Behind deadly Yemen air raid, threat of Al Qaeda looms large

SANAA, Yemen — The international reaction to government air strikes that reportedly killed scores of civilians fleeing fighting in northern Yemen has focused attention on a conflict that experts say has potentially broad implications for U.S security. 

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expressed "shock" Wednesday at the Yemeni military raid in the Amran Governorate two hours' drive from the capital which, according to Reuters, killed as many as 87 people, many of them women, children and elderly.

It urged "all parties" to the conflict — chiefly government forces and the Houthis, a Shiite militant group which lists among its grievances the Yemeni government’s alliance with the U.S. — to ensure the safety and well-being of the civilian population. It also called on Saudi Arabia, whose territory borders the conflict zone — which centers on the city of Saada — to offer safe shelter to displaced Yemenis fleeing heavy fighting over the past month. 

U.N. workers have described as "dire" the humanitarian situation in Saada, which has been inaccessible to aid groups for more than a month, with civilians, including about 35,000 internally displaced people, trapped by fighting. There has been no running water or electricity in Saada since Aug. 12, and food reserves were running out. The International Committee of the Red Cross has described the situation as having become more "precarious by the day."

However, underlying the localized nature of the conflict, experts say, is a potentially greater threat that stretches beyond Yemen's borders — and one that experts say the U.S. particularly should be concerned about.

Yemen has become a key player in U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the region owing to an increasingly active branch of Al Qaeda in the country, which goes by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The Yemeni government, led by President Ali Abdullah Saleh — whose current problems stem largely from his record of corruption and neglect according to a recent article in The New York Times — is struggling to contain the domestic threats that further deteriorate the stability of the poverty-stricken nation and create a vacuum in which Al Qaeda is able to flourish.

“The U.S. should not strive to have a solely one-dimensional relationship with Yemen that is focused exclusively on counterterrorism,” said Gregory Johnsen, Yemen researcher at Princeton University. “By focusing on Al Qaeda to the exclusion of nearly every other challenge and by linking all of its aid to this single issue, the U.S. has ensured that it will always exist.”

Christopher Boucek associate in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace agrees: "The fighting in the Saada war does nothing to further stabilize Yemen. There isn't a military solution in this conflict."

He continued: "Then there is the other aspect, that the Yemen government has a little power to deal with multiple aspects at the same time. For example, if dealing with Saada then they are not dealing with terrorism issue. There is a fear the government gets distracted and they aren't working out issues that the U.S. and the international community wants them to work on. Additionally, there is the fear that the fact that the Yemeni government has not yet been able to put down the insurrection in Saada emboldens other actors in Yemen."

The U.S. response to the turn of events in Yemen has been muted. A State Department official told the GlobalPost in an email that "the United States views with deep concern the continuation of armed conflict between the Government of Yemen and Houthi rebels in the Saada governorate in northern Yemen." Then, in early September and during the heat of fighting in Saada, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, John Brennan, hand delivered a letter from President Barack Obama to Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh which came “in the context of an ongoing dialogue between Yemen and the U.S. government regarding counterterrorism."

Yemen has been part of the U.S.'s so-called war on terror since 2002, however since that time the country has suffered from an increased Al Qaeda presence highlighted by an attack on the U.S. embassy in September 2008.

Additionally, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the localized branch of the terrorist network, claimed responsibility for the failed attack on Saudi Deputy Foreign Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in late August.

Furthermore, two Middle East super powers, Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Shiite-ruled Iran have been accused of supporting opposing sides in the government versus Houthi battle, commonly referred to as the Saada war that has been flaring up periodically since 2004.

The Shiite militants known as the Houthis have claimed on their official website that Saudi Arabian warplanes with the agreement of the Yemeni government have launched air strikes on Saada and displayed videos online of military equipment with Saudi markings on them that the government is using against them.

“Over the past several years, Saudi Arabia has been active in encouraging both the Yemeni government and tribal forces to combat the Houthis and their allies in and around Saada,” Johnsen said.

Meantime, the Yemeni government has publicly accused Iran of supporting the Houthis and has found Iranian-made weapons in formal Houthi strongholds, according to Yemen’s official news agency.

“There are some reports that there are some arms that are coming and money that is given to these people from those sympathizers with them outside in the Muslim world — from the Shiite in general,” said Yemen’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Muthana in an interview. “It’s an ideological sympathy,” he continued. Consequently, Iran’s Foreign Ministry has called the fighting in Saada an internal issue and denied the allegation of its support for the Houthis, reported Iranian state-run Press TV.

Tensions had been mounting between Yemeni central government and the Houthis all summer after Houthis seized a strategic highway outpost on the road from Sanaa to Saudi Arabia and a hostage situation in northern Yemen which the government blamed on the Houthis in which nine foreigners were kidnapped, three of whom were found dead. The Houthis strongly deny involvement in the foreigners’ murder and kidnapping.

Fighting broke out on Aug. 11 when the Yemeni air force started bombing Houthi-controlled areas in Saada.

Both sides of the conflict accuse the other of targeting civilian populations, however there is little independently verified news in the Saada conflict due to the tight reign the Yemeni government keeps on information coming out of northern Yemen.

Christopher Wilcke, Middle East senior researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch has called this year’s Saada offensive more intense than those previously.

“We have seen the difficulties of bringing humanitarian relief and reconstruction assistance to affected areas in northern Yemen after the fifth round of fighting that ended in July 2008. Any renewed fighting will undoubtedly add to those problems and make it harder for the civilian population to be safe and, eventually, to rebuild their lives,” Wilcke said.