Only a Long-Term Approach Can Resolve Terrorist Threat in Yemen

Two suicide bombing attacks in Yemen last week took the lives of at least 67 people and wounded more than 75 people, widely assumed to be the handiwork of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This horrendous loss of life underscores the need for United States and its allies to reevaluate how we combat extremist groups and to think deeply about the connection between political legitimacy, governance, and security. Despite Washington’s attention on the Islamic State, AQAP still poses a grave threat, not only for US citizens, as periodic high-alert travel warnings tell us, but more acutely for Yemenis themselves.

Al-Qaeda’s ability to exploit political instability—most recently caused by the rebel Houthi movement’s shocking incursion into Sana’a—and ungoverned spaces throughout Yemen should be a primary concern. This highlights major shortcomings in the US approach to addressing threats from terrorist networks seeking to harm Americans, as outlined in two new Atlantic Council publications, “Do Drone Strikes in Yemen Undermine US Security Objectives?” and “A Blueprint for a Comprehensive US Counterterrorism Strategy in Yemen.” Instead of taking a short-term tactical approach that relies heavily on unmanned drone strikes, the US must develop a long-term strategy to address the underlying drivers for extremism that allow terrorist groups to thrive in Yemen.

AQAP poses an almost daily threat to Yemeni military and intelligence forces, and they are now going after Houthi supporters—whom they consider Shi’a apostates—as well. But the fact that the United States looks at Yemen through a very narrow counterterrorism lens has illuminated a major deficiency in US policy. Yemenis will tell you they are mostly concerned about the pervasive availability and use of arms outside formal security bodies, the tribal conflicts that become violent, and more recently the rebel Houthi movement, which has taken over control of much of the capital of Sana’a.

Looking a bit more deeply, one of the key problems is clear to nearly every Yemeni citizen: the transition government that was put in place in early 2012 after former President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down lacks any credibility, and the country is devoid of a functioning security infrastructure and institutions that can provide the day-to-day public safety for citizens. It can be hard, if not impossible, to find any police stations or consistent security presence through large swaths of this country. When they are present, the security forces are usually not from the local community, so there’s often a general resentment and lack of trust.

If the US is serious about eliminating the AQAP threat, it must take a more comprehensive and holistic approach to look at the interconnectedness of security, lack of economic opportunity, and political power. The bottom line is that the fundamental lack of rule of law and poor governance, as well as the absence of basic security for citizens, contributes to the ability for extremist groups, like AQAP, to find safe haven.

The US, however, is now conducting stop-gap measures with a short-term focus that does not sufficiently consider the local dynamics and politics. In short, the US will not succeed in defeating AQAP with such an approach, and may actually exacerbate the problem in the interim.

For a successful outcome, US must engage in a comprehensive and holistic security assistance program – one that includes long-term commitment to helping develop an overarching security framework and investing in human and economic development. The piecemeal approach of using short-term tactics to address a systemic problem means the US will end up facing off against AQAP over and over again. With this approach, the United States will likely be going after AQAP with drone strikes ten years from now.

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