The news that two mail bombs, addressed to synagogues in Chicago, were air-freighted from Yemen has once again turned the world's attention to growing turmoil in the poorest country in the Middle East. Located on the southern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen has long been regarded as a buffer zone between oil-rich Saudi Arabia and war-torn Somalia, which lies just 200 miles across the piracy-prone waters of the Gulf of Aden. Plummeting oil production and rising political tensions are now provoking questions about Yemen's ability to maintain security and stability with ever fewer resources.
The director-general of Britain's security service, Jonathan Evans, warned last month that terrorist plots hatched in Somalia and Yemen posed a growing threat to the UK. Yemen and Somalia face parallel challenges: weak or ineffective governments grappling with localized insurgencies, resurgent terrorist groups with links to Al Qaeda, and severe economic difficulties. Western powers are struggling to find effective strategies for engagement amid doubts about the capability - or willingness - of the authorities to achieve stabilization or make headway against violent extremists.
Yemen and Somalia - with their 'ungoverned spaces', trained militants and plentiful weapons - are viewed with anxiety as potential safe havens for terrorists. These frustrations are sharpened by fears that al-Qaeda affiliates in both countries are recruiting and training Western citizens. Their increasing appeal to disaffected Western-born Muslims and converts, and their common state of fragility, are now prompting rising concerns about the aggregation of risk emanating from these two countries.
Among security analysts, aggregation is the latest name of the game and this heightened interest in the connections between Yemen and Somalia is focusing attention on strong semi-criminal businesses operating in the Gulf of Aden. These 'shadow networks' facilitate a flourishing but highly unregulated regional trade, shifting arms, people and fuel between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. As a recent Chatham House paper argues, efforts to improve regional security using conventional counter-terrorism strategies - such as better control of borders and close management of the movement of people and money - are obstructed by these multi-million dollar business operations. But putting these operations out of business is easier than it might sound. After two decades of civil war in Somalia, brokers throughout the region have established mature smuggling networks whose main purpose is not to support cooperation among like-minded terror groups but simply to make money.
For the time being, the risks of aggregation between terrorist networks on both sides of the Gulf of Aden appear limited and there is currently little evidence of joint command and control. Beyond a common association with a broadly conceived notion of violent global jihad, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Shabaab have their own character and their own narratives around injustice, largely rooted in national politics. These are not being addressed by existing Western interventions.
In the face of state fragility in Yemen and state collapse in Somalia, a state-building framework provides the basis for international engagement. In theory, this model should help to address local grievances by enhancing the capacity of these two governments to govern and to govern well. In practice, the importance that Western backers attach to their own counter-terrorism objectives means that priority is often given to security assistance. While the Obama administration has ruled out sending regular troops to either country, in Yemen Washington is arming, training and funding local proxies to track and kill suspected terrorists. In Somalia, the emphasis has been on support for AMISOM to protect the transitional government and help it to develop a security capability of its own.
Herein lies the risk of aggravation. Stabilisation cannot be achieved by security interventions alone. On the contrary, security sector assistance can serve to undermine the legitimacy of ailing regimes and weaken the position of the West's local allies. Misjudged security operations, as Ethiopia's intervention in Somalia so dramatically illustrated, can fuel discontent and serve as a powerful driver of radicalization and militancy. Certainly, policy options for reducing the terrorist threat remain much more bleak in Somalia than in Yemen. But the lessons of unsuccessful engagement in Somalia should be applied across the water: a narrow focus on buttressing central government institutions will not succeed.
This comment is based on the recent paper, Yemen and Somalia: Terrorism, Shadow Networks and the Limitations of State-building.