On January 26, Barak Barfi (author of New America’s Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative policy paper entitled “Yemen on the Brink?”), Christopher Boucek (Middle East Research Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), and Brian Fishman (Counterterrorism Fellow, New America Foundation) discussed extremism in Yemen and its risk for exploitation by al Qaeda. The speakers were introduced by Peter Bergen, Senior Research Fellow and Co-Director of the Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative at the New America Foundation.
Barak Barfi discussed al Qaeda’s resurgence in Yemen, despite the organization’s unpopularity among the Yemeni people. The relationship between tribes and al Qaeda is political rather than ideological—some tribes shelter al Qaeda operatives for political leverage. Al Qaeda leaders in Yemen all fought in Afghanistan and most claim to have met Osama bin Laden. Al Qaeda has extensive propaganda in Yemen, including a bi-monthly journal and videos targeting Yemenis and Saudis using theological and socioeconomic factors for influence. Yemen has not prioritized al Qaeda presence due to many other problems, including government dysfunction, water crises, lack of health services, and a dwindling oil-dependent economy. Oil can be expected to be a part of an al Qaeda attack, perhaps on an oil tanker and involving the Somali population.
Christopher Boucek stated there is little understanding of the relationship between Yemeni tribes and al Qaeda. The major problems Yemen faces are the economy and lack of human security. Yemen’s supply of oil will diminish in about 10 years, but there has been no planning for a “post-oil economy.” Yemen always has and always will rely on foreign aid. Unemployment, inflation, and corruption remain problems as well. Mr. Boucek recommended the US help the Yemeni government with providing social services, police reform, and public diplomacy in an Islamic context as options to improve the situation in Yemen, but emphasized a small US footprint for the greatest results.
Brian Fishman questioned the connection between al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Osama bin Laden. He also raised the issue of whether building a stronger Yemeni state could create backlash from tribes and tension with the US. Building a more functional, cohesive state internally could have negative effects and create rejection from tribes. He stated that al Qaeda has a desire to capture existing terrorist networks, not just in Yemen but globally, specifically citing the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group in Pakistan.