U.S. policy towards Yemen

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For more information, see: U.S. foreign policy.
See also: Yemen

U.S. policy towards Yemen is dominated by concern with increasing terrorist activity there, especially affiliated with al-Qaeda. The country's poverty is understood to be a source of instability, and Great Britain will host a January summit in London to discuss radicalization there and long-term development assistance to Yemen. As of 2007, "... Yemen is an important partner in the global war on terrorism, providing assistance in the military, diplomatic, and financial arenas."[1]

Especially since the 9-11 Attack, the U.S. has conducted officially unacknowledged direct action against terrorists in Yemen, as well as assisting Yemeni security forces. Former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine said "I think it would be a major mistake to turn this into a third front, if Iraq and Afghanistan are somehow front number one and number two...If we try to deal with this as an American security problem and dealt with by American military, we risk exacerbating the problem."[2]

In January 2010, the U.S. and U.K. briefly closed their embassies in the capital, not breaking diplomatic relations but citing security concerns. Confirming relations were not broken, General David Petraeus, commander of United States Central Command, met in person with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh on 2 January, offering U.S. support for fighting terrorism in the region. President Barack Obama said that al-Qaeda had "...trained.."Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab "... equipped him with those explosives and directed him to attack that plane headed for America." Obama promised he "made it a priority to strengthen our partnership with the Yemeni government" and work "with them to strike al-Qaeda terrorists." [3] The U.S. Embassy reopened after Yememenite forces conducted a raid that killed two terrorist suspects; an Embassy spokesman said "Successful counter-terrorism operations conducted by Government of Yemen security forces January 4 north of the capital have addressed a specific area of concern, and have contributed to the embassy's decision to resume operations." [4]


There is concern both over Yemen being a base for al-Qaeda operations in and beyond its borders, as well as attacks on U.S. targets in Yemen. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula appears to be based in Yemen.

2000 USS Cole bombing

Before the 9-11 Attack, there was direct concern over al-Qaeda in Yemen after the 2 October 2000 suicide bombing, in the port of Aden, of the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Cole. Cooperation in the investigation were strained, both between the governments, and between Ambassador Barbara Bodine and John O'Neill of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Bodine and O'Neill had personality as well as policy conflicts. [5] She later said, "According to the mythmakers, a battle ensued between a cop obsessed with tracking down Osama bin Laden and a bureaucrat more concerned with the feelings of the host government than the fate of Americans and the realities of terrorism....I am not here to either defend or attack O'Neill. He was a complex man. But what happened after Al Qaeda's attack on the U.S. destroyer Cole was a complex story."[6]

After 9-11

Saleh visited Washington, DC, in November 2001, and it was announced that cooperation had improved. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency operated in Yemen, looking for and sometimes attacking suspected terrorists. In 2002, targets identified as Al-Qaeda operatives were killed by a missile, launched, at their car, from a CIA-controlled Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).[7]

The next summit-level contact was in June 2004, when President Saleh attended the G8 Sea Island Summit in Washington, D.C. In November 2005 and May 2007, President Saleh again visited Washington, and met with President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.

Some prisoners at Guantanamo Bay detention camp were returned to Yemen, and, of those, some returned to terror. The Yememi government has agreed to imprison six transferred detainees considered especially high-risk, but some U.S. legislators want no more transfers of any sort to Yemen. Approximately half the prisoners still at Guantanamo are Yemenite. [8]

Base for transnational insurgency

Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad are legal in Yemen and maintain offices there.

Anwar al-Aulaqi is an American-born radical Islamist spiritual leader with ties to al-Qaeda who has been in Yemen since 2002. He is based in Yemen, where he was imprisoned between 2006-2007 at U.S. request, and has an active Web presence as well as publishing materials sold at mainstream Islamic bookstores.[9] He has been linked, although not in an operational manner, to Nidal Hassan, the alleged Fort Hood shooter. His home was targeted in a 24 December 2009 airstrike by Yemenite forces,[10] but he appears to have survived.

Somalia's al-Shabaab claimed ties to Yemen in 2010, with weapons coming to Somalia, and al-Shabaab members volunteering to fight in Yemen.[11]

A balancing act

As with other Islamic countries, the U.S. has to balance anti-terrorist operations and its visibility to their population and a possible backlash. The government of Yemen, in turn, perceives a need to deal with internal and external constituencies. Daniel Byman said "The regime in Sanaa fights al-Qaida and like-minded jihadists, but it also knowingly tolerates and aids them — a situation the United States faced in Saudi Arabia before 2003 and currently faces in Pakistan." He quoted a Yemenite analyst, Murad Abdual Wahed: "Yemen is like a bus station — we stop some terrorists, and we send others on to fight elsewhere. We appease our partners in the West, but we are not really helping." [12]

See also: Extrajudicial detention, U.S., Barack Obama Administration

The Obama Administration also has to balance its desires with those in Congress, not only of Republicans, who do not trust the Yemeni government to provide security for additional transferees. "All transfers of Yemeni detainees should stop," according Sen. Joe Lieberman (Independent/Democrat-Connecticut). Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's deputy commander, Said al-Shihri and the group's chief cleric, Ibrahim Suleiman al-Rubaish, had been repatriated, by the George W. Bush Administration to Saudi Arabia, before crossing the border into Yemen, and then returning to terrorism. Rep. Jane Harman (D-California) said at least some of the remaining Yemeni prisoners should stay in the new U.S. prison that will replace Guantanamo Bay detention camp.[8]

Some of those internal pressures come from people who emphasize large-scale warfare over information operations. Andrew Exum, a U.S. counterinsurgency analyst, [13]

(W)e typically design physical operations first, then craft supporting information operations to explain our actions. This is the reverse of al-Qaida's approach. For all our professionalism, compared to the enemy’s, our public information is an afterthought. In military terms, for al-Qaida the “main effort” is information; for us, information is a ‘supporting effort'.[14]


The United States established diplomatic relations with Yemen in 1946, first in the capital of the time, Taiz, which moved to Sanaa in 1966. The United States was one of the first countries to recognize the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), doing so on December 19, 1962.[1] Yemen broke off diplomatic relations after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. The country was split into the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) and People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), although it is now unified. The United States and the PDRY reestablished diplomatic relations on April 30, 1990, only 3 weeks before the announcement of unification. However, the embassy in Aden, which closed in 1969, was never reopened, and the PDRY as a political entity no longer exists.

"During a 1979 border conflict between the Yemen Arab Republic and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, the United States cooperated with Saudi Arabia to greatly expand the security assistance program to the YAR by providing F-5 aircraft, tanks, vehicles and training. George H.W. Bush, while Vice President, visited in April 1986, and President Ali Abdullah Saleh visited the United States in January 1990. The United States had a $42 million USAID program in 1990. From 1973 to 1990, the United States provided the YAR with assistance in the agriculture, education, and health and water sectors. Many Yemenis were sent on U.S. Government scholarships to study in the region and in the United States. There was a Peace Corps program with about 50 volunteers. The U.S. Information Service operated an English-language institute in Sanaa.

Gulf War aftermath

"In 1990, as a result of Yemen's actions in the Security Council following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the United States drastically reduced its presence in Yemen including canceling all military cooperation, non-humanitarian assistance, and the Peace Corps program. USAID levels dropped in FY 1991 to $2.9 million, but food assistance through the PL 480 and PL 416 (B) programs continued through 2006. In 2006, the U.S. Department of Agriculture provided 30,000 metric tons of soybean meal that were sold for approximately $7.5 million to finance programs in support of Yemen’s agricultural sector.

Warming of relations

"The United States was actively involved in and strongly supportive of parliamentary elections in 1993 as well as the 2006 presidential and local council elections, and continues working to strengthen Yemen's democratic institutions. The USAID program, focused in the health field, had slowly increased to $8.5 million in FY 1995, but ended in FY 2000. It was reinvigorated in 2003 and a USAID office has re-opened in Sanaa. Yemen has also received significant funding from the Middle East Partnership Initiative. Funds went, in large part, to support literacy projects, election monitoring, training for civil society, and the improvement of electoral procedures.

"Defense relations between Yemen and the United States are improving rapidly, with the resumption of International Military Education and Training assistance and the transfer of military equipment and spare parts. In FY 2006 U.S. Foreign Military Financing (FMF) for Yemen was $8.42 million, International Military Education and Training (IMET) was $924,000, and Nonproliferation, Anti-Terrorism, Demining and Related Programs (NADR) was $1.4 million. In FY 2006 Yemen also received $7.9 million in Economic Support Funds (ESF), $10 million in Food for Progress (Title 1) assistance, and $5 million in Section 1206 funding.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Background Note: Yemen, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, U.S. Department of State, December 2007
  2. Michelle Shephard (2 January 2010), "Yemen: Terror threat? U.S. ally? Nearly failed state?", The Star (Canada)
  3. Sudarsan Raghavan (3 January 2010), "U.S., U.K. close their embassies in Yemen over al-Qaeda threats", Washington Post
  4. Mohamed Sudam and Mohammed Ghobari (5 January 2010), "Yemen launches major offensive against al Qaeda", Reuters, in Washington Post
  5. "Transcript of "The Man Who Knew"", PBS
  6. "9/11 Miniseries Is Bunk: Former ambassador to Yemen says ABC traded fact for drama in portraying events after the 2000 bombing of the destroyer Cole.", Los Angeles Times, 8 September 2008
  7. Jeffrey Addicott (7 November 2002), "The Yemen Attack: Illegal Assassination or Lawful Killing?", Jurist
  8. 8.0 8.1 Jay Solomon (4 January 2010), "Yemen to Hold Six Returned Detainees Indefinitely: White House Says It Is Comfortable With Security Pact, but Some Lawmakers Want Guantanamo Transfers Halted", Wall Street Journal
  9. Anwar al Awlaki: Pro Al-Qaida Ideologue with Influence in the West, NEFA Foundation, February 5, 2009
  10. Christa Case Bryant, "Yemen air strike on Al Qaeda: Was cleric linked to Fort Hood shooting killed?", Christian Science Monitor
  11. Abdi Sheikh (2 January 2009), "Somali govt accuses Yemeni rebels of arming Shabaab", Reuters
  12. Daniel Byman (5 January 2010), "Our Two-Faced Friends in Sanaa: The Yemeni government opposes al-Qaida jihadists, except when it's using them for its own ends.", Slate
  13. Abu Muqawama (pseudonym, Andrew Exum (12 January 2010), Approaching Yemen's extremism problem
  14. Andrew Mackay and Steve Tatham (December 2009), Behavioural Conflict: From General to Strategic Corporal: Complexity, Adaptation & Influence, Defense Academy of the United Kingdom