One of the consequences of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's failed attempt to kill himself and everyone else aboard Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day has been to alert Americans to the growing fight against al-Qaida in the obscure nation of Yemen.
A proud franchise of the terror organization there — al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula — claimed credit for the botched Christmas attack, which it said was carried out in retaliation for recent American-assisted airstrikes against its alleged training camps and safe houses. The American military has been interested in Yemen ever since 2000, when the USS Cole was attacked in the Yemeni port of Aden.
Groups such as al-Qaida tend to seek out territory that is obscure and poorly governed. Few countries fit the bill as well as Yemen. It has less oil than any of its Middle Eastern neighbors, and what little it has is very nearly depleted. The poorest of the Arab nations, it is a place where nearly half the population (46.6 percent) lives on less than $2 a day, according to the United Nations. It occupies the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula, and is slightly larger than the state of California.
Yemen is a bastion of tribal culture. I wrote about it 30 years ago as one of the main reasons for the poaching of the threatened black rhino in central Africa, because Yemeni tribesmen paid premium prices for ornate dagger handles fashioned from rhino horns. The country's poverty, traditional nature, relative emptiness and lack of strong governance make it classically fertile jihadist soil.
The country began attracting renewed attention from the U.S. military in 2007, when intelligence gathering in Iraq uncovered vibrant links between al-Qaida jihadists there and emerging cells in the arid Arab nation.
Gen. David Petraeus visited Yemen in late 2008, and again with President Ali Abdullah Saleh last summer, when, for the first time, the Yemeni leader not only accepted but requested American assistance against al-Qaida.
Saleh has problems galore, so it is little wonder that he's decided to ask for help. His government, one of the only republics in the Arab world, has come under increasing stress from a combination of social, economic, natural and political factors. He faces declining oil production, a growing youth population, and increasing water shortages. The influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Somalia has imported that country's addiction to khat and a substantial arms trade and smuggling network.
Saleh's regime is notoriously corrupt and has a grudging hold on power that is decidedly undemocratic.
He is fighting a civil war against the Houthis, a radical Shia sect, in the north, and a secessionist movement in the south. Al-Qaida has begun targeting members of Saleh's inner circle for suicide attacks. The president managed last spring to postpone elections for two years, which gives him a little breathing room. Ordinarily he relies on tribal backing, which makes it harder for him to cooperate with Western nations.
As bad as things seem for Saleh, his predicament has afforded the United States an opportunity. It enables Yemen authorities to do what they do best, which is to infiltrate and identify the violent radicals in their midst.
And it enables the U.S. military to do what it does best, which is to provide surveillance, weaponry and tactical guidance. Ideally, the American presence will remain resolutely low-key, a posture that benefits both us and Saleh.
With any luck it will be less about the United States going to war in another country than about Yemen dealing with the threat al-Qaida poses to its own government.