Given Yemen’s track record of partial cooperation, we’ll likely be seeing the “rehabilitated” jihadists again, and not teaching macramÃ© at the Sana’a learning annex. As a Yemeni official acknowledged, “Yemen is like a bus station “” we stop some terrorists, and we send others on to fight elsewhere … We appease our partners in the West, but we are not really helping.”
“A nice safe haven for jihadists,” from The Economist, January 29:
Last March, al-Qaeda websites posted a message advising members to head for Yemen, the Arabian peninsula’s unruly south-west corner. The call, it seems, has been answered. The global terror franchise has released a video showing fugitive Saudi jihadists and their Yemeni hosts proclaiming a merger between their two branches, plus images of combat training in Yemen’s rugged mountains. Now other friends may soon be joining the fighters, by quite a different route. The Yemeni government says it expects most of the 100-odd Yemenis still held in the American prison camp at GuantÃ¡namo, where they now make up the largest national group of inmates, to be home by the spring. It is building a special camp where jihadist suspects will be allowed to live with their families, while undergoing reindoctrination to equip them for a peaceful return to society.
Yet, to the chagrin of the Yemeni and Saudi governments, as well as of an Obama administration that wants GuantÃ¡namo closed, the two Saudis in the video happen to be graduates both of the tropical island jail and of a vaunted Saudi rehabilitation programme. The Saudi authorities had freed them last year. Reunited with their families, they had benefited, as had several hundred other repentant jihadists, from state pensions designed to ease a return to civilian life. But the pair vanished a few months ago. In the video they vilify the Saudi counselling programme as a trick, and vow to pursue jihad. Nasir al-Wahishi, the new “emir of the Arabian Peninsula”, a Yemeni, to whom they have sworn loyalty, was himself one of 23 al-Qaeda suspects who escaped from a prison in Sana”a, the Yemeni capital, in 2006.
With its rough terrain, weak central state and gun-slinging tribal culture, Yemen may prove a fairly secure redoubt for al-Qaeda. The group has suffered sharp setbacks in such places as Iraq, Lebanon and especially Saudi Arabia, where it has not mounted a serious attack since 2006. The relative quiet in Yemen, which some critics of its government ascribe to a secret amnesty whereby Sunni jihadists backed the state against a smouldering Shia insurrection in the country”s north, has been eroding. Waves of arrests, prompted partly by Western and Saudi pressure, have provoked an escalation of al-Qaeda attacks that culminated in a double car-bombing of America’s embassy in Sana”a last September; the attack failed to penetrate the fortified compound but left 16 people dead.
Though a Western diplomat in Sana”a describes al-Qaeda’s threat there as “very severe” and the government’s efforts to thwart it as merely “episodic”, it is Saudi Arabia, rather than Yemen itself, that is the group’s main target. The fact that al-Qaeda’s Saudi branch has been forced to regroup elsewhere, under Yemeni leadership, may be a sign of weakness rather than strength. As for Yemen, even if the danger of a few hundred armed jihadists is real, locals may well care more about other national plagues: the frightening scale of corruption, poverty, malnutrition, water depletion, Yemen’s plunging oil revenues, its ugly, four-year-old war in the north, simmering separatist sentiment in the south, constant tribal unrest and vicious power struggles among the ruling elite.