Never Forget

01.11.15 11:45 AM ET

The Forgotten War That Spawned Paris’s Attacks

While the attack against Charlie Hebdo captured the world’s attention, Yemen continued to bleed from relentless attacks from al Qaeda.

LONDON — The massacre at the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo was neither the only nor the deadliest terror attack to occur on Wednesday. Hours before the Koauchi brothers made their way to the offices of the French satirical magazine, thousands of miles away, in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, a car bomb struck a crowd of men lined up to enroll at the city’s police academy. Roughly four-dozen were killed as the bomb went off, strewing blood and body parts across the street.

It’s a coincidence that has grown all the more notable—and tragic—in light of the emerging ties between the Charlie Hebdo attackers and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen-based terror group that officials have accused of carrying out Wednesday’s car bomb. According to the AFP, Said Koauchi, the older of the pair, traveled to Yemen multiple times between 2009 and 2011, studying at Sanaa’s Iman University, a controversial institution headed by firebrand cleric Abdulmajid al-Zindani, prior to training with AQAP in camps in the south and southeast of the country.

Notably, Inspire, an English-language, AQAP-affiliate magazine, explicitly threatened to kill Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier in its March 2013 edition, and at writing time, AQAP has reportedly taken credit for the attack on behalf of the group, though the ultimate extent of the Koauchi brothers’ ties to Yemen and AQAP is still unclear. Either way, the attack has refocused attention to the impoverished, conflict-stricken country.

Hailed as a textbook example of a successful counterterrorism strategy by U.S. officials as late as fall of last year, Yemen has instead been riven with unrest lately. An internationally backed power transition agreement has fallen apart, and the country’s economy—to say nothing of the central government’s control over the bulk of the country—has appeared to collapse as well. And no one in the circles of power in the West seems to have noticed.

Indeed, last week’s violence in Paris seems to underline how little progress has been made against AQAP. Despite the efforts of the U.S. and Yemeni governments, it still appears to possess the ability to unleash horrors against Western targets.

Yemen had already developed a reputation as a hotspot for extremism by the time Koauchi allegedly first arrived in 2009. Many western-born Muslim hardliners flocked to Salafi institutes in the country, most famously, perhaps, the Dar al-Hadith institute in the far northern town of Dammaj. While the bulk of these foreigners simply came to study, a number joined up with extremists on the ground. One of the most notorious among them was “Underwear Bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian student trained by AQAP who infamously attempted to blow up a passenger airliner on Christmas Day 2009.

But while such rare plots against foreign targets have garnered AQAP the most attention, the bulk of activity—and the bulk of their attacks—has occurred on Yemeni soil. It is this violence the West ignores at its peril.

As the central government’s control over much of the country evaporated over the course of 2011 in the wake of the Arab Spring-inspired uprising against the country’s long time leader, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, AQAP quickly moved to take advantage. While the group was pushed out of its former strongholds in the southern Abyan in a Spring 2012 military offensive, they’ve quickly regrouped.

AQAP has continued to find safe haven in areas across country, ranging from the eastern province of Hadramawt—where the group’s fighters have displayed aims of establishing an Islamic emirate—to the oil and gas rich provinces of Marib and Shabwa, to Abyan itself. AQAP has continued to unleash a steady flurry of attacks on military and security targets, supplementing their finances through everything from bank robberies to taking foreign hostages for ransom, allowing the group to buy new weapons and loyalties as it aims to spread its writ to new territories.

Only the most diligent of news junkies would be aware of this bloodshed, given the dearth of coverage in most Western media—a disheartening oversight, because AQAP represents perhaps the purest distillation of al Qaeda’s ideology and ambitions outside of the core group headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri. Most terrorism analysts consider it the most dangerous al Qaeda franchise.

The U.S. has worked to counter AQAP’s growth, gaining a comparatively free hand from President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Saleh’s successor and a former vice president. He has openly backed American drone strikes in the country.

But while the sharp uptick of U.S. drone strikes has succeeded in taking out a handful of key figures, including AQAP deputy emir Said al-Shihri and charismatic extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the barrage of remotely operated American airpower has failed to deliver anything resembling a knock-out punch to the terror group.

Yemenis overwhelmingly oppose the strikes, which they see as violations of the nation’s sovereignty and the rule of law. These misgivings have only been heightened by a series of civilian casualties resulting from the strikes. A number of observers—including former U.S. deputy ambassador to Yemen Nabil Khoury—have vocally criticized the strikes, arguing that they ultimately risk creating as many militants as they kill, ironically threatening to inflame anti-American sentiments to the point of spurring the very attacks the U.S. is aiming to prevent.

All of this, however, fails to touch on the key factors behind the presence of extremist groups like AQAP in Yemen. In large part, AQAP is a product of its environment; as many Yemenis see it, the group is the fruit of a foreign ideology that has been able to lay roots in the country due to Yemen’s widespread poverty and the government’s endemic corruption and persistent dysfunction. As the group’s resilience in the face of repeated U.S. drone strikes has demonstrated, AQAP will continue to carve out a presence in Yemen as long as its given space to do so—something that is virtually inevitable as long as the power vacuum in the country remains—meaning the group appears destined to retain the operating space to train operatives who can take aim at targets in the west.

In light of the ongoing political crisis in the country, it’s rather hard to see a way out. Paradoxically, as foreign diplomats continued to hail the country’s supposed progress along a UN-sponsored “transitional roadmap,” things continued to slowly spiral out of control on the ground. An ongoing humanitarian crisis means roughly half of the already impoverished country is going hungry. Secessionists in the country’s restive south—an independent country until 1990—stage daily demonstrations calling for a return to autonomy. Tensions between rival factions in the Yemeni political establishment paralyze the government. And the Shi’a-led Houthi rebel group finally took control of the city on Sept. 21 last year.

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Despite their vociferously anti-American stance—epitomized by the caustic “Death to America” slogans displayed on their checkpoints across the Yemeni capital—the Houthis have made fighting AQAP a top priority. But AQAP has fought back; the group’s military commander, Qassim al-Raymi, ominously threatened to unleash casualties that would “make the hair of young children turn grey.”

In the wake of Wednesday’s car bomb attack in Sanaa, appalled Yemenis, noting two attacks on Houthi-linked targets in the central towns of Dhamar and Ibb mere days before, worried that the group appeared to be making good on Raymi’s word, wondering, with horror, when the violence would finally end. And when the world would remember this war.

It’s unspeakably tragic that it took a violent attack in Paris to refocus attention to the ongoing unrest in Yemen, a nation whose conflict has been all but forgotten for some time. But the worry here is that once the attack on Charlie Hebdo fades from the headlines, Yemen will return to suffering alone as the rest of the world turns a deaf ear—until, that is, AQAP hits the West again.

Adam Baron is a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He was based in Yemen from 2011-2014.