Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Yemen and Al-Qaeda/ The Nature of the Islamist Terrorist Threat

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Update from AIJAC

January 12, 2010
Number 10/01 #03

The case of underwear bomber, Nigerian-born but Yemen-trained Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and new revelations that as many as 20 other individuals are being trained in Yemen to bomb airplanes using the same technique, has strongly raised the profile of Yemen as a source of terrorism. This Update looks at the problem of al-Qaeda linked terrorism coming out of Yemen.

 First up, American thinktankers Richard Fontaine and Andrew Exum point out that the terrorism coming out of Yemen appears to be part of a larger deterioration of the economic and political situation in Yemen. They point to Yemen's failing economic prospects -  as both the oil and agricultural sectors look increasingly unsustainable, - demographic problems, and growing separatist movements, which collectively, they argue, are likely to make the country a haven for terrorists for the foreseeable future. They suggest some policy ideas for Washington and other states concerned about Yemen to both prevent the country from spiralling down into failed state status, and increase the ability of security forces to deal with terrorist groups like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. For the crucial details,  CLICK HERE. More on how Yemen is providing an entry for terrorism because of its void of governance, from Dr. Theodore Karasik of the Dubai-based thinktank INEGMA.

Next, Simon Henderson, an expert from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, looks at Yemen's erratic long-serving autocrat, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and past US attempts to manage him. Henderson examines how Saleh maintains powers, past clashes with Washington, and efforts to engage and woo him. Henderson concludes that there is today little option but to continue engaging him - as his cooperation in interdicting al-Qaeda is irreplaceable. For this complete analysis, CLICK HERE.

Finally, the always insightful Professor Barry Rubin was inspired by recent commentary on the Islamist terrorist problem to write a short basic primer on the nature of this threat. He explains the nature of the challenge thus "Revolutionary Islamism is the main strategic problem in the world today. Terrorism is the main tactical problem." He then carefully posits what Revolutionary Islamism is, its relationship to Islam as a religion, and why terrorism has become the tactic of choice for Islamism's adherents - as well as the role of state sponsorship. For Rubin's very clear elucidation of the basic starting-point for any attempt to cope with the terrorist problem, CLICK HERE. Rubin also recently  criticised the US Administration for failing to understand important aspects of this - as did columnist Mark Steyn.  Meanwhile, columnist Rich Lowry argues that the Abdulmutallab case puts paid to the claim by many that terrorism is primarily a response to Western policies.

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Yemen's coming disaster

By Richard Fontaine and Andrew Exum

Los Angeles Times, Jan. 11

The Nigerian Islamist who allegedly attempted to detonate a bomb on a Christmas Day flight to Detroit, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, has brought Yemen once again into the spotlight as a breeding ground for terrorists. Abdulmutallab is thought to have trained with Yemen's al-Qaeda affiliate, and the group has claimed responsibility for the failed attack.

Yemen has long been a place of concern. Last month, before the attempted airliner bombing, the United States facilitated a missile attack against two suspected al-Qaeda strongholds in Yemen. And over the weekend, the U.S. Embassy in Yemen's capital city of Sana was closed because of security concerns.

But terrorism is just one of the threats the deteriorating situation in Yemen poses to U.S. interests.

Over the last few years, Yemen has been hurtling toward a disaster that could dramatically harm the interests of both the United States and its regional partners. An active insurgency in the north, a separatist movement in the south and a resurgent al-Qaeda franchise inside its borders present the Yemeni government with difficult short-term challenges. And managing the country's longer-term problems is likely to prove even tougher.

Yemen's economy depends heavily on oil production, and its government receives the vast majority of its revenue from oil taxes. Yet analysts predict that the country's petroleum output, which has declined over the last seven years, will fall to zero by 2017. The government has done little to plan for its post-oil future. Yemen's population, already the poorest on the Arabian peninsula and with an unemployment rate of 35 percent, is expected to double by 2035. An incredible 45 percent of Yemen's population is under the age of 15. These trends will exacerbate large and growing environmental problems, including the exhaustion of Yemen's groundwater resources.

 Given that a full 90 percent of the country's water is used for agriculture, this trend portends disaster.

This confluence of political, ideological, economic and environmental forces will render Yemen a fertile ground for the training and recruitment of Islamist militant groups for the foreseeable future. More than 100 Yemenis have been incarcerated in Guantanamo since 2002. And today, Internet message boards linked to al-Qaeda encourage fighters from across the Islamic world to flock to Yemen. The country is home to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has carried out attacks in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

Yemen's role as a haven for transnational terror groups with global reach could easily continue to grow. President Obama has stated his intention to work with the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan to eliminate havens in those countries for terror groups such as al-Qaeda. This could make Yemen an even more attractive place for would-be terrorists. Recent Saudi offensives against insurgents in northern Yemen, together with a Saudi naval blockade of the Yemeni coast, demonstrate how seriously other countries on the Arabian peninsula take the threat that instability in Yemen could radiate outward.

U.S. policy should aim to bring Yemen back from the brink, mitigating the risk to the rest of the peninsula by increasing the country's domestic stability. This task will not be achieved easily, quickly or inexpensively, and the use of force alone won't be sufficient. Any effective strategy must combine security assistance with mediation efforts, development, regional engagement and an effective communications approach.

Since 2001, U.S. policy has focused mostly on counter-terrorism. Given the threat posed not just by terrorism but by the potential for nationwide instability, the United States should move toward a broader relationship with Yemen, still focusing strongly on counter-terrorism but also on economic development and improved governance. The U.S. approach should publicly stress the comprehensive relationship that America seeks with Yemen. In so doing, the United States can build on the ad hoc, uncoordinated efforts of numerous international players in Yemen — from Europe, the Persian Gulf states, Jordan and Japan, among others. This could start with a new international donor's conference, including a "contract with Yemen" that would provide aid in response to steps taken by the government to address issues of corruption, governance and human rights.

No amount of foreign assistance will cure Yemen's deeply entrenched economic, social and political problems. Yet in light of our compelling national interest in avoiding a failed state in Yemen, the United States has reason to devote even greater resources to the effort than it does today.

Over the weekend, Obama pledged to double aid to Yemen, but this money must be spent strategically. Several areas are ripe for foreign help, including training and equipping counter-terrorism forces, bolstering border security and building the capacity of the coast guard, expanding counterinsurgency advice to the Yemeni government and expanding programs focused on basic governance and anti-corruption.

A key challenge will be encouraging Yemen's government to confront al-Qaeda, something it has not been sufficiently willing to do up to now. The government's repeated battles against Houthi insurgents in the north have claimed resources that might otherwise have been directed at al-Qaeda elements. It is thus worth exploring whether mediation aimed at a political settlement of that conflict is achievable. In addition, the U.S. should privately make clear that the degree of political support it extends to the government of Yemen will depend directly on its taking action on the array of issues that concern Washington.

The goal of U.S. foreign policy toward Yemen should be for the country to emerge as a stable, functioning state, one that presents no sanctuary for transnational terrorist groups. U.S. policy alone can't bring this about. It can, however, attempt to mitigate the worst of the coming challenges that will plague Yemen.

Richard Fontaine is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and traveled to Yemen with a Senate delegation in August. Andrew Exum is a fellow at the center.


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Fighting al-Qaeda: The Role of Yemen's President Saleh

by Simon Henderson

PolicyWatch #1617, January 7, 2010

Yemen's reemergence in the headlines as a crucial player in the fight against al-Qaeda raises questions about Washington's next steps. What sort of relationship will the Obama administration have with President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the longtime leader of what could be the world's next failed state? Saleh spoke with President Barack Obama by telephone on December 17, 2009, and later met in Sana with General David Petreaus, the head of U.S. Central Command, on January 2. But the lessons of Saleh's relationship with the Bush administration suggest that close ties can be matched by sharp policy differences.

Saleh's Bloody Background
Apart from Muammar Qadhafi of Libya, Saleh is the Middle East's longest-serving leader. Now a field marshal by rank, he first came to prominence in 1977 as a thirty-one-year-old major during political turmoil in what was then North Yemen (which united with South Yemen in 1990.) The country's military leader at the time, Ibrahim al-Hamdi, was assassinated, as was his brother, by unidentified gunmen who riddled their bodies with bullets. An Arab newspaper described it at the time as a well-planned coup, naming Saleh as a conspirator along with his mentor, Lt. Col. Ahmed al-Ghashmi, the deputy commander-in-chief of the army who became North Yemen's new leader. Al-Ghashmi himself survived an assassination attempt five days after taking power but was subsequently killed in June 1978 when the briefcase of a special envoy from South Yemen exploded in his office. A month later, Saleh was voted into office by the quasi-parliament as president and commander-in-chief; he survived yet another assassination attempt only months later.

Saleh showed himself to be skilled in political maneuvering by winning army support for his appointment. According to the 1986 Library of Congress handbook The Yemens: Country Studies, he had "no obvious qualification for the presidency and [was] neither highly educated nor widely experienced in government." His greatest accomplishment, other than merely surviving, was arguably the union of former communist South Yemen with North Yemen. This development worried neighboring Saudi Arabia, whose indigenous population remains less than that of Yemen. Riyadh's relations with Sana have been a key variable over the years. Prior to the merger, the kingdom's default position was to support the north. In 1994, however, the Saudis backed South Yemeni dissidents in an attempt to secede. From Riyadh's perspective, the fighting -- in which Saleh used sympathetic jihadist fighters, Scud missiles, and more conventional forces to crush the rebels -- was partly a consequence of Sana's support for Saddam Hussein after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. At the time, Yemen had been a member of the UN Security Council and had cast the only vote against the resolution permitting the use of force against Iraq.

Policy Crises with Washington
Saleh's support for Saddam was no surprise; he had openly admired the Iraqi leader and was known in the Arab media as "Little Saddam." But the UN vote outraged the United States. "That will be the most expensive 'no' vote you will ever cast," a U.S. diplomat told Yemen's UN ambassador in front of an open radio microphone. Three days later, Washington cut its entire $70 million aid package to the country.

U.S.-Yemeni relations gradually recovered, but the 2000 al-Qaeda attack on the USS Cole, at anchor in Aden harbor, was another blow. Tensions were exacerbated by poor Yemeni cooperation with FBI investigators and, later, by apparent government-sanctioned "escapes" of detained al-Qaeda suspects, including key plotter Jamal al-Badawi on two separate occasions (2003 and 2006). A further irritant was Sana's 2002 purchase of Scud missiles from North Korea. A Spanish naval vessel operating with a U.S. Navy-led task force intercepted the shipment, and the incident was depicted as a blow against the activities of a rogue state. But the sale did not breach international law, and Saleh insisted, against U.S. wishes, that the missiles be delivered.

Despite these difficulties, the Bush administration put great efforts into developing relations with Saleh, who visited the United States four times: in 2001 (after the September 11 attacks), in 2004 (for a G-8 summit emphasizing democratic change in the Middle East), in 2005, and again in 2007. Although Yemen's antics over the al-Badawi escapes and other issues angered U.S. officials, the administration judged that there was a standing opportunity to leverage counterterrorism policy during Oval Office meetings.

Domestic Politics

Saleh's 2007 visit also served as an opportunity for President Bush to congratulate Saleh on his success in the previous year's presidential election. He had won convincingly in polls that, while condemned by the losing opposition candidates, were judged mostly fair by foreign observers. Freedom House now rates Yemen as "partly free." In contrast, during the 1999 election, the main opposition candidate had not been permitted to run, and Saleh's only opponent on the ballot had announced that he was himself would be voting for the sitting leader. Although Saleh's style remains dictatorial, he acknowledges the limits of his authority by relying on patronage. His years of apparent success in buying off threats are now being tested on several fronts, including a rebellion by members of the Houthi clan in the north, continuing resentment of Sana's control in the south, and the presence of an estimated several thousand al-Qaeda fighters who have found sanctuary and sympathy among Yemen's religiously conservative tribes in the lawless hinterland. In Saleh's view, al-Qaeda probably rates as the least of these threats.

Meanwhile, a rapidly expanding population is stretching Sana's limited resources and administrative capabilities to the breaking point. Until recently, Yemen's modest oil reserves provided 90 percent of export earnings and 75 percent of total government revenue. But production is now a third lower than its 2001 peak, and increasing domestic use has reduced the amount available for export. One hope is natural gas, which Yemen has just begun to export. But the 200-mile pipeline to a liquefaction plant on the coast could be vulnerable to terrorist attack or sabotage by local tribes with a grievance against Sana Water shortages are also becoming more common, a consequence of poor infrastructure and large-scale cultivation of qat, a thirsty shrub with narcotic leaves. Indeed, the widespread use of qat across all strata of Yemeni society -- from the bottom to the very top -- is viewed as a significant limiting factor in the country's development.

Saleh ultimately maintains his position through control of the army, where his relatives hold top commands. His eldest son, Ahmed, is head of the Republican Guard and the special forces. Although seen as a possible successor, he is not deemed ready to assume power at the moment, nor need he be: Saleh is only sixty-three. One potential worry is that Gen. Ali Mohsen -- a key Saleh ally who has commanded the forces fighting the Houthi rebels -- is thought to oppose Ahmed taking any increased political role. Nevertheless, Saleh was boosted by Saudi-orchestrated support for him at the December 2009 Gulf Cooperation Council summit.

U.S. Policy

President Saleh is erratic and, reportedly, sensitive to criticism. But the Obama administration has no alternative but to continue engaging him. Failure to do so would risk terrible consequences. Yemeni officials deny that their country is becoming a failed state but are quick to use the possibility as a means of attracting Washington's attention. Admitting to the presence of thousands of al-Qaeda fighters was an additional gambit, now strengthened by apparent Yemeni links to the attempted December 25 bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit. General Petreaus's January 2 meeting was the most recent of what are regular high-level U.S. visits. Whether Washington can influence Saleh sufficiently without offering him another visit to the White House remains to be seen. And even that gesture would not rule out the possibility of further crises in the relationship.

Simon Henderson is the Baker fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at The Washington Institute, specializing in energy matters and the conservative Arab states of the Persian Gulf.


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Radical Islamism: An Introductory Primer


By Barry Rubin

Rubin Report,
07 Jan 2010 05:47 PM PST


The following is intended as a work in progress to provide a very brief discussion of issues involving radical Islamism. Naturally, it is too short to make all points, deal with all aspects, and cover all details. I plan to expand it in future to include possible solutions.


A young American named Ramy Zamzam, arrested in Pakistan for trying to fight alongside the Taliban, responded in an interview with the Associated Press: "We are not terrorists. We are jihadists, and jihad is not terrorism."

What he says is well worth bearing in mind in order to understand the great conflict of our era. First and foremost, Jihadism or radical Islamism is far more than mere terrorism. It is a revolutionary movement in every sense of the word. It seeks to overthrow existing regimes and replace them with governments that will transform society into a nightmarishly repressive system.

And so one might put it this way: Revolutionary Islamism is the main strategic problem in the world today. Terrorism is the main tactical problem.

What is Islamism?


Radical Islamism is the doctrine that each Muslim majority country—politics, economy, society—should be ruled by a totalitarian dictatorship guided by the given movement’s definition of proper Islam. What Marxism was to Communism, and fascism to Nazism, Jihadism is to Islamism.

In some cases, Islamists have a wider ambition to transform the entire world, starting with Europe. While this may seem ridiculous to most Westerners, it does not seem so to the Islamists who hold that view.

Only a minority of Muslims is Islamist but that sector has grown sharply over the last twenty years and seems to be on the increase still. Muslims are also among the greatest opponents of political Islamism, and often its victims. Among those rejecting it are conservative traditionalist Muslims and Arab (or other types of) nationalists, along with a very small group which can be called liberal reformist.

Three places have been under radical Islamist rule so far: Iran and the Gaza Strip, as well as, temporarily, Afghanistan. An Islamist group using democratic tactics has gained control of the government in Turkey, where it is pursuing a step-by-step attempt to transform that country which may or may not succeed. Radical Islamist movements have been active in well over 60 countries ranging from Australia and Indonesia in the east to Morocco in the west, and even in Europe and North America.

The fact that radical Islamism relates to a religion, Islam, is very important (see below) but should not blind observers to the fact that this is basically a political movement and not—at least in the modern Western sense—a theological one.

Of course, Islamism is rooted in Islam but a strong opposition to Islamism—a standpoint shared by many Muslims who may motivated by a traditional view of Islam, ethnic or nation-state nationalism, or a different radical ideology (Arab nationalism most likely)—is in no way an expression of bigotry against a religion.
Similarly, the idea that opposition to Islamism is in some way “racist” is absurd since no “race” is involved. Just as opponents of Communism (capitalist, imperialist) and fascism (Jews, Bolsheviks) could be discredited by calling them names, the same is done with those who oppose Islamism.

Very roughly, Islamism is parallel to Communism and fascism as revolutionary mass movements. Analogies should not be carried too far but are useful in understanding certain basic points.

There are a wide variety of Islamist groups. A small but energetic international grouping of local organizations called al-Qaida; Muslim Brotherhood branches, Hamas, and Hizballah are the best known. In virtually every Muslim majority country and throughout Western Europe there are such organizations working very hard to gain state power.

What is the relationship of Islamism to Islam?

Islamism grows out of Islam and its advocates easily find widely accepted and very basic Islamic principles that justify their world view and behavior. But Islamism is an interpretation of Islam and not the only one possible. Indeed, for centuries there have been different interpretations.

To argue that Islamism is the inevitable or “correct” interpretation of Islam is as silly as it is to argue that it is some external, heretical ideology which has “hijacked” Islam. A rough parallel can be made with the relationship between Communism and either liberal or democratic socialism, and of fascism compared to conservatism or nationalism.

What Islam “means” can only be interpreted in practice by Muslims in a process of debate and struggle. We will see what happens in the decades to come. For outsiders to claim that Islam is “really” a religion of peace or “really” inevitably aggressive is meaningless. And, yes, no matter how powerful a religious text seems to be worded, followers of that religion can always find ways to ignore or reinterpret those texts.

Just as the Islamists can base their case on original Islamic texts, their Muslim opponents can argue from centuries of practice as well as their own interpretations. The reason that the Islamists (who were earlier called “fundamentalists” for precisely this reason) have to go back to the seventh century texts—though of course there are later ones they use that support their case—is that the intervening years did not follow their precepts. Indeed, that is precisely their complaint.

What eventually emerged is what I call conservative traditionalist Islam which subordinated itself to the rulers. It was no longer a revolutionary doctrine. A key point in this approach was the argument that as long as the ruler was a believing Muslim he should be obeyed. In addition, it was a powerfully held stance that no Muslim could judge and condemn as heretical the believes or behavior of other Muslims. Islamism had to combat these and other tenets of conservative traditionalist Islam.

To summarize in one sentence: we should be absolutely honest in showing how the most sacred texts of Islam appear to validate revolutionary Islamists but we should understand that a struggle is going on among Muslims in which different interpretations are contending. While Islamism is not the only possible interpretation of Islam, its approach is certainly shaped and justified by basic Islamic texts. Unless Muslims and especially qualified clerics reinterpret these tenets, Islamism will continue to have a strong advantage in competing with conservative traditional Islam while liberal reformism will remain a tiny, powerless viewpoint.

It is not that Islam has been hijacked, rather different forces are fighting over control of the steering wheel.

State sponsorship and nation-state ambitions


It is also, even when not so visibly state-sponsored, often an instrument of specific states, most notably Iran and Syria. Trying to spread Islamist revolution has been a major goal since the takeover of Iran itself and fits closely with Iranian great power ambitions. Not all leaders have pursued this with equal vigor but it is a high priority of the current rulers. A wide variety of organizations from barely disguised front groups to powerful Islamist organizations in Iraq, Lebanon, and among the Palestinians are used for this purpose. Most recently this pattern has been extended to Yemen. Some are pure assets, others client groups with a measure of independence.

While itself not an Islamist regime, Syria has understandably calculated that the Islamist side serves its interests very well. Thus, idea that Syria can easily be pulled away from its alliance with Iran and backing for Islamist groups like Hamas and Hizballah is a fantasy.

It is quite true that al-Qaida has shown that Islamist groups don’t have to be state-backed but the fact is that many of them still are able to operate because there is a regime behind them.

Tactics and strategies


Like Communist movements in the past, Islamist movements use a wide variety of strategies and tactics. The use of a non-violent tactic—like participation in elections—does not indicate that the group has ceased to be revolutionary. Actually, it is tough pressure by the regime that might force the Islamist leadership to postpone revolutionary activity to the distant future (Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood), repress it altogether (Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood), or get it tied up in electoral knots (Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood).

On the other hand, it is no accident that the most militant Islamist groups have flourished where government is weakest: Hizballah, Hamas, and the Iraqi insurgents.

As for terrorism, that is a strategy and tactic which appeals to these movements for very specific reasons. These include the following points. While the Islamists claim they are only conducting a “defensive jihad”—since there is no caliph, offensive jihad isn’t supposed to happen—they are actually conducting offensive revolution.

The ideas that America is being attacked because Jihadists dislike its freedom or that it is being targeted because of its policies are both partly true. But precisely the same point could be made about Communism, Nazism, and Japanese imperialism. The problem of American culture and freedom, however, does not relate to what goes on in the United States but the fear that this model will spread inevitably to their own societies.

The complaint about U.S. policy is related to the fact that America is seen as a protector of the regimes the Islamists want to overthrow. The motive here is not that these regimes are tyrannical but that they are not Islamist. Lebanon and Turkey, the most democratic states in the Muslim-majority Middle East, have especially strong Islamist movements.

Another reason for targeting the United States or others in the West is that killing infidels is popular among the Islamists’ constituency as a sign of power to defeat the stronger West. The alternative is to focus terrorist attacks on the local governments. But killing fellow Muslims is less popular and the governments strike back with ferocious repression, while they are more likely to tolerate movements that only attack non-Muslims at home or abroad.

Why is terrorism used?
  • It expresses the total and dehumanizing hatred Islamists have toward their enemies.
  • It shows their disinterest in any compromise since the use of terrorism will dissuade their enemies from making deals.
  • They believe that intimidation works and the history of terrorism shows they are not wrong in doing so.
  • Terror, at least against non-Muslims, generally pleases their constituency and thus strengthens their base of support.
  • This tactic fits with certain Islamic beliefs and texts while well-known clerics do not condemn terrorism, at least against non-Muslims, strongly, explicitly, and consistently.
It is tempting to say that terrorism is a tactic of last resort when repressive regimes permit no other route. But in most—though not all—cases, terrorism is used against the less tyrannical societies for a simple reason: the really repressive ones quickly kill the terrorists.

Conclusion


Neither more democracy nor more prosperity provides simple solutions to this challenge by Islamism. Many Islamist leaders and cadre come from well-off families. They are driven by ideological, cultural, and religious factors just as left-wing students in the West seek utopian transformations of society. Equally, they are not driven by antagonism to tyranny since their goal is to establish a new, worse tyranny. Both the Nazis and Communists came to power by overthrowing democratic regimes, in part through elections. With Islamism’s strength, the problem is not the lack of democracy by the rulers but the lack of a strong democratic movement to compete with it.

The Islamist movements will only be defeated by the destruction of violent groups as well as a widespread perception among Muslims that they either cannot take power or are a disaster as rulers.

Better government and higher living standards in their own countries would help to some extent in some countries. Aside from not overestimating this factor, it should be added that the West has no way to make these things happen, by overthrowing and replacing regimes (as Iraq and Afghanistan show), by changing its own policies, or by pressuring the incumbent regimes to change.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.