Yemen, a second-tier preoccupation for terrorism trackers in the west until Christmas day 2009, has now been elevated to the highest-risk category. According to John Brennan, President Obama’s counterterrorism advisor, it was Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni cleric of the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), who helped radicalise, train, and equip Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to attack Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit. Other terror attacks that are being attributed to the Yemen-based AQAP include the November 2009 killing of 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, by United States Army major Nidal Malik Hasan; and the August 2009 assassination attempt on Prince Mohammed bin Nayef of the Saudi royal family. The most unmistakable sign of a spike in the perceived terror threat from Yemen was the temporary closure of the embassies of the U.S., Britain, and France in Sana’a this week. These threats to western interests have come on the back of the U.S.-Yemen allied offensive against AQAP in parts of Sana’a and in Abyan, al-Jawf, and Shabwah provinces.
The joint military operations of December reflect a growing yet tenuous bond between Washington and Sana’a. Financial assistance is of course at the heart of the relationship. The U.S. is expected substantially to increase the $70 million in security aid it provided Yemen last year. Its development assistance is poised to reach $120 million over three years. But these levels pale into insignificance compared with the $2 billion that neighbouring Saudi Arabia provides. As the U.S. and Saudi Arabia pump and more funds into Yemen in pursuit of their own foreign policy goals, there is a risk that they will ignore an important fact: political power in the country is still significantly beyond the control of its government, headed by President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Not only is the President embattled with conflicts involving Shia Houthi rebels in north Yemen and discontented secessionists of the south; his authority is further undermined by dwindling oil reserves and allegations of corruption against his administration. However, it is President Saleh’s occasional tolerance of Sunni jihadists and his past reliance on them in his fight against the northern Shiite rebels that must be most worrying for Washington. In this fraught polity, ever-increasing surges of American aid will distort the domestic balance of power and deny Yemenis the political space they need to resolve these complex issues. In turn, the U.S. may itself pay a heavy price for the Pakistanisation of Yemen.