Americans are scrambling to understand Yemen, where Al Qaeda has recently surged and the Christmas Day plot against Northwest Flight 253 was hatched. It’s not easy. Yemen has 5,000 years of history, complicated politics and daunting economic challenges. But we’ve made it more difficult to understand by allowing several myths to cloud our vision. Challenging these misconceptions is a first step toward comprehending and overcoming significant threats to American, Yemeni and international security.
Myth 1: The Yemeni government’s control does not extend much beyond the capital, Sana.
It’s true that the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh faces several security problems. Al Qaeda has operated there since the early 1990s, with its strength waxing and waning depending on the effectiveness of the government’s counterterrorism efforts. Since 2004, the government has faced an insurrection in the north from a group called the Houthis, who would restore a religious ruler. There has also been growing separatist feeling in the southern regions that tried to secede in 1994. And many of the tribes in the north are well armed and operate largely outside the government structure.
None of this, however, means that the government is confined to ruling a city-state centered on Sana. The Yemeni Army and national police exert significant day-to-day control over most of the country, and almost everywhere else on an ad hoc basis. Yemen is much like the United States in the latter half of the 19th century, when the government faced a rebellious South and a Wild West, but was hardly powerless outside the East Coast. [continued…]