The Cheery in-flight magazine of Yemenia, the national airline of Yemen, still runs articles encouraging adventurous tourists to visit the coffee-growing region in the country’s north, its terraced hilltop villages a vision of Old Arabia, and the fabled eastern valleys that were once home to the Queen of Sheba. But anyone trying to get off the beaten track in Yemen these days may find a bit too much adventure. About two-thirds of the country is out of government control and in the hands of either separatist groups or local tribes, some of which have a habit of kidnapping foreign tourists to use as bargaining chips in disputes with the central government. Such hostages were rarely harmed until this June, when nine foreigners were kidnapped — including two German women and a South Korean woman whose mutilated bodies were later discovered by shepherds. After the attack, the government effectively stopped granting permission to foreigners — including journalists — to travel anywhere but the capital, Sana’a, and the coastal region around the port city of Aden.
In the past month, the government, which is Sunni-dominated, has stepped up its military offensive against Shi’ite rebels, known as Houthis, whom officials blame for the killings. It’s a continuation of a war that began in 2004, when the government killed a Houthi leader, raising fears among Yemeni followers of the Zaydi sect of Shi’ite Islam that they were being targeted for eradication by the government and Sunni extremists. So far, thousands have died and hundreds of thousands have been displaced by the fighting, mostly in the northern province of Saada. The government has used aerial bombardment and artillery to try to smash the Houthis. The alleged use of collective punishment and blockades of aid to force locals to turn in rebel fighters have prompted some agencies, such as UNICEF, to compare the campaign to the government of Sudan’s actions in Darfur.
Western diplomats in Sana’a, however, suspect that the real culprits behind this year’s attacks on foreigners come from the growing band of al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen. Under pressure in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, al-Qaeda is turning the lawless mountain areas of Yemen into a new staging area. U.S. officials and terrorism experts don’t think Yemen is close to becoming a failed state like Somalia — just across the Red Sea. But there are warning signs that things could get worse: the Houthi rebellion, secessionists in the south, Somali pirates menacing the coast, an economy that is overreliant on declining oil production, and a looming water crisis.
Helping Hands and Blind Eyes
Stretched around the Southern heel of the Arabian Peninsula and home to 23.8 million people — compared with 28.7 million in Saudi Arabia — Yemen, which came into being when North and South Yemen merged in 1990, is one of the poorest countries in the Middle East. Long a source of jihadis, the region sent hundreds of fighters to the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan and, to judge by the number of captured, killed or identified insurgents in Iraq, continues to be one of the biggest suppliers of fighters to regional conflicts. It’s common knowledge in the tearooms of Sana’a and in Western embassies that the government of northern Yemen used jihadis to help defeat the south in the civil war that ended in 1994. But the symbiotic relationship between the government and al-Qaeda shifted after 9/11 and the American invasion of Iraq, when the Yemeni government worried that it too might be on the receiving end of U.S. military action. Sana’a helped the U.S. with the assassination of a leader of al-Qaeda in 2002, by missile attack from a Predator drone, even as it turned a blind eye to other extremists as long as they didn’t cause trouble.
That accommodation has begun to fray as al-Qaeda has stepped up its targeting of foreign interests in Yemen, most notably through a foiled attempt to storm the U.S. embassy in September 2008. Early this year, the head of al-Qaeda in Yemen, Naser al-Wahishi, announced the merger between his organization and al-Qaeda’s Saudi branch to form al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a move that caused the U.S. director of national intelligence to note that Yemen was “re-emerging as a jihadist battleground and potential regional base of operations for al-Qaeda.” With a base in Yemen, al-Qaeda could launch attacks on the Red Sea gateway to the Suez Canal, as well as stage operations against Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf.
The U.S. is worried that Yemen isn’t taking the threat seriously enough. In July, General David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East, visited the country to encourage President Ali Abdullah Saleh to be more aggressive. “The view from Sana’a doesn’t match the view from Washington,” says Gregory Johnsen, a U.S. expert on Yemen. “The Yemeni government is much more concerned with fighting the Houthis in Saada and with the secessionists in the south. Al-Qaeda ranks a distant third. The government doesn’t see it as a Yemeni problem. [It sees it as] a foreign problem.”
It doesn’t help that several high-level al-Qaeda operatives — including al-Wahishi — have mysteriously escaped from Yemeni prisons in the past, or that former inmates of the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo have resurfaced as active operatives in Yemen. But Johnsen thinks the U.S. is too focused on a military solution. “Obviously you have to eliminate key fighters, but the U.S. has done that before,” he says. “Unless you address the underlying issues — especially poverty — you’ll just be fighting a different incarnation of al-Qaeda every few years.”
Fighting poverty in Yemen is no easy task. Education levels are abysmal, and the country is awash in guns. It also struggles with a severe water shortage, in large part because of the national addiction to khat, a shrub whose young leaves contain a compound with effects similar to those of amphetamines. The top estimate is that no less than 90% of men in Yemen and 25% of women chew the leaves, storing a wad in one cheek as it slowly breaks down and enters the bloodstream. Astonishingly, most of the country’s arable land is devoted to the plant, which accounts for approximately a third of the country’s water usage. And Yemen has very little water to begin with; almost all of it comes from underground aquifers filled thousands of years ago and replenished only very slowly. Experts predict that Sana’a, a city of almost 2 million, could run dry in as few as 10 years. The social upheaval from such an environmental catastrophe and the refugees it could produce might create an even more perfect breeding ground for al-Qaeda. “I tell [the U.N. refugee agency] that they should start buying tents” for drought-displaced families, says Michael Klingler, a hydrologist and the local director of GTZ, the German aid agency.
Neither the Yemeni government nor the U.S. has any plan to help the country go cold turkey off khat. And the public is inclined to complacency about the failings of the government. “You sit up discussing all your problems and think you’ve solved everything, but in fact you haven’t done anything in the past four hours because you’ve just been chewing khat, and all your problems actually got worse,” says Adel al-Shojaa, a professor of political science at Sana’a University and the head of an organization opposed to the use of the narcotic. “All the decisions you’ve made are bad because you made them while on khat.” Unfortunately, there’s one group that could solve Yemen’s khat problem. The angry puritans of al-Qaeda don’t touch the stuff.