the final presidential debate, more than 11 years after the Bush administration
launched its global war on terror, President Barack Obama identified "terrorist
networks" as the gravest national security threat facing America. But Yemen,
which is home to the most dangerous al Qaeda affiliate, has attracted precious
little attention from either of the candidates in this election. In the recent foreign-policy
debate, for instance, Yemen was mentioned only
compare that to Iran, which was name-dropped 47 times.
many ways, Yemen has become this war's laboratory, a place where the United
States can test new ways to fight al Qaeda. In December 2009, Obama opened the
campaign with a strike on what U.S. military planners believed was an al Qaeda
training camp in southern Yemen. The cruise missiles equipped with cluster bombs hit their target,
killing 55 people in minutes of bombing. But instead of the al Qaeda camp the United
States thought it was hitting, it had bombed a Bedouin village where some al Qaeda
fighters were staying. Just over a week later, on Christmas Day 2009, a
would-be suicide bomber dispatched by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
attempted to bring down Northwest Airlines Flight 253 over Detroit.
In the three year since, AQAP has repeatedly tried to strike the
United States -- with a pair of parcel bombs in 2010 and another underwear bomb
that was uncovered in early 2012 -- while the United States has responded with
ramped-up drone and air strikes along with increased economic aid to the
central government in Sanaa. AQAP has also been active on the ground, briefly taking
over and administering a number of towns in the southern part Yemen that had
drifted beyond government control during the 2011 uprising that forced
President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down from power in exchange for immunity.
covert military backing -- and the most generous aid package ever from
Washington -- the Yemeni military has managed to regain much of the territory
it had lost. But it did not defeat al Qaeda. The fighters were not arrested and
they were not killed; they simply faded back toward the mountains where they
have been living and plotting for years.
assistance pulled Yemen back from the brink this time around, it's only because
the United States' love-hate relationship with Sanaa has allowed al Qaeda to
regroup time and again as Washington trained its sights elsewhere. Indeed, the
story of al Qaeda's stubborn persistence in Yemen's tribal hinterlands is the
story of Washington's tortured relationship with Saleh -- and its attempt to
make up for past mistakes by bolstering former vice president Abd Rabbu Mansour
Hadi, who has taken over in his stead, with aid.
In November 2005, Saleh -- who could
have had no inkling of the unrest that would oust him 6 years later -- traveled
to Washington for a state visit. He had been angling for an invitation for more
than a year, but with al Qaeda in Yemen seemingly in check there was none of
the urgency there had been in the hectic days after September 11, when the
United States had heaped aid on the Yemeni president in an attempt to contain
the terrorist threat. Now that it appeared to be winning on the terrorism
front, the George W. Bush administration had shifted its focus to democracy
Thomas Krajeski, the U.S. ambassador in Sanaa, and analysts at the
State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research spent months attempting to
figure out how best to encourage Saleh to reform. As with the Egyptian jihadis
of the 1990s, the Americans found that the Yemeni leader blew hot and cold. He
was engaging and conciliatory in private but all too often combative in
public. Which was the real Saleh? Was there a real Saleh? Paid informants with
inside access to the president continued to peddle stories of Saleh joking
about his ability to pull the wool over the eyes of the Americans.
Something needed to change; that much, at least, was clear.
Krajeski's private warnings hadn't done any good. The U.S. ambassador repeated
them and Saleh nodded, but there never seemed to be any action. Corruption had
spiraled out of control as military officers bought diesel at the subsidized
rate before smuggling it out of the country to sell at a premium. Individuals
in the National Security Bureau, the new intelligence agency the United States
had pushed for in 2002, hoping that it would replace Yemen's jihadi-riddled Political
Security Organization (PSO), were just as deeply involved in the diesel smuggling as their
counterparts in the PSO. So too were Yahya Saleh, President Saleh's nephew, and his officers in the Central
Security Forces, which also received U.S. funding and training.
Corruption had been a problem in Yemen for decades, as Saleh's
family and inner circle seized land across the country for their various
business interests. But the old generation of careful crooks, the men who had
come up with Saleh, had given way to spoiled youngsters who believed they were
entitled to whatever they could grab. What the United States had once been
willing to overlook in exchange for Yemen's cooperation on counterterrorism now
became a sticking point.
In early October 2005, a month before Saleh's trip to the United
States, Krajeski went public with his criticisms and told an opposition newspaper
that democratic reform in Yemen had "stopped." If the rookie ambassador was
looking for a response, he didn't have long to wait. The next day, Yemen's stable
of official columnists and journalists tore into him in newspapers and on
state television, warning Krajeski against interfering in Yemen's internal
affairs. The concentrated effort and near unanimous message suggested a directive
from the top. The United States, it seemed, finally had Saleh's attention.
But Saleh never quite got Krajeski's message. For all his
signaling and attempts at subtlety, Krajeski apparently failed to communicate
the shift in U.S. policy to the man who mattered most. When Saleh left for
Washington in early November, he expected to be rewarded as a close and
indispensable ally. After all, in the four years since his first visit with President
Bush, he had done everything the United States wanted. He had killed or
imprisoned all the al Qaeda leaders from a list the CIA had given him in 2001
and there hadn't been a terrorist attack since the MV Limburg bombing
three years earlier. Every time a security threat popped up, he dealt with it.
Earlier in 2005, when a blustery cell of militants emerged, threatening the
U.S. Embassy in Sanaa and forcing it to shut down briefly, Saleh's troops had
arrested the men responsible within days. "I respond to you immediately when
you need something," Saleh told the embassy.
The calculating Yemeni president had several ideas as to how Bush
could repay him for his vigilance and quick action. In Saleh's mind, the
Washington trip was a shopping spree, and he landed in D.C. with a wish list.
Another war against the Huthi separatists in the north -- the third in as many
years -- was just getting underway, and the president needed to replenish his
armory. He had helped the Americans with al Qaeda, and now he wanted help with
his own terrorists.
On the first day of his three-day trip, Saleh got a taste of just
how much things had changed. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice informed him
that Yemen was being suspended from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a new
funding organization that Bush had established to tie aid to reform. The cut
would cost Yemen $20 million in aid. Ill-prepared for the meeting, the Yemeni
president could only sputter in frustration as Rice rapped him over the
knuckles on corruption and lack of reform. If nothing changed, Rice continued,
the United States would not view Saleh as a legitimate candidate in the 2006
presidential election. Krajeski had been saying the same thing for months, but
Saleh had never quite believed the United States was serious. Seemingly
overnight, the United States had changed its rationale for foreign aid. Al Qaeda,
the United States explained, was yesterday's problem.
The next day, Saleh had a meeting at World Bank headquarters,
just a couple of blocks from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. World
Bank officials wasted little time. Yemen, they said, had regressed
significantly on key indicators. As a result, the bank would be slashing aid to
the country from $420 million to $280 million. Just like Rice, they cited
widespread government corruption as the deciding factor.
Two days later, on the flight home, Saleh finally lost it, screaming
at aides and firing his entire team of economic advisers within minutes of
takeoff. The group of young, Western-educated English speakers couldn't wait
to get back to Sanaa and away from their fuming boss. "It was horrible," one
later recalled. "The longest plane ride of my entire life."
Weeks later, when Saleh had calmed down, he rehired most of them.
"Do you really think that if Freedom House and the rest changed our ratings, it
would make any difference?" he asked one of the young men, who, in the messy
world of family politics, was related to Saleh's newest wife.
"Of course," the nervous aide responded. "That was the reason they
cut it in the first place."
Saleh smiled and shook his head. "The Americans give money to who
they want when they want."
The trip was a turning point in U.S.-Yemeni relations. By the
beginning of 2006 -- as U.S. security aid dipped to a new low of $4.6 million
-- the United States decided that al Qaeda in Yemen was no longer a threat and
it could put its money and resources elsewhere. Absent al Qaeda, Yemen was just
one more poor country.
wouldn't stay that way. On February 3,
2006 -- weeks after Saleh's disastrous Washington visit -- 23 al Qaeda suspects
tunneled out of a maximum-security prison on the outskirts of Sanaa and into a
neighboring mosque, where they said their morning prayers and then walked out
the front door to freedom. Just like that, al Qaeda was back. The escape was AQAP's genesis moment, the seminal
event that birthed years of attacks.
United States quickly concluded that the prisoners must have had inside help. The odds
of them digging 50 yards from a prison cell to the women's bathroom of a
neighboring mosque were simply too great. The prison, after all, was run by the
PSO, the same organization that had produced Abd al-Salam al-Hilah, the
Guantánamo Bay detainee who had once tipped Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri
off to a traitor within their ranks. Analysts at the CIA and FBI could only
guess at the extent of the conspiracy. We don't know "how many people were
involved," one official admitted. Some in Washington suggested that the prison
break might be Saleh's response to the aid cuts four months earlier. Others
speculated that sympathetic guards had simply ignored evidence of digging.
Regardless of who was behind the jailbreak, al Qaeda was once
again a substantial threat and over the coming months the United States was
forced to redirect its attention and aid dollars to Yemen. The Bush administration made plans to
reinstate Yemen to the MCC. But the rehabilitation was short lived. In October
2007, Saleh announced that he had struck a deal with Jamal al-Badawi, one of
the escapees and a main suspect in the USS
Cole attack seven years earlier, which had killed 17 U.S. sailors.
Shocked that Yemen would release someone who had killed American
sailors and was on the FBI's most wanted list, Bush dispatched his top
counterterrorism adviser, Frances Townsend, to Yemen. In a meeting at his
winter residence in Aden, Saleh tried to reassure Townsend. Don't worry about
Badawi, he told her. "He is under my microscope." Over lunch, Saleh explained
that he had been communicating with Badawi for months-information he had not
previously shared with his American allies. Two weeks ago, Saleh continued, he
had personally met with the fugitive for a frank discussion. "Badawi promised
to give up terrorism and I told him that his actions damaged Yemen and its image,"
Saleh said. "He began to understand."
Townsend listened tight-lipped as Saleh described the deal as a
sort of house arrest. Yes, Badawi was living and working on his farm outside
Aden, but the government was monitoring him closely. He won't commit any more
crimes, Saleh pledged.
Saleh's promises convinced no one, and back home on the campaign
trail, Republican presidential hopeful and former New York City mayor Rudolph
Giuliani seized on the incident and began calling for Yemen to stop siding with
terrorists: "As a first step, I urge the U.S. government to cancel the more
than $20 million in aid scheduled to be delivered to Yemen." Days later the
United States did just that, suspending Yemen from the MCC a second time.
again, U.S. funding to Yemen dipped in punishment. But 2008 was also the year al
Qaeda first issued Sada al-Malahim,
its online magazine of propaganda and religious justification, and in September
a seven-man cell launched a brazen early-morning attack on the U.S. Embassy in
Sanaa. Only the quick thinking of a local
Yemeni security contractor, who lowered a metal drop bar in front of the
speeding car moments before he was shot and killed, saved the embassy from
being breached. Instead of exploding into the embassy's front gate, which would
have allowed five gun-wielding attackers into the compound, the car detonated
on the street near a line of Yemenis seeking visas. On the campaign trail in
the United States, then Democratic nominee Barack Obama told reporters that the
United States had to do more in Yemen. Once more, U.S.
money and aid began flowing to Saleh and his family in Yemen's security
inheriting Yemen's aid rollercoaster, the Obama administration soon established
a new high in 2009 and then again in 2010 -- until popular protests forced the
United States to cut funding and abandon Saleh altogether in 2011. Earlier this year, when Hadi, Saleh's
long-time vice president, took over as part of a shortsighted political deal
that gave Saleh immunity, the United States restarted its aid package to Yemen.
third year in a row, the U.S. set a new high in aid to Yemen -- this year it is
$337 million -- and for the third year in a row AQAP set a new high with the
number of fighters within its ranks. Current estimates range from 1,000 to a
more than a decade of on-again, off-again aid to Yemen, the al Qaeda branch in
Yemen is stronger than it was on September 11, 2001. The money the United
States has spent in Yemen has enriched dozens and the missiles it has fired
into the country have killed hundreds -- and yet AQAP continues to grow.