By Arab News
The possibility of Yemen going down the road of Somalia and becoming a failed state fills any observer with dread. The only beneficiary will be Al-Qaeda through its particularly virulent local setup, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). If AQAP were able to establish a base in the country, it would use it to launch attacks on Saudi Arabia, other GCC states and Western targets in the region and elsewhere.
Earlier this year, AQAP was seen as a relatively minor threat. It existed — but as tool in the hands of Yemen’s political and tribal leaders who used against rivals or as a useful means to scare money out of the US and others on the basis that it needed to be contained and only they could do it. It did not have a viable independent existence. The local tribes would have slit the throats of its members if it did not play ball with them.
AQAP can no longer be so easily dismissed. It and its allies in the “Ansar Al-Sharia,” are fast filling the vacuum resulting from the collapse of central power across of the country, notably in the restless south. There it has been able to hook itself into the popular demand for autonomy or even independence. In particular, in Abyan province, east of Aden, the militants have been in the vanguard of opposition to the central government. It has allowed them to become a separate force and pursue their own agenda. The situation now is that the two largest towns in Abyan, the provincial capital Zinjibar and Jaar, are in militant hands. Tens of thousands of inhabitants have fled. Apart from the militants, both are now reported to be almost ghost towns. The refugees have headed largely for the relative safety of Aden. But there are fears that the militants plan to strike out and seize it. Were it to fall — it is a mere 35 km from Zinjibar — there would a real danger of AQAP moving to set up an Islamic emirate in south Yemen.
It is fears such as these that brought President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to Riyadh this week to meet with Yemen’s politically and physically weakened President Ali Abdullah Saleh, convalescing after last month’s assassination attempt, and then on to Sanaa to meet with government and opposition to try and revive the stalled GCC settlement plan. Unfortunately, the visit solved nothing.
If the crisis is not soon resolved, the fallout will affect Saudi Arabia and Oman. At the very least tens of thousands of refugees will try to cross the porous borders in search of safety. There will be thousands of economic refugees as well; prices in Yemen are rocketing as a result of the chaos and people are now beginning to leave the capital because of economic instability. And a battle for Aden is looming that cannot afford to be lost.
President Saleh has his supporters but it is blindingly clear that he is now too divisive a figure to restore stability. While he remains there will be chaos and in that chaos Al-Qaeda will flourish. Possibly a federal Yemen is the answer. Whatever it is, an answer is urgent. The safety of the entire peninsula depends on it. It is folly to imagine that crisis in Yemen can be contained.