Christopher Boucek: Yemen is a near-perfect haven for terrorists from South Asia

A resurgent al-Qa'ida has emerged in Yemen with the clear intention and capacity to mount operations

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This week, Yemen has catapulted to the top of the international security agenda. Two recent counter-terrorism operations in Yemen directed against al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), followed by the group's claim of responsibility for last week's botched attack on a US airliner, have focused global attention on what some are beginning to refer to as the next Af/Pak.

The past year has seen the emergence of a resurgent al-Qa'ida organisation in Yemen, with the clear intention and capacity to mount operations regionally and internationally. Still, assertions that "Yemen is tomorrow's war" are unhelpful and inappropriate.

Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula is now a clear priority for American national security officials. Over past months, Yemen has gained prominence as people began to recognise that the rapidly deteriorating security and stability situation presents a near-perfect environment for al-Qa'ida to operate in.

Yemen is facing a host of challenges, including a civil war in the north, a secessionist movement in the south, looming economic crisis, resource depletion, and rampant unemployment and corruption. The central government does not have the capacity or authority to exert full control throughout the country. As Sana'a's control slowly recedes, it is in the emerging under-governed spaces that it is feared extremists and terrorists will seek new safe havens.

Over the past six months there have been several press accounts of al-Qa'ida operatives fleeing Pakistan and heading to Yemen and Somalia. According to intelligence sources quoted in media reports, as counter-terrorism operations degrade al-Qa'ida capacity in Pakistan's tribal areas, terrorists have sought out new sanctuaries in Yemen's under-governed spaces.

Yemen is increasingly discussed in Washington as a counter-terrorism priority second only to Afghanistan and Pakistan – and with good reason. But while the resources that the United States has devoted to Yemen have sharply increased, they pale in comparison to the billions of dollars spent on Pakistan.

In spite of the parallels, Yemen will not replace South Asia as the central front in the war on terror. The American and allied military presence in neighbouring Afghanistan, the vast American commitment to the region, the Pakistani nuclear arsenal, and the presumed presence of senior al-Qa'ida leaders including Osama bin Laden will all continue to make Pakistan a greater priority for US national security.

Nevertheless, Yemen is a critical state of concern. Western and regional interests have been targeted there, and eliminating the AQAP leadership that uses it as a base will be a priority. Killing or capturing al-Qa'ida operatives is only a fraction of a coherent counter-terrorism strategy. An integrated approach will require long-term attention that targets the sources of instability.

In this sense, Yemen and Pakistan represent similar challenges for the international community. They will both require sustained and intensive attention, capacity building, and support.

Christopher Boucek is an associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

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