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Yemen and the Threat of Terrorism

Commentary, 1 June 2011
Terrorism, Middle East and North Africa
As events in Yemen are coming to an all too violent and bloody head, it is essential to examine the long-term implications of an increasingly unstable Yemen for both regional and Western security.

As events in Yemen are coming to an all too violent and bloody head, it is essential to examine the long-term implications of an increasingly unstable Yemen for both regional and Western security.

By Benedict Wilkinson, Associate Fellow, RUSI

Yemen Protest

Yemen's President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, faces daily calls - phrased in the strongest possible diplomatic and popularist terms - to stand down and hand over power. The long trajectory of protests has caused political and military defections, inter-tribal strife and the deaths of more than eighty people in the last five days. Yemen is now widely believed by analysts to be on the verge of a Civil War which will undoubtedly be conducted across political as well as tribal lines and drive the country into further instability - a volatility which is likely only to nurture and strengthen Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Saleh's reaction to calls for his resignation has been to focus on his role as a staunch counter-terrorism partner against the growing threat of AQAP. This organisation has already shown both expertise and intent in conducting attacks regionally and internationally and is now widely recognised by US and UK officials as perhaps the greatest terrorist threat to Western security.[[1]] In recent speeches, Yemen's embattled President has returned to this fear, time and again, in an attempt to stabilise his position in the eyes of Western partners. AQAP, so his argument runs, can only be countered by a stable Yemen - and one with a strong, pro-Western leadership.

Unpacking Saleh's rhetoric

The implications of this rhetoric are three-fold: first, that Saleh is not only a strong and pro-Western leader but one who also has a long and positive history of counter-terrorism partnership with the west. Second, that there are no viable and alternative candidates who can hold Yemen together and, simultaneously, deal with the threat posed by AQAP. Third, that AQAP does, indeed, pose a serious threat to western security and will capitalise on instability.

A closer examination of these implications shows them not only to be fallacious, but also demonstrates that Saleh's ongoing refusal to step down is actually the main driver behind Yemen's instability - and the growth of AQAP - rather than its final obstacle.

There is some evidence to suggest that Saleh has been a valuable counter-terrorism partner, in particular with the US: the President agreed to allow US attacks on home territory, provided that he could claim them as Yemeni counter-terrorism operations. [2] But it is important to realise that tensions between the US and Yemen have not always been easy or positive. Saleh failed to implement US security advice over increasing airport security and screening passengers - a failure on which AQAP capitulated in the Cargo Bomb Plot of October 2010. Moreover, at one point relations between Yemen and the West were so strained that Saleh described US attitudes as 'hot-blooded and hasty when you need us', but 'cold-blooded and British when we need you'.[3]  Saleh's position as a staunch counter-terrorism partner with the West is, on reflection, a somewhat hollow image.

In addition to diplomatic difficulties, Saleh's position as the strong-man of Yemeni politics is increasingly called into question. Local demands for him to step down, in conjunction with the resignation of key senior members of his Government and military, all suggest that control is slipping, if it has not already slipped, from his grasp. General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a prominent member from the same Hashid tribe as the President, defected in March and has announced his intention to deploy military units in an attempt to protect protesters from Government soldiers.[4] More recently, the same general has vocalised his opposition to Saleh's regime, advising the military to defy the president.[5] Similarly, Sadeq al-Ahmar, head of the President's own Hashid tribe, has come out in opposition to Saleh; members of his tribe are currently fighting against troops loyal to the President in the streets of Sana'a. These clashes have gone beyond the exchange of gunfire in the capital and have escalated to the use of anti-aircraft missiles as both sides vie for control of key ministries. But perhaps the most powerful image of Saleh's lack of control is the resignation of a Colonel from the Republican Guard, which is commanded by the President's own son, Ahmed.[6] Saleh's claim to be the only man with the power to hold the state together is being called into question by the words and actions of his once closest advisors.

Is Saleh a bulwark against Al-Qa'ida?

The third implication - that AQAP is an emerging threat to both regional and Western security and the related assumption that Saleh is the only man to deal with this threat - is equally problematic. In the first place, AQAP is not so much an emerging threat as one that has already emerged: the organisation has demonstrated its ability not only to conduct well-organised attacks in the region and beyond, but also to disseminate an attractive and persuasive recruitment narrative. This situation cannot, clearly, be seen solely as Saleh's failure: Yemen is an impoverished country and counter-terrorism resources are stretched. Nevertheless, AQAP is likely to capitalise on Yemen's rapid descent into chaos: instability provides grievances around which the organisation can construct more effective recruitment propaganda and weak governmental control provides the safe havens the group requires for operational and training facilities.

The real issue, however, is that it is precisely Saleh's refusal to stand down which is causing the instability on which AQAP will, doubtless, capitalise. His continued presidency - and the deep discontent which it causes - detract from the key instabilities from which Yemen suffers, namely, diminishing oil reserves, widespread water and food scarcity, low levels of literacy and education and high levels of unemployment. In short, Saleh's tenuous but persistent grip on power is exacerbating, rather than solving precisely those problems to which he claims to be the cure.

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not nessecarily reflect those of RUSI.


[1] Benedict Wilkinson, 'Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula: A Changing Strategy,,

[2] 'US embassy cables: Bomb al-Qaida where you want, Yemen tells US, but don't blame us if they strike again', The Guardian

[3] 'US embassy cables: US offers to help boost security at Yemen airports' The Guardian,

[4] Top Yemeni general, Ali Mohsen, backs opposition, BBC News, 21 March 2011,

[5] Tom Finn, 'Yemen edges closer to civil war as tribal leader takes fight to Saleh', The Guardian, 27 May 2011

[6] 'Top Republican Guard commander calls Saleh a butcher',

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