On Wednesday the Washington Post reported that CIA sources now believe that Yemen-based group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), now represents a greater threat to US security than Al Qaeda in Pakistan, and senior Obama administration officials are urging an escalation of American operations in the region. The report comes a day after Amnesty International called on Washington to clarify the role of US forces in unlawful extra-judicial executions of Al Qaeda suspects in the country.
Since the attempt by a Yemeni-trained terrorist to destroy a US-bound plane last Christmas there has been a major crackdown in Yemen. An air-strike against suspected militants in December killed 41 civilians including 14 women and 21 children, while a US cruise missile attack in May mistakenly killed a Yemeni government official.
Last week 11 Yemeni soldiers were killed in an ambush in a town in southern Yemen. Government forces responded by killing 12 militants.
The Amnesty International report expresses concerns about unlawful killings, arbitrary arrest, torture, unfair trials and enforced disappearances. It also highlights concerns around the way in which the distinction has been blurred between AQAP terrorists and Houthi fighters who have waged a separatist rebellion in Yemen since 2004.
The role of the US military in air strikes in Yemen has never been publicly acknowledged, but according to the New York Times the US “provided firepower, intelligence and other support” to last December’s raids across the country. ABC News also reported that this support has included cruise missile strikes.
AQAP, led by American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, is thought to be growing in size and capacity, and there are concerns that it is strengthening its links with al Shaabab militants in the Horn of Africa.
Jihadism in Yemen has been fed over the decades by the return of generations of volunteer fighters radicalised whilst fighting in conflicts abroad including the Afghan war against the Soviets in the 1980s, the invasion of Afghanistan in 2002 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
But the roots of extremism in Yemen can be traced back much further. In the 1960’s there was a serious conflict between the forces of radical Islamic fundamentalism centred in Saudi Arabia and secular Arab nationalism centred in Nasser’s Egypt.
A proxy war was fought out in Yemen and fearful of losing access to the huge energy resources in the region, the British and Americans supported the Islamic fundamentalists.
Whilst extremists in Yemen represent a growing danger to Western countries it is important that this real threat is not used as an excuse to act unlawfully or to breach human rights.
If Western countries become complacent or complicit in allowing arbitrary arrest, torture and extra-judicial killings they will lose the moral high ground in the the battle against extremist violence.