Mirroring the rapid rise of AQAP, Awlaki himself has now joined the ranks of Osama bin Laden in the eyes of administration and intelligence officials. In a recent television interview, Attorney General Eric Holder said Al Awlaki was “on the same list with bin Laden. He’s on the list of people that worry me the most,” adding “We want to neutralize him. We’ll do whatever we can to do that.”
To underscore its commitment to neutralize Al Awlaki, the administration placed him on a CIA assassination hit list. However, much like its overall efforts to neutralize the entire AQAP organization, the results were unsuccessful.
For example, over the past year US military aid to Yemen increased from $70 million to $150 million. During that same period, a number of US airstrikes on Al Qaeda bases in Yemen were launched, ones long suspected, and ones just verified by the recent release of Wikileaks documents.
Despite those efforts and the continuing application of American pressure on the Republic of Yemen Government (ROYG) to rein in AQAP, the outcomes have been less than stellar, producing more friction between the two governments than actual results.
That view was neatly summed up by Brennan who said, “The relationship between Washington and Sanaa [Yemen’s capital] is, at times, marked by differences of view, tension, and even strong frustration by each side.”
Yet, if the ROYG’s ability and commitment to destroy AQAP is viewed as spotty in the eyes of the US, it may be understandable given the myriad of other problems that plague that poverty stricken nation.
For starters, in addition to fighting Al Qaeda forces, the ROYG finds itself engaged with open rebellion in its northern areas and a separatist movement in the south. The result has been a weakening of its control of the country, except for a tiny pocket outside the capital city of Sanaa.
Adding to Yemen’s internal strife is its incredibly high poverty level, one exacerbated by also having the world’s seventh highest population growth rate. The situation is so severe that, according to a UN spokesman, “There is no single other country in the world where we ever have seen such high levels of malnutrition.”
Unfortunately, while Yemen’s current economic situation is brutal, it only looks to get worse. While oil constitutes 75% of Yemen’s revenue, oil production has been declining in recent years, with estimates that its entire oil reserves will be depleted by 2021.
For a nation swelled by a large swath of unemployed and desperately impoverished people, young Yemini men are ripe for terrorist recruitment. Mohammed Abdel-Malik Mutawakel, a Yemini political science professor, explains the predicament of these men: “The economy is closed to them. They will fight then, either through al-Qaida, the southerners, or any other way.”
So, today, drenched in economic and political chaos, Yemen has now become the logistical and training center for global jihadists. As one intelligence official said of Yemen, “It’s now Pakistan in the heart of the Arab world.”
For Americans, who have seen the War on Terror ebb and flow over the years, it’s a sobering reminder that closing one terrorist door only serves to open another.
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