Yemen is Becoming an Extremist’s Dream. Was it Predictable?

April 7, 2015
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by Jason M. Breslow Digital Editor

Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, hold up their weapons to protest against Saudi-led airstrikes, during a rally in Sanaa, Yemen, Wednesday, April 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

Ali Soufan has seen firsthand what happens when extremists move into Yemen. When the USS Cole was bombed in the Port of Aden in the autumn of 2000, it was Soufan, then a special agent with the FBI, who was brought in to act as the attack’s chief investigator. As one of the bureau’s early experts on Osama Bin Laden, he knew more than most about how theological, operational and logistical factors made the country so attractive to Al Qaeda.

“Yemen was always one of the key battlegrounds for Osama bin Laden,” says Soufan, who today runs the New York-based intelligence group, The Soufan Group. “Yemen was always an area where Osama bin Laden used to recruit. It was … a safe house.”

Today, bin Laden is gone, but Yemen may only be growing more dangerous as extremists scramble to fill a void created by fighting between Houthi rebels and fighters allied with the president they drove from power, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. And with Saudi Arabia now also battling the Houthis, what started as a local conflict has morphed into a regional fight that threatens to exacerbate sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiite’s across the Middle East.

“The conflict in Yemen is going to create a lot of vacuums, and the only people who benefit from such vacuums are non-state actors, people like AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula], people like ISIS,” says Soufan. “They are the people who benefited from the vacuum that existed in Syria or in Iraq, and unfortunately, we are going to start seeing them benefiting from the sectarianism in Yemen.”

Ahead of the April 7 premiere of the FRONTLINE investigation The Fight for Yemen, we spoke with Soufan about the unrest, what it means for the U.S., and why he says the situation was “a train wreck waiting to happen.” What follows below is an edited transcript of that conversation. A video playlist from the discussion is also available here.

On the roots of the conflict

The problems in Yemen today are being viewed as a regional problem, and it is a regional problem, because of the involvement of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states and other allies in the airstrikes. However, the root of the problems are Yemeni problems. The root of the problems have to do with political corruptions, have to do with bad governance, has to do with economics and economic factors and resources, so it is mostly a Yemeni problem that [has been] taken out of context to become a regional problem.

“The conflict in Yemen is going to create a lot of vacuums, and the only people who benefit from such vacuums are non-state actors, people like AQAP, people like ISIS.”

How the fight became a regional battle

After the Houthis controlled Sanaa and they were able to go and take areas down south, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states were really concerned, and they were concerned because Al Houthis are supported and aided by the Iranians, and as you know, when you look at the Middle East, there’s a big game going on, geopolitical game going on between Iran and between Arab states, and Arab states are increasingly fearful of Iranian expansion in the region. They see it in Iraq, they see it in Lebanon, they see it in Syria, and now with Al Houthis they see it in Yemen. Al Houthi is not really an Iranian proxy. Al Houthi works with the Iranians, [is] aided by the Iranians, but in no way is a puppet of the Iranians.

On whether local issues in Yemen can be solved with local solutions

Every entity in places like Yemen or in places like Syria or places like Iraq reports to a regional power. Unfortunately, [Yemen] became a proxy war. There were local wars, local conflicts. Regional powers used them and injected sectarianism in them a little bit and made it regional and sectarian conflicts. Now the only way you can solve these local issues is to find a solution for the regional conflict and the regional competition that’s going on between all these players, players like Saudi Arabia, players like Iran, players like Turkey and even, on an international level, Russia, for example, and its impact on what’s going on in Syria.



Will the fight expand beyond Yemen’s borders?

It’s already expanding beyond Yemen’s borders. The moment you inject sectarianism to it, you have a similar situation to what we have in Syria or similar situation to what we have in Iraq … So the moment that sectarianism becomes a problem, then you’re not talking about governments; you’re not talking about political reform; you’re not talking about economic factors or tribal factors or political factors that led to the problem at hand. You start talking about issues that have to do with religion and sectarianism, and people are really blinded to the real reasons that they started this war in the first place.

On the worst case scenario in Yemen

One of the things about the Middle East, especially recently, there is always a worst case scenario and a worst worst case scenario. Unfortunately, today the [situation in] Yemen is in its worst case scenario, but I am not convinced that this is the worst … If the situation in Yemen continued for a long period of time, if that civil war became a regional conflict in nature, I think we might see something similar to what we’ve seen in Iraq or seen in Syria or what we’re seeing in Libya, and as we know, all these conflicts contribute directly to the insecurity both regionally and internationally.



Has U.S. counterterrorism policy against AQAP been effective in Yemen?

Tactically our efforts against AQAP have been successful. Again, tactically. So we disrupted their plots; we killed individuals who are involved in carrying out attacks against United States and tourists. We eliminated targets that were considered a threat to the national security of the United States and to global security and regional security, too. We have been successful in that. Unfortunately, our success is only tactical. We never had a comprehensive strategic policy toward Yemen to deal with a lot of the other incubating factors that are feeding into the chaos that we witness today in Yemen. And this is a big problem that we have to face and we have to deal with.

“On the eve of 9/11, we had only 400 members of Al Qaeda. Today we have thousands and thousands of people who adhere to the ideas of Osama bin Laden.”

Tactically we have been successful in a lot of places around the world. We kept the United States safe. We don’t have another 9/11. We don’t have big terrorist attacks that’s coming from overseas by Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups. But also at the same time, on the eve of 9/11, we had only 400 members of Al Qaeda; today we have thousands and thousands of people who adhere to the ideas of Osama bin Laden. We have thousands and thousands of people who adhere to bin Laden-ism, to the radical Islam version that’s promoted by Al Qaeda, ISIS and bin Laden and so forth. And they go all the way from the shores of Africa to Southeast Asia. So yes, we have tactical successes, but so far, when it comes to the war on terrorism, in Yemen and in other places, we have strategic failure.

Are we likely to change tactics?

The tactics that we used when Ali Abdullah Saleh was president or when Hadi was president is totally different. Today there is no government in Yemen. And if you want to deal with someone to fight AQAP, you have to deal basically with the Houthis, because they are the entity that controls Sanaa and control many different areas, and we’re not going to deal with the Houthis because of the regional and the geopolitical situation. So I think we have to figure out a new tactic to diminish the threats that might be posed against our national security interest and against basically the regional security by AQAP and ISIS and other groups in the region.

Could anyone have predicted the situation that the country finds itself in?

Yeah, absolutely. You know, the situation in Yemen, a lot of people are shocked — “Oh, look what happened in Yemen.” But Yemen has been a train wreck waiting to happen. And if you talk to the Yemen experts in the U.S. government, they tell you that they can predict these things to happen. They can predict the train wreck. You can see it happening. You know, that conflict with al Houthis didn’t happen last week or the week before. The conflict with AQAP and Al Qaeda has been going on since even before 1998, before the East Africa Embassy bombing. The problem with the political corruption, the problem with bad governance, the problem with the lack of resources — that has been going on for a long period of time. The tribal conflicts, the issue between south and north — these issues have been going on in Yemen for a long period of time.



Why an American audience should care

If these conflicts were not solved, you’re going to have a new generation of terrorists that’s being recruited as we speak in places like Syria, in places like Iraq, and even places like Yemen. And those individuals are the future terrorists that we have to deal with down the road. So these conflicts — if it was in the ’80s and ’90s in Afghanistan, or what we’ve seen in Iraq and what we’re seeing in Syria or what we’re seeing even with Boko Haram in Nigeria or what we’re seeing in Libya — these conflicts are creating a big vacuum, and that vacuum is being filled by extremists. It’s being filled by the likes of Al Qaeda, by people who believe in the ideology of Osama bin Laden. ISIS is bin Laden’s Al Qaeda, not [Ayman al-]Zawahiri’s Al Qaeda. They believe in the same ideas of Osama bin Laden. That’s what they call themselves. They said we are bin Laden’s Al Qaeda; we’re not Zawahiri’s Al Qaeda.

“Yemen has been a train wreck waiting to happen. And if you talk to the Yemen experts in the U.S. government, they tell you that they can predict these things … They can predict the train wreck.”

… We had Al Qaeda on the run after 9/11. We took away their center of gravity. We took away their commanding control. We took Afghanistan; we destroyed the Taliban regime that was giving them sanctuary and allowing them to operate. And then they switch from being chief operators to being chief motivators, and today, their ideology spread. They have affiliates around the world. They have AQAP in the Arabian Peninsula. They have AQAM [Al Qaeda and Associated Movements], in al Maghreb [AQIM, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb]. They have Al Shabaab in Somalia. They have Al Nusra [Front] in Syria. They have the Islamic State of Iraq who rebelled against Ayman al-Zawahiri and became ISIS. ISIS has a lot of affiliates. They have affiliates in Libya. They have affiliates in Tunisia. They accepted Boko Haram to be one of their affiliates. They have affiliates in Yemen now. They have affiliates in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

So before, we had one threat, one area, and it’s caused an international war on terrorism. Imagine now, with so many sanctuaries spread around the world, with thousands and thousands of people being recruited and being brainwashed with ideas of Osama bin Laden, and you want to tell me that we’re going to have a better future?

On who stands to win in Yemen

Unfortunately, until now we have no idea who’s going to win. As it stands today, some people are playing strategic chess; some people are playing checkers. This is the issue when you have people thinking regionally and people thinking locally. Hopefully at one point, they will start playing the same game.

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