Counterterrorism in Yemen After Saleh

My PolicyMic colleague Carl Conradi recently wrote how Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s departure would diminish the strength of Al Qaeda in Yemen. But regardless of whether the success of anti-governent protests strengthens or weakens Al Qaeda, the United States still faces the loss of a man with whom they’ve collaborated against terrorism for the past ten years. So I ask instead, “How will post-Saleh Yemen impact U.S. counterterrorism efforts?”

Saleh’s main benefit to the United States has been his permission to allow the U.S. to conduct airstrikes on Yemeni soil. In a 2009 meeting with counterterrorism advisor John Brennan, Saleh “pledged unfettered access to Yemen's national territory for U.S. counterterrorism operations.” Saleh’s successor is unlikely to grant such freedom, as this would be an extremely unpopular move for a new government facing a citizenry demanding more accountability. The loss of this ability is likely the biggest cause of concern for U.S. policymakers.

But a green light for drone usage is hardly an ideal situation. Saleh somehow manages to have his cake and eat it to. In the same meeting with Brennan, Saleh suggested that, by granting the United States free reign, the U.S. government “assumed responsibility for the success – or failure – of efforts to neutralize AQAP in Yemen.” He receives millions in aid and military equipment to fight Al Qaeda (aid that is often diverted) even as he abdicates the duties for which the aid was granted. He leaves the real terrorism policing to the Americans.

Never mind that the effectiveness of airstrikes in this conflict is debatable to begin with. They failed to prevent militants in Yemen from launching the attempted Christmas Day bombing in 2009 and parcel bombs in October 2010. And the collateral damage from U.S. bombings could also lead to greater extremist recruitment and sabotage efforts to create local solutions. One strike killed 14 children and 21 women, while another killed a prominent tribal leader dispatched by Saleh to negotiate the surrender of the same Al Qaeda members targeted.

And while Saleh’s cooperation appears valuable to U.S. counterterrorism efforts, in truth Saleh has proven himself a double-edged sword. Al Qaeda suspects have a history of being released or suspiciously escaping from prison at points where Saleh feels a rise in the terrorist threat level could help ensure continued support for his regime. (Sarah Phillips gives a more thorough overview of this strategy here on pages 13-14).

Counterterrorism officials also fear Al Qaeda’s opportunity to exploit the withdrawal of Yemeni security forces as Saleh’s government continues to weaken. But decreased government authority does not necessarily remove pressure on Al Qaeda. The effectiveness of tribal, non-state systems of governance in many regions suggests that further instability in an already weak state government may not lead to general instability. In fact, local leaders in a district in Shabwa, a governorate often associated with terrorism, recently expelled Al Qaeda members that had moved in following the withdrawal of government forces. The weakening of state security does not necessitate the breakdown of law and order in rural regions already capable of maintaining their own security independent of the state.

Saleh has been a partner in counterterrorism, but his exploitation of the Al Qaeda threat hardly makes him an ally. Although Saleh’s successor may not grant the United States permission to conduct strikes on Yemeni territory, conducting strikes is only necessary because of Saleh’s refusal to honestly pursue Al Qaeda. It’s possible Saleh’s successor could commit consistently and genuinely to on-the-ground counterterrorism operations in a way Saleh never has. Yemen’s government will remain poor in the near future, regardless of who is in power. The U.S. could leverage this need in exchange for a real counterterrorism commitment on the part of Yemeni security forces and come out with a more effective approach than they ever had with Saleh. Even if it means an end to drone strikes.

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