What’s Behind Yemen’s Terror Boom
American officials are in a self-induced stupor over terrorism.
When a Muslim radical tried to blow up Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day, they immediately tried to dismiss him as an isolated lunatic. This contradicted indications that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had actually been recruited by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a branch of the famed Islamist group. Reports say he received training and explosives from the Yemen-based al Qaeda cell.
Now, evidence is surfacing that may link Iran to the attempted attack as well. But this is certain to be vigorously ignored by an Obama administration that simply refuses to consider the Islamic Republic an enemy.
Iran is in the nightmare business. It is a robust exporter of terrorism, funding and training for radical groups throughout the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, Iraq and Afghanistan in particular, its proxies are creating havoc aimed at spreading Iran’s influence and keeping Iran’s enemies—including America—off balance.
Now Iran looks to be opening another storefront in the neighborhood: in Yemen.
This country on the southern rump of the Arabian Peninsula has been in the news. Like the Northwest 253 bomber, the Fort Hood shooter had ties there: Nidal Hassan was e-mailing an al Qaeda-linked cleric based in Yemen. It appears al Qaeda is using the country—which happens to be the birthplace of Osama bin Laden’s father—as a new home. Réalité EU reports that al Qaeda operatives are flocking to Yemen, which now holds the majority of the group’s resources.
Al Qaeda has been particularly active on Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia. That same territory is also home to another insurgency group, a Shiite organization called al-Houthi. Since 2004, the Yemeni government has had its hands full battling the Houthis, who it says want to establish an independent Shiite state in northern Yemen. The Houthis’ goal of destabilizing not only Yemen’s government but also Saudi Arabia’s gives them common ground with al Qaeda, and some analysts say all indications suggest the two groups are coordinating with one another.
Here is where Iran enters the picture. The Houthi insurgency has been gaining strength lately—apparently because of a boost in logistical, financial and military aid from Tehran. The archenemy of Saudi Arabia, Iran encourages any movement that will expand Shiite influence. Forty percent of Yemen’s population is Shiite, and a Houthi leader asserts that Iran provides the religious and ideological inspiration for the Yemeni Shiites. Yemeni officials accuse Iran of supporting Houthi rebels in order to destabilize Yemen’s Sunni government.
In October, the Yemeni Navy caught Iranians smuggling arms shipments into Yemen en route to the Houthis. The Iranian Navy has deployed commandos and warships to the Gulf of Aden; supposedly they are to protect Iranian cargo ships and oil tankers from Somali pirates—but it appears their top duty is to safeguard Iran’s weapons supply lines to Houthis. Experts also say Iran is smuggling weapons to Yemen via Eritrea. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has also been sending Hezbollah fighters into Yemen to assist the Houthi insurgency, according to Stratfor. Intelligence agencies in the region reported on a secret November meeting in Yemen between the Houthis and high-level officials from the Guard Corps and Hezbollah.
“Iranian interference aims primarily at transforming Yemen into an arena for settling political scores,” said Yemen’s House speaker in December. In other words, it appears Iran is replicating in Yemen the model it has already perfected in Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq and Afghanistan: underwriting terrorism as a means of extending its power. “There is no doubt” Iran is waging a proxy war against Yemen’s government, Yemen’s counterterrorism chief told Al Jazeera in November.
So apparently both Iran and al Qaeda are using Yemen as a base to intensify their terrorist campaigns. And evidence has surfaced of a measure of collusion between these two as well, despite ideological differences.
After 9/11, senior al Qaeda officials on the run from Afghanistan found safe haven in Iran. Ever since, Iran has been harboring scores of al Qaeda operatives (under what it calls “house arrest”). Bin Laden reportedly has had a wife, six children and 11 grandchildren living in Iran since 9/11 as well. In November 2008, Yemeni security officials intercepted a letter—apparently written by bin Laden’s son Saad but signed by al Qaeda’s number-two leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri—thanking Iran for helping al Qaeda settle into Yemen after being forced out of Iraq. The letter mentioned Iran’s “monetary and infrastructure assistance” in carrying out a 2008 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Yemen. Also, a leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula confessed to Saudi authorities that Iran was both supporting Yemen’s Shiite rebels and making cash available to al Qaeda.
It is all quite a hive of ugliness. But as Washington ponders the unmistakable role that Yemeni radicals played in two recent attacks aimed at snuffing out innocent American lives, it shouldn’t ignore the truth. Like virtually all of the other problems in the region, radicalism in Yemen links back to the Islamic Republic of Iran, the “king of the south.”
The Obama administration is treating the problem with a light touch since, it explains, the Yemeni government has shown itself so determined to confront terrorists on its own. But one Yemeni diplomat is calling America out for not helping more, claiming, in the words of a memri translation of an Al-Riyadh article, “[T]he U.S. is refraining from dealing harshly with the Houthi rebels in order not to anger Iran” (emphasis mine).
The truth stings. So does the reality that, as we have pointed out many times, Iran owes its surging strength to America’s abject weakness. Washington says it doesn’t want to open another front in a war it is already trying to extricate itself from. But the truth is, it doesn’t need to open a new front—it only needs to go after the enemy it has been tiptoeing around for the past eight years.
But instead—rather than confronting reality and knocking that radical state along with its terrorism and nuclear ambition back on its tail—causing all its proxies to wither and die, and stabilizing the region in the process—weak-willed America does all it can “not to anger Iran.”
The developing headache in Yemen is yet another instance of America’s stunning failure to address one of the dominant issues of our time.
The job of truly dealing with Iran—coming against it like a whirlwind—will be left to a power made of sterner stuff.