BARBARA BODINE — The USS Cole tragedy illustrated Yemen as a country willing but often without the resources to aid in the American “War on Terror.”
Following the USS Cole attack in October 2000, Yemen came under unprecedented levels of foreign scrutiny during the subsequent investigation. How did Washington’s perception of Yemen as a regional player change after 2000, and how was this new view tested on 9/11?
Any such incident results in heightened international attention. The media tends to follow the noisiest events of the day. Despite some of the media reporting, the Yemen government pledged very early on to cooperate with a joint investigation and they mostly did. US-Yemeni cooperation on counterterrorism and security issues at least back to 1998 — I became ambassador in December 1997. Prior to Cole, the embassy had recommended we open a diplomatic office in Aden and that recommendation was in process but not yet approved. The Yemeni government had suggested a memorandum of cooperation on counterterrorism issues. There was also a recommendation that the Navy open an office in Aden to coordinate the refueling operations. And, there was a proposal in process for American assistance to create a Yemeni coast guard. Cole accelerated all of these.
One frustration in the course of the joint investigation was the poor state of the Yemeni investigative capabilities. There is a difference between incompetence or lack of capacity and malfeasance or obstruction. Many of our problems were capacity problems. The political will was there. There were not always the means.
I left Yemen 11 days before 9/11, but I understand that the Yemeni government was very cooperative with the US following 9/11. By 2004 Al Qaeda was basically dismantled and defeated, or so the assessment was. We, of course, began to shift our focus and our resources at that time to Iraq. Our cooperative efforts in Yemen, I understand, slid to second tier.
The Cole attack has been overshadowed by the 9/11 tragedy yet it, too, marked a shift in American perceptions of, and interactions with, the Middle East and especially with Yemen. How did the diplomatic tone with Sanaa change after the 2000 attack?
Two years before Cole Al Qaeda attacked the US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Das es Salaam, Tanzania and a few years before that there had been the attack on the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. The US government was aware of Al Qaeda perhaps as early as 1992/1993 and certainly by the time we asked Sudan to expel Osama bin Ladin. However, aware of AQ and aware of the fact that its modus operandi shifted with each new major attack was not sufficient to predict that the next attack would be in Yemen or on a US naval vessel. Cole helped re-prioritize security cooperation with Yemen and helped move forward a number of pending initiatives. It changed the conversation. The planning and support for the coast guard, providing the Yemeni investigative services with basic training and equipment, etc. The whole tempo of cooperation increased as a result of Cole.
In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, you wrote that the attack on the Cole was a hostile act, but that this was not a hostile government or a hostile people. Was there ever a danger of a widespread perception of Yemen as an enemy rather than a partner?
No. On the day after the attack, the Yemeni government confirmed to me that they would cooperate on the investigation, that they wanted to know who was behind the tragedy. Louis Freeh, the Director of the FBI, in a visit to President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Aden days after the attack, publicly pledged US cooperation in a joint investigation. There was a shared concern that Cole was the first in a series of attacks in Yemen (although that was not at that time the AQ practice), but those who understood Yemen understood that a hostile event does not mean a hostile environment. Some of those less familiar with Yemen may have disagreed, and prudence dictated caution, but the view that Yemen, the Yemeni government or the Yemeni people were inherently hostile was not the dominant view.
How did the American investigative style cause friction, if it did at all, with the Yemeni government and pose challenges to your goals and communications with Sanaa?
Irritations and frustrations were very real and threatened on more than one occasion to derail the joint investigation and other cooperation. One of those sources of frustration I have already mentioned – the vast difference in capabilities between the FBI and the Yemeni investigative services. Sorting out if apparent roadblocks and non-cooperation were the result of capability, a lack of understanding of the rationale for a request, or, in some cases, a reluctance to cooperate with us for political reasons was a constant effort. There were, from our side, a tendency at times to demand rather than request, a lack of appreciation that we were operating in a sovereign state, and a frustration with the pace of Yemen. Americans tend to be very impatient, very immediate action oriented. Yemenis operate on a different timeline. Perhaps that reflects our rather brief history and their 4000 year history.
One of my continuing jobs was to try to mitigate this frustration, especially on timeframes and investigative approaches, explaining the FBI to the Yemenis, and explaining the Yemenis to the FBI, so that the investigation could move forward.
There is often a tendency to view the Cole attack as divorced from the chain of events preceding it, at least in Yemen. How has US policy in Yemen been colored by Colet and do any of the goals pursued during the earlier years of your tenure as ambassador remain at the forefront of American strategy there?
In a sense yes, the Cole attack was isolated from preceding events. Except for the attack on a group of tourists in Abyan by the Islamic Army of Aden and Abyan (not an AQ group but linked to a radical cleric in London), Yemen had been spared any major terrorist incidents. It is important to remember that an attack of this kind was also unprecedented in US naval history (depending on your reading of the Maine in Havana harbor in the 1890s). We – the US and the Yemenis – were well aware of Al Qaeda’s “warehousing” of primarily low-level operatives in Yemen and we were mindful of the potential security problem. That is why the refueling operations took place in the middle of the harbor and only during the day, in an effort to manage the then-known threat of possible truck bombs. At the same time, intelligence was carefully watched for any indication of a threat.
Our relationship with Yemen over the decades has always been good, although not at the level of cooperation with many other Arab states. Yemen has never been considered an enemy. Many of the programs begun during my tenure both within the security field and in economic development and governance continue, such as the coast guard. The coast guard is now one of the more credible security forces in the country. It was not involved in any of the recent upheavals and participates, within its limited capabilities, in the anti-piracy efforts off the coast of Aden.
Yet, I think in recent years there has been an over-emphasis on short term security concerns and not enough on medium and long-term development and governance. When I got to Yemen in 1997, we had very few programs and little assistance. It was not bad, but we were not doing much in the way of cooperation or assistance. By the time Cole happened, we had already begun some security cooperation, we had begun economic cooperation, we were involved in democracy cooperation, and we had a multifaceted relationship. Still minor compared to our relationship with other regional states, but more complex than in the mid-90s. After Cole, the relationship expanded. It became more complex, not less so.
In the days after the attack, the US presence in Aden grew from zero to several hundred people. How was this rapid increase in personnel perceived by the Yemeni officials and what were their overriding concerns about the US presence?
We were all amazed by the incredible influx of US personnel into Yemen. I went out to the airport the day after the attack to meet a US government crisis management/assistance team. At the airport were seven planes. Although there had been minimal if any pre-notification, the Yemeni authorities did let them land, but was not quite sure what to do with this influx, and the equipment they brought with them. There were some very long, at times difficult but ultimately successful negotiations on the tarmac well into the evening. One major concern were the weapons and associated equipment, including a 75-man US Marine Corps team charged with providing our protection. The Yemenis were perplexed — they were concerned — but they let everybody in. They allowed us to set up perimeter security at the hotel that had become our headquarters. They allowed all of the communications equipment we needed. And they facilitated our essentially taking over the major hotel as our base of operations. While they may have been somewhat aghast — to a certain extent so was I — they did not deny entry. I do not think we would have let a comparable kind of force come into our country.
Managing this group, of course, was a challenge. At the hotel some rooms had five or six persons. Were some Yemenis a little irritated? Yes, absolutely. Did they feel as if they were being overwhelmed? Well, in a sense, they were being overwhelmed. But while there was irritation, frustration and some difficulties, it is crucial to look at the end result – we got everyone in that we needed and we were able to do what we needed to do.
Yemen has since 2000 become increasingly a focal point for the so-called American war on terror, and some analysts even argue that it has become a third-front against Al Qaeda and its affiliates. How has the Yemeni government responded to these challenges, and is there a danger of overemphasizing their role in this conflict against Al Qaeda on their soil?
There are three broad phases to this question. There’s the pre-Cole and immediate post-Cole cooperation. In those days, the understanding was that while there were Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda sympathizers in the country, they were pretty on the periphery. The Yemenis were trying to round them up and, to the extent they were not Yemeni nationals, deporting them. From 9/11 to about 2004 there was a very significant uptick in cooperation. By 2004 many analysts had determined that Al Qaeda was under control.
There was then this hiatus between about 2004 and 2009. Our focus was on Iraq. In Saudi Arabia there was a major uptick in Al Qaeda-directed terrorist violence. The Saudis with our assistance came down very hard and Saudi members of Al Qaeda who the Saudi government did not manage to capture or kill headed out across the border and ended up in Yemen. There was a coalescence of the Saudi Al Qaeda in Yemen — which tended to have a stronger organizational and leadership component, probably a stronger financial component, and a far more externally oriented agenda – and the remnants of AQ in Yemen. In 2009 Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was born.
That was a different type of Al Qaeda and an entirely different Al Qaeda threat than was in Yemen prior to 2004. Whether or not the fight against AQAP really constitutes a third front is debatable. The US was very focused on AQAP because Anwar Al Aulaqi and Samir Khan, both Americans, had become major inspirational leaders within AQ. There was also a more sophisticated, largely Saudi-led operational element, including Al Asiri, the bomb maker who had used his own brother in a failed assassination attempt against the head of Saudi counterterrorism, and son of the Minister of Interior, Mohammed bin Nayef. Finally, there have been at least two failed attempts against the US, the so-called undies-bomber and the cartridge bombs. There is no question AQAP has the agenda, the organization and the operational intent to harm the US, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
That said, AQAP is not the only significant AQ franchise. We are only starting to pay attention to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb. They have been extremely active and extraordinarily violent in Niger and of course we have seen what they have done in Mali. They may have even been behind the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Libya.
If I were working in counterterrorism, my advice would be not to fixate on AQAP. In the last couple of years, the US fixation on AQAP has distorted the overall relationship with Yemen. It became not just the major component but virtually the sole component of our relationship. That was not healthy for either side, nor will not be ultimately successful.
A 2010 report by the Center for New American Security notes that the objectives of US policy in Yemen should be more modest and aimed at helping Yemen to come back from the brink of collapse by increasing its domestic stability. In light of the most recent unrest across the Arab world and particularly in Yemen, how do Yemeni domestic politics cross with American foreign policy objectives and can the two be reconciled?
The two aspects you mention are not in conflict. However, in the last several years, our approach to Yemen, our view of Yemen, our activities in Yemen have been almost solely focused on AQAP. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent, are spent, to kill fewer than 200 AQAP members. Our economic assistance to Yemenis was about 87 cents per capita. Over a million dollars per AQAP member and not even a dollar for every Yemeni to develop their educational and economic opportunities. That was not smart policy, nor was it sustainable. Our economic and other assistance has markedly increased since the political transition in Sanaa, but so has our use of drones, and the number of AQAP members or supporters has continued to climb.
Policymakers in Washington need to take a broader perspective about working with Yemen. On one level. If the US is looking to help Yemen stabilize and become sustainable — and therefore deny the AQAP grounds for support — it needs to be working on, and seen to be working on development and governance. If it is going to ask the Yemeni military to carry the fight on the ground to Al Qaeda, it needs to demonstrate an interest in Yemen itself.
One comment a Yemeni official made to me is particularly illuminating in this regard: “We understand, we agree, and we’re cooperating on the security side…which is a short term, immediate issue. But you need to be aware of and involved in and be seen to be involved in medium and long term issues…I’m not asking you to change your focus. I’m simply asking that you open the aperture.”
Especially given the unrest across the country in recent months, what are the implications in the short and long terms of such a shallow policy for US interests in Yemen?
If the US does not help the new transition government address resolve the issues in the south, with the Houthi in the north and the desperate humanitarian issues, Yemen may not survive. And if it doesn’t survive, if it becomes a failed state, then the security problems coming out of Yemen will be much worse. If we are not interested in working on development, and resources, and governance because they are the right thing to do, then we should do it because it is the smart thing to do. Those who are cynical and only talk about security should understand that development, economic opportunity, resource, and food are fundamental security issues as well.
US troops left Iraq in 2011, and plan to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014, thus eventually closing the two most violent fronts in the ‘War on Terror.’ What role can Yemen, which remains an unstable country governed in many areas by Al Qaeda shadow councils, continue to play in the US’ global counterterrorism strategy?
Let us be clear and not overstate the amount of territory AQAP’s “Ansar al-Sharia” controls, or controlled. At the same time, perhaps the lesson we should learn from Iraq and Afghanistan is that we should not be put boots on the ground in Yemen. That would make the situation immeasurably worse. There is also a lesson to be learned from a heavy reliance on the use of drones. If there has been any lesson from the War on Terrorism over the last ten years, it is that it is not possible to win with boots on the ground. It is not a military operation. US policymakers have tried that strategy in two places, and its success has been dubious. If there is anything to be learned for Yemen, it is that we need to work on core issues, the drivers of instability in a far smarter, more sustainable fashion.
BARBARA BODINE is the former United States Ambassador to the Republic of Yemen (1997-2001). She served for over 30 years in the US Foreign Service, and is currently Lecturer in Public and International Affairs and Director of the Scholars in the Nation’s Service Initiative at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School.