Yemen’s AQAP Dilemma

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Counterterrorism Yemen-style, photo: Ammar Abd Rabbo/flickr

Since the al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) crisis erupted in Yemen, the country has suddenly been thrown into the international spotlight. While numerous think tanks and experts have been warning for years of the critical challenges that Yemen faced (the southern secession movement, the Houthi rebellion, AQAP) most governments only really started to take note after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab set his pants on fire and tried to bring down Northwest Airlines flight 253 in what was dubbed the “Christmas Day plot” in 2009.

The international attention given to Yemen has, not surprisingly, since then focused on the terrorism threat. In President Ali Abdallah Saleh’s calculations AQAP was long seen as a nuisance, not as a substantial threat to his presidency or the unity of the country. The southern secession movement and the Houthi rebellion in the North were perceived as far more dangerous and potentially consequential, particularly for President Saleh.

After the attack on USS Cole  in 2000 and again after the incident involving Umar Abdulmutallab the US has made it abundantly clear that it expects President Saleh to reign in AQAP. Development aid flows as well as military assistance have been closely tied to Yemen’s cooperation with regards to fighting al-Qaida.

US aid flows have been varying greatly in the last decade, depending on the current threat perception. In 2000 Yemen got a relatively meager $400,000 in food aid from the US. In 2001, after the attack on the USS Cole, the US administration deliberated an aid and loan forgiveness package of around $400 million. In 2006, when the terrorism threat was thought to be over, the US cut aid again to $18.7 million. Since then US aid to Yemen has steadily increased every year, reaching $58.4 million in 2010. This is a threefold increase in only four years. According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS) the administration has requested a staggering $106.6 million for 2011.

Yemen is – for obvious reasons – interested in getting this money. Particularly the military assistance (approximately $155 million in 2010) part is important (and convenient) for the financing, upgrading and training of the Yemeni military force. In 2011 military aid is expected to reach $250 million.

This situation creates perverse incentives for Ali Abdallah Saleh. From historical experience Yemen knows that aid flows will diminish rapidly once the terrorism threat is perceived to be over by the US and its western allies. Yemen does cooperate with the US on terrorism matters and has recently turned up the heat on AQAP. Ali Abdallah Saleh has however no interest in resolving the AQAP problem altogether, assuming that he could do so if only he wanted to. Eliminating AQAP would greatly endanger the current steady flow of the international development aid and military assistance.

The current terrorism threat from Yemen has furthermore firmly established the perception that Saleh is the only reliable, if unsavory, partner the International Community has in Yemen.  This will embolden him to run again at the next presidential elections scheduled for 2013, even though he has reached his term limit and has been presiding over unified Yemen for more than 20 years. Indeed the Yemeni parliament is already debating amending the constitutions in a way which would allow Saleh to seek re-election.

For more information, please check out a recent ISN Insights article by Jarret Brachman on the topic.

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