The Obama administration understands the strategic importance of the Gulf of Aden. The warm waters between Somalia, Yemen and Djibouti are the gateway to the Suez Canal, which carries the heaviest shipping between Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Europe. The administration does not need a terrorist attack on shipping through the gulf similar to the attack perpetrated against the USS Cole in October 2000.
Al-Qaida also understands the importance of the Gulf of Aden, which is why on Monday its Yemen-based wing called for a blockade of those waters. Al-Qaida leadership has long considered the failing state of Yemen and the failed state of Somalia which are situated on either side of the gulf as prime territory for expansion. In Yemen, a rebellion in the north by Zaydi Shia tribesmen loyal to the Houthi family and unrest in the south engender the kind of chaos that the group thrives on.
Across the Gulf of Aden, in Somalia, an insurgency led by al-Qaida allies Harakat al-Shabaab and other armed opposition groups control the south of the country, leaving the weak Transitional Federal Government with little more than a token presence in the capital of Mogadishu. Al-Shabaab have pledged to provide arms and fighters to help al-Qaida overthrow Yemen’s elected government. Meanwhile, arms from Yemen arrive into all parts of Somalia.
Taken together, Yemen and Somalia have the potential to become the next hotbed for international terrorism.
So far, the Obama administration has made all the right moves. It rushed to show support for the region, especially after the attempted Christmas Day bombing by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. The Nigerian national moved from London to Yemen last year to train with al-Qaida, then allegedly tried to set off a bomb stitched into his underwear on board a flight carrying 290 people from Amsterdam to Detroit. U.S. Special Forces participated in raids against al-Qaida in Yemen and in Somalia. At a recent international conference in London, the Obama administration reiterated the plan to fight al-Qaida‘s presence in Yemen. “To help the people of Yemen, we–the international community–can and must do more,” Hillary Clinton told the conference. “And so must the Yemeni government.”
But the nature of these alliances is tricky at best. In the shadowy world of counter-terrorism, it is important for one to know exactly who one’s allies are, their strengths and their limitations. The region needs an alliance with the United States that constructively supports the struggle against terrorism without a large counterproductive footprint. It also needs allies that will work with each other. Understanding the relationships between all the actors is critical.