Source: Al Arabiya News,By NATHANIEL SHEPPARD JR.
Yemen has become a nightmare come true for the United States as Al Qaeda jihadists and Islamist militants take advantage of the country’s continuing power struggle and seize control of strategic cities.
So far, militants have encircled Aden and are fighting for control of the port city of 800,000 and choke point for international oil shipments near the eastern approach to the Red Sea. They also are said to have taken two other southern towns, looted military depots and flung open the doors of prisons in the towns and pressured youths to join them.
On Wednesday, Colonel Khaled al-Yafi’i, a commander in the Aden Free Zone business park, was killed when a bomb planted in his car exploded. It was the second assassination of a senior military official in a month.
Police, local officials and members of the military have fled the area.
Meanwhile, the country continues to slide closer to collapse as President Ali Abdullah Saleh enters his fourth week in Saudi Arabia where he is recovering from an assassination attempt. Thousands of Yemenis continue protest nationwide demanding that Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi take control and form a transitional council to remove remaining members of the Saleh regime from power.
A nationwide fuel shortage continues, forcing rationing of electric, water and other services while runaway prices deprive some residents of food and basic necessities. Yemen is highly dependent on declining oil resources for revenue. Petroleum accounts for roughly 25 percent of GDP and 70 percent of government revenue. It also is faced with declining water resources and a high population growth rate. Yemen already was the poorest country in the Arab world.
Al Qaeda and other insurgent groups in the area have formed an alliance of convenience and have been trying for months to restock weapons and seize control of areas. Three months ago, authorities in Dubai thwarted a plot to smuggle 16,000 handguns from Turkey to rebels in the northern part of the country.
They have tried to win hearts and minds in some cities, ordering merchants to roll back prices and offering residents protection from government crackdowns on protesters, but have imposed strict Islamic rules on other captured areas, such as placing restrictions on the movement of women.
Saleh al-Zawari, the governor of neighboring Abyan Province, fled the area about three weeks ago, warning that the area could become “another Taliban state like Afghanistan.”
Why Saleh deputies in charge have made little effort to stop the insurgents is unclear. There is an American-trained counterterrorism unit in Yemen but it has not been deployed. Yemen security agents have long been suspected of being in cahoots with Al Qaeda, further raising questions whether Mr. Saleh knowingly is allowing Al Qaeda to gain ground.
This may all be in retaliation for the US and other countries in the region calling for Mr. Saleh to step down, something he agreed to do several times, only to back down at the last minute.
Even before these developments, the US was concerned with the safety of Bab el Mandab, a narrow strait that passes between Yemen and Djibouti at the mouth of the Gulf of Aden that is considered one of seven strategic world oil shipping chokepoints.
About 11 percent of the world’s seaborne petroleum passes through the Gulf of Aden en route to the Suez Canal, SUMED Pipeline and regional refineries, not as much as the 40 percent that passes through the narrow Gulf of Hormuz to the north between Oman and Iran, but potentially more vulnerable.
The US moved military assets including drone unmanned attack aircraft and fighter jets into the area in May, saying Al Qaeda was exploiting the country’s political chaos. The operations are led by the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command in cooperation with the Central Intelligence Agency.
How Al Qaeda has been able to capture Aden with those assets in the area remains a mystery. One problem may be difficulty in telling who is who among militants now that Al Qaeda, other insurgents and some anti government elements have merged. Any but the most surgical attack against rebel forces backed by solid intelligence could lead to accusations that the US was actively siding with those trying to overthrow Mr. Saleh.
Nonetheless, the US must do something. In 2010, a year before its current upheaval began, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of the United States described Yemen as “an urgent national security priority.” Since 2009, Al Qaeda in the Persian Gulf, a motivated, freewheeling cell, has launched several unsuccessful attacks on the US.
In one attack, in October 2010, authorities intercepted two US-bound packages laden with what US President Obama told the nation “apparently contain explosive material.” He vowed that those behind the attack “will be held to account.” In another attack, a man tried to detonate explosives in his underwear while aboard a Detroit-bound aircraft on Christmas Day 2009. The 23-year-old man told authorities he had been trained in Yemen.
Also in 2010, three Americans were arrested in Yemen on terrorist charges and a Texas man was indicted for allegedly trying to board a ship for the Middle East carrying money, pre-paid telephone calling cards, mobile telephone SIM cards, global positioning system receivers and a military-issue compass he planned to deliver to Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen.
With little stability and growing desperation by residents, parts of Yemen are ripe for picking by insurgents promising relief.
(Nathaniel Sheppard Jr. is a veteran national and foreign correspondent who has worked for The Chicago Tribune and The New York Times. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)