Why Yemen’s political implosion is dangerous for the U.S.

Yemen's government collapsed Thursday as the U.S.-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and cabinet stepped down, allowing Shiite rebels to effectively take over the capital. Gwen Ifill talks to Gregory Johnsen, author of "The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia" about the roots of the “slow-motion” collapse and what it means for Western counterterrorism efforts.

Read the Full Transcript


    Now to Yemen, where the country's future and stability is very much in question tonight.

    Earlier today, Yemen's president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, an ally of the United States, resigned after a Shiite rebel group, believed to be backed by Iran, took control of his residence. The rebels, known as Houthis, effectively control the capital, Sanaa, and other areas, but large portions of the country where al-Qaida is active remain outside their control.

    For more on what this all means for Yemen, the region, and the United States, I'm joined by Gregory Johnsen, author of "The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia."

    Thank you for joining us.

    Tell us how this dramatic collapse came to occur.

    GREGORY JOHNSEN, Author, "The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia": Right.

    So the roots of what happened today actually stretch back to the Arab spring in 2011, when the U.S., the United Nations, and Yemen's neighbors put together a deal that saw Yemen's longtime president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, step down in exchange for unity, and President Hadi come in, in his place. President Hadi was his vice president.

    What's happened in the three years since then is that President Hadi has really been unable to bring in different groups, groups such as the Houthis, groups like southern secessionists, into his government. And it's been really a slow-motion collapse. And today was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

    First, the prime minister and his cabinet resigned. And once that happened, President Hadi had — had really no other option. He had to step down, and so now Yemen is a — is a country without a president, without a vice president, without a prime minister, and without a cabinet.


    And the U.S. is a country without an ally where it had one in the past. How significant is this collapse to the U.S. efforts to curb terrorism, especially the kind that is rooted in Yemen?


    Right. This is very significant, and I think it's very worrisome U.S. counterterrorism officials in Washington.

    What the U.S. has been doing over the past several years is essentially relying on President Hadi and for a while President Saleh to carry out drone strikes, for their permission to carry out drone strikes, and for Yemeni forces on the ground to follow those drone strikes up with offensives against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

    Now, we have to remember this organization, AQAP, is quite strong in Yemen. At different times, it's attempted to control territory. And what's happened in 2014 and now in early 2015, as the government has collapsed in Sanaa, is that its power has receded back more and more into the capital, until today, when government power essentially evaporated.

    And that opens up a huge amount of space for anybody strong enough and smart enough to take power. And so what we're going to see is groups like the Houthis, groups like the al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula essentially make a land grab for as much territory as they can possibly hold.

    And this is very dangerous for the United States, as well as for Europe, because what happens in these situations is that al-Qaida's able to establish training camps, and those training camps, of course, attract recruits, and then the worry is that those recruits make their way to the West.


    And how much of a role do we know that Iran played — does Iran play in backing the Houthis and other groups who at — at the same time that we're sitting at a negotiation table with them on other issues?



    This is a really important point, and one that the U.S. has often seemed a little bit confused about. The U.S. often calls the Houthi movement an Iranian-backed organization, an Iranian proxy, but the Houthis themselves are very much a local Yemeni group.

    They have grievances that stretch back to the 1960s, in which the former religious ruler of Yemen was overthrown. There have been six separate wars that have been fought between the Yemeni government and the Houthis up in the north in 2010. Saudi Arabia actually started fighting the Houthis as well.

    And so it's very easy to see this as sort of Saudi and Iran in some sort of proxy war within Yemen. But I think what's actually more accurate is that the Houthis, like most groups within Yemen, will open their hands and take money from anyone. So the Houthis certainly get support from Iran, but that support doesn't necessarily change their means.

    They just take the money and do whatever it is that they were going to do anyway, which in this case means trying to put together a government, which, unfortunately, I think large portions of Yemen, including the south, are going to resist. So we have a recipe, really, for a very chaotic and very disastrous situation within Yemen.


    Is there a worry that there will be regional destabilization as a result of this? You mentioned Saudi Arabia. We just touched on Iran. Who is the most worried?


    Well, I think you're exactly right, Gwen. It's Saudi Arabia.

    Saudi Arabia is incredibly, incredibly worried about the chaos from Yemen. They don't want any of it seeping over their borders. They have — in recent years, they have doubled and really strengthened their border guards. They have a very, very long, 1,000 — over a 1,000-mile-long border with Yemen, and they're incredibly concerned.

    They're concerned not only with the Houthis, but also with members of al-Qaida, some of whom have Saudi nationality, coming back into the kingdom and carrying out attacks. So they're incredibly frightened, and right now Saudi Arabia doesn't have a very good policy.

    One conversation I had with a Yemeni government official today, he said, look, in recent years, Saudi Arabia has played a very stabilizing role in Yemen, particularly in helping to prop up the currency. But if the Houthis come to power, as many fear, and if the Houthis take control of the government, that money will evaporate, and then there will be economic collapse within Yemen.

    And so once you have economic collapse beneath all this political chaos, then you have a situation in which no one really knows what's going to happen. But we know that Yemen won't necessarily implode, but, rather, it will explode, and it will affect both its neighbor Saudi Arabia, as well as the world at large, including Europe and the United States.


    Potentially dangerous domino effects.

    Gregory Johnsen, author of "The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia," thank you.

Listen to this Segment