Thursday, March 26, 2015

With AQAP at home in an increasingly unstable Yemen, U.S. is likely to feel pressure to act

 There are probably very few people in America today who are eager to see the US military become more involved in Yemen; The perception among the general public is likely that this is yet another conflict in the Middle East where US interests are not entirely clear. Between  a rocky path to disengagement from Iraq and Afghanistan, to the carnage of the Syrian civil war to the chaotic aftermath of the operation to oust Qaddafi in Libya to the rise of  of ISIS, there are many reasons to be wary of yet another foreign campaign - after all, these are just a few of the most prominent regional issues filling headlines around the world.

And now comes Yemen.

While the sense of fatigue with military involvement in the region is understandable,  I would suggest that the situation in Yemen is neither entirely new, nor divorced from important US strategic interests. Yemen has long been a difficult nation to govern and in recent years has become home to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (commonly referred to as AQAP). Using Yemen as their base of operations AQAP has made at least two serious attempts to attack the United States directly:  once through the use of a suicide bomber (which was foiled by reportedly excellent cooperation between the intelligence agencies of the United States and Saudi Arabia and another time by concealing explosives in computer printer toner cartridges, with the intention of 
blowing up cargo aircraft over US soil.

Effectively combating extremism and terrorism requires a multifaceted approach and  in their analysis, some experts emphasize the role of   law enforcement and intelligence agencies as the most important element in this effort, while others would prefer to rely more heavily on the military, and still others believe that until root causes of social inequality and injustice are addressed we will never make meaningful headway. The reality is that countering violent extremism requires cooperation between actors and agencies at all levels (and in all areas) of society, but there is also a vital need to maintain as much direct pressure on the leadership of these groups as possible, and to deny them access to safe havens. As one radio commentator I heard on NPR put it, it's much easier for terrorist groups to plan and operate when they're not worried about local security forces or the military disrupting their plans or directly attacking them.

For this reason I think leaders in the American national security establishment will soon feel pressed to become more involved in Yemen, since theidea that a group which has a clear goal of attacking the U.S. can carry on its business with a sense of relative impunity is ultimately intolerable. The various conflicts I mentioned at the top of this piece still deserve our attention and are likely to evolve in unpredictable ways, but I wouldn't be surprised if continued instability and violence and Yemen begins to play a more prominent role in  overall US strategy in the region, especially as America and its allies look to blunt the ideological influence and operational capacity of AQAP.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

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