The Christmas Day 2009 “Underwear Bomber” brought attention to a little-known, impoverished, physically desolate, ill-governed, violent corner of the world. No not Detroit. Yemen, on the southwestern tip of the Arabian peninsula.
Conditions in Yemen are miserable. Yemen consists of mountains and deserts and tribes. Furthermore, there are fewer than thirty million Yemenis, but they own sixty million guns. Then, the economy is dead: about half the population lives in poverty and over a third of the work force is unemployed. What little oil there is won’t last much longer. There is a shortage of water that will only get worse. Yemeni women have an average of six children, so the population is rising rapidly.
Political conditions make this dire situation even worse. First, the recent President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was seen as a crook and a tyrant. After two successive presidents had been assassinated, the army put him into power in 1978. He quickly entrenched himself. Then, in 1990 his government managed to get control of the southern region, which is home to the oil resources of the country. Since then it has bled the region of the oil revenue while starving it of resources. So there is an insurgency underway. Then, in the north there are Shi’a Muslims who dislike being ruled by a Sunni government. So there is an insurgency under way. Then, because the economy is in poor shape, unemployed young men tend to have a lot of time to kill. Fundamentalist religious preachers abound, usually spewing stuff about Islam establishing its world predominance through struggle. One of these preachers was the Imam Anwar al-Awlaki, who was in touch via internet with Major Nidal Hasan before he killed thirteen soldiers at Fort Hood in November 2009, and he met with the “underwear bomber” before his mission in December 2009. Guy appeared to be in a rut.
So, it is a natural environment for Al Qaeda. The first Al Qaeda people showed up as early as 1992. In 2000 Al Qaeda bombed the USS Cole when it was entering port in Yemen. Later on, Yemeni jihadists went to fight the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of the survivors of those adventures have returned home over the years. When the Saudi Arabian government stomped down on jihadists sympathizers after 9/11, many of them fled to Yemen. Right now it is estimated that anywhere from 300 to 500 committed Al Qaeda fighters are somewhere in Yemen. (For obvious reasons, it’s a little tricky to go door to door doing a proper census.) More recently the British and American embassies in the capital city of Sanaa were attacked. Most recently, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian Muslim studying in Yemen, was recruited as the “Underwear bomber.” So, the place is a pain-in-the-neck for the United States.
Generally, Yemenis don’t like the United States as an abstract concept. The government is less anti-American than are the people generally, but people don’t like the government either. If the government co-operates too openly with the United States in opposing Al Qaeda, it will become even less popular than it is now. The result may be that it will be over-thrown by people who are pro-Al Qaeda. So, we can let the situation sort of fester in hopes that nothing worse will appear, or we can push for action against Al Qaeda and make that worse situation appear. I suppose we could invade the place to bring them hope and change, just like we did in Iraq and Afghanistan. “How’s that hopey changey thing working out for you?”
“Terrorism’s new hideout,” The Week, 22 January 2010, p. 11.