Jan 4 A foiled attack on a U.S. airliner has
crystallised global fears about al Qaeda in Yemen, an Arab state
verging on collapse in a region that includes oil giant Saudi
Arabia and one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
The Nigerian accused of attempting the Dec. 25 airliner
bombing is thought to have been on a mission organised by al
Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is exploiting
instability in Yemen to launch attacks in the region and beyond.
Islamist militancy is only one of myriad economic and
security challenges facing President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
A Shi'ite revolt in the north and southern secessionism are
other symptoms of central government weakness in a country where
rampant corruption and declining oil income undermine any effort
to tackle poverty, unemployment and failing water resources.
Here are some questions and answers about how outside powers
are dealing with Yemen:
WHAT IS U.S. POLICY TOWARD YEMEN?
Saleh pledged cooperation with the United States after the
Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on U.S. cities and received military and
economic aid in return. But by 2004 al Qaeda appeared to be in
disarray and U.S. interest waned. In 2006 Washington slashed aid
to mark its wrath at Yemen's perceived lenience towards
The pendulum has swung back. U.S. counter-terrorism
officials now rank Yemen as a top concern after Afghanistan and
U.S. President Barack Obama told Saleh in September that
Yemen's security was vital to that of the United States,
offering more help to the impoverished country.
U.S. General David Petraeus, who discussed military
cooperation with Saleh in Sanaa on Saturday, has said Washington
will more than double its $70 million security aid to Yemen.
Yemeni armed forces, with at least indirect U.S. assistance,
have staged several raids on al Qaeda targets in recent weeks.
But militant threats prompted the U.S. embassy, which was
attacked twice in 2008, to close temporarily on Sunday. Britain
and France have also shut their missions in the capital.
The United States has largely refrained from criticising the
"Scorched Earth" military offensive that Saleh launched against
Zaydi Shi'ite rebels in the north in August. But it has not
endorsed government claims that Iran is supporting the rebels.
Alarmed at Yemen's slide toward chaos, the United States is
throwing its weight behind a corruption-tainted government whose
legitimacy and control is tenuous across swathes of the country.
Anti-U.S. sentiment is already rife among Yemen's 23 million
people. Deeper U.S. entanglement in combating al Qaeda may spark
more sympathy for the militants in a country awash with weapons.
WHAT ARE THE SAUDIS DOING?
Saudi Arabia is the Yemeni government's biggest financial
donor and most important ally, along with the United States, but
some Yemenis resent the influence of their wealthy neighbour.
The Saudis fear that al Qaeda's local wing, renamed al Qaeda
in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) a year ago, is trying to
relaunch armed attacks from Yemen to destabilise the kingdom and
possibly other U.S. allies in the oil-producing Gulf region.
In August an AQAP suicide bomber narrowly failed to kill the
Saudi prince heading the kingdom's anti-terrorism campaign.
Disheartened by the failure of Yemeni forces to crush the
Zaydi revolt, the Saudis themselves attacked the so-called
Houthi insurgents in November after a cross-border rebel raid.
Riyadh announced last month that 73 Saudi soldiers had been
killed and 26 were missing in the conflict, which it said was
nearly over, even though rebels still held a Saudi village.
The Houthis, who on Thursday offered talks with Saudi Arabia
to end the fighting, list among their grievances inroads made by
Saudi-backed Sunni Muslim radicals in their northern heartland.
WHAT ROLE IS IRAN PLAYING?
Saleh's government, which portrays the Houthis as catspaws
of Iran, has rejected Iranian offers to mediate in the conflict,
which has long roots dating back to Yemen's 1960s civil war.
Iranian state media take a pro-Houthi line, echoing rebel
accusations about Saudi and U.S. involvement in the fighting,
but Tehran denies arming or funding the insurgents.
Western diplomats say they have little evidence of any
Iranian support for the Houthis, whose Zaydi brand of Shi'ism is
doctrinally distinct from that practised in Iran.
But Saudi intervention, as well as a strand of anti-Zaydi
sentiment in Sunni-majority Yemen, might foster more shared
interests between the Houthis and Iran, some analysts say.
WHY SHOULD THE WORLD CARE?
The botched airliner attack underlined the danger of Yemen
becoming a haven for al Qaeda militancy. Any Yemeni state
failure would also pose risks for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf
Concern has also focused on Yemen's proximity to failed Horn
of Africa state Somalia, which sits across the Gulf of Aden and
hosts a pirate community that preys on international shipping.
Nearly 20,000 ships pass through the Gulf of Aden each year,
heading to and from the Suez Canal.
Somalia's rebel Islamist militant group al Shabaab said on
Friday it was ready to send reinforcements to al Qaeda in Yemen
should the United States carry out retaliatory strikes there.
Despite its own dire economic straits, Yemen hosts several
hundred thousand Somali and other African refugees and migrants,
many of whom try to move on to Gulf countries or Europe.
Yemen also faces a humanitarian crisis in the north, where
U.N. agencies say the conflict has displaced more than 170,000
people since 2004. Across the country, more than half of Yemeni
children show signs of stunting from malnutrition, they say.
Most foreign investment in Yemen is in oil and gas resources
located in the south, where violent unrest broke out last year
after an April 28 opposition rally to mark the 1994 civil war in
which Saleh's forces defeated an attempt at secession.
Southerners, whose People's Democratic Republic of Yemen
merged with the north in 1990, complain that northerners abused
the union to grab their resources and discriminate against them.
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)