The recent closure of Western embassies across the Middle East and North Africa, focused international media attention on Yemen after 'security threats' concerned a plot by the country's local Al-Qaeda affiliate, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), to attack oil and gas infrastructure and kidnap foreigners.
The view from Yemen was markedly different. For many Yemenis, hunger, a lack of electricity and water scarcity are urgent day-to-day concerns. More than 10 million people, almost half the country’s population, do not have enough food to eat. Al-Qaeda is seen by most as an obsession of foreign governments; attacks on oil pipelines occur on an almost weekly basis and are attributed alternatively to Al-Qaeda militants or to tribal fighters who accuse the government of being corrupt and neglectful of tribal areas. The travel alerts announced for Yemen have been in effect for years, and the country frequently witnesses kidnappings of foreigners.
Despite the current media spotlight, much of what has been happening in Yemen is all too familiar.
Recent media attention has at least caused another round of debate about the effectiveness of counterterrorism methods in countries like Yemen. The West’s campaign against AQAP in Yemen has produced a mixed bag of results. Integral leaders like Al-Awlaki and Saeed Al-Shihri have been killed by drone strikes; but so too have many civilians. The estimated number of civilians killed due to US covert action in Yemen over the last decade ranges from 98-194, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
Some argue that drone strikes and civilian casualties drive Yemenis to join terrorist groups. Farea Al-Muslimi, a Yemeni activist and writer, testified to the US Senate in April that the increase in the number of strikes and casualties is turning public opinion against the US. Drone strikes have increased significantly in the last 18 months; the number of strikes tripled between 2011 and 2012.
In Pakistan, thousands of people have marched in multiple demonstrations against US drone warfare in the country. Yemen could see its own demonstrations on this scale if the rate of drone strikes continues to rise. Earlier this year, a committee at Yemen's National Dialogue Conference (a six month series of talks bringing together a cross section of interest groups to discuss reform) recommended a halt to all foreign interference, including air strikes. This recommendation is a sign of growing Yemeni opposition to the US counterterrorism campaign and its perceived disregard for the country's sovereignty.
Achieving long-term stability
Foreign governments provide development aid and are continuing to support Yemen's political transition process at least partly in the hope that a peaceful, democratic and economically sound Yemen will be a less attractive home for extremists. But many Yemenis believe that foreigners are only really interested in fighting AQAP. The same foreign governments cooperated with and financed Yemeni intelligence and military operations under the autocratic former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in agreements involving hundreds of millions of dollars.
Meanwhile, the government in Sana'a and Yemen’s political elites have been largely silent about the damage from counterterrorism operations. And because of political paralysis and low government capacity, little is being done to effectively address the high poverty levels which contribute to Yemen’s instability.
Many embassies around the Middle East have now reopened, but the British and American posts in Yemen remain shut. Yemen's National Dialogue Conference is scheduled to resume and aims to draft a new constitution before elections in February. International oversight has been essential to the progress of the transition so far, and as the Dialogue enters a sensitive final phase international support is pertinent.
While foreign embassies have a responsibility to their staff’s security, Yemen's international supporters need to demonstrate clearly their commitment to the country’s political reform process. They should also remain mindful of the harmful effects that some counterterrorism measures – extensive drone strikes and overflights in particular – will have on Yemeni public opinion, and on the vital peace talks on which Yemenis' hopes for long-term change rest.