First it was Afghanistan, soon a side issue after terrorism there was put to flight. Then it was Iraq, where alleged weapons of mass destruction prompted a U.S. invasion and a seven-year war just now winding down. Then renewed focus on Afghanistan, with its revived terrorism. Now, after the failed Christmas bombing attempt, Yemen suddenly has become the terror threat of the moment.
The impoverished little country, perched on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, has long been a concern of U.S. intelligence. It was the ancestral homeland of al-Qaida’s chief, Osama bin Laden, and the site of the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. Islamic extremists have attacked the U.S. Embassy there five times in the past six years.
Yemen’s 200 or so active members of al-Qaida affiliate that calls itself al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula have been specializing in relatively small attacks, first in that region but now branching out with suspected roles in two terrorist acts in the United States. In the Christmas incident, the group boasted responsibility and said it trained and supplied the bomber. It also is said to have helped plot the mass shooting at Fort Hood, where a U.S. Army psychiatrist is accused of killing 13 and wounding 30 people.
Tracking down the terrorists in Yemen involves the same problem that the United States has been facing in Pakistan, where al-Qaida leaders are believed to be hiding in the mountains along the border with Afghanistan. Both Yemen and Pakistan have relatively weak governments confronted with tribal insurgencies. In both, government intelligence and armed forces have sometimes reached accommodations with the terrorists.
Yemen’s government is especially fragile, with ongoing rebellion, a secessionist movement, and tribal threats. President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose control doesn’t extend much beyond the capital city, is so beset by the conflicts and so preoccupied with safeguarding his presidency to pass it along to his son that al-Qaida is said to be far down on his priority list.
In both Pakistan and Yemen, American intelligence and Special Forces have been working closely with the government, while the open deployment of American troops has been avoided for fear of arousing popular resentment.
U.S. intelligence is constantly tracking known leaders of the Yemen terrorist branch. For example, Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric who speaks English, is known to have been in touch with both the Christmas bomber and Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood shooting suspect. Born in New Mexico and with degrees from Colorado and San Diego state universities, he now lives in Yemen and is believed to be an inspirer and recruiter of young Muslims for terrorist acts.
Al-Qaida leaders often are reported killed in the frequent U.S.-aided forays against terrorist in Yemen. But every death of a “martyr” or bystander leads to fresh resentment and new recruits for the terrorist network.
Chasing terrorists from country to country will be much less effective than combating the root cause of their radicalization.