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Yemen's Deteriorating Stability Makes It A Perfect Home For Al-Qaida

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

When President Obama announced airstrikes against ISIS militants last September, he pointed to Yemen as a model for eradicating the terrorist group in Iraq.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us while supporting partners on the front lines is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years. And it is consistent with the approach I outlined earlier this year, to use force against anyone who threatens America's core interests but to mobilize partners wherever possible to address broader challenges to international order.

GREENE: Now, despite the strategy the U.S. has pursued in Yemen, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, endures there. Evidence of the group's steady influence resurfaced last week in Paris when two men attacked the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo. They claim that al-Qaida guided their mission, one that intelligence officials believe originated in Yemen. Now, for more background on the global security threat this porous nation in the Middle East poses, we turn to Danya Greenfield. She's deputy director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Why has al-Qaida been able to set up shop here?

DANYA GREENFIELD: I think it's actually taking advantage of a couple different trends. There is no pervasive security infrastructure and police force that governs the entire country. The central government has never been able to really have a monopoly of force. At the same time, the sense of a lack of economic opportunity, disenfranchisement, disconnected youth from any sense of a hopeful future, is also really attracting members into the group. Part of what we've seen too is that as the Saudi intelligence forces have become more effective at rooting out their own terrorism problem, many of those operatives and those leaders went from Saudi Arabia to Yemen. So this has really become a magnet for sort of the most of nefarious characters, top-tier leadership that have come together again in this sort of ungoverned space where they've been allowed to regroup.

GREENE: We know the United States has been very active in Yemen in fighting al-Qaida and using drone strikes. I mean, I would imagine it's fair to say they haven't been completely successful because we're seeing what happened in Paris. I mean, what is the relationship right now between the United States and Yemen?

GREENFIELD: The United States and Yemen have a close partnership and a close working relationship certainly at the top level. But again, as you noted, this has not necessarily been the most successful approach. I think what's tragic, looking at Yemen, is that for the last several years, our counterterrorism and intelligence officials have noted that AQAP represents the next greatest threat to the United States. And yet, we have simply been unable to dedicate sufficient attention and resources to really look at what would it take to mitigate that threat? So what we've done is focus specifically on drone strikes and targeted assassinations, trying to take out leadership, often killing noncombatants in the process as well as training elite counterterrorism forces. But again, there is no broad-based security infrastructure in place to support this. So there's really a gap here about the way we're looking at addressing this problem.

GREENE: Which is amazing to hear you say because President Obama used his strategy in Yemen as a success story, as a model, he said, for the U.S. going after ISIS in Iraq.

GREENFIELD: Absolutely. And when President Obama made that statement, I can tell you that everyone who watches and follows Yemen let out a collective groan because I think in many ways, this was a very sad statement on the sort of arms-length away approach that we've taken to dealing with some of these issues. So the model is train and equip local forces to take on this battle and to use aerial strikes as much as possible. And I think that this has actually been a very shortsighted and potentially detrimental strategy. And until we are able to really look at the multifaceted political and social and economic factors that are at play in these countries and then develop a strategy that responds to that, we're going to continue playing this Whack-A-Mole game for years, if not decades, to come.

GREENE: Well, and that makes me want to ask you about what Americans were told after the September 11 attacks, which was the United States cannot allow al-Qaida to settle into a country with a weak government where they can plan attacks against the United States and the West. Is Yemen becoming the next Afghanistan?

GREENFIELD: I think the tragic piece here is that we've learned these very painful lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan and have done a 180, which is people looked at the investment of life, of money, of effort in these two places, seen that it was perhaps unsuccessful, maybe to put it mildly. And then the reaction is, well, we don't want to do that again in Yemen. We don't want to repeat the same mistakes. And frankly, we don't have the resources to have that kind of heavy-handed, boots on the ground approach. And so the reaction, unfortunately, has been a sort of boomerang to the other end, which was, let's try and do as little as is absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, that's not the right approach either. There has to be a middle ground where we are neither putting, you know, hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground, nor are we sort of, you know, taking this hands-off approach and trying to just use targeted assassinations from the sky to eradicate a movement that is really firmly embedded, in many ways, in Yemeni society.

GREENE: Danya, thanks so much for coming in and chatting. We appreciate it.

GREENFIELD: Thank you very much.

GREENE: That's Danya Greenfield. She's deputy director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, where she leads the Yemen policy initiative. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.