When announcing the US strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria, President Barack Obama said he would model it after America’s counterterrorism strategy in Somalia and Yemen, “one that we have successfully pursued…for years.”
Immediately after Obama’s speech, we at The Long War Journal questioned the wisdom of describing Somalia and Yemen as “successfully pursued” counterterrorism operations. Al Qaeda’s official branches, Shabaab in Somalia and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, remain entrenched in their respective countries, despite some setbacks here and there. AQAP’s core leadership cadre is intact. And both al Qaeda branches continue to control territory while working to conduct attacks outside of their countries. [For details, see LWJ report, US strategy against Islamic State to mirror counterterrorism efforts in Yemen, Somalia.]
In the four plus months since Obama described Yemen as a successful engagement, things have gone from bad to worse. The Iranian-backed Shiite Houthis have broken out from the northern provinces and overran the capital. Just this week, President Hadi, who was perhaps America’s greatest ally on the Arabian Peninsula as he actively endorsed and facilitated US counterterrorism operations, including controversial drone strikes against AQAP, was forced to step down. The prime minister has also resigned and the government has dissolved.
During this timeframe, the US drone program against AQAP has stalled. The last US drone strike in Yemen that has been confirmed by The Long War Journal took place on Nov. 12, 2014. This is especially remarkable given that AQAP has claimed credit for the assault on Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris, and the terrorists themselves said that AQAP sent them.
Unsurprisingly, US officials are now telling Reuters that counterterrorism operations in Yemen are “paralyzed” with the collapse of the Hadi government (the long gap in strikes in the face of the Charlie Hebdo attack is a clear indication that US CT operations are in limbo). Yemen’s military is also said to be in disarray.
If US officials expect the Houthis to be willing participants against AQAP, they are mistaken. The Houthis, while enemies of AQAP, are no friends of the US. While their movement was not created by Iran, they have adopted the Iranians’ motto: “Death to America.” Additionally, any action against AQAP only serves to strengthen the Houthis, and by extension, Iran.
Meanwhile, without a central government and effective military, Sunnis may be tempted to back AQAP against the Shiite Houthis, thereby increasing AQAP’s recruiting pool. There is already evidence that this is happening.
If this is what a successful counterterrorism strategy looks like, we’d hate to see failure.