The Rising Menace From Disintegrating Yemen
By Simon Henderson - March 23, 2015
|Supporters of Houthi militants demonstrating in San’a, Yemen|
The fact that (Sunni) al Qaeda and (quasi-Shiite) Houthis hate each other is little consolation to Western observers of Yemen’s meltdown. Al Qaeda’s antipathy toward the U.S. is well-established. No one would treat lightly the Houthi slogan of “God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Damn the Jews, Power to Islam.”
Previously lawless at night, especially outside the main cities, the most populous country in Arabia, as well as the poorest, is now increasingly anarchic around the clock. The violent chaos in Yemen isn’t orderly enough to merit being called a civil war.
Yemen’s mountains and deserts offer apparently limitless and, as a consequence of the American withdrawals, increasingly unobserved havens for radical Islamists. Washington and other Western capitals will have no choice but to become even more obsessive about the threat to their homelands. Yemen’s links to the 2009 Northwest Airlines “underwear” bomber and this year’s Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris had already marked the country as a significant source of lethal danger. That menace will now only intensify.
It is fair comment rather than being churlish to recall that last year President Obama cited Yemen as an example of successful U.S. foreign policy and counterterrorism strategy.
Countering the rising terror threat will be made especially difficult because Yemen is now a proxy battlefield for Iran’s regional ambitions. As an Iranian parliamentarian noted last year: Three Arab capitals—Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut—were already in Iran’s control. Tehran’s support for the Houthis in Yemen meant that San’a became the fourth in September when the tribesmen, ostensibly seeking a fairer slice of government revenues, completed their advance on the capital.
Saudi Arabia, where the severe strain of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism reigns, is alarmed by the expansion of Shiite Iran and perpetually worried about threats emanating from Yemen. The Saudis can be expected to step up their involvement in the contest for Yemen, deploying the full Saudi diplomatic toolbox—money, arms supplies and perhaps even a blind eye to actions that would be described anywhere else as terrorism—to block Tehran. On Friday, suicide bombings at Houthi mosques in San’a killed 152 people; responsibility was claimed by San’a Province, a Sunni group loyal to Islamic State but previously virtually unknown.
The Saudi default position on Yemen can be best described as paranoia. The kingdom’s founder, Abdulaziz aka Ibn Saud, supposedly said on his deathbed in 1953 that Yemen, then divided into two countries, should never be allowed to unite. It happened anyway in 1990, and Saudi backing for a southern Yemeni separatist movement in 1994 failed.
The House of Saud has spent the past several decades being outfoxed in Yemen by now former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose background includes personal involvement in coups against at least one of his predecessors, a ruthlessness that Ibn Saud’s progeny lack. Like the international community, the Saudis place their confidence, however shaky, in Mr. Saleh’s former deputy, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. His palace in the southern city of Aden was strafed by Houthi warplanes last week. Yes, this militant group has its own air wing.
Small wonder, then, that Saudi concerns about the Houthis are said to extend to fears that Yemen’s arsenal of Scud missiles could also be targeted on Saudi cities, including the holy city of Mecca, 350 miles away.
On Monday, Yemeni foreign minister Riyadh Yaseen asked Persian Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, to intervene militarily to stop flights from Houthi-controlled airports. The Saudis might be tempted: There are now 28 flights a week between San’a and Iran, up from zero before the Houthi takeover. The flights include those made by Mahan Air, an Iranian airline blacklisted by the U.S. for supporting terrorism.
The collapse of Yemen along Saudi Arabia’s southern border is the first major test for the kingdom’s new monarch, Salman bin Abdulaziz. Responsibility for relations with Yemen seems divided. Pre-eminence has been given to Deputy Crown Prince and Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayef, who in 2009 survived a suicide bombing by an al Qaeda member from Yemen who was supposedly surrendering. But the first Saudi leader to appear in the border area during the current turmoil has been Defense Minister Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the king’s son and closest adviser, who visited the local advanced operations center.
Regardless of who ends up taking the Saudi lead in addressing the threat from Yemen’s disintegration, as long as Iran is stepping up its involvement there, matters can only get worse in this latest forum for the Sunni-Shiite conflict that has spread mayhem throughout the Middle East.
Mr. Henderson is the director of the Gulf and Energy Policy program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.