Yemen is a sanctuary for al Qaeda terrorists that is barreling into civil war and instability. Add into this the fact that tens of thousands of Yemenis hold U.S. passports, and Yemen emerges as the perfect habitat for a new al Qaeda threat: the American terrorist.
Three high-profile terrorists with U.S. citizenship have been killed in Yemen. Kamal Derwish, also known as Ahmed Hijazi, was killed in Yemen in 2002 while traveling with other al Qaeda operatives, including the organizer of the USS Cole attack. Derwish was the reported leader of the Lackawanna Six, the group of Yemeni-Americans from New York who traveled to Afghanistan in early 2001 to attend al Qaeda training camps.
The second two were killed Friday in the same U.S. airstrike. One was Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric known for his savvy use of the Internet for recruitment. He was linked to Malik Nidal Hasan, the American Army psychiatrist charged with carrying out the worst shooting spree ever on an American military base, and was known to have encouraged the Nigerian «Underwear Bomber,» Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to try to blow up a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day in 2009.
The other U.S.-passport-holding terrorist killed in Friday’s airstrike was Samir Khan, a Saudi-born Pakistani raised in Queens, N.Y. He lived in North Carolina until moving to Yemen to become editor of al Qaeda’s propaganda magazine, Inspire.
There are tens of thousands of Yemeni-Americans living in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, who hold American passports. They not only have the right to travel to the United States whenever they choose, but they also have the right to apply for immigrant visas for their supposed family members. The inherent security gaps in this process pose a very real threat. I saw this firsthand while serving as vice consul at the U.S. Embassy in Yemen.
Because Yemen has only been unified since 1990, many of the legally issued documents in that country contain fraudulent information. In order to receive a birth certificate, death certificate or any other national documentation, a Yemeni national simply appears with two of his neighbors, who all attest to the veracity of the information, and a new document is issued.
Documents supplied for visa applications, therefore, may appear legitimate but could provide benefits to people who are not entitled to them. In most cases, this is simply an attempt to escape from the poorest Arab nation. But we should make no mistake that it also could be used by those who want to perpetrate terrorism against the United States.
In addition to the Yemeni-American population in Sanaa, there also is a large population of American citizens who have traveled there after converting to Islam to study Arabic and the Koran. These people are easy recruiting targets for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Al Qaeda is known for adjusting its tactics and techniques. It is only a matter of time before it relies more heavily on Americans to conduct these attacks. Believing the death of al-Awlaki has eliminated al Qaeda’s Western connections is foolish. For several reasons, Yemen’s growing instability offers al Qaeda the perfect sanctuary in the midst of chaos and economic desperation.
First, Yemen is on the brink of all-out civil war. This gives al Qaeda political leverage and removes any threat of an internal security threat.
Second, Yemen will run out of water in as little as six years. This potentially will lead to conflict over, control of and access to water and will be a source of leverage over the population.
Third, the country’s oil supply will run out within a decade. The loss of revenue and jobs may further destabilize Yemen and offer al Qaeda a population desperate for employment of any sort.
The United States must work with its allies in the region to curb the threat of civil war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia shares a border with Yemen and already has experienced spillover from the fighting in the north. It is not in Saudi Arabia’s best interests for Yemen to plunge into all-out war.
Yemen’s water issues are solvable. Desalination plants along its extensive coast are one option. Water treatment plants are another. The costs are small compared to the price of not investing in these.
Job creation is essential for Yemen, just as it is for all of the Arab Spring countries. The League of Arab States should come together now for a regionwide jobs plan.
After the successful operations that led to the death of Osama bin Laden, al-Awlaki, Khan and others, it is tempting to think we are gaining ground in the fight against terrorism. Yes, we are successful in targeting individuals. But given its political, economic and environmental landscape, Yemen is becoming the perfect habitat for a new wave of terrorism.
By Carrie Giardino, vice consul at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, in 2009 and is director of strategic initiatives for IDS International.