The conflict crisis in the divided and impoverished coastal state of Yemen has taken a turn for the worse amidst reports that several hundred al Qaeda sponsored Islamic extremists have taken control of the oceanside city of Zinjibar. This is a deep setback and critical turning point in the so-called "Arab Spring." And while this armed siege shares little in common with the Spring's brave and noble calls for rights, freedom, and economic opportunity, this latest event may do far more to influence the movement's outcome.
To be sure, al Qaeda has clearly found a niche opportunity amidst the regional chaos. And yet, we would be wise not to underestimate their strategic endgame. As was the case with Afghanistan, al Qaeda may be leveraging its relative military disadvantage in the hope that it can lure the West into a fight. This poke-the-bear routine has worked well for terrorist organizations around the world, who depend heavily on winning sympathy for their expressed victimization when militaries retaliate.
There are several clues that this same strategy may be at play in south Yemen.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has found a home in Yemen, has, in its short two-year existence, garnered the top spot as the number one threat to U.S. Homeland Security. Its charismatic leader, the english-speaking and web-savvy American, Anwar al Awlaki, has been instrumental in promoting the concept of micro-terrorism, such as the attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines 253 by Umar Farouk Abdulmatallab, on Christmas Day 2009.
If the boldness of this threatening branch of al Qaeda is not significant enough, the location of their newly captured city is. Perched on the coast of the Gulf of Aden, the city overlooks the narrowing waterway that leads to the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, a narrow 20-mile wide shipping lane that ports some 11 percent of the world's oil. This oil chokepoint is of monumental importance to the global economy. Al Qaeda most certainly understands this, and it also knows that for Western powers, it would be an intolerable scenario to have AQAP be in control of the north side of the Gulf of Aden and Somalia's Al Shabaab be in control on the south side. This flanking maneuver of an economically vital waterway is an extraordinary provocation.
Al Qaeda also knows that its captured city is an easy target for the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which patrols the waterways from its base in Bahrain. However, with the recently added and enhanced Iranian fleet now sharing the same narrow waterway with the Americans, any U.S. Navy action on south Yemen could be construed by the Iranians as an attack on defenceless Shia minorities. Furthermore, Yemen has remained an eerily close confidant and supporter of Iran's Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and the leader's nuclear "energy" program. To the extent that Iran would wish to reward Yemen's support by providing second-strike capabilities against a U.S. navy attack cannot be ruled out. Is al Qaeda's capture of the city simply meant to secure a front row seat to the ensuing fireworks? To the extent that al Qaeda is capable of provoking a fight in which it does not need to take part has also been evidenced in Afghanistan.
Al Qaeda's ability to exploit anti-Western sentiment in Yemen -- especially if its new civilian city-base is attacked by Western missiles -- may be easily accomplished. Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world. With an unemployment rate of 35 percent, nearly half of its population lives below the poverty line. What is left of Yemen's economy is entirely dependent on its oil fields, which, by some predictions, are set to run dry in the next five years. Despite its disparaging economic forecast, Yemen has one of the highest birth rates in the world, with 46 percent of its population under the age of 15. The ability to harness grievance amidst such conditions would not be difficult.
So what can be done to avoid the al Qaeda trap? Continuing to work with, and through, nations that value regional stability is a good starting point, as well as working with significant border powers like Saudi Arabia (the recent recipient of the biggest U.S. arms deal in history). The Saudi Kingdom plays a particularly crucial role in policing Yemen's northern borderlands, which, being mountainous and deeply tribal -- are, again, not unlike Afghanistan's.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh, despite his history of cheerleading for despots like Saddam Hussein, may prove to be a fair-weather friend for Western nations insofar as he has expressed his motivation to quash AQAP's activities within his borders. While some analysts believe that Saleh may have turned a blind eye to Zinjibar's capture in order to divert attention away from the street protests that call for his resignation, the claims have yet to be proven. Even though such accusations were made chiefly by Saleh's political rivals, the President has garnered a poor reputation for letting al Qaeda operate in his country, despite his professing that he remains capable of controlling them.
The situation is as complex as it is delicate. Much will depend on how the circling superpowers engage with each other in achieving common regional aims. In the meantime, we must be keenly aware of al Qaeda's strategic computations. We cannot afford another Afghanistan.