Leading article: The world must tread carefully in Yemen

What is required is a broad regional counter-terrorism strategy

The global struggle against Islamist terror has a new front. Thanks to a failed attack on an airliner landing in Detroit on Christmas Day, the international spotlight has switched to Yemen, where the would-be bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, is said to have been trained.

At the weekend, the top American commander in the region, David Petraeus, announced plans to double US counter-terrorism aid during a visit to the country. Our own Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has called for an international conference on the terror threat posed by Yemen to be held later this month.

There can be little doubt that Yemen is a genuine source of danger. Al-Qa'ida has steadily increased its presence in the country since the suicide bomb attack on the USS Cole in the port of Aden a decade ago. Foreign tourists have been targeted in recent years, as has the US embassy on several occasions. Many of the suicide bombers that have wreaked havoc in Iraq are believed to have hailed from Yemen. And the failed Detroit aircraft bombing confirms that Yemen has joined Pakistan as a base for the orchestration of international terror attacks.

But foreign powers must tread carefully as they attempt to neutralise this threat. Before intervening, they need to understand the nature of this mountainous country at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen, like Afghanistan, has a strong tribal system. And the authority of the central government is just as limited as Hamid Karzai's regime in Kabul. The northern and southern regions were only unified two decades ago. And as Yemen's oil revenues dwindle, the so does the power of the central government.

Outsiders need to work with the grain of Yemeni society. If they alienate the tribes, or are seen to be taking sides in the country's overlapping ethnic and religious disputes, foreign intervention designed to snuff out terror groups could easily prove counterproductive.

Ultimately, only a counter-terrorism strategy framed around the problems of the broader region makes sense. Yemeni's religious extremism is in large part an import from Saudi Arabia. The country has become a safe haven for religious fanatics from its northern neighbour. And Somalia, on the southern coast of the Gulf of Aden, is even more chaotic than Yemen and itself a serious potential source of global terror.

The international concern over Yemen is natural given the recent pattern of terror activity and the Detroit bombing attempt. And financial assistance to the Yemeni security forces to help the country defeat its internal fanatics is justified. But a foreign response which demands instant results, which turns a blind eye to the destabilising influence of Saudi Arabia, which fails to tackle the anarchy in Somalia, is destined to fail. Most of all, loose talk in Western capitals of pre-emptive military action against Yemen's Islamist militants needs to be ditched. Such threats not only lack credibility given the manifest overstretch of Nato forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, they unhelpfully raise the political temperature in the region.

The world cannot – and should not – ignore the terror threat posed by militant groups operating from within Yemen. But equally, the international community needs to ensure that, before anything else, it does not make matters worse.