Ali Abdullah Saleh is not an especially lovable ally. Once known as "Little Saddam"—whom he hero-worshiped back in the day—Saleh is the longest-serving ruler in the Middle East after Libya's Muammar Kaddafi. During interviews, the Yemeni president slouches in his chair like a bored schoolboy, anxiously knocking his knees together as a question is asked. If he thinks he has said something particularly witty, Saleh smirks and flashes a wink at his aides to make sure they have heard it. Otherwise Saleh, a self-styled field marshal, doesn't try very hard to please anyone, even visiting American officials, who control about $70 million in aid for Yemen's military. It's a budget that could soon be at least doubled, and he will continue to do as he pleases, whatever the U.S.'s advice happens to be. Saleh has a standard response when asked about cooperation with Washington. "We're not your employees!" he barks.
Fair enough. No Middle Eastern leader can afford to look like an American stooge, and a little theatrical insolence goes a long way in this part of the world. The last thing the Obama administration wants is another Pakistan or Afghanistan, where local resentment of America's tactics in fighting jihadists has seemed to create more jihadists. Still, Saleh is caught in a harsh spotlight now—one that Barack Obama plans to keep trained on him despite the risk that the Yemeni leader will lose credibility among his own people. U.S. officials have been surprised by what they've discovered about the resurgence of Al Qaeda in Yemen in the aftermath of the Christmas Day bombing attempt by a Nigerian student who says he was trained and equipped there. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as this offshoot is called, is linked directly to the "core" group in Pakistan and it is now "one of the most lethal" affiliates, White House counterterrorism coordinator John Brennan said at a news conference. "We know there have been plenty of communications between FATA [the tribal regions in Pakistan] and Yemen," said another senior administration official who was authorized to speak only anonymously.
As a result, the smart-alecky antics of Ali Abdullah Saleh have begun to seriously grate on Washington. Saleh's U.S. critics point out that while his government occasionally cracks down, it has been hopelessly ineffective at keeping Al Qaeda from infiltrating the country—and possibly even Yemen's own security services. And as Yemen's economic situation gets more desperate—thanks in part to the Saleh government's corruption—Al Qaeda's presence in the country is growing. What's worse, some of the men around Saleh occasionally seem to be encouraging the militants: a 2006 prison break that reinvigorated Al Qaeda's local operations was considered to have been an inside job, though no evidence linked it directly to Saleh. Hawks in Congress like Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman breathlessly repeat warnings about Yemen going the way of Iraq and Afghanistan, destined to become "tomorrow's war."
The problem Obama has is that if Saleh is an SOB, he's America's SOB. There just isn't anyone else Washington can rely on in Yemen, which is one reason why in September, Obama sent Saleh a letter pledging full U.S. support. A poor relation of Saudi Arabia that sits at the southern tip of the peninsula, Yemen is, as one British official puts it, "Afghanistan by the Sea." The nation is a topographical mix of desert and savage mountains, with a xenophobic tribal culture. Hopelessly fractious, divided by seven local dialects (Saleh, when he gets excited, will often abandon standard Arabic and lapse into his native Sanani), it is an urgent nation-building problem as much as a terrorist haven, experts say. Saleh is beset by an exploding population, crushing unemployment, an acute water shortage—Yemen's cities have water for only a couple of hours a day—and oil output expected to dry up in less than a decade. And he's running out of money: the president spends most of his dwindling reserves on fighting a grinding civil war in the north and a resurgence of separatist sentiment in the south.
Distracted and deficit-ridden itself, the United States may have neither the patience nor the resources to stop Yemen from sliding into failed statehood. Yet if Saleh fails, there is, one U.S. official says, "a real prospect that Yemen may become a Somalia on the Arabian Peninsula," a no man's land ruled by warlords. So the only policy choice is to give more aid to Saleh and hope that, much like Afghan President Hamid Karzai—who is sometimes dismissed as the "mayor of Kabul"—the Yemeni leader can gradually wrest control of more of his country than the capital city of Sana. Saleh himself compares his constant balancing and maneuvering among tribes and factions to "dancing in a circle of snakes."
Yemen is part of the fluid, ever-shifting "Jihadistan" that keeps opening up new fronts in troubled parts of the world, including neighboring countries like Somalia. As recently as 2006, Al Qaeda was thought to be all but eliminated from Yemen. But in a global game of whack-a-mole, every time U.S. forces crack down in one place, like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, jihadists seem to pop up elsewhere. In the case of Yemen, the rebirth of Al Qaeda is also a result of successful operations in neighboring Saudi Arabia.
The terrorist cells these countries harbor are not quite the Al Qaeda of 9/11. While the leaders are sometimes the same, flitting from place to place, Al Qaeda has also mutated into a franchised brand name that is no longer centrally directed. These diffuse cells often use cyberspace to inspire and loosely direct a more individualist, do-it-yourself terrorism.
It was this looser model, apparently, that inspired both Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be bomber aboard Northwest Flight 253, and U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, this past fall. While investigations are continuing, it appears that both men had links to Yemen and were in contact with Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric who foments jihad on the Internet and has long been hiding out in Yemen. Yemeni forces launched a series of raids just before Christmas targeting key Qaeda figures, including Awlaki. But Abdulelah Haider Shaya, a Yemeni journalist who is close to Al Qaeda, told NEWSWEEK that Awlaki survived and called him recently to check in after the attacks. According to Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, both Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Said Ali Al-Shihri, another key Qaeda figure in Yemen, also survived the strikes. In the meantime, the operations have become a rallying point for the regime's enemies, which accused Sana of taking orders from U.S. taskmasters.
Still, there are some signs of hope. In July Saleh met with Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. CentCom chief, in order to more closely coordinate counterterror strategy. Al-Qirbi told NEWSWEEK that the leaders agreed to "enhanced cooperation" at the meeting, including bolstering intelligence sharing and training operations.
Among the new programs, Saleh and Petraeus agreed to allow the use of American aircraft, perhaps drones, as well as "seaborne missiles"—as long as the operations have prior approval from the Yemenis, according to a senior Yemeni official who requested anonymity when speaking about sensitive subjects. U.S. officials say the island of Socotra, 200 miles off the Yemeni coast, will be beefed up from a small airstrip to a full base in order to support the larger aid program as well as battle Somali pirates. Petraeus is also trying to provide the Yemeni forces with basic equipment such as up-armored Humvees and possibly more helicopters.
Any long-term counterterror strategy will require addressing the root causes of the social instability that allows Al Qaeda to thrive. But Petraeus knows that he can go only so far in Yemen. Unlike in Afghanistan, there is no talk of delving into the country's tribal dynamics. Saleh has insisted that any U.S. assistance be confined to training and equipping Yemen's own security forces. Most Yemen experts say the worst possible solution would be to send in U.S. troops—even stealthy Special Ops teams—to do the job for the Yemenis. Seventy percent of Yemen's villages consist of populations of fewer than 500 people, according to Barbara Bodine, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen. American operators would stick out—and guarantee a backlash. "Any outsider who comes in, much less a six-foot-tall American in a ninja suit, is going to show up," says Bodine. And the waves of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have demonstrated how politically explosive an air campaign can become. "If we start allowing what's happening in Pakistan, God knows what will happen," says a senior Yemeni official, who also didn't want to be identified talking about a sensitive topic.
Above all, there is the tricky problem of handling Saleh, who seems to have come around to the view that Al Qaeda threatens his regime. "The good news is he seems for the time being to be on a positive trajectory, having taken action against AQAP several times," says the administration official. "The art in this will be in ensuring he doesn't go back to playing one side off the other." Western officials want Saleh to compromise and end his civil war with a Shiite separatist tribe called the Houthis so he can concentrate on Al Qaeda, but they are leery of suggesting that he might get less help if he doesn't. "One thing we know about Saleh is that any talk of conditionality is just bad news," says the U.S. official. "This is a guy who's going to do what he wants." All Washington can hope is that what Saleh wants is similar to what America wants in Yemen: a few less dangerous snakes to worry about.