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In Yemen, U.S. Must Get Ahead of ‘Failure Curve’

December 29, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown speaks with terrorism experts about the potential threats coming out of Yemen.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now we broaden out the view of Yemen and al-Qaida. Barbara Bodine was U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 1997 to 2001, a period that included the attack on the USS Cole. She’s now diplomat in residence at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School. Fawaz Gerges is professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics and author of two books on jihadism.

Barbara Bodine, a failing state is how we just heard Yemen described. What — what would you call it?

BARBARA BODINE, former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen: I would call it a fragile state.

Yemen is sometimes described as the almost always failing state. Its economy has always been in a shambles. It’s always been resource-poor. It’s always had ungovernable hinterlands. And it’s always had a — a weak central government.

One of the miracles of Yemen is that it’s never quite failed, but it also never quite succeeds. And the issue before us now is not to write it off as a failed or even failing state, but try to see what we can do to keep it from going to the wrong side of the failure curve.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Gerges, what do you see? And what — what does that say about the potential vacuum of power there?

FAWAZ GERGES, professor of Middle Eastern politics and international relations, London School of Economics: I think the situation is extremely volatile and fragile in Yemen. I mean, every time I visit Yemen, I see a deteriorating security situation, a declining social and economic situation.

What has happened is that, really, this particular storm has been brewing for the last few years. And it seems it has finally reached a climax. And the danger lies in the convergence between a depending structural, social, and political, and economic crisis, and also multiple tribal, ideological and political divisions that are pushing the country to the brink of all-out war.

When we talk about the economy here, we need to remind our viewers that more than 40 percent of Yemenis now are unemployed. A majority of the 28 million Yemenis live in absolute poverty. The ability of the state to deliver the social goods has diminished considerably.

President Saleh, who has been in power for 30 years, does not really have the ability to either co-opt adversaries, as he used to, or even to maintain friends. And, as Ambassador Bodine mentioned, you have a mini civil war in the north by a powerful tribe called the Houthi.

You have the south that basically is trying to break away from the union. So, you have this convergence between a deepening social and economic crisis and also political divisions. And what al-Qaida has been trying to do, and particularly in the last two or three years, is to basically embed itself within those local conflicts to basically integrate itself, and basically lead the fight against the Saleh regime.


FAWAZ GERGES: The danger doesn’t lie — the danger doesn’t lie in the fact that you have dozens or 200 or 300 jihadists, basically, in Yemen. Yemen has always had a contingent, a large contingent, of jihadists.

My fear itself is that the jihadists in Yemen now are trying to lead the struggle, the internal struggle, that’s taken place against the Yemeni state.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Ambassador Bodine, do we know yet — when we refer to this as a regional wing of al-Qaida, which is how it’s been referred to…


JEFFREY BROWN: … do we know what that means? How much independence does it have? Does it pursue its own agenda, or is it somehow centralized with — with al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

BARBARA BODINE: Right. I don’t think that we know exactly what its relationship is to al-Qaida central.

There are two wings of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. It sounds very nice to say that they had a declaration in January where they combined forces, but you still have a Saudi wing and a Yemeni wing. The Yemeni wing is primarily a domestic issue. It’s got its own agenda. It’s got its own look and its set of grievances.

And then you have the Saudi wing. And the Saudi wing includes the leadership. They are pursuing a completely different agenda. And what their connection may be to Pakistan, Afghanistan, I don’t think we know. But their agenda is very different.

And I think that there is a question how far they can take this thing as a joint — as a joint effort. And I’m not sure I fully agree with the professor that al-Qaida is trying to get ahead and trying to take the leadership on the various elements of — of tension and strife in the country. I think they have a limit to how far they can go in terms of popular support.

JEFFREY BROWN: But does it surprise you, in a case like this — here, we have a suspect who’s a Nigerian — African coming…


JEFFREY BROWN: And so it looks as though al-Qaida is branching out away from local concerns.

BARBARA BODINE: Well, I think this is the most troubling aspect of the — the Nigerian attempt, is, there has been an al-Qaida presence in Yemen for at least 15 years, but it’s always been the warehousing of fairly low — fairly low-level al-Qaida operatives.

If these stories — and there’s increasing reason to believe they are true, the stories that he went to Yemen, that he got the technology there, and then was sent to the states. This would be the first time that there’s been a non-al-Qaida central attack on the U.S. And that is a qualitative change, even if it was unsuccessful.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Professor Gerges, you see — do you see this as a bump up in the approach of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula? And what should be done?

FAWAZ GERGES: I don’t think we have, really, evidence. I mean, the weight of evidence, we still — the jury is still out.

The big point to highlight — and, here, I want to say a few words about the internal. I mean, the truth is that al-Qaida is a byproduct of the deepening social and economic crisis in Yemen itself. I mean, let’s take what the south has been trying to do in the last one year or so.

One of the top leaders of the separate movement in the south itself is a jihadi, that is, and you have in the eastern provinces, also, the jihadist footprint has become greater in the last two or three years. What I’m trying to suggest is that the convergence of social and economic difficulties and political divisions and the inability of the Yemeni state to basically respond to the challenges could easily plunge Yemen into all-out war, unless, unless the international community, the United States and Arab and Muslim states construct a political vision in order to deal with the deepening structural, economic and social crisis in Yemen.

And what I mean by that, the worst thing that the United States can do is to basically view this particular challenge in terms of counterterrorism. This is not just a counterterrorism question. It’s about inclusive governance. It’s about pervasive corruption. It’s about pervasive poverty. It’s about the fact that the state itself is trying to use military might to suppress local identities and local challenges to its integrity and central authority.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, briefly, a last word, Ambassador Bodine. What do you see the role for the U.S. to step in here?

BARBARA BODINE: I think there’s — there’s two roles. One is to address the immediate security issue.

But I would agree that, if that was all we did, we would not be solving the problem. We need to get — we need to work with Yemen — and I would agree with the professor — with the international community to try to work on those elements of legitimacy, as opposed to just the authority of the state, work on the delivery in the social services, work on the inclusion of the population, work on the corruption problem.

And that’s what I meant by getting ahead of the failure curve. We learned a lot in Afghanistan and Iraq about how that security wasn’t enough, that you had to work on the protection of the people, and their livelihood. And we need to sort of take those lessons and apply them pre-crisis, pre-failure in Yemen.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Barbara Bodine and Fawaz Gerges, thank you both very much.


FAWAZ GERGES: Thank you.