U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy in Yemen

Daniel Benjamin
Coordinator, Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism
U.S. Institute of Peace
Washington, DC
September 8, 2010

Good morning. I’m delighted to be at USIP and to participate in the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Yemen Working Group, and to see so many familiar faces. I’d like to thank Steven Heydemann for inviting me. I’m pleased to be among company that includes NDI’s Les Campbell and former U.S. Ambassadors to Yemen Tom Krajeski and Barbara Bodine, who have all focused on the multiple challenges Yemen faces and their implications for U.S. policy in Yemen, the Middle East, and for our larger counterterrorism policy. I want to add that I’m as always particularly pleased to be at the Institute of Peace because of the role it played in my career as the institution that gave me a Jennings Randolph Senior fellowship in 2000 and a home after I left the National Security Council. That was a critical opportunity for me and gave me time to work on my first book and set me on course for the years after. I should also say that I drive past your extraordinary new building often. We at State look forward to having you in the neighborhood, and I hope it isn’t presumptuous of me to say that I’m looking forward to giving my next USIP speech there.

I’m sure many of you saw the recent (August 24) Washington Post story claiming that CIA analysts now rank al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula – in Yemen – as the most urgent threat to U.S. security, even a greater threat than the al-Qaida core in Pakistan. Let me say, for the record, that we have no such rankings, and such statements are of little value except to highlight a threat. Terrorism emanating from Yemen is a major security concern for the United States. But al-Qa’ida’s core in Pakistan remains an extraordinarily formidable and dangerous terrorist organization whose targeting of the United States continues. As we’ve seen over the last year, the threat continues to evolve in ways that make a purely geographical focus impossible, so we need to put away the ranking tables and focus on the danger.

But let me make clear that Yemen isn’t a new security concern. Al-Qa’ida has had a presence in Yemen since at least December 1992, when it attempted to bomb a hotel in Aden where American military personnel were staying. Those troops, you may recall, were en route to Somalia to support the UN mission there. This was almost eight years before the U.S.S. Cole attack in 2000. Al-Qa’ida has always had a foothold in Yemen, and it's always been a major concern for the United States. In the 1990s, a series of major conspiracies were based in Yemen, most of them aimed at Saudi Arabia. Following the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, the Yemeni government, with support from the United States, dealt significant blows to al-Qa’ida’s presence in Yemen through military operations and arrests of key leaders.

What is important today is that the December 25 conspiracy demonstrated that at least one al-Qa’ida affiliate – al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, has developed not just the desire but also the capability to launch strikes against the United States in the homeland. The gravity of the AQAP threat was clear to the Obama administration from day one, and it has been focused on Yemen since the outset. In the spring of 2009, the administration initiated a full-scale review of our Yemen policy. The review has led to a new, whole-of-government approach to Yemen that aims to coordinate our efforts with those of other international actors. Our new strategy seeks to address the root causes of instability and improve governance. Central to this approach is building the capacity of Yemen’s government to exercise its authority and deliver security and services to its people.

To advance this strategy, we’ve engaged consistently and intensively with our Yemeni counterparts – at the highest levels. Senior administration civilian and military officials – including Deputy National Security Advisor Brennan, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, former CENTCOM Commander General David Petraeus, and myself –visited Yemen to discuss how we can jointly confront the threat of al-Qa’ida. Recently, NDU hosted a group of Yemeni officials for two weeks, and I can tell you that a huge number of senior representatives from numerous U.S. agencies met with the group while they were here. I myself met with them twice, and just last week met with representatives from a Yemeni Human Rights Organization.

I’ve seen a lot of press pieces and think tank papers that discuss the need to deal with AQAP not just through security means but through a wide-range of efforts. What I haven’t seen is much discussion of how we are already doing just that. Of course we are working on the security issues; we would be negligent in our responsibilities to the American public if we were not. However, we are also putting significant effort and resources into helping Yemenis achieve a more stable, peaceful, prosperous and democratic Yemen. So are other bilateral and multilateral partners. We are working to find ways to improve those efforts, but they are real and should be recognized.

Yemen’s future is tied to its neighbors and others in the global community. I already mentioned AQAP’s ambition to strike the United States. Within the Gulf, AQAP has already shown itself to be a formidable threat to Yemen itself, with many recent attacks on the Yemeni security services throughout the country, and it continues to target Saudi Arabia, including the attempted attack against terrorism chief, Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Nayif, last year.

While terrorism knows no borders, we must also be mindful of the regional dimension of the AQAP threat, including its ties with Somalia. The large refugee population from Somalia amplifies the historic ties between these two states, and we know that the vast majority of these connections are not related to terrorism but rather are either economic migrants or Somali refugees fleeing political strife. But clearly connections across the Gulf of Aden between extremists are a concern. Yes, Somalia’s al-Shabaab is a different kind of organization from AQAP in Yemen in many ways, much more focused on a Somalia-centered agenda while AQAP continues to pursue a more classical al-Qa’ida course of global terrorism. Even so, we see a serious threat to regional stability in the connectiosn between these groups, and that gives greater urgency to our work against AQAP and to support the constructive forces of moderation and peace in Somalia.

What is critical today is that the government of Yemen is fully aware of the threat emanating from AQAP, and has conducted multiple operations designed to disrupt AQAP’s operational planning and deprive its leadership of safe haven within Yemeni territory. These security operations may over time weaken the enemy’s leadership, and deny it the time and space it needs to organize, plan, and train for operations. At the same time, countering violent extremism in Yemen over the long term must involve the development of credible institutions that can deliver real economic and social progress.

That is why our strategy in Yemen is two-fold: to assist the Yemeni government not only to confront the immediate security concern of al-Qa’ida but also to mitigate the serious political, economic, and governance issues that the country faces over the long term.

The logic behind this strategy is that while we work with the Yemeni government to constrain and dismantle AQAP, we, along with the international community, will also assist the Yemeni people in building more durable, responsive institutions. Our goal is a more hopeful future and a more capable Yemeni government that will meet more of the needs of its people – a good in itself but also key for reducing the appeal of violent extremism.

In fact, the United States has made capacity building one of the cornerstones of our Yemen policy. In the important areas of security, economic development and governance, the U.S. and its international partners are helping the Government of Yemen address the state insufficiencies that are exploited by extremists.

As I mentioned, the United States isn’t doing this alone. The international community has been very active in helping Yemen address its shortcomings, and our efforts in the country are part of a global partnership to enhance security and improve governance. We are working with all of Yemen’s international partners to better coordinate foreign assistance and to make sure that it has an impact on the ground. Through the Friends of Yemen process, the United States is engaged with international partners, including regional states, in working with the Government of Yemen to help address the multitude of problems. The Friends of Yemen forum, launched nine months ago, has provided a environment for international coordination and created working groups on Economy and Governance as well as Justice and Rule of Law issues. The Friends of Yemen are helping Yemen:
  • To support a political National Dialogue and parliamentary elections in 2011;
  • Plan for new courts and an increase in police and judicial process in remote areas;
  • Prepare de-radicalization action plans; and
  • Renew a push for coordination and improvements in border security.
  • The Friends of Yemen will hold a ministerial meeting later this month in New York against the backdrop of the UN General Assembly meetings. We are encouraged by the progress to date and expect for further international coordination in this arena.
The stability of Yemen is essential to the broader Gulf region and global security, and delegitimizing AQAP also requires addressing Yemen’s own challenges to break the cycle of radicalization. AQAP takes advantage of insecurity in various regions of Yemen, which is worsened by internal conflicts and competition for governance by tribal and non-state actors. Yemen’s myriad social and political problems in the context of significant un- or under-governed spaces, means areas of Yemen are serving as incubators for extremism. The only way to address the problem of terrorism in Yemen from a comprehensive, long-term perspective.

We are working to help strengthen Yemen’s capacity to provide basic services and good governance. Yemen, as you all know, is grappling with serious poverty. It is the poorest country in the Arab world. Its per capita income of $930 ranks it 166th out of 174 countries. Yemen’s oil production is steadily decreasing. Water resources are fast being depleted. With over half of its people living in poverty and the population having grown from 8.4 million in 1980 to an estimated 23.8 million today, economic conditions threaten to worsen and further tax the government’s already limited capacity. Moreover, corruption is all too prevalent in various sectors, and further impedes the ability of the Yemeni government to provide essential services.

Therefore, the U.S. is providing development assistance to improve governance and help to meet pressing socio-economic challenges. USAID has started two development initiatives- a Responsive Governance Project (RGP) and a Community Livelihoods Program (CLP). In looking to tackle the areas that are most in need and most vulnerable to extremism, U.S. assistance includes political and fiscal reforms; reducing corruption and implementing civil service reform; and economic diversification to generate employment. In addition, the Middle East Partnership Initiative, MEPI, is working with Yemeni civil society to empower Yemenis to build a more peaceful and prosperous future.

Let me provide some numbers: “baseline” U.S. assistance to Yemen increased from $17.2 million in FY 2008, to $40.3 million in 2009, and around $67.5 million in 2010; the President has requested around $106.6 in baseline assistance for FY 2011. These numbers do not include CT assistance of $67 million in FY 2009 and $150.5 million in FY 2010, or humanitarian assistance.

On July 24, the President announced an increase in U.S. humanitarian assistance to Yemen by $29.6 million, to $42.5 million this fiscal year. This assistance will provide food, water and sanitation, shelter, and health care to over 324,000 individuals displaced by the conflict in northern Yemen, as well as refugees in southern Yemen. The United States urges other donors to support international agencies working to meet these urgent humanitarian needs, as the United Nation’s Humanitarian Response Plan remains woefully underfunded.

We are also working internationally to prevent funds from getting to AQAP. As soon as it announced its formation in January 2008, we began gathering evidence to build international consensus behind designating it under UN Security Council Resolution 1267. After our designation of AQAP as a Foreign Terrorist Organization and its senior leaders as designated terrorists, the UN announced the designation of AQAP as well as Nasir al-Wahishi and Said al-Shihri and recently, Anwar al-Aulaqi on the Consolidated List. This requires all UN member states to implement an assets freeze, a travel ban, and an arms embargo against these entities. With these terrorist designations, the U.S. and the international community can curb the financial networks and freedom of movement of known terrorists.

In the case of Anwar al-Aulaqi, this designation has made clear his role as an operator in a terrorist group. We should make no mistake about the nature of al-Aulaqi – this is not just an ideologue but someone who has been personally involved in planning terrorist acts against Americans, U.S. interests, and against the U.S. homeland. Al-Aulaqi prepared Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab for his attempted detonation of an incendiary device aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on December 25. In mid-July, al-Aulaqi was designated by the Treasury Department under Executive Order 13224 before he was added a few days later to the UN 1267 Committee’s Consolidated List of individuals and entities associated with al-Qa’ida or the Taliban.

In order to succeed in Yemen, it is also vital that we understand how recruits are radicalized; what their motivations are; and how we can address the drivers of radicalization so that we can begin to turn the tide against violent extremism. Some of our aid programs will help address underlying conditions for at-risk populations. Reducing corruption, building legitimate institutions, and increasing economic opportunity with our assistance will also reduce the appeal of extremism. And we will continue to build positive people-to-people engagement with the people of Yemen, through educational and cultural exchanges. Exchange programs have a multiplying effect as participants return to Yemen and convey to friends and family the realities of American culture and society, dispelling damaging but persistent stereotypes. These initiatives contribute to the long-term health of our bilateral relationship and help allay suspicion and misunderstanding. We know the tasks are daunting. That’s why we are looking for new partners from Yemeni civil society to work with us as we deepen our engagement with Yemen in this regard.

In addition to such global initiatives, we are committed to supporting internal peace within Yemen and support international efforts to do so. A ceasefire is currently in place in the conflict centered in the Sa’ada governorate of northern Yemen between the central government and Houthi rebels. Just two weeks ago, Houthi leaders and Yemeni government officials met in Qatar to further discuss implementation of the ceasefire agreement reached in February. The U.S. continues to encourage the Yemeni government to move forward toward a lasting peace in Sa’ada as well as to allow for the provision of humanitarian and development assistance there. In the south of Yemen, a growing protest movement has led to riots and sporadic outbreaks of violence, and is fueled by long-standing political grievances. The U.S. continues to urge political dialogue and peaceful settlement of grievances to address the many concerns of southern Yemeni citizens. The U.S. also calls for a comprehensive and inclusive national dialogue between all opposition groups and the ruling party. Such a dialogue needs to be undertaken in good faith and with haste by all parties to address legitimate grievances, facilitate successful parliamentary elections in 2011, and increase stability in Yemen.

The U.S. strategy recognizes that Yemen has not always had the political will or focused attention to address its problems. We are working hard with our international partners to address Yemen’s security and other challenges. We are encouraged because the Yemeni government has shown more resolve than ever before to confront AQAP and to engage with the international community on domestic non-security issues. The United States commends Yemen on its counterterrorism operations and we are committed to continuing support for security initiatives and economic-development initiatives.

I’d also like to reiterate that our approach to the problem of terrorism in Yemen must be comprehensive and sustained, taking into account a wide range of political, cultural, and socio-economic factors. Ultimately, the goal of U.S. and international efforts is a stable, secure, and effectively governed Yemen. We know this is a long-term challenge. We’ve taken some steps since this administration came into office and have taken steps towards curtailing the threat. As the Government of Yemen grows more transparent and responsive to the requirements of its citizens, the seeds of extremism and violence will find less fertile ground and a more positive and productive dynamic will begin to prevail.