Yemen: The Next Front in Obama's War on Terrorism

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the aftermath of the failed Christmas terrorist attack in Detroit, the United States has refocused its attention on Yemen, where al-Qaeda has taken refuge and flourished in the last decade. Yemen thus poses yet another challenge to the Obama Administration as it forges its strategy against al-Qaeda. The gravity of the threat emanating from Yemen is clear, amidst recent reports indicating that President Obama had approved U.S. counterterrorism and intelligence support to the Yemeni government in striking al-Qaeda networks.

Ultimately, the Obama Administration must continue providing intelligence and counterterrorism aid to the Yemeni government while pushing forward with its use of "smart power" to directly appeal to the Yemeni people and the Muslim world at large through diplomacy, economic aid and new media. Having called for reconciliation between the West and the Muslim world in Cairo, while delivering a powerful argument for the necessity of the just war in Oslo, President Obama can do both.

The Obama Administration has made commendable changes to the U.S. struggle against Islamic radicalism, particularly with Obama's repeated direct appeals to the Muslim world for reconciliation and friendship with the West and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's promotion of smart power vis-à-vis the Middle East. Aside from dropping the "global war on terror" semantics, however, Obama, to his credit, has maintained the urgent tenor and covert counterterrorism operations in the U.S. war against al-Qaeda. For example, during his recent visit with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, General David Petraeus announced that the U.S. would double funding for counterterrorism and military support to the Yemeni government to combat the al-Qaeda threat. Such support is well-advised and should better equip the Yemeni military to tackle the al-Qaeda network which has operated in relative freedom in Yemen.

U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials must also do their best to give the lead to local Yemeni forces and sensitively provide military aid, given that any overt demonstration of U.S.-Yemeni military partnership could boost radicalization. Similar to our recent overtures to the Pakistani and Afghan governments, we must exert greater pressure on President Saleh to harness all possible resources in fighting the al-Qaeda network in Yemen.

Moreover, Yemen illustrates the complexity in forging an effective strategy to defeat al-Qaeda while diminishing the radicalization of young Muslims. Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, has an exceptionally weak government. The country is rife with corruption, illiteracy, high unemployment, and drug addiction. As a failed state, Yemen is the perfect breeding ground for terrorism. In addition, its geography makes it an ideal base for al-Qaeda, bridging the Horn of Africa, the Red Sea and the Arabian Peninsula.

The Obama Administration should thus increase funding for economic aid and infrastructure development to Yemen to alleviate the societal deterioration taking place that facilitates a robust al-Qaeda presence. The use of "smart power" in Yemen and other similar failed or failing states cannot be overstated. Direct appeals by President Obama to the Yemeni people and the Muslim world at large must continue as the war on al-Qaeda progresses. As the failed Christmas Day attack demonstrated, al-Qaeda has certainly attracted recruits from affluent backgrounds. Our diplomatic outreach, incorporating the use of social media and communication technologies, must be tailored to would-be radicals across socioeconomic lines.

Finally, Yemen provides an additional challenge to U.S. objectives in the Middle East with regard to Iran. In particular, the civil war between the Yemeni government and Shia rebels in the Sa'dah region in north Yemen has increasingly devolved into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In Yemen, Shia Muslims represent nearly 50% of the country. Across the Middle East, Shia Islam has become a burgeoning and potent political force, notably in the hegemonic aspirations of Iran and the growing strength of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Elsewhere, Shia minorities in Sunni Gulf nations, historically oppressed, have agitated for greater political rights and freedoms, bolstering the fears of U.S. Sunni allies in the region. The growing intervention by Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Yemeni government's fight against Shia rebels in the north thus embodies the internecine Sunni-Shia conflict unfolding across the Middle East.

While the United States must provide the Yemeni government support in defeating the al-Qaeda network in its backyard, we should avoid wading into Yemen's civil war with the Shia northern insurgency, despite any overtures from the Yemeni government, Saudi Arabia or other regional allies. Our primary national security objective should be to defeat al-Qaeda and eliminate the threat it poses. Any U.S. intervention in the Saudi-Iran proxy war in Yemen could further complicate imminent U.S. efforts to isolate Iran with targeted sanctions.

In short, the U.S. war against al-Qaeda in Yemen must be executed in concert with a smart power offensive that aims to reduce poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and other crises battering Yemen today. If successful, President Obama will be able to implement the vision for the United States and its role in the world that he outlined in Oslo, while directly making the case to the people of Yemen and the Muslim world. Yemen thus poses yet another critical test to Obama's war against al-Qaeda.

Josh Lockman is an attorney at Latham & Watkins in Los Angeles and a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project.