeda if it is given this help. This represents something of a departure from the past. As recently as last year, the Yemeni government was alleged to have freed terrorists that it could could marshal against its domestic enemies. The leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen is a Guantánamo detainee sent back to Yemen, where he was freed in a prison break.
U.S. steps up the pressure
It appears as if Al Qaeda in Yemen has overplayed its hand, however. With US help, Yemen launched two airstrikes against Al Qaeda in the eight days before the failed airline bombing attempt on Flight 253 on Christmas Day.
But the attacks also give the U.S. grounds for caution. Local media reports suggest that many women and children were killed in one of the strikes.
“Now you have something where there are all these pictures of dead infants and mangled children that are underlined with the caption ‘Made in the USA’ on all the jihadi forums,” Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen of Princeton University told AP. “Something like this does much more to extend Al Qaeda.”