The Landing Zone | 1.18.11
By Alan W. Dowd

President Barack Obama campaigned on a promise to “finish the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.” Little did he know that the fight would carry the United States into Yemen.

Dubbed “al Qaeda in the ArabPeninsula” (AQAP), Yemen’s branch of al Qaeda—numbering some 400 fighters—has been very active of late. The past 30 months have seen a series of Yemen-linked terror attacks, near misses and operations:

  • AQAP was behind for the parcel-bomb plot that attempted to take down aircraft with bombs disguised as printing cartridges.
  • Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called “underwear bomber” who tried to blow Northwest 253 out of the sky on Christmas Day in 2009, was linked to AQAP.
  • AQAP claims responsibility for the downing of a UPS cargo plane in September 2010.
  • Inside Yemen, AQAP killed at least 50 Yemeni officials in 2010 alone. AQAP’s leader boasts that “an army of 12,000 fighters are being prepared” to “establish an Islamic caliphate” in the region.
  • British embassy officials narrowly escaped an RPG attack in October 2010. That followed a suicide-bomb attack on the British ambassador in April 2010, who also survived.
  • Finally, AQAP launched a deadly attack on the U.S. embassy in September 2008 and orchestrated prison breaks of high-level terrorists that same year.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Osama bin Laden and his high command are providing direct strategic guidance to the branch in Yemen, considered “al Qaeda’s most active and ambitious affiliate.” Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), an expert on intelligence issues, warns, “We’re much more likely to be attacked in the U.S. by someone inspired by, or trained by, people in Yemen than anything that comes out of Afghanistan.”And Dennis Blair, Obama’s former director of national intelligence, noted in 2009 that Yemen “is re-emerging as a jihadist battleground and potential regional base of operations for al Qaeda to plan internal and external attacks, train terrorists and facilitate the movement of operatives.”

His use of the word “re-emerging” is instructive and appropriate. It pays to recall that the USS Cole was bombed in a Yemeni port in October 2000—just one of al Qaeda’s many attacks against U.S. targets before 9/11.

More than 10 years after the Cole attack, the CIA and the Pentagon are devoting considerable resources “to destroy this al Qaeda affiliate,” in Obama’s words. Special Ops units have slipped into the sparsely populated desert country to train Yemen’s most elite forces and to track and target AQAP fighters. British commandos are also in Yemen.

The Wall Street Journal reports the growth in intelligence teams focusing on Yemen. The Los Angeles Times notes that the White House is considering the expanded use of drone strikes in Yemen of the sort now underway in Pakistan. And predictably, more money is flowing into Yemen. Counterterrorism funding for Yemen more than doubled in 2010, jumping from $70 million to $155 million. Last fall, CENTCOM planners proposed sending $1.2 billion in aid and equipment into Yemen over the next five years—or $240 million annually. To put that in perspective, this category of funding for Yemen was just $4.6 million in 2006.

Washington hasn’t always helped the situation in Yemen. For example, at least one former GITMO inmate—a terrorist released in 2007 into a Saudi rehabilitation program—is now second in command of AQAP. And although the U.S. has launched only a handful of missile strikes in Yemen, one mistakenly killed a provincial official. As a consequence, UAV strikes in Yemen are not on par with the full-scale drone war in Afghanistan and Pakistan—at least not yet. That could change in the year ahead.

Washington doesn’t want to be drawn too deeply into Yemen, and understandably so, given the ongoing operations in Afghanistan and above Pakistan. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates puts it, “We don’t need another war.”

That’s one way to look at Yemen. Another way is that Yemen isn’t “another war” so much as it is another front in the wider, global war against al Qaeda and its patrons and partners. As the Cole attack reminds us, this war didn’t start in Afghanistan and probably won’t end there.

The Landing Zone is Dowd’s monthly column on national defense and international security featured on the American Legion's website.