Yemen: Al Qaeda’s Graveyard or Gateway?
Since Al Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden’s escape from the caves of Tora Bora following the first US bombardment of Afghanistan in the wake of the 2001 September 11 attacks, the rumors seemed to indicate that Bin Laden intended to hide out in Yemen. However 8 years later, it appears that his route to Yemen has been blocked, and the US used Yemen in order to lay a trap for Bin Laden’s men. However conditions in Yemen have changed today and this might make it easier for Bin Laden to come out of hiding, whether he is in Afghanistan or Pakistan, or even – as some rumors claim – in Iran, where his son Saad is said to reside. The reason for the current Yemeni crisis is the triad of crises facing Yemen, namely the Huthi rebels, Al Qaeda, and the southern separatists.
Even if Bin Laden does not move to Yemen, his fighters – who are of different nationalities – have already made this move, fleeing from Waziristan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria. The image on the horizon seems to be that of a final battle, or perhaps just the next phase of a new war in Yemen.
Following Al Qaeda’s experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, Yemen has become an important stop for the Al Qaeda organization, and one that brings Al Qaeda full circle. Yemen was the launch pad from which Al Qaeda sought to strike at the heart of Saudi Arabia, fighting a fierce war that eventually ended in heavy defeat. This defeat prompted Al Qaeda to head to Iraq, before returning once more to Pakistan where the clashes taking place today seem to indicate defeat for Al Qaeda and its allies. For despite the chaotic features of Pakistan, the country has a central authority dominated by an army capable of reestablishing control of the streets and controlling all aspects of life.
However we are more concerned with Yemen, because the country is already suffering from serious problems as a result of the onslaught from the Huthi rebels, Al Qaeda, and the [southern] separatist. Regardless of how critical we are of how the Sanaa central authority is managing the political scene, sending out the wrong message that we will abandon Sanaa is something that would threaten the whole country. What I mean by this is that abandoning Sanaa, or even merely talking about abandoning Sanaa, at a time when hundreds of Al Qaeda fighters are flocking to Yemen from around the world, and the military confrontations with the Huthis in the north are ongoing, and the propagandist and operational activities of the separatist in the south is increasing, will be completely misread in the Yemeni interior. The misreading [of situations] by parties in the region most usually leads to catastrophic results, as when Saddam Hussein decided to invade Kuwait believing that this would not result in an international military backlash.
Al Qaeda saw the smoke rising from the Huthi confrontation and decided to move the bulk of its strength to Yemen. Yemen is far more important to Al Qaeda than Somalia, and the Al Qaeda organization contributing to the chaos will help the Yemeni [political] opposition parties weaken the central authority even further. The weakening of Yemen’s central authority in its turn is something that threatens the foreign parties who are concerned with the security and stability of Yemen.
Al Qaeda’s principle of allying with other parties, even if these parties were [previously] enemies, like the Huthis or the southern separatists in Yemen, the Baathists in Iraq, the Shiite extremists in Iran, is something that does not disturb the Al Qaeda leadership. Al Qaeda has grown more pragmatic in dealing with its enemies, whether this is the US or the existing regimes in the region.