Skip to main content

Allegations that the Yemen-based branch of al Qaeda was behind the attempt by a Nigerian man to blow up a US airliner on Christmas Day 2009 have dramatically increased international attention to the threat of terrorism emanating from Yemen.

To be effective, international counterterrorism policy in Yemen should take into account the lessons from the response to al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan: military tactics such as airstrikes that cause high civilian casualties, and arbitrary arrests and abusive treatment of suspected militants undermine efforts to reduce local support for al Qaeda. The Yemeni government has engaged in all of these actions against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Second, engagement with Yemen must also address the serious human rights problems that have turned large segments of Yemeni society against the government, and thus reduced the government's ability to fight terrorism effectively. Ongoing human rights violations by the state security forces (particularly the Central Security Forces, the Political Security Organization, and the National Security Organization), risk providing an even more fertile base of support for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Yemen's most serious human rights violations arise in the context of two pressing internal conflicts-the government's war with Huthi rebels in the north of the country, and its repression of a secessionist movement in the south. Officials have recently warned against "internationalizing" these two conflicts, but it would be a mistake if international efforts to assist the government ignored the grievances underlying those conflicts. Yemen's military and policing approaches have resulted in numerous violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, which have alienated large segments of Yemeni society.

Most Yemenis do not see AQAP as a threat to them.  They are more concerned about the government's repressive practices and rampant corruption, as well as the lack of jobs for the country's booming population, a looming water crisis, and rapidly depleting oil reserves, the main source of revenue, along with the conflicts in the north and south. Resolving the human rights grievances underlying those two conflicts and strengthening human rights protections generally is critical to creating a more stable government in Yemen and empowering it to address the country's economic and development problems.

Recommendations to Yemen's allies:

1.             Increase development aid to Yemen, ensuring a cohesive strategy in collaboration with the appropriate UN agencies, and use aid to address human rights concerns that drive instability.

2.            Support establishment in Yemen of a human rights monitoring mission by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights with a mandate to publicly report on human rights abuses by all parties to Yemen's conflicts, and press the government of Yemen to cooperate in the establishment of such a mission.

3.            Add effective human rights components to any bilateral aid for security forces, such as law enforcement and military training and equipment, including non-lethal methods of crowd control, respect for the laws of war, measures to combat torture, and internal accountability.

4.            Stress the importance of an independent judiciary with the resources and competence to address accountability for human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests and torture.

5.            Urge the government to ensure that impartial humanitarian agencies have access to all places of detention in Yemen, and end the use of private or unauthorized detention sites.

6.            Ensure that no assistance goes to units of security forces implicated in unlawful killings, arbitrary arrests, torture and other serious human rights abuses. Publicly speak out when such violations occur.

7.            Assist the United States and Yemen in repatriating or resettling Yemenis held without charge at Guantanamo, including the 40 Yemenis that the US government has already cleared for release.

1.         Do not turn Al Qaeda's enemies into its friends

The lessons of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and myriad other internal conflicts is that armed militant groups thrive when the government does not enjoy the support of their people.  This is particularly applicable in Yemen.  Should the United States, European Union, and other international actors align themselves too closely with the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, without squarely addressing the country's broader political and economic problems -including serious human rights violations--AQAP will grow stronger, not weaker. 

Countries working with the Yemeni government should recognize that many Yemenis see their government as a greater threat to their security than al Qaeda.  Government repression has often targeted - and alienated - Yemenis who might otherwise be supportive of government efforts against AQAP.

For example, the Yemeni government's five-year-old civil war against the Huthi movement of Zaidi Muslims in the north targets some of al Qaeda's most ingrained foes. Zaidi religious leaders ruled Yemen for a millennium, until the republican revolution in 1962. Zaidi activists in the 1990s, under the leadership of the Huthi family, started a movement to counter the spread of Saudi-inspired and Yemeni government-supported Wahhabi influence in northern Yemen. In 2004, President Saleh reportedly tried to recruit jihadi fighters to help him fight the Huthi rebels.

Recurrent bouts of fighting in the north have displaced some 200,000 civilians as of January 2010. The government's latest military campaign against the Huthis-launched in August 2009 under the name "Operation Scorched Earth"-has resulted in serious allegations of violations of international humanitarian law. Human Rights Watch researchers in northern Yemen in October 2009 gathered eyewitness accounts strongly suggesting indiscriminate government aerial bombing and artillery shelling, and the use of child soldiers, as well as Huthi laws-of-war violations.

Yemen's southern secessionist movement, led by the mostly secular elites of the former Marxist southern state, has also traditionally been at odds ideologically with Islamist armed militants like al Qaeda. President Saleh, during the 1994 civil war with the south, deployed Islamist armed militants returned from Afghanistan to crush southern forces. Southern grievances from that time led to largely peaceful mass protests in the south starting in 2007, but the Saleh government's brutal suppression of these protests - shooting unarmed protestors, denying injured protestors medical care, shutting opposition newspapers, silencing dissidents, and waves of arbitrary arrests - has alienated large swaths of the south from the government in the capital, San'a, further diminishing its influence. It also seems to have created a bond of shared victimhood that al Qaeda is exploiting.

Yemen's allies should press President Saleh to put an end to his policies of repression in the north and south, and to address legitimate economic and political grievances in both regions.  And international actors such as the US and EU must be seen as doing so by the Yemeni people, so that AQAP cannot paint Saleh's allies as accomplices in serious human rights abuses, as it has already tried to do.

2.        Learn from Pakistan

The US and EU's uncritical partnership with Pakistan's former military ruler Pervez Musharaf was mistaken and counterproductive. The US and EU have now placed increased emphasis on support for democratic institutions and the rule of law there rather than alignment with a single leader or exclusive reliance on the country's armed forces.  The same approach is needed in Yemen. 

President Saleh now appears serious about addressing the security concerns posed by al Qaeda.  Much like Pakistani leaders in the past, he has a long history of striking deals with armed Islamist groups that do not address human rights concerns, and rounding up hundreds of people on little or no evidence and jailing them for months or years without charge. Human Rights Watch interviewed the family of one young man who was illegally held for 18 months as a notorious al Qaeda member in a clear case of mistaken identity, and we learned of numerous men who were taken hostage by security forces in order to secure the surrender of their relatives.

Saleh's government prosecutes terrorism suspects before a Specialized Criminal Court that do not meet international fair trial standards-defense lawyers report that they are often denied access to their clients' files, and that judges ignore their complaints of forced confessions, torture and other serious violations of their clients' rights.

Rather than go after top al Qaeda members, President Saleh has until recently directed his security forces to concentrate on his domestic political opponents (many of whom, as noted, are ideologically opposed to al Qaeda).  Without significant pressure and vigilance, he is likely to exploit any new international support to intensify domestic repression. Indeed, on January 4, within days of President Barack Obama's recent expressions of support for Saleh's government, security forces opened fire on hundreds of protestors peacefully demanding the reopening of Yemen's largest independent newspaper, Al-Ayyam. And on January 16, still under the spotlight of increased US and EU attention, a new Special Press Court sentenced Anisa ‘Uthman of the weekly Al-Wasat to three months in prison for an article that "offended" the president. Even before those two recent incidents, the intensity of the government's crackdown on free expression since 2009 was unprecedented.

Yemen's allies should not explicitly or implicitly give unqualified support for President Saleh's government, but instead demand an end to torture, arbitrary arrests, and the government's crackdown on the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. They should ensure that foreign aid does not strengthen, and is not perceived as strengthening, the repressive apparatus of the state.  Foreign diplomats and officials should meet with and express support for Yemeni journalists and civil society leaders, emphasizing the need for the government to respect and protect fundamental rights and the rule of law..

3.        Civilian casualties hurt as much in Yemen as they do in Afghanistan

In Yemen, as in Afghanistan, civilian casualties incurred in fighting Islamist militants turn people who normally would not support groups such as al Qaeda against the government and against its backers.  Following the US-assisted airstrikes on AQAP in Abyan on December 17, 2009, and in Shabwa on December 24, which reportedly claimed the lives of women and children, secular southern Yemeni activists closed ranks with armed Islamists and denounced the strikes as an attack on their movement.

The government sees air power as necessary against AQAP in parts of Yemen where ordinary law enforcement operations are not possible.  But lack of a ground presence increases the risk of poor intelligence, and of local actors manipulating international forces.  Airstrikes must be carried out in conformity with the laws of war and should only be used against legitimate military targets.  US Gen. Stanley McChrystal's Tactical Directive stating the lessons learned from Afghanistan is just as germane for Yemen:  "We must avoid the trap of winning tactical victories - but suffering strategic defeats - by causing civilian casualties or excessive damage and thus alienating the people."  

4.        Internationalize the civilian effort

Countries already involved in Yemen should seek the assistance of states that could help promote greater respect for human rights by the Yemeni government. For instance, Saudi Arabia should be pressed to use its influence with San'a to help end human rights violations in the context of the northern and southern conflicts, while insisting on deeper United Nations and EU engagement.  The international community should press Yemen to allow impartial humanitarian agencies access to all places of detention. The UN should deploy a country-wide human rights monitoring mission, with strong backing from the secretary-general, and bring its political and mediation resources to bear in resolving human rights grievances underlying the northern and southern conflicts that fuel instability in Yemen.  The UN has significant experience in these sectors, and a direct UN role will be less controversial for the Yemeni government than a direct role for outside powers, especially the US and the UK that enjoy little support at present.  Yemen's allies should urge the UN to take on such a role, encourage UN participation in the London meeting on Yemen on January 27, and press the Yemeni government to accept its presence.  They also should pledge funding for such a constructive UN involvement in Yemen.

5.        Increase aid, but remember that resistance is driven by politics not poverty

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the US, EU and other donors will not win Yemenis' trust if aid to Yemen is chiefly for military and security purposes.  Development aid should increase to address the problems Yemenis face in their daily lives, to improve access to water, health, education, roads and jobs.  At the same time, the "soft" side of international engagement will fail if it focuses exclusively on non-controversial social and economic issues, and avoids addressing the political grievances that drive opposition to government repression and fuel support for militancy. 

International assistance should thus also focus on bringing an end to human rights violations and improving governance in Yemen.  For example, donors should support law enforcement training and strengthening judicial accountability as part and parcel of its counter-terrorism engagement, especially for non-lethal methods of crowd control in dealing with the southern protests, and mechanisms to prevent and redress torture and to hold perpetrators accountable.

6.        Yemen needs support

The international response to AQAP needs Yemeni cooperation, and the Saleh government will try to take advantage of that need to insist on cooperation on its terms.  But the government also needs support. US aid to Yemen has doubled in recent years, and the EU has started to engage Yemen through its Instrument for Stability, a multi-pronged set of assistance measures, while upgrading its presence to a full-fledged delegation in 2009. US and EU financial aid remains meager compared to reported Saudi aid, and other Gulf country commitments. Yemen's allies, especially Saudi Arabia, should work on a strategic vision on the need for a stable Yemen, and insist that strengthening the central government's ability to provide for its population requires ending serious routine violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. Saudi Arabia needs to recognize that its military engagement against the Huthi rebels has contributed to widespread displacement in the north, and that a UN monitoring presence in Yemen near the Saudi border could improve security for the civilian population.

The Yemeni government is struggling to control parts of its territory and seeks military and intelligence hardware against its internal foes, including the Huthi rebels, al Qaeda, and southern secessionists.  It is running out of oil to finance its operations, and water to support its growing population.  Meanwhile, more than 50,000 Ethiopian asylum seekers came to Yemen in 2009, adding to hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees already there. Yemen's allies are in a strong bargaining position; they should offer assistance, but with hard conditions designed to address the problems discussed above.  This is necessary not solely because Yemen's allies have multiple goals--counterterrorism, human rights and development--that need to be taken into account.  It is also important because absent improvements in governance and development, they will not achieve the security goal of countering al Qaeda.

7.         Keeping Yemenis at Guantanamo gives al Qaeda a propaganda tool

In the aftermath of the attempted Christmas Day attack on an airliner bound for Detroit, the Obama administration suspended the planned repatriation of about 40 Yemenis from the US prison at Guantanamo Bay. There are at least 88 Yemenis at Guantanamo, nearly half the current detainee population, and all but three are being held without charge.  The failure to repatriate or resettle them remains the largest single obstacle to closing Guantanamo.

The Obama administration's decision to suspend returns of Yemeni Guantanamo detainees to Yemen was understandable in light of the existing political climate in the US.  But the attempted Christmas Day bombing did not fundamentally change what is at stake.  As was the case a few months ago, repatriating or resettling Yemenis poses security risks but it is necessary for closing Guantanamo. And ending indefinite detention by closing Guantanamo remains imperative to US counterterrorism efforts. 

Some Yemenis sent home may be open to recruitment by AQAP, especially if, like past returnees, they receive no support from the Yemeni government to rebuild their lives.  But the US has already released thousands of detainees from its detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan with the same risk that some may join militant groups. By contrast, if the Yemenis remain in Guantanamo - and especially if Guantanamo becomes essentially a camp for Yemenis only- AQAP will be handed a glorious propaganda opportunity for recruitment.

A stronger overall US strategy towards Yemen should allow the Obama administration over the next several months to work with the Yemeni government on a plan to safely repatriate or resettle any detainees it does not charge, starting with those already cleared for release. That plan should include international assistance to help detainees reintegrate into society and make them less vulnerable to recruitment by militant groups. If necessary, Yemen or a third country could place restrictions on detainees' movements to protect national security. 

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country