As the US launches airstrikes on al-Qaeda targets in Yemen after a thwarted suicide bombing attempt on a US-bound flight, we are about see exactly how ill-equipped Washington is to deal with the complexities that are shaping the conflicts in Yemen.
Unlike the attempted bombing of a US-bound aircraft on Christmas Day 2009, when a Nigerian man was thwarted by passengers on the plane while US intelligence agencies remained unaware of the situation, this latest bomb plot was actually (reportedly) carried out by a Saudi asset to a CIA and British MI5 operation to infiltrate Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
So, the CIA has, or had, real assets on the ground in Yemen. That is good to know, but it will not be enough. What is lacking is the ability to properly synthesize intelligence collected on a broader level.
In response to the disclosure of the apparent nature of the bomb plot, FBI Director Robert Mueller stated that “Al Qaeda affiliates, especially Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, represent the top counter terrorism threat to the nation.”
This latent recognition is disturbing on a number of levels, not the least because it is coming from the FBI rather than the CIA, or indeed, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). (The DNI is supposed to be running the show but is continually sidelined by a White House that isn’t entirely sure it wants to position the DNI as the go-to man for intelligence issues, stepping on the CIA’s toes.)
Protocol and intelligence hierarchy issues aside, however, this statement is a long time in coming, but still misses the mark. Yemen represents the most complex battlefield in the Middle East today and how the multiple conflicts unfold will have a significant impact on the regional balance of power.
US air strikes, like those on Thursday that purportedly took out AQAP “leader” Fahd al-Quso and at least six other militants will have the short-term effect of causing AQAP to do a quick rethink and regroup. Perhaps it will cause a loss of sympathy and support from villages in the southeast that APAP-linked groups have managed to take over. It could also backfire as air strikes lead to civilian casualties.
But overall, the air strikes ignore the larger dynamics on the ground and particularly the use of AQAP and other groups as proxies by various forces within Yemen who are struggling to take control of the government following the ouster of President Saleh in November.
Attempting to examine Yemen from a strictly AQAP prism is a significant oversight. The real question is how, and with whose support, al-Qaeda has managed to gain so much strength in Yemen.
When the Pentagon says it will send military trainers to Yemen to help counter al-Qaeda militants, it is unclear who it will be training as the military is divided. Those who support Saleh are endeavoring to use AQAP to undermine the current interim government and demonstrate that al-Qaeda is a serious threat that only a Saleh could handle effectively.
It should also be noted that AQAP has benefitted from US military aid, which Saleh directed to al-Qaeda to help fight Houthi rebels in the north. There is every indication that he continues to prop up al-Qaeda. Though Saleh has been ousted, he is still a very real presence and his family and friends maintain control of certain security organs and part of the military.
There is also a lack of understanding about how much support al-Qaeda has in Yemen and why it has managed to gain a foothold in southeastern areas of the country. This is in large part due to the government’s inability there to maintain any control. Water shortages play a major role. As Oilprice.com wrote in a previous article, al-Qaeda groups take over a village in the south and put an end to tribal disputes over water sources, instilling a sense of law where there is only chaos and bloody conflict.
Southern separatists are frustrated and having a hard time choosing a good ally to help with their cause. Iran has reportedly made its own attempts to infiltrate the southern secessionist movement, but Iran’s conditions were unattractive: The deal was apparently that the Southern separatists would be supplied with weapons and money but that those goods would come through Shi’ite Houthi rebels in the north.
The southerners balked at this, not wanting to be under the control of another northern group. Instead, growing numbers of southerners are joining the ranks of al-Qaeda, if only because they see which way the wind is blowing. This will pit them against US forces and make them targets of US air strikes.
So, while everyone is trying to infiltrate and gain a foothold among the southern separatist groups, the Houthi rebels and AQAP-linked groups, the real war is being played out among the elite who are battling for control over the country and using the non-state actors as proxies.
Thus, to say that AQAP represents the biggest threat to US national security today is a dangerously simple-minded statement. The general situation in Yemen, which is being manipulated by elite forces who have no qualms about using al-Qaeda to fight a proxy war, is the real threat that could spark a much wider conflict that would include Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Perhaps an even greater threat to US national security is the incomplete reform of the Intelligence Community and the lack of its ability (and desire) to provide policymakers with predictive, in-depth analysis of intelligence.
In response to news of the thwarted bomb plot, US officials said there was no need to increase security at domestic airports, and instead criticized security at foreign airports for being too lax. This, too, is wide of the mark. Intelligence agencies should be well aware of security threats before they reach airport security systems. The 2009 “underwear bomber”, after all, was on a US list of people who pose a potential security threat, though he had never made it on to the no-fly list. He also had a US visa. The information wasn’t in the database for airport security in Amsterdam to access. This is an intelligence coordination failure, not an airport security failure.
While the CIA can be applauded for its apparent infiltration of AQAP, one can assume that it no longer enjoys this position. That disclosure was not well played, and the only other move Washington has up its sleeve is air strikes.
Taking down the “leader” of AQAP is also misleading when describing a group that is only very loosely hierarchical and actually very small in official “membership”, relying instead on a number of “affiliate” groups with their own leadership dynamics and alliances.
Jen Alic is a geopolitical analyst, co-founder of ISA Intel in Sarajevo and Tel Aviv, and the former editor-in-chief of ISN Security Watch in Zurich.