Is anybody else annoyed by the recent contention on the part of many in the West that Yemen is somehow the future of the ongoing exercise to combat extremism commonly known as the “War on Terror”? Yemen’s place as a foundation for al-Qaeda’s activities throughout the world, or the activities of any extremist group for that matter, is by no means a sudden and new development. The movement of such groups in the region stretches back to an unknown period, but has at least been acknowledged several times throughout the last ten years. Yet time and again, people get distracted by the major foreign policy events, and lose sight of the minor ones. Unfortunately, as we are now beginning to see again, the minor ones have this nagging tendency to become gigantic problems later if they are neglected. Additionally, I’m not just talking about Yemen, but the countries of Eastern Africa as well, that are slowly but surely becoming the new center of global jihad.
First, Yemen’s issues are just not new. End of story. I’ve been watching the coverage of the attempted attack by Mr. Abdulmutallab since Christmas Day and I just can’t get around this feeling that many people discussing his rise to jihadism are incorporating Yemen into their arguments like it’s a part of the map they never noticed before but suddenly explains so much about an enemy they desperately try to understand. Yes, it appears true, thus far, that there are active groups in Yemen that have partnered with the great al-Qaeda network and are willing to launch attacks against western countries. And yes, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was apparently working with such a group when he decided to pack an explosive in his underwear for the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit last week. But other than a few scattered references to the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, no one seems to be asking about the long-term strategic significance Yemen or any of the surrounding countries has held for jihadis.
Currently, the Yemeni government is caught in a struggle to maintain its power in the face of insurgent groups scattered throughout the country. These groups are battling the weak government for control of several areas of territory and are motivated by religious and social interests. According to a New York Times article, one of the main rebels groups, known as the Houthis, have been engaged in all-out war with the government since August (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/25/world/middleeast/25yemen.html?_r=1&scp=5&sq=yemen&st=nyt). But this war, as most wars commonly do, has opened the door to instability and chaos in Yemen. The article cited concludes with the following quote:
“Many Yemenis fear that this war will continue until the army is really tired,” said Majid al-Fahed, the director of a private group called the Civic Democratic Foundation, who spent time in Saada (in northern Yemen) late last month. “Then who will defend the rest of the country?”
Good question. Who will? It’s no secret that jihadist groups flourish in countries without an effective and stable central government. Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us when extremists have begun to use Yemen as a base of operations, as the government’s inability to stabilize their society has fostered a comfortable home for groups like the one responsible for the botched attack on Christmas Day.
Since the attempted bombing last week, it appears that the United States and the Yemenis have been building a partnership to combat both the extremist groups and the insurgency that threatens the government’s position. However, in my humble opinion, Yemen and its internal issues are neither the source of this “new” development in jihadism, nor is it it’s only base. I recalled a number of reports that have come out of Eastern Africa over the last decade and time and again, it seemed like extremist groups were surfacing in that region.
I did a bit of preliminary digging on this and came up with a few articles in the New York Times on specifically Somalia and Ethiopia. For example, this past July a pair of French men were taken hostage in Somalia. The Times article I found discusses two influential Islamic extremist groups, Shabab and Hizbul Islam, who had brokered a deal to “share the hostages” and any benefits that could be garnered from them (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/17/world/africa/17somalia.html?_r=1&scp=8&sq=somalia&st=nyt). If the early 1990s taught us anything, it’s that Somalia certain has its own issues with separatist groups targeting central government control. With a history of warlord rule, and now a weak Islamist government in power, extremist groups, like the two just mentioned, are able to successfully operate in the country. And, of course, Shabab, according to U.S. intelligence, is aligned with al-Qaeda.
Another example is seen in neighboring Ethiopia, where other jihadi groups were found to be prevalent back in 2007 and well before that. Another article I found, written more than two years ago, describes a trip taken by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who toured Eastern African nations to assess the threat posed by these groups. The contention of the article was such that in Ethiopia and Somalia, as well as Djibouti, Sudan and Yemen, extremists are able to “move through the region” in the “ungoverned parts” (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/04/world/asia/04gates.html?scp=10&sq=ethiopia&st=nyt).
Common everybody, let’s open our eyes here. The fact that an attack attempted against American and other western citizens was launched from Yemen should not surprise anyone, nor should we be liberally tossing around terms like “new war”. And for that matter, Yemen is not the center of these groups, as their presence is felt across the Gulf of Aden in the Horn of Africa. Somalia, Ethiopia and other African countries with difficulties controlling their territories have become comfortable bases of operations for jihadi groups and well continue to be. Therefore, this so-called “next war” is not a war in Yemen as the media portrays it, but rather an effort against groups that now occupy areas throughout the entirety of the southern Arabian Peninsula and the nearby African continent.