This is the second of two articles on U.S. counterterrorism operations in Yemen. Read part one here. It is also the latest in a new series we are producing in partnership Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute that features the voices of experts and advocates from countries affected by U.S. national security policies.
Yemen’s politics have changed dramatically since 2011. But U.S. strategy in Yemen has not. The United States’ singular focus on defeating Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has allowed the U.S. to blindly provide financial, technical, and logistical support to problematic partners in the Yemeni government and the region, and indirectly contributed to the crisis that exists in Yemen today.
Starting with President George W. Bush, and continuing to this day, the United States has provided military assistance and financial support to build the capacity of the Yemeni government and its security forces to fight suspected terrorist groups. But, the United States’ allies in Yemen, and more broadly in the region, have misused U.S. funds to support abusive military campaigns that are unrelated to any terrorist threat. For instance, under President Obama, the United States provided support to Yemeni authorities for counterterrorism purposes, who in turn diverted those resources to support their own fight against the Houthis. In 2011, after the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh was overthrown and Yemen’s government was torn apart by political infighting, the Yemeni counterterrorism units – that were funded and trained by the U.S. to fight Al-Qaeda – either disappeared from the country or split into different factions competing for control over regions and territory. In 2015, the U.S. government was unable to account for the whereabouts of more than $500 million in arms and military equipment to Yemeni actors.
Washington’s generous support for corrupt leaders and armed units in Yemen, first to forces under the leadership of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, followed by the Saudi-backed government of Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has plunged Yemen into war, helped drive recruitment to groups like AQAP, ISIS, and Ansar Al-Sharia, and allowed armed jihadist groups like the Houthis and Salafi extremists to strengthen their grip and multiply in the country.
This problem isn’t limited to the Yemeni government, it extends to other nearby countries who are conducting military operations in Yemen. Since 2015, the United States has provided arms sales and weapons support to prop up Saudi Arabia’s failed military intervention in Yemen. Some of these weapons have targeted Yemeni homes, hospitals, and schools and have caused an unconscionable loss of life. In their fight against the Houthis, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also partnered with individuals under sanction by the U.S. government due to their suspected links to jihadi groups and Al-Qaeda.
Can the United States government provide a public explanation of the results of its taxpayer-funded assistance to Yemen? Can it provide an explanation of why U.S. support to Yemeni actors has yielded no results? Can it explain why, despite years of U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Yemen, AQAP has grown in strength and size from a few individuals in hiding to groups that are powerful enough to control cities and whole areas in the country?
Problematic partners in the region
The issue of Washington’s bad alliances in Yemen is related to broader problems with Washington’s partnerships in the “fight against terrorism.”
Indeed, the thing that most serves the recruiting efforts and ideology of AQAP and other similar jihadist groups in Yemen is that America’s myopic focus on countering terrorism has allowed it to turn a blind eye to the human rights violations committed by its allies in Yemen, namely the local Yemeni forces, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Yemenis are suffering, in part, because of the support the U.S. and the international community provides to abusive actors who use the language of “countering terrorism,” in what is largely a political conflict to serve their own ends.
Take, for instance, UAE operations in Yemen, which have been uncontrolled and unwatched by the international community. The Emiratis have supported security forces in Yemen, such as the Hadramawt Elite and Security Belt forces, who stand accused of serious violations of international law. Continued U.S. support and assistance to the Emiratis will only create more problems for the United States’ strategy in Yemen, especially given the total lack of transparency and oversight over UAE actions (actions that may implicate U.S. officials who may have supported these abuses).
The UAE has also knowingly collaborated with extremist and jihadist groups in the areas of Aden and Taiz in order to target the Saudi and Emiratis common enemy – the Houthis—and in turn transform these cities into safe, stable areas free from Houthi control.
For example, on October 25, 2017, the U.S. Treasury Department added Adil Abduh Fari Uthman (“Abu Al-Abbas”) to its list of individuals accused of supporting and financing terrorism. Abu Al Abbas is one of the leaders of the armed jihadist groups fighting against the Houthis in Taiz, Yemen. Abbas is also supported and financed by the Emiratis, and is one of the many individual leaders of extremist armed groups in Aden, Taiz, and other parts of Yemen that the Emiratis partner in their fight against Houthi militias.
This means that the U.S. is providing support to its Emirati partners, who are in turn providing financial and military support to AQAP and other extremist groups.
Recommendations to change U.S. policy towards Yemen
Every day, U.S. actions are causing counterproductive harm in conflicts throughout the region. From Yemen to Syria, to Libya and to Iraq, these harms only stoke internal conflicts, thereby helping Al Qaeda and similar jihadist groups who benefit from such internal conflicts. Such a development would be a huge cost not just to societies devastated by conflicts, but to the rest of the world as well.
With each passing day, the need to change international counterterrorism policy in Yemen increases. The United States must come up with an effective, useful, and comprehensive strategy towards Yemen — one that consists of more than just military and security operations. It must create a strategy that is legal, ethical, and that uses genuine diplomacy to make the world truly safe from terrorism.
The United States and other influential actors in the international community can start by ceasing all forms of support to local actors who misuse and misdirect funds. They should also cease all assistance to regional partners like Saudi Arabia and the Emiratis who are exacerbating a humanitarian crisis and fragmenting the country to serve their own political ends. U.S. actions in Yemen should instead be directed at establishing accountability for violations during the conflict, supporting peaceful settlements and negotiations between warring parties, and working with actors that wish to restore functional government agencies and units that will work within comprehensive national strategies to combat terrorism and restore the rule of law.