The Yemeni capital Sana’a lies in a state of turmoil…again.
Thousands of everyday citizens, sympathetic to one faction or another in what is the latest escalation of the war torn country’s seemingly endless series of civil wars and revolutions, continue to occupy city streets as chaos grips all of Yemen.
The U.S.-backed president, the drone happy Abd Rabuh Hadi, was forced to resign January 22, along with his entire cabinet, following what can best be considered a coup d’état against the embattled leader’s regime. This development came once the president’s palace was shelled and subsequently stormed by a militant Shia Muslim group now known popularly as the Houthis.
There are some who liken these new sheriffs of Sana’a to regional puppets of Iran, a Shia dominant theocratic state. They cite anti-American and anti-Israel slogans regularly displayed across Houthi street banners in an effort to convince the American public they are virulently anti-American; as in, they hate you or me because of our freedoms, or whatever…
Others allege a coordinated effort between the Houthi rebels and former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to drive common political opposition from power. Serving as the country’s chief executive for over twenty years, Saleh was President Hadi’s long time, strong handed predecessor. Also a reliable U.S. client, he was forced to finally step down in 2012 amid a wave of popular Arab Spring inspired protests which took place against his rule.
Whichever explanation rings closer to reality, these Houthi rebels are widely considered by Washington foreign policy makers like Senator John McCain to be “more dangerous than al Qaeda.” It is the emerging political narrative at play over these events, and Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu is poised to invoke the Houthi crisis in his pitch he will make to congress this week for further American money.
Missing from the debate almost entirely, however, is any question over whether those now in control of Yemen’s capitol really happen to be as anti-American as they may appear at first glance.
Michael G. Vickers, the Pentagon’s top intelligence policy official, recently told The New York Times “the Houthis are anti-Al Qaeda.”
The new leaders of Sana’a could in fact be the most effective way to counter Al Qaeda from gaining further influence in the region. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a Sunni dominated organization, and the Houthis, Shiite, happen to be sworn enemies.
Now in control of the Yemeni capitol, the Houthis want Al Qaeda gone from Yemen.
If only more U.S. policy makers would pay closer attention to the Houthis’ reasoning behind the group’s inflamatory slogans.
Also quoted in the New York Times is Houthi youth leader Ali Al-Bukhaiti.
“We think that Yemen’s relations with the United States should be in the cooperation framework, just like with any country. Our hostility is rather against U.S. policies that once are stopped, ours will stop, too.”
Bukhaiti is of course referring to the many misdeeds of both the Washington-backed Yemeni government recently ousted in the Houthi coup, as well as the drone strike program responsible for scores of civilian deaths in both Yemen and throughout the Middle East. The exact figures for civilian casualties at the hands of the United States remain uncertain. But it has been conservatively estimated that they now exceed in numbers throughout the region the death toll of 9/11.
Many Yemenis of course take strong issue with a government program responsible for the killing of their neighbors, and the destruction and displacement of countless more in the name of fighting terrorism in their country. In a classic case of foreign policy blowback, the ranks of anti-American terrorist groups like Al Qaeda have never swelled higher.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) now controls almost a third of the country. Their center of activity is largely centered around the Abyan Governorate in Yemen’s historically rebellious south. Meanwhile, there are some the U.S. considers responsible for the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole and the murder of 17 American sailors in a Yemeni port who may still be at large in the country.
By May 2008, every defendant convicted in the attack on the USS Cole had either been freed or had escaped prison.
If U.S. officials are serious about seeing a Yemen free of al Qaeda, they would be wise to call home the hated drone fleet today. Any existing special operations in the country President Obama recently acknowledged were under way despite the coup should be reigned in and concluded.
Instead, local power players like the Houthis should be left free to weed out their shared enemy they happen to have with Washington. They could capture the remaining USS Cole bombing culprits much more effectively than American foreigners ever could with targets, and have them extradited to the U.S. the way Pakistani locals once apprehended ’93 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef in 1995.
International legal methods once designed to deal with terrorism pre-9/11 remain on the books; the Constitution’s Letters of Marque and Reprisal mainly. It would be a much more preferable way for the U.S. government to have terrorists apprehended in Yemen than an endless military conflict aimed against radical Islam.
However radical the Houthis now in charge of Yemen’s north might appear to be, they might also be the only ones in the region best positioned to beat back even more dangerous groups like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.