U.S. Policy in Yemen

Daniel Benjamin
Coordinator, Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism
Testimony Before the Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
Washington, DC
July 19, 2011

As prepared for delivery

Chairman Casey, Ranking Member Risch, Distinguished Members of the Committee:

Thank you for inviting us to appear before you today. Representing our colleagues in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and the Office of the Coordinator for Counter Terrorism, we appreciate the Committee’s abiding interest in and attention to our nation’s priorities and goals in the region. We are pleased to present the Committee with an overview of the Administration’s policy and our relationship with Yemen.

Civil unrest in the Middle East and North Africa has focused attention closely on the broad issue of governance across the region, particularly in Yemen. Yemen is confronting myriad political, economic, social, security, and governance challenges and the current political crisis has exacerbated systemic issues such as unemployment, lack of opportunities for a large youth bulge and rapidly growing population, unequal development, political marginalization, widespread corruption, weak state institutions, declining government revenues, growing natural resource scarcity, and terrorism. Consistent with United States national interests, we have been working to help Yemen address these challenges.

The 2009 Christmas Day bomb attempt and cargo bomb attempts in fall 2010 made us all acutely aware of the threats posed by ungoverned and poorly governed spaces in Yemen and around the world. But this is not 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. Today al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has developed not just the desire but also the capability to launch strikes against United States territory. More than ever, AQAP demonstrates that its terrorist violence is directed both inside and outside Yemen, and the rise of the self-styled AQAP presents a direct threat to the security and well-being of the people of Yemen, the broader Arabian Peninsula, and to the United States, its friends, and allies. A key part of our work to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat” al-Qa’ida involves addressing the problem of terrorism in Yemen from a comprehensive, long-term perspective, including a commitment by the broader international community and a bilateral partnership with the United States to build capacity.

U.S. Policy in Yemen
We recognize that terrorists have taken advantage of a lack of security in various regions of Yemen as a result of the political uncertainty and internal conflicts. We also know that Yemen faces many resource challenges that negatively impact good governance, the delivery of services, and the effectiveness of the security architecture that is needed to effectively combat terrorism. For that reason the United States has adopted a two-pronged strategy for Yemen – helping the government confront the immediate security threat represented by al-Qa’ida, and mitigating the serious political, economic, and governance issues that the country faces over the long term - the drivers of instability.

Recent Political Unrest
Peaceful civic engagement in national affairs is key to the democratic process. As is true in every country, it is ultimately for the people of Yemen to decide who governs. While most protests in Yemen have been peaceful since they began in January of this year, there have been violent clashes between pro- and anti-government demonstrators and between protestors and government security forces and irregular elements using force to break up demonstrations. These have resulted in many injuries and deaths. We are particularly concerned by government use of force against demonstrators and incidents in which one group or another appears to have provoked clashes. The United States has strongly urged and publicly called for the Yemeni government to investigate and prosecute all acts of violence against protestors. We have continuously called for all Yemenis, including the government, to refrain from violence and exercise restraint, and we continue to express our support for the right of all Yemenis, like people everywhere, to peacefully demonstrate.

The United States continues its regular engagement with the government, including both President Ali Abdullah Saleh (who is currently recovering in Saudi Arabia from injuries following a June 3 attack on his compound) and the Acting President, Vice President Abdo Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi. Our Embassy also meets with leaders of the opposition parties and civil society activists on the range of issues of interest to the United States, including political reform. We support efforts of the Yemeni government, the opposition parties, and civil society to come together through dialogue to peacefully resolve political differences. We strongly support the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative which would lead to a peaceful and orderly political transition. While there have been many proposals to resolve political differences, only the GCC initiative was put into writing and signed by both the ruling General People’s Congress party and the opposition coalition Joint Meeting Parties. Furthermore, the GCC initiative calls for a transition via democratic elections, which we believe are critical to long-term stability and government accountability. President Saleh has repeatedly said he will sign the agreement, but has also repeatedly refused to sign it. We continue to call on him to sign the initiative as the last remaining signatory so that a transition of power can begin immediately.

Counterterrorism and Security Efforts
Our political efforts are just one element of our work in Yemen. We are implementing a multi-faceted strategy designed to address the terrorist activity that threatens Yemen and the United States, as well as the causes underlying Yemen’s instability. This strategy marshals U.S. resources to improve Yemen’s macroeconomic stability, increase the sustainable and equitable delivery of services, and improve local governance and civic participation over the long-term while addressing immediate political and security concerns in the short-term. We are not alone in this effort. Yemen's neighbors, European countries and multilateral organizations have come together to assist Yemen in dealing with its multiple challenges in the political, economic and security areas.

Our counterterrorism strategy focuses on building the capabilities of Yemen’s security forces to counter AQAP effectively. AQAP has developed not just the desire but also the capability to launch strikes against the United States as demonstrated by the 2009 Christmas Day bomb attempt and the cargo package bomb attempts of October 2010. Our strategic approach to terrorism and the serious political, economic, and governance issues that Yemen faces must be comprehensive and sustained, taking into account a wide range of political, cultural, and socio-economic factors.

The current protracted political standoff is having an adverse impact on the security situation in Yemen. AQAP has taken advantage of ongoing political unrest to expand its operational territory, especially in the south. The Government of Yemen’s efforts against terrorist elements have suffered a setback due to the last several months of political unrest. The government called back most of its security forces, including its counterterrorism units, to Sanaa where most of them remain. As a result, AQAP has made territorial gains in Abyan governorate, specifically attacking and remaining in the capital city of Zinjibar. This is of great concern to us and the Yemeni government.

Despite the challenge posed by the political situation, our counterterrorism cooperation continues as we share a common interest with the Yemeni government in fighting terrorism and defeating AQAP. It is important to underscore: Our counterterrorism partnership goes beyond one individual, and based on our conversations with a broad cross-section of Yemenis, we are confident that it will continue once a political resolution is reached.

To help meet our security interests, in 2010, the U.S. provided an estimated $172 million in training and assistance to Yemen’s key counterterrorism and related law enforcement units:

Through 1206 section funding, DOD has helped build the capacity of Yemen’s military forces to conduct counterterrorism operations. Section 1206 programs provide training and equipment to Yemen Special Operations Forces (YSOF), Yemen Coast Guard (YCG), Border Security Forces and the Yemen Air Force (YAF). However, no FY2011 1206 funding has been programmed for Yemen because of the security situation and political unrest.

The Office of Antiterrorism Assistance (DS/T/ATA) has provided Antiterrorism Assistance (ATA) to the Yemen Government on an intermittent basis since 1987. ATA training is provided to the Ministry of Interior’s (MOI) Criminal Investigative Division (CID) and Central Security Organization (CSO) and focuses on building investigative capabilities of the police and security forces to detect, disrupt, and respond to terrorist threats. ATA program objectives include building investigative capabilities, improving cross-ministerial coordination, strengthening crisis response and developing the ability to detect dangerous devices upon entry at land, air, and maritime borders. However, due to the security situation, ATA training was suspended in February. We plan to recommence our assistance when the situation improves.

In addition, we have also provided other assistance, including training and equipment for improving biometric databases and aviation security, and assistance to build the capacity of the criminal justice sector.

In addition to security assistance, we have begun an effort to develop a better understanding of AQAP messaging and audiences, so we can effectively counter its narrative and reduce its recruiting. The State Department’s Counterterrorism Strategic Communication Center (CSCC) is commissioning a research and analysis project that outlines AQAP narratives, including how these narratives align with or conflict with specific audiences, as al-Qa’ida communicators routinely tailor their messaging to local contexts. In addition, we are working with DOD to assess radicalization at the provincial level in Yemen, so that we can develop tailored approaches to counter terrorism, including viable alternatives for at-risk youth and encourage locally credible voices to challenge the AQAP message.

Humanitarian and Development Efforts
To advance our strategy, we’ve engaged consistently and intensively with our Yemeni counterparts – from the highest levels of the Yemeni government to interlocutors from civil society and the private sector. Senior administration civilian and military officials – including Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton – have visited Yemen this year.

In FY2010, we significantly increased our humanitarian and development assistance to Yemen – providing over $100 million. These funds go toward efforts to strengthen civil society, support community-level development, and improve livelihoods to address the long-term drivers of instability. The portfolio utilizes small scale, community-based projects and possesses sufficient flexibility to respond to rapidly changing economic and political conditions. Following months of unrest in Yemen, USAID focused its programming on the immediate needs of affected communities. Yemen’s unrest has paralyzed economic and social development. The impact of this unrest on the daily lives of Yemenis, particularly the most vulnerable, has been devastating. As my colleague from USAID will discuss in more detail, USAID has expanded humanitarian assistance to help those displaced by violence in the south of Yemen and also continued to support vulnerable families displaced by earlier conflict in northern Yemen. Quick impact activities, designed to provide cash for work opportunities or assist with immediate needs such as water access, are also underway.

Separately, the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) is working with Yemeni civil society to empower Yemenis to shape their own future. MEPI supports elements essential to an inclusive society, such as responsible and representative political parties, effective and robust non-governmental organizations, independent media, full civic participation by women, and a responsive educational system and private sector. We are committed to working with the Yemeni people and coordinating with our international partners as we work together on the full scope of issues.

We welcome the involvement of the international financial institutions and multilateral development banks, notably the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) along with key donor countries in addressing Yemen’s economic and development challenges. As part of a broad global partnership, the United States and other partners have actively sought to help Yemen address the challenges that it faces, enhancing Yemen’s security and improving its governance. The Friends of Yemen process provides a forum for the United States to engage international partners, including regional states, as we collectively work with the Government of Yemen to help address its challenges. Most World Bank and IMF work is on hold given the current situation, but we are committed to supporting international organizations as best we can in the immediate environment and are prepared to move forward to do more as soon as the conditions permit. If and when Yemen’s political transition occurs, we will focus on helping Yemen secure financial assistance to stabilize its economy in the near term, while concurrently working with the international donor community to support Yemen in initiating a series of reforms that would lay the ground work for sustainable growth.

We also believe there will be an opportunity to continue important international engagement to assist the Government of Yemen in growing more transparent and responsive to the requirements of its citizens through the Friends of Yemen process once the Yemeni government initiates political transition. A Friends of Yemen meeting scheduled for March 22 was postponed indefinitely by the Yemeni government due to the political crisis and it is unlikely that we will be able to have a meeting before political transition takes place.

Ultimately, the goal of U.S. and international efforts is a stable, secure, prosperous, and effectively governed Yemen. This is an ambitious long-term goal that demands deep and ongoing coordination with the Yemeni government, Yemeni civil society, and international partners. The United States and the international community will be able to more effectively engage in Yemen across a spectrum of issues including political, security, economic, social, and governance reform, once the Yemeni government initiates political transition and identifies its way forward.

Thank you for inviting us to testify before your committee today. We’d be happy to take any questions that you might have.