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Yemen: The Rising Security Threat
The Current Crisis
The recent (15-08-2013) attack on a checkpoint at the Balhaf gas terminal, in which five soldiers were killed, represents the latest incident in the ‘red alert’ situation that has lain across the Middle East since intercepts at the start of the month, conversations between the al-Qaeda high command, hinted that a significant Middle East terrorist attack was imminent. Embassies region-wide were closed, foreign nationals were urged (or ordered) to evacuate at once. And whilst attacks occurred elsewhere – bombings in Baghdad killing fifty and multiple bombings/shootings across Pakistan – the focal point of the alerts has always been Yemen – representing in microcosm a trend that is becoming more and more prevalent: namely that Yemen is fast becoming the world’s prime regional centre of extremism and terrorism.
Yemen was, of course, the site of the USS Cole bombing in 2000, still the most recent successful attack on America’s military outside of Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed it was this attack that ‘announced’ Yemen to the world outside the intelligence community as a new player in international terrorism. But at the time, there was nothing to indicate that Yemen was anything other than another link in the chain of Islamic extremism, taking in the failed World Trade Centre bombing of 1993 and the African embassy bombings of 1998 to name but two. Then 9/11 occurred, and terrorism – and the significance of Yemen – changed.
Al-Qaeda Take Root
The tale of al-Qaeda can briefly be summarised as a tale of two halves. The first, from the movement’s inception to the battle of Tora Bora, saw the movement as a largely controlled and centralised organisation run primarily from Afghanistan, with the ‘core’ leadership concentrated in one area. Post-2001, however, ‘al-Qaeda’ became if anything more of an ideal than an entity, a set of concepts, histories and doctrines for ideologues all over the world to take hold of and use as the foundation for their own plots, whether or not they had ever either travelled to the Afghanistan training camps or been affiliated with The Base in any way. (Not for nothing is the official magazine of al-Qaeda called Inspire).
Yet it also held onto a physical presence, continuing with a figurehead leader, currently Ayman al-Zawahiri, and dividing into a number of regional organisations rather than relying on the core. The Arabian Peninsula branch operates out of Yemen, and thus the state took on a new, critical importance. Not only was it initially led by the only American-born individual on the US Most Wanted List (Anwar al-Awlaki) until his death in a drone strike, but it is also arguably the closest al-Qaeda has to a ‘successful’ subsidiary at present. Both the Christmas Day Detroit airliner bomb plot, and the printer cartridge explosive plot were hatched in Yemen, and the first at least came frighteningly close to completion.
So why Yemen, and what are the security threats? As a localised body, the placement of AQAP in Yemen is ideal. The country is situated at the mouth of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, putting it at the heart of the transport routes for much of the world’s ocean-borne oil trade, and close to both on-shore and off-shore oil and gas fields, either current or prospective, in Saudi Arabia, Kenya and Tanzania. Not only is it thus located in the Islamic heartland, operatives within are perfectly placed to attack Western interests in the region – or aid their opponents. Yemen has long been the single largest source of arms shipped to al-Shabab militants in Somalia, the world’s first truly failed state, and it appears that if the current decline is not reversed, Yemen may soon find itself the second. The country avoided the seismic unrest and upheaval of the Arab Spring by the voluntary resignation of President Saleh, but that was the least of its problems. Relying on oil revenues for 75% of government money, the country faces a permanent battle with al-Qaeda for either control, or destruction of, this resource, as well as the question of what to do when the oil eventually runs out.
The same is true of the water reserves. It is estimated that inside ten years, Sana’a will be completely dry. Equal failures in government and environmental management have contributed to this situation, one to which there appears to be no easy cure. Desalination and conservation programmes have so far either failed or been ignored. Additionally, the government is facing a constant Shi’ite rebellion from the Northern provinces, and the Rub Al-Khali desert, the ‘Empty Quarter’ making up most of eastern Yemen, is a constant source of tribal and militant tension.
Either coupled together or taken separately, these individual and disparate conflicts – political protest, lack of water and extant militancy – will destabilise the country to such an extent that the central government may find it difficult, if not impossible, to keep control. The difficulties of living in Yemen under such conditions would also be exacerbated, so much so that many might side with the extremists or militants in order to force change in Yemen; thereby increasing the scope of al-Qaeda and further endangering both insufficiently-protected lives and interests in the country and wider region.
The Failed Terror Plot
One week ago Yemeni officials reported that a major plot by AQAP had been foiled. This plan would have seen al-Qaeda operatives, dressed as security officials, seize control of the al-Dhaba oil terminal and explode two major oil pipelines, while further militants mounted attacks on major cities. If successful, this plot would have seen al-Qaeda maintain control of Yemen’s energy capabilities and key urban areas.
The geopolitical consequences of a state being effectively held hostage by terrorists are unthinkable – not only might it inspire a domino effect for other groups to attempt the same, but al-Qaeda would be able to either capture or strike at vessels either in-port or in the Gulf of Aden. A super tanker of oil or LNG falling into the hands of AQAP does not thus seem so remote a possibility. It also represents a wider change – instead of using Yemen as a base for operations abroad (see above) or kidnapping Westerners for ransom or demands, attention is now being focused on the state apparatus of Yemen itself, indicating that greater efforts will in future be made to reinforce the domestic base that it provides – and thus dramatically increase the threat level posed by Yemen to global security.
Exactly how evolved the al-Dhaba plot was, and how easily it was uncovered, remain speculative. What is clear from the ongoing Yemen security crisis – and evident by the fact that the US consulate in Sana’a is one of only two to remain closed until further notice – is that all possible security measures, across the entire sector, must be taken to ensure the continued success of business or individuals operating in or around Yemen. For any oil-carrying or cargo vessels docking at Aden or similar oil-serving ports, it is not enough to carry armed guards aboard; measures must be taken at the infrastructural level on both the ships and the ports – facility security assessments, implementation of Citadel technology, and anti-piracy measure consultancy are all the minimum standard required for security peace of mind. If al-Qaeda had succeeded in taking the ports, the fight to reclaim them would have set production back years – it is better to invest in facility and perimeter security and ensure that any attack would be unsuccessful.
At Balhaf, the situation is different. The security measures, both physical, electronic and personal, at Balhaf are so strong that any successful incursion into the LNG terminal, or her vessels (which do not carry armed guards), is practically an impossibility – and the level of security a necessity for the country’s economic lifeline. However, should the events unfold as described above and ‘Yemen’ as a state collapses, there is little point in having a dedicated LNG facility if the country will be unable to reap the benefits of it.
For all travellers or expatriates, appropriate measures would include a thorough professional risk assessment, Hostile Environment Awareness Training (HEAT), and either personal protection detail or personnel tracking, in case of attempted kidnap or attack. There is no substitute for safety or security, and it is vital that such bespoke services are offered in a way that does not negatively impact in a too public or forceful manner on business or conduct, but that they are there nonetheless.
These lessons are of course applicable anywhere in the world, but in Yemen above all others is the need for them so clearly demonstrated.
By James Bailey
Geopolitics Analyst – Knight Associates .
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