Many Americans were surprised to see the Obama administration get caught flat-footed again in the volatile Arab World when a Shiite Muslim Houthi rebel group, with ties to Iran’s terrorist state, overthrew Yemen’s government.
It marks the third time during the Obama presidency that the U.S. has had to abandon its diplomatic outposts (Libya, Syria, and now Yemen) because of Middle East and North Africa hostilities. The most recent closure of an American embassy not only damages U.S. regional foreign policy objectives but seriously hampers U.S. counter-terrorism efforts.
Last September, U.S. President Barack Obama touted the counter-terrorism alliance between the U.S. and Yemeni governments as a model of success in the fight against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and other terror groups. Today, that alliance is in tatters with the U.S.-backed Yemeni government deposed and Americans and people around the world were treated to the ugly spectacle of U.S. diplomats, intelligence personnel, and Marines fleeing their posts.
Yemen is a very poor Arab country of about 26 million people which borders Suez Canal shipping lanes and Saudi Arabia. About 65 percent of the population is Sunni Islam Wahhabism adherents, from which AQAP derives its jihadists. Almost all of the other residents are Shiite Muslims, including the Houthis.
The Houthis belong to a rebel group called Ansar Allah, or Partisans of God. And they adhere to Zaidism, a form of Shia Islam. Until 1962, Zaidis ruled North Yemen for nearly 1000 years. Two Arab states, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have designated the Houthis as a terrorist organization.
AQAP traces its genesis to the suicide attack against the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 which killed 17 U.S. sailors and injured 39 others. It has also been involved in plotting the failed bombing attempt of a U.S. airline over Detroit in 2009, and more recently the vicious murders of 17 Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris, France – which also took the lives of 4 innocent Jewish shoppers in a Kosher Paris Deli. The U.S. State Department designated AQAP as a foreign terrorist organization in 2010.
Iran’s theocratic Shiite non-Arab terrorist regime benefits strategically and geopolitically from the Houthi takeover of Yemen’s government. It gives Iran another important ally in the Arab World, to go along with other important alliances it has in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza. One of the first things Houthis and their loyalists did after acquiring power in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, was to go into the streets reciting a familiar refrain heard during anti-U.S. and Israel demonstrations in Iran, “Death to America, and Death to Israel.”
The immediate outlook for Yemen, and U.S. relations with that nation, is bleak. The country will now likely descend into sectarian civil war, pitting two professed U.S. enemies, AQAP and the Houthis, against each other. And the victor will continue to pose a clear and present danger to U.S. security interests, regional allies, and Yemenis who aspire to a better life.
Most Americans now realize that the Obama administration’s approach to combatting the Islamic terrorist threat is insufficient. U.S. intelligence and White House security advisors failed to recognize the rising threat to the U.S.-backed Yemeni government by Iranian-backed Houthis. And some, including President Obama, are reluctant to publicly admit ongoing conflicts in places like Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Mali, Nigeria, and Somalia are being driven by Islamic religious zealots, groups, and nations who engage in, or sponsor, terrorism.
Accordingly, White House policy-makers and U.S. law-makers should: (1) conduct executive branch inquiries and participate in congressional hearings to determine what went wrong with Yemen policies, and (2), recognize the rising Islamic terrorism threat on a global scale and match counter-terrorism policies and resources to that threat until it’s neutralized.
The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism and U.S. National Counterterrorism Center reports as well as various congressional testimonies provide a chilling account of the rising number of atrocities being committed in the name of Islam. It’s time for the Obama and administration to recognize it and reverse that trend. Humanity, and U.S. security, is at stake.
Fred Gedrich is a foreign policy and national security analyst. He served in the departments of State and Defense.