Does the recent successful killing of American-born al-Qaida cleric Anwar al-Awlaki vindicate US policy towards Yemen, or is a change in approach needed? The question is particularly relevant as Awlaki has been an online figure of inspiration for many jihadists and their sympathizers (e.g. the failed "Christmas Day" bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who may have received training in Yemen as well).
Contrary to all expectations, President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen has recovered from severe injuries suffered during a rocket or bomb attack back in June and has returned from Saudi Arabia to the country's capital of Sanaa. What are the implications for the outside world? Currently, the main concern of US officials is the presence of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which they fear will use Yemen as a base to launch attacks against Western targets. Are these concerns valid?
To answer this, a clear overview of the situation needs to be established. It is evident that Saleh has no intention of stepping down from power, and the capital is now firmly divided between supporters and opponents of the tottering Yemeni regime. Violence has intensified since Saleh's return and spread to cities like Aden and Taizz with heated battles between security forces loyal to the president (e.g. the well-trained Republican Guard Units, commanded by Saleh's son Ahmed) and army defectors led by Major General Ali Ahmar, who has aimed to protect demonstrators and anti-government tribesmen since he defected in March.
Unsurprisingly, analysts are beginning to consider the prospect of a full-blown civil war, as Yemen also faces existential challenges like the depletion of oil and gas reserves, dwindling water supplies and a swelling population.
Meanwhile, factions like the Zaydi Shi'ite Houthi rebels in the north, who have been in conflict with the central government since 2004 but generally left alone by Saleh once the demonstrations began in February this year, have not hesitated to take advantage of the growing chaos.
In fact, the Houthis are no longer content with limiting their autonomy to their home province of al-Jawf, and have expanded their power base southwards through various tribal alliances and truces with groups such as the Islamist Islah party.
In this context, therefore, commentators like Bruce Reidel, a former CIA officer and fellow of the Brookings Institution, argue that AQAP is among "the winners for now" because the organization's bomb-makers "can perfect their wares with less and less fear of Saleh's security forces."
Nevertheless, Reidel's assessment is based on a misunderstanding of Saleh's policy towards AQAP and other Islamist militants in Yemen. Although Saleh has presented himself to the West as a staunch ally against terrorism, it is more accurate to say that he effectively played a double game. True, he has allowed the United States to conduct drone strikes (like the one that killed Awlaki) and occasionally called in his own air strikes against Islamist militants, but he has also diverted aid intended for cracking down on al-Qaida to suppress domestic opposition. In the words of analyst Ellen Knickmeyer, Saleh has pursued a strategy of "trying to co-opt," rather than eliminate, key al-Qaida figures in Yemen.
Saleh's double game is especially apparent in disclosures from the Wikileaks cables. For example, in one cable, former US ambassador to Yemen Stephen Seche said a commando group that had been trained by the United States and Britain to deal with al-Qaida was being used instead to suppress the Houthis in the north, despite their having no links to al-Qaida or Iran.
Saleh has been remarkably tolerant of al-Qaida figures in Yemen. At lunch with a US envoy in 2007, Saleh bragged about having met with Jamal Badawi (the mastermind behind the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000) only two weeks before. Although he assured the envoy that Badawi was under house arrest, the militant's whereabouts are now unknown.
Saleh has abetted militants elsewhere in the country. For instance, his regime supported the notorious Al-Iman University, renowned as a center for violent Islamists in Yemen. More recently, domestic critics of Saleh argued in June that the president encouraged Islamist militants to take over the southern town of Zinjibar, hoping to scare the Obama administration into providing greater financial aid to the Yemeni government.
If al-Qaida, with only around 300 members, has established a firm foothold in Yemen, then Saleh's actions are primarily to blame. However, it should not be thought that the radical group is necessarily capable of focusing on conducting operations abroad as part of international jihad anytime soon. So long as the West avoids direct military intervention in Yemen, al-Qaida's efforts will be diverted towards competing against rival factions such as the Houthi rebels and the southern separatists.
Against the former, al-Qaida recently claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in mid-August, acting for the first time on its formal declaration of jihad against the Houthis last winter, while the southern separatists, strongly influenced by secular values, are natural enemies of al-Qaida, which backed Saleh in the 1990s civil war against remnants of the former Marxist regime of South Yemen.
In short, a descent into complete anarchy and civil war would be a humanitarian catastrophe for Yemen, but not a strategic disaster from the perspective of Western security interests. The best option lies in pursuing a "hands off" policy, ending aid to Saleh's government, and halting all drone attacks so as to avoid giving al-Qaida a further casus belli for acting outside Yemen, while issuing a stern warning that any further aggression will be met with severe retaliation as part of a containment strategy.