Perched at the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula, the presidential republic of Yemen is best known to American armchair travelers for its exotic port city of Aden. A cloudy jewel in the Arabian Sea, Aden was the site of the October 12, 2000, bombing attack on the USS Cole, a suicide assault that killed 17 American sailors and wounded 39. A soon to be notorious terrorist organization claimed responsibility for the strike—al-Qaeda.
Until recently, it was enough for informed Americans to know that, like Pakistan, Yemen is considered by the U.S. State Department to be a safe harbor for Islamic terror cells, most alarmingly al-Qaeda. According to doctrine, the terror high command holes up in lawless, mountainous interior regions of these countries, from which it trains fresh recruits and coordinates its war on freedom.
On February 11, the Yemeni populace joined the Arab Spring. Taking a cue from Tunisia and Egypt, thousands of disaffected young people overran the streets to hurl rocks at tanks and shout slogans demanding an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 32-year reign. While calling for regime change, at least 120 peaceably assembling (if peaceable includes stone throwing, burning tires and erecting barricades) Yemenis have been killed, many picked off by government snipers, with thousands more wounded.
Those numbers indicate a need to know more about Yemen, starting with five quick facets to the fighting:
1) The Yemeni regime—again like Pakistan—receives major military funding from the United States. Less than two months prior to the outbreak of revolutionary fervor, American Defense Secretary Robert Gates approved bumping up U.S. funding to equip and train Yemeni security forces from $67 million in 2009 to $150 million for 2010. (On a side note, the U.S. State Department has branded Yemen’s security agencies as human rights abusers.) This aid is purportedly earmarked for hunting down and killing al-Qaeda members. A separate increasing budget pays for covert U.S. assistance to the regime. If local democracy advocates hope to oust Yemen’s ruling class, they’ll need to do so in defiance of American-trained special operations units.
2) President Ali Abdullah Saleh—America’s so-called ally in the war on terror—took office in a 1978 coup. His control over the fractious country is a matter of dispute, but everyone agrees on a few facts: In 2007, Jamal al-Badawi, convicted of orchestrating the USS Cole bombing, turned himself in to Saleh and was released to house arrest. Al-Badawi had escaped from prison in 2006 with 22 other members of al-Qaeda. Two of those escapees now lead al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Also in 2007, President Saleh pardoned Fahd al-Quso for his role in the Cole attack. In 2010, al-Quso starred in an AQAP video, swearing vengeance against U.S. targets. On March 8—10 days before his forces started shooting protesters with real verve—Saleh freed about 70 al-Qaeda suspects from a Sana'a prison.
3) Unified in 1990, North Yemen and South Yemen cemented their bond with a brief but gruesome 1994 civil war. Salafist fundamentalist militias (financed by Yemen’s neighbor to the north, Saudi Arabia) aided the north in scrambling the political structure of the better-educated, more worldly south. Though the civil war has officially ended, an irrepressible revolt in the northwest and a long-simmering separatist insurrection in the oil-rich south are contributing to a culture of chaos and violence.
4) Nearly 100 distinct and separate groups are pressing their causes in the streets of Yemen. The notion of a singular opposition forming to advocate for a consensus mission touches on the mathematically fantastical. Aside from youth, the protesters share only two unifying traits: unemployment and poverty. Unemployment and poverty are a common training regimen for young men being recruited into the ranks of Islamic extremists.
5) Yemen has a national army, a navy and an air force. This military might is of no consequence to tribal clans that conduct their feuds and banditry in open contempt of any central government. With a population of 20 million armed with at least that many guns, Yemen is largely beyond the governance of its current regime—and will most likely remain outside the law of any regime that takes its place.