For centuries tourists have traveled to the walled city of Shibam in eastern Yemen to see the world's oldest skyscrapers: 500 mud-brick structures rising up to 16 stories high, earning Shibam the nickname Manhattan of the desert. Several weeks ago, four South Korean tourists had their picture taken while watching the sun set over this awe-inspiring World Heritage Site. As they posed for the camera, a Yemeni teenager walked up and pleasantly asked to have his picture taken standing alongside the sightseers.
Within seconds, the Yemeni teen detonated the explosives' belt wrapped around his waist, killing himself and the four unsuspecting tourists.
A few days later a suicide bomber in Yemen blew the windows out of a South Korean diplomatic vehicle carrying the bereaved relatives of the four murdered vacationers.
These attacks were the dirty work of AQAP -- the newest franchise in the old Al Qaeda terrorist network. Last year, Al Qaeda websites urged frustrated Saudi operatives to flee to Yemen, where they were joined by other recruits arriving from Iraq, Somalia, and Pakistan. Banding together, they announced in January 2009 the formation of "Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula" -- or AQAP.
This is not good news for Yemen's fragile democracy, which is facing a severe economic crisis and potential economic collapse because the country's oil resources -- which provide nearly 90 percent of the country's export earnings -- are nearly exhausted.
Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Arab world. One-third of its people suffer from malnutrition, many of its government institutions are corrupt, and the country suffers from severe water shortages. Yemen's population of 23 million people owns well over 23 million firearms. One expert called it a witch's brew of potential disaster.
Is Yemen the next Afghanistan?
It depends on whom you ask.
Princeton University Ph.D. candidate Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen, told Huffington Post that while he doesn't think Yemen will supplant the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region as the most important front in the war against Al Qaeda, he does believe Yemen has become a significant front now that the Al Qaeda organization has gone from a local chapter to a regional franchise.
Johnsen, who blogs about Yemen at islamandinsurgencyinyemen.blogspot.com, warned that Yemen's economy is getting weaker by the day. "And as less and less money comes in, the government is less able to control the state, primarily because deals made in the past were dependent upon having enough money to buy off domestic opponents. If Yemen becomes a failed state, it will open up a great deal of space for terrorist groups and individuals to move in."
This possibility concerns the U.S. and other countries. Yemen shares a border with Saudi Arabia. Yemen also controls the narrow Bab-el-Mandeb Strait -- a chokepoint through which 3.3 million barrels of oil are shipped every day. Across the strait from Yemen is the disorderly country of Somalia, and its infamous pirates.
"Information on Yemen is hard to get, so people will project all kinds of fears," cautioned Charles Schmitz, an associate professor at Towson University. Schmitz told Huffington Post that one of the big misunderstandings is that somehow Yemen is going to become what Afghanistan was prior to 2001 -- a base from which international enemies of the U.S. can operate. "In my opinion Al Qaeda is an irritant, but they are no more than an irritant," said Schmitz. "The Yemeni government has enough control to knock out a permanent Al Qaeda training camp."
Schmitz, who also is president of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, isn't convinced Al Qaeda's effectiveness in Yemen is increasing. "The double attack on the South Korean travelers had a certain sophistication, but can you say it was more sophisticated than the USS Cole bombing?"
Whether or not the attacks are sophisticated, terrorist activity in Yemen has certainly increased. Could AQAP launch a major attack in the region?
"On that point, I'm skeptical," Thomas Hegghammer told Huffington Post. Hegghammer, a fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, blogs at jihadica.com. "Still, I think it's important to try and contain AQAP because if they're allowed to establish a safe haven in Yemen, they will use it to prepare more sophisticated operations, including attacks within Saudi Arabia."
In fact, AQAP has already announced through various media that they intend to use the under-governed regions of Yemen as a staging ground for attacks in Saudi Arabia. "The Yemeni government has rounded up a lot of lower level people who may or may not be involved in terrorist acts, but they haven't touched the big guys," Christoph Wilcke, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Huffington Post.
Is a more ambitious Al Qaeda the biggest security threat facing Yemen?
"I think the economy is the most pressing security issue, and the one that will ultimately have the biggest impact on the country," said Johnsen. "However, president Saleh is also dealing with a civil war and social unrest. These three things are bigger problems for Yemen than Al Qaeda is, and they are coming together to make Yemen an incredibly difficult place to rule."
In addition, the breakdown of the Somali government has put pressure on Yemen. So, is Yemen the next Somalia? Not according to Schmitz. "If you go to any of the state-failure data bases, you will see that Yemen's state capacity is increasing on most -- but certainly not all -- indicators. I don't believe Yemen is going to fall apart in that manner."
Nevertheless, it won't be easy for the U.S. to aid Yemen. According to sources at Human Rights Watch, the Bush administration said they were frustrated with Yemen because "you never know who to trust."
"I understand that sentiment perfectly," said Hegghammer. "The state is weak in Yemen. It is a well-known fact that part of the security establishment has been infiltrated, and not necessarily by Al Qaeda. This poses a real dilemma for the U.S."
Hegghammer believes Saudi Arabia is the key to helping Yemen, because when it comes to combating Al Qaeda, the Saudis have been very effective. "They have expertise and resources they could share with Yemen. To some extent, I'm sure they already have. However, I don't think they are doing as much as they could."
According to Wilcke, the U.S. should be wary of simply sending money to Yemen. He recommends the Obama administration attach strings to non-emergency aid. "To help Yemen, the U.S. should be certain it is empowering people in need, and it should consider extracting a political price for its assistance by insisting that Yemen respect its obligations under international law."
Wilcke also believes the Yemeni government could do itself a favor by releasing many of the hundreds of people they've arrested with regard to the civil war, because the continued arrest and disappearance of people "is causing great grief and concern."
Schmitz would like to see the U.S. develop a long-term strategy for Yemen. "If you ask Yemenis what their biggest problem is, they're not going to say it's Al Qaeda. They're going to say it's poverty. Their big issue is development. They want schools and jobs and water."
Years ago Yemen was a beacon of hope and democracy. Today Yemeni democracy is on hold: the upcoming elections have been postponed.
"Most of my friends are Yemenis, and it's sad to see the things they're up against," said Johnsen. "When I go to dinner with professors from Sana'a University, they talk about how most of their students can't find jobs after graduation. The young people are reduced to almost hawking stuff on the street."
Follow Diane Tucker on Twitter: www.twitter.com/dianetucker