Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has successfully adapted its message in Yemen to exploit local grievances. Still, the violent jihadist advocates are not widely accepted by Yemenis at this point, and there is a small window of opportunity to take steps to undermine al-Qaeda’s influence. President Barack Obama touted America’s counterterrorism policy in Yemen as a success and model for combatting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Just one year later, Yemen is entrenched in a civil war, and the US “Yemen model” is in shambles. Meanwhile, al Qaeda’s dangerous Yemen affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has taken advantage of the country’s deteriorating security to expand.
Under Obama’s administration it was believed that a successful counterterrorism strategy is one that will build up the capacity of the central government to have local fighters on the ground to take the fight to extremists in their own country. In his address to the nation about countering ISIS, President Obama said that this model for his strategy will be the one we have employed in Yemen against al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP). That strategy consists of relying on the Yemeni government to combat AQAP on the ground and pitching in with targeted air strikes to degrade that terrorists’ leadership. The United States aimed to serve diplomatically offering political support to other governments, tangible support to local security forces in the form of trading and equipping as well as support the operations of those security forces through the deployment of ISR capability or (in the case of Iraq) military airstrikes, a template that has succeeded in mitigating the threat faced from extremists in places like Yemen and Somalia and is in the template that was believed to succeed in mitigating the threat emanating from Syria. Of course, there are many at the time who opposed, believing that a collapsed central government, a president whose fled the country, Saudi troops massing on one border, the Iranians supporting the rebels should make it evident why Yemen is not seen as a model for counterterrorism. What the US considered to be the strategy when confronting the effort to try to mitigate the threat that is posed by extremists is to prevent them from establishing a safe haven and in such a chaotic, dangerous situation what the US has done is worked to try to support the central government, build up the capacity of local fighters, and use our own technological and military capabilities to apply pressure on the Yemen-based extremists. Due to the lack of a functional central government in Yemen the US is supportive of the UN-led process to try to put an end to the violence and instability, aiming to bring all sides together in hopes of resolving their differences. President Obama’s administration tokened the benefits of what was believed to be a sustained counterterrorism security relationship with the security infrastructure in Yemen, keeping in contact with elements of the Yemeni governments for assistance in furthering US efforts to apply pressure to extremists that seek the operate in that country, and reinforcing the capability to take out extremists posing as a threat to the United States.
Credible scholars such as senior analyst Katherine Zimmerman at the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project, warned that the “Yemen model” may well fail even in Yemen. The problem is that the government of Yemen, on whom we rely for the foot soldiers, will only fight AQAP to the extent it is not diverted by threats it views as more pressing. And currently, a more pressing threat looms, consisting of the al Houthis, an armed Yemeni opposition group supported by Iran. Already, it has seized parts of the capital and forced the main Sunni party out of power. Barack Obama has acknowledged that his strategy has in fact failed, a severely significant comment. With so many intergovernmental issues, the United States’ partners are crumbling, a major issue that the United States is continuously faced with. Obama’s strategy was later viewed as focusing on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula thus neglecting the extremist groups in Libya. In terms of sustained effort by a sitting president to shut down an effort of the military industrial complex, Obama’s Iran deal is one that aligns with Eisenhower’s final address popularizing the concept of military industrial complex in the aspect of heroism, an extraordinary effort. Being that a sitting United States President alone does not have great power, one can reference from Obama’s Iran deal that his efforts in foreign policy are viewed as noble and impressive, committing the United States’ involvement in foreign affairs and more specifically that of counterterrorism in Yemen.
Fighting since 2014 has pushed the Arab world’s most poverty-stricken nation to the brink of disaster. In AQAP’s ground base of Yemen, the world’s largest humanitarian crisis is brewing, with 75% of the population in need of immediate food and medical aid and 11 million Yemenis on the verge of starvation, the United Nation has warned of the largest famine the world has seen in decades. This four-year old civil war raging on in Yemen is hitting United States ally, Saudi Arabia against Iran in a violent proxy conflict. Under President Trump’s pressured administration, the United States is encouraging Saudi Arabia to put forth more efforts in assisting Yemen. In his foreign policy, President Trump has indicated that the Saudi Arabia behavior must improve. Saudi Arabia’s military is continuously threatening to impose blockades at Yemeni ports which run contrary to international law and US national security interests thus motivating AQAP’s spread in the failed state. President Trump believes that the rise of AQAP is the direct result of policy decisions made my President Obama and Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, he believes that the first step in the battle is declaring the enemy as “radical Islamic terrorism.” According to President Trump we are failing to counterterrorism by allowing immigrants into the United States thus a ban on all immigrants will reinforce protection from AQAP as well as other radical groups in the United States.
An effective strategy to combat Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) must identify how the group’s message resonates with Yemenis and develop ways for state institutions to address underlying complaints, ways such as avoiding over-dependence on hard power, a better understanding of AQAP’s message, and supporting locally-led responses. Complementary to targeted intelligence and Yemeni-led law enforcement activities, an effective strategy to combat AQAP must seek to understand which parts of the group’s narrative are resonating and why and how state institutions can address the grievances articulated by AQAP, whether real or perceived. While military and law enforcement clearly have a role to play, civilian casualties need to be avoided and Yemeni-led security operations must be part of a comprehensive approach that prioritizes soft power. By knowing how AQAP communicates and why local populations are drawn to the messages, the government can more effectively respond to preexisting grievances and exploit any contradictions in al-Qaeda’s narrative. To counter the threat of terrorism in Yemen, micro-concentration is crucial: the government must effectively improve local participation, responsiveness, credibility, and service delivery.