John Kiriakou Headshot

Yemen Is the Next Big Battleground

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Osama bin Laden is dead and Americans are rightfully taking a victory lap.
But the greatest threat to the nation's safety and security over the past five
years has not been from bin Laden's al-Qaeda, dug into Afghanistan and
Pakistan. It's been from a Yemen-based offshoot called al-Qaeda in the
Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Remember Afghanistan on September 10, 2001? Today's Yemen is worse.
AQAP is holed up in the roughest part of a failing state with a collapsing
central government, a non-existent economy and an anti-American
population, a huge number of whom are wasted every day on qat, a narcotic
leaf that is the crop of choice in the country. Clean water is running out,
the birthrate is among the highest in the world and more than half the
population is illiterate. It's enough to make Afghanistan look inviting.

AQAP came out of the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Its leaders, mostly
Saudis and Yemenis, went to Saudi Arabia, but were driven out when
Riyadh finally got serious about fighting its own chickens-home-to-roost
terrorism. Since then, the group has launched several deadly attacks.

In 2008, AQAP militants attacked the US Embassy in Sana'a, killing 11
people. In 2009, a senior AQAP operative offered to surrender to Saudi
authorities, requesting a meeting with Saudi counterterrorism czar Prince
Muhammad bin Nayif Al Saud. Muhammad agreed to the meeting and
flew the terrorist to Saudi Arabia on his private jet, only to have the
man detonate homemade plastic explosives hidden in his underwear.
Muhammad was seriously injured. A year later, Nigerian student Omar
Farouk Abdulmutallab sewed a similar bomb into his underwear and tried
to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight as it arrived in Detroit on Christmas
Day. Late last year, AQAP tried to send bombs concealed in emptied toner
cartridges to addresses in the U.S. via UPS and Federal Express, successfully
getting them into aircraft cargo holds.

To make matters worse, as many as 36 American ex-convicts who converted
to Islam in U.S. prisons went to Yemen in 2009, ostensibly to study Arabic.
The FBI, however, believes that they went to undergo training in AQAP camps in eastern Yemen. Scary? You bet. And there's no way to stop
them. They have valid U.S. passports, they've done their time and it's up to
U.S. law enforcement agencies to prove that they were in Yemen for terrorist
training.

A year ago, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued a report warning
of terrorism in Yemen, an emerging failed state in every way. But in 2010
there wasn't a danger of the country's entire political system falling apart.
Today that's the reality. Yemen's President Ali Abdallah Saleh leads
little more than the city of Sana'a. Most of the outlying areas are either
engaged in rebellions, are ungoverned or are under AQAP's control. And
Saleh spends most of his time shooting his own people who are engaged in
peaceful demonstrations.

Couple that with Yemen's economic, demographic and societal realities
and you have a disaster in the making. Yemen's oil -- the source of over 75
percent of its income -- will run out by 2017, and the country has no apparent
way to transition to a post-oil economy. Water shortages are already
acute throughout the country, and Sana'a may be the first capital city in the
world to run out of water. The mix of a high birthrate, little education, and
extreme unemployment is toxic.

Many counterterrorism experts believe that Yemen is beyond the point of
no return. Drone attacks aren't going to destroy AQAP. A strong central
government, democracy and economic opportunity might. But if the
country continues to circle the drain, robust intelligence collection and
boots on the ground may be required to crack AQAP. It's a task in which
the whole world has a stake -- after all, bin Laden's al-Qaeda had Europe,
Asia and Africa in its crosshairs for a decade, not just America. And if the
United States does go it alone, it could find itself mired in another hostile
environment for a generation.

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