”Yemen’s willingness… to confront the serious threat al Qaeda poses to the nation’s stability has been inconsistent in the past, but our recent intensive engagement appears to have had positive results.”
That was the State Department’s assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, Jeffrey D. Feltman, at congressional hearings on Yemen earlier this month. He repeatedly assured the House Foreign Affairs Committee that he was “encouraged” by Yemen’s new attitude.
This encouragement convinced international donors in late January to pledge $5.2 billion in aid to Yemen. It also prompted Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates this week to more than double U.S. military aid to Yemen. Taxpayers will now fork over $150 million, up from last year’s $67 million.
This is a mistake. Mr. Gates and his advisers ignore Yemen’s terrible track record. If our aid was based on Yemeni performance, Yemen wouldn’t get a dime.
Think back to the bombing of the USS Cole off the coast of Aden in October 2000. Despite clear evidence of al Qaeda involvement, Yemeni security cooperation was begrudging. Some U.S. officials were stymied to the point that they openly wondered whether Yemeni security was penetrated by al Qaeda.
Tensions between Washington and San’a continued through 2001. The State Department reported that Yemen was a safe haven for several of al Qaeda’s affiliate groups, as well as members of al Qaeda’s core. Meanwhile, Yemen suffered a series of local attacks. None of them prompted Yemeni cooperation.
The game-changer was the Oct. 6, 2002, al Qaeda attack on the Limburg, a French tanker. That attack led to a sharp decline in companies wishing to do business in Yemen’s ports, along with skyrocketing shipping insurance rates. After initially denying its terrorism problem, Yemen faced up to its harsh financial realities.
San’a soon upped its cooperation with U.S. Special Forces, the CIA and the FBI. In Nov. 2002, the CIA and Yemeni intelligence tracked al Qaeda operatives driving in the desert region of Marib. The CIA launched a Hellfire missile on them from a Predator drone, killing six people, including a high-level al Qaeda operative. The Hellfire also killed Kamal Derwish, the leader of the “Lackawanna Six,” a Yemeni al Qaeda cell discovered in upstate New York in 2002. U.S.-Yemeni cooperation also yielded a number of high-profile arrests.
However, San’a’s efforts were short-lived. In April 2003, 10 USS Cole suspects somehow escaped from a Yemeni jail. The incident again raised questions of whether elements in the security services had switched sides. Then, in autumn 2003, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced he would release dozens of al Qaeda militants if they “pledged to respect the rights of non-Muslim foreigners living in Yemen or visiting it.” Officials insisted the prisoners would not be released entirely on their own recognizance; their families would sign for them. However, they also admitted that Yemen never had plans (or the resources) to track those they released.
While Yemen was quiet for a while, Yemeni jihadis soon arrived in Iraq in disproportionate numbers as the insurgency began to gain momentum in 2004. According to one report, up to 17 percent of the foreign insurgents hailed from Yemen.
Still, Yemen itself was quiet. Then, in 2006, more than 20 accused terrorists escaped from a San’a jail. Analysts again wondered whether the government looked the other way. Nasir Wahishi, a former close associate of bin Laden, was one of the escapees. He went on to lead the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula.
Soon after, authorities foiled two al Qaeda suicide attacks against Yemeni oil and gas installations. They even rounded up additional suspects and announced a $75,000 reward for information leading to the capture of others in 2007. But, at the same time, San’a released other high-value al Qaeda prisoners. Washington even suspended its $20 million in aid after the Yemenis freed Jamal al-Badawi, an organizer of the Coleattack.
Yemen continued to free its terrorists and attacks followed. On July 2, 2007, nine people, including seven Spanish tourists, were killed by an al Qaeda suicide car bomber at an archaeological site. The following year, in September 2008, al Qaeda launched a rocket-propelled grenade attack on the U.S. Embassy in San’a.
In short, the failed bombing of an American airliner on Christmas Day by a jihadist trained in Yemen was merely a symptom of Yemen’s poor choices in recent years. If Mr. Saleh continues to allow terrorists to roam free, Yemen’s problems will only compound.
Yemen undoubtedly needs our help. However, upping our aid to Yemen because diplomats are “encouraged” is not the answer.The Yemenis have given us signs of encouragement in the past, only to fall short of delivering.
There are, of course, those who argue that Washington has little choice in aiding Yemen. We cannot afford to allow the country to become a terrorist haven. This is undoubtedly true. Yemen is a critical front in the global confrontation against jihadist forces.
However, the Yemenis must earn our $150 million. U.S. aid should not come cheap. We must set milestones for the Yemenis. If they fail to meet them, we should withhold aid. Indeed, Yemen must now demonstrate though both word and deed that it is serious about combating terrorism again.
Jonathan Schanzer, the vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.