January 03, 2010

Yemen and al-Qaeda - Different place, same mistakes?

Nearly two years ago, Londonstani wrote his first post for this blog. It was based around an interview Londonstani conducted near one of the Palestinian camps in Lebanon with a young al-Qaeda fighter returning from Iraq. The camp itself looked like a transiting station. Londonstani saw young Arab fighters buying military clothing, handing out ammunition, testing weapons and picking up documents. During the conversation about al-Qaeda's strategic rationale when it came to deploying WMD, the fighter mentioned that al-Qaeda was re-deploying its fighters.

"When Haider first entered Iraq through Syria, there had been about 2,000 foreign fighters like himself inside the country. Now they were leaving and only about 150 remained. Most of the foreign fighters inside Iraq had always been Saudis and Yemenis, a few other nationalities, such as Turks were also present, he said. The Saudis and Turks were mainly going to Afghanistan and the Yemenis to Yemen or Somalia, where al-Qaeda was keen to establish a presence."

As the fighting picked up in Afghanistan, Londonstani often thought back to the fighter's off-hand comment about the Saudis and Turks. His off hand reference to Somalia made some sense, but Londonstani often wondered what the Yemen thing had been about. The Christmas Day airline bomb attempt snapped the months' old conversation into focus.

Now we know that al-Qaeda is operating from Yemen, a number of commentators have said the loosely controlled, troubled country is an ideal stomping ground for Osama Bin Laden's followers. In Londonstani's opinion, the retroactive attention shouldn't be limited to Yemen as a country. It's also worth looking at Western policy in countries where extremism is growing.

Yesterday, the U.S. announced a doubling of counter terrorism aid to Yemen. London has said it will work with Washington to provide counter terrorism assistance to Sanaa. But like in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the problem will not be solved by military means alone. Yemen suffers "crushing poverty" to quote the president and the state hardly functions and where it does it has a reputation for corruption mismanagement and brutality. There is also a Shia/Sunni conflict going on. All in all, it really is an AQ haven waiting to happen. But countering this situation with an immediate military response plays straight into AQ's hands.

US Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counter Terrorism John Brennan says AQ probably has "several hundred members". Yet, concentrating on a military response is likely to increase that in weeks. Al Jazeera English reports:

"Al-Shabab, the leading anti-government armed group in Somalia, said on Friday that it was ready to send reinforcement to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula should the US carry out retaliatory strikes, and urged other Muslims to follow suit."

A military element has its place, but by looking like they are ready to support a government with questionable competence at a moment's notice, London and Washington again fit themselves neatly into the unofficial AQ public relations playbook. Presently, the strongest message AQ has states that Western powers pull the strings of dictatorships across the Muslim world that line their own pockets while serving foreign domination. The message works because none of these governments have proved very good at governing. When efforts to address the governance issue (like the Kerry Lugar bill) in Pakistan finally do appear, they are enacted too late to counter the perception. In the case of Pakistan, they are seen as another plank of the same policy.

It's not realistic to aim to be able to "fix" every country that AQ lands in. But proving the group's point is not the answer either.