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Interview on Yemen

11/01/2010

As a break from my series on the upcoming Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) policy in the United States (parts onetwo, and three), I interviewed Charles Burnard of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Charles is a Research Analyst with RUSI Qatar’s Middle East and North Africa program (full bio at bottom). I spoke with Charles about Yemen in the wake of the Christmas Day Plot in an effort to put things in a broader perspective than we are getting in the ongoing media coverage.

Charles, what do you think the broader impact of the Christmas Day Plot will be on Yemen?

I would not be surprised to see an increase in support and popularity for AQAP, both locally and abroad. The movement has very effectively harnessed local grievances such as poverty and government corruption, as well as external issues such as the Yemenis held in Guantanamo, to feed its narrative. In this sense, even though the Christmas plot failed, it will be construed as a victory for AQAP and a demonstration of this movement’s ability to severely disrupt Western security and transport infrastructure.

It will be also be interesting to see how the Yemeni Central Government reacts to the promise of increased support and cooperation from the US and the UK. In the past it has been willing to collaborate with Western governments after significant attacks, only to loosen its grip once the furor has died down. Recent statements by Yemeni officials do not sound promising – Yemen’s Foreign Minister Abubakr Qirbi recently stated in local newspapers that although he welcomed intelligence-sharing initiatives with the West, he is not committed to joint counter-terrorism operations. This may, however, simply be a case of preserving the domestic image of independence from the West.

How do you think recent events will shape US and Western involvement in Yemen?

We hear a lot of talk about conferences, special ops support, intelligence support, so on and so forth.
As you just alluded to, the US has already promised to double its 2009 financial aid figure of $70m and promised increased military support. Gordon Brown has promised a £100m commitment as well as increased intelligence support. I think it is important to ask whether simply proving more money and military aid is the most effective means of addressing Yemen’s insecurity. Channeling additional funds to a government plagued by corruption (and often concerned more with its own survival than the prosperity of its citizens) strikes me as an ineffective approach.

There has been much talk in the media of Yemen as the ‘next-Afghanistan’ or the next front in the War on Terror. These are convenient taglines, but they oversimplify a very complex situation. The worst thing Western states could do at this point is increase their military presence in the country beyond special operations and advisors (or adopt these taglines) and, thankfully, I get the sense that there is recognition of this fact. The central government walks a very fine line. On the one hand, it needs external support to address this challenge and on the other, it needs to maintain an image of independence from the West to be credible.

With all the focus on al Qaeda, it feels like other issues are getting lost. Do you think the issue of AQAP and the recent Christmas Day Plot has overshadowed other, perhaps more significant, issues in Yemen?

Without a doubt. Yemen has been plagued by a whole host of political and economic issues which, if you’ve been following recent coverage of Yemen, I’m sure you’ve head all about: conflicts in the north and south, dwindling water and oil resources, rampant poverty and human rights violations. Recent talk of counter-terrorism has been at the expense of these issues. Just recently, the next chapter in Saleh’s quest to suppress uncooperative elements of the media played out when a group of citizens were machine-gunned in front of al Ayyam newspaper HQ in Aden. Outside of local and regional media, this event received almost no coverage.
The recent frenzy surrounding Abdumutallab’s exploits has become part of the all-too-familiar reactionary approach to counter-terrorism strategy. While terrorism in Yemen clearly has the greatest capacity to affect Western security, it simply cannot be isolated from the other issues I’ve just mentioned. Broader security concerns drive AQAP’s narrative. We need to move away from knee-jerk reactions and adopt a smarter, more nuanced understanding of local issues and how these issues interact with terrorism.

Bringing it back to the UK, do you have high hopes for the upcoming international conference in London on Yemen, to be held parallel with one on Afghanistan?

I am relieved to finally see Yemen on the agenda, but am equally concerned about the Western approach. Simply pumping additional financial support and military aid into the country will prove to be an ineffective strategy -  before any effective counter-terrorism and security initiatives take place, the Yemeni Central Government needs to function in a responsible and transparent fashion, and the economic and political infrastructure of the country needs to be developed. There is no quick fix – we cannot decapitate the organization (as we did in 2002) and expect [it] to vanish. AQAP today is more complex than ever and thoroughly rooted in Yemeni society.

Scheduling the Yemen conference in parallel with one of Afghanistan, one would hope that governments will discuss and heed the lessons learned from the latter. This is not to suggest that Yemen is analogous to Afghanistan, far from it, rather it is a call to understand that an effective approach to counter-terrorism rests on understanding local complexities and recognizing that terrorism cannot be separated from wider security concerns.

Charles  Burnard is a Research Analyst with RUSI Qatar’s Middle East and North Africa program. He has an MA in Intelligence and International Security from King’s College London and a BA in International Relations from the Australian National University. Prior to moving to London, Charles held positions in the Australian Government, the Australian Embassy in Washington DC and several think tanks. His research interests include Middle Eastern security, salafi-jihadi terrorism, radicalisation and Australian foreign policy.