Insight. Antics.

BLOVIATOR: AP Yemen.

In Politics, War on January 6, 2010 at 5:39 am

Bloviate (v.)  \ˈblō-vē-ˌāt\

to speak or write verbosely and windily

Just when you thought it was out… it pulled you back in! What better time for the triumphant return of the Bloviator than a new decade? For previous editions, click here.

I took a bunch of Advanced Placement classes back in high school, but somehow “AP Yemen” was not an option. What can I say, it was a public school.

This left me with a lot of research to do in the aftermath of the botched terror plot on Northwest Airlines Flight 253, when the Nigerian perpetrator, Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, claimed training and support from a group in Yemen. He smuggled 80 grams (frightening that’s all he would have needed) of the explosive PETN onto the flight, in his briefs. Or was it boxers? Either way, I hope he singed his bollocks.

If there is any justice in life, it is that he will forever be known as the “Underwear Bomber.”

Like most Americans until now, my knowledge of Yemen had pretty much come from episodes of The Unit. Suffice it to say, I had some catching up to do.

My key takeaway can best be expressed in the form of a pitch to the Yemeni board of tourism: “Yemen: it’s like Afghanistan, with waterfront property.”

What else came out of my crash course on Yemen? Here we go. (Disclaimer: I read a lot. This may get boring.)

The CIA officially describes Yemen as “slightly larger than twice the size of Wyoming.” If you recall, Yemen and Oman are just kind of chilling out there on the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula. (Oman seems much more stable.) Saudi Arabia dominates the landmass and has one-upped us on illegal immigration with a reinforced “concrete-filled security barrier along sections of the fully demarcated border with Yemen to stem illegal cross-border activities.”

Yemen’s the poorest country in the Arab world, with 45% of its people under the poverty line (and a bustling arms market to boot). It houses about 24 million people, about half of which are under 14 and about half of which are 15-64. Just 2.5% are 65 or older! The median age is 17, which is within a year or so of the lowest in the world. The “youthful demography” can be explained by the poverty, bad health care, and general lack of prosperity. It’s highly tribal too. Oh, also, there are about 100,000 Somalian refugees there since they only need to do the elementary backstroke 15 miles across the Red Sea. This makes Somalia visible from parts of Yemen, kind of like Russia from Alaska.

The people are likely to get even poorer as the already small oil supply, which is responsible for about 70% of the economy, is projected to run out in about seven years. The land is hard to use for other pursuits like farming, because water is hard to come by. Yemen is so arid that what streams it does have often evaporate before they reach the sea.

Most awesome global contribution of Yemen? Coffee! “Yemen invented the drink in the 11th century, and mocha is named for the Red Sea port, Al Mukha,” but the coffee groves are mostly gone now, replaced with an amphetamine-like drug called khat. Hey Afghanistan, is your opium jealous yet?

What else? While it may be more developed than Afghanistan, it still has limited telecommunications, Internet access (though somehow terrorists find a way to log in), and narrow exposure to global finance.

(A bright spot? Although it is located just next to the troubled west coast of Africa, its HIV rate is low, likely emanating from Islamic cultural and religious mores. You guessed it: unlike Switzerland, there is no ban on minarets.)

What about politics? In contrast to the milieu when we invaded Iraq or Afghanistan, the people in charge are not the main problem. The government, though weak, is pro-American. (The people are another story.)

Yemen is a Republic that is technically only 20 years old, “born in 1990 when traditionalist North Yemen and Marxist South Yemen” merged. Marxism, who knew? It has a bicameral legislature, like ours with similar sized upper and lower houses, but there is a catch: only Muslims may hold elected office. It’s capital is Sana.

Believe it or not, the country has had the same president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, since the first President Bush was in office, and he has actually visited the U.S. a number of times. He holds the real influence, but his motivations are mixed and his administration is not without corruption. Okay, actually it is mostly with corruption (PDF). Saleh seems more bent on preserving his family’s power than on anything else. Oh yeah, fun fact: he supported Saddam Hussein the first time around, in the Persian Gulf War.

So, how does terrorism play into this mix? In too many ways. And too easily.

If you recall, this is the country where the bombing of the USS Cole occurred, in the port of Aden, so it has been or should have been on our radar since 2000, before people even voted for Bush or Gore. A victim of that tragedy died just last week from conditions related to the attack, yet, even today, the masterminds of that attack roam freely around the country. That’s because there’s a Willie Horton-like revolving door of jails in Yemen.

Yemen is also the home of the radical cleric who inspired Maj. Nidal Hasan before he opened fire at Fort Hood last November.

With a poor, sympathetic populace and a lackluster, distracted government, a branch of Al Qaeda was able to cement its roots. Yemen is also Osama bin Laden’s ancestral homeland (he is Saudi, but his father came from Yemen), so that provided another natural attraction.

Now, the group is very organized. Most of its members are young people, below 35. Its leader is Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who comes from a wealthy family and once served as bin Laden’s personal secretary. “It regularly beams videos and other communiqués on jihadist sites and forums.” It even has an online magazine! (Does the KKK even have that?) It’s called Sada al-Malahim, which means “EvilWeek.” Or, more likely… “The echo of epic battles,” depending on your dialect. I wonder how they reviewed It’s Complicated.

Last August, a Qaeda operative based in Yemen slipped over the border and employed a similar PETN-rigged undergarment in an assassination attempt on Muhammad bin Nayef, a member of the Saudi royal family and the kingdom’s counterterrorism chief. I’m thinking maybe we should force all Arabs and Muslims to go commando when traveling.

Intelligence analysts believe as few as 200 people comprise Al Qaeda’s Yemen operation, but it recently merged with the Saudi cell to become Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Bucking the Al Qaeda brand, the takeover wasn’t hostile. There were no reports on whether Yemeni members received stock options. (Am I the only one who has an urge to pronounce AQAP in a phonetic rush: “Aw, Cwap!”)

Yemen is a geographically advantageous stronghold for AQAP for a few reasons. First is its proximity to Saudi Arabia. Toppling Saudi Arabia’s regime is ”the real prize for Al Qaeda, and Yemen is the platform,” according to Ahmed M. al-Kibsi, a political scientist at Sana University. Across the water is Somalia with its terrorist sympathizers and instability, offering an easy escape route. Finally it guards the mouth of the Red Sea, a strategic trade route to the West. Coincidentally, Yemen’s Hudaydah province is a Qaeda stronghold on the Red Sea coast. So, here’s hoping AQAP doesn’t ally with the pirates.

With AQAP’s rise, are there more versions of Al Qaeda now than CSIs and NCISs?

While you ponder that, let’s talk about what we’re doing about AQAP. First of all, we’re not invading. It wouldn’t make much sense. The government is in our favor and there are a relative few hostiles we are after.

Unfortunately, fighting terror is not even President Saleh’s second-highest priority. He’s got a secessionist movement in the south and a rebellion in the north that bother him more. Nonetheless, Yemen has been an ally against terrorism and made some inroads fighting with advisement and cooperation from the U.S.

Indeed, what the last week or so has shown is that the U.S. hasn’t been ignoring the threat of terrorists in Yemen, but rather that the news media has just now taken interest. In fact, the U.S. has spent $67 million on counterterrorism activities in Yemen in the past year, more than in any country but Pakistan. This year, the plan is to double that. (The year before, under Bush, that number was $6 million.)

None other than “The Notorious J.O.E.” Lieberman was in Yemen recently when a U.S. government official there told him that, “Iraq was yesterday’s war. Afghanistan is today’s war. If we don’t act preemptively, Yemen will be tomorrow’s war.”

Another related dilemma is that while President Obama is trying to close Guantánamo Bay, of the 198 prisoners remaining, 91 of them are from Yemen. What do we do with them?

Whether they are in Cuba or Illinois, the issue of indefinite imprisonment without charges remains. Some previously released inmates, including Yemenis, have been released to their homelands for either further detention or rehabilitation programs to ease them back into society, but have then fallen off the grid and joined up with Al Qaeda there. In fact, two of the current leaders of AQAP were released when Bush was still in office. Doggone it.

For now, it looks like Obama is going to hold off on letting any other Gitmo Yemenis out.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

In his first weekly address of the year, Obama made it clear that we are strengthening our partnership with the government, vis-à-vis training and equipping their security forces (including women) with help from our Special Forces troops, looping them into our “sophisticated satellite and communications intelligence,” and coordinating Predator drone air strikes. The Yemeni armed forces are the frontline, but we are guiding them on the downlow. Yup, the CIA and the Green Berets are involved.

Obama said, “Even before Christmas Day, we had seen the results. Training camps have been struck; leaders eliminated; plots disrupted.” And, after confirming the Yemeni ties to this latest plot, he vowed to retaliate further.

The problem is it’s hard to strike these AQAP guys, since they blend in with average Yemenis. For instance, yesterday there was a skirmish where Yemeni counterterrorist operatives went after a key AQAP member, but only his bodyguards were hit. Damn. Maybe we can join their Facebook group to smoke ‘em out of their holes?

Obama was still sufficiently pissed off about the Christmas Day plot. He held a call “with [his top counterterrorism adviser John] Brennan and other advisers. He was simmering. ‘Let me make this very clear to you… While I understand intelligence is hard, and I’ll never fault anybody for not having full intelligence, what I will fault is when we have full intelligence that’s not shared.’ ”

Is this all what bin Laden wants? To lure “America further into the Middle East, and by its presence — destabilize the governments in the region.” Hard to say, but what’s a preferable alternative? Hopefully, this smart power, tactical, surgical approach will prove effective.

For a more comprehensive look at Obama’s approach to terrorism, including an insightful and terrifying look at a threatened attack on his inauguration, see Peter Baker’s piece in this week’s New York Times Magazine.

I think I just realized why my high school didn’t offer AP Yemen… it would have terrified us. Anyway, good luck on the test.

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