Somalia and Yemen: Al-Qaida's Next Hot Spots?
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. Why Obama needs to tread carefully in the Gulf of Aden.
Yemen and Somalia have officially pledged to support each other, but the realities on the ground may be quite different. Some intelligence sources and others complain that officials at the highest levels of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's government have been privately selling weapons to al-Shabaab. "Saleh represents a problem for us," said one intelligence officer who works in the Horn of Africa and asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue. "The weapons sales are individual business deals." At the same time, there is very little in the way of concrete support that TFG President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed can offer Saleh's government; the TFG itself has very few resources.
Of course, the weapons sales to Somalia ultimately create problems for Yemen. Al-Shabaab has vowed to supply weapons to al-Qaida. For quite some time, Western governments have charged that thousands of young men fleeing Somalia have become targets for al-Qaida recruiting. "The U.S. and the U.K. need to see the Gulf of Aden as a vector of instability and adjust their policy accordingly," says Ginny Hill, director of the Yemen Forum at the British think tank Chatham House. "Addressing the arms trade from Yemen to Somalia is a step in that direction."
With friends like these, the Obama administration is faced with a quandary. Not to provide strong support to both countries would likely mean ceding vital territory to the enemy. At the same time, the administration is rightly wary of too close an engagement. It has resisted calls by supporters of Sheikh Sharif for general air strikes against al-Shabaab. And Hillary Clinton has been quick to announce that the United States would not interfere in "internal" Yemeni affairs. "It is not only, from our perspective, the appropriate approach to take, but we think it's a more effective approach," she said. "Because ultimately, the future of Yemen is up to the Yemenis themselves, and therefore the Yemenis have to manage and solve their own problems." While Obama knows that helping friends is
important, America's friends in the region need to understand that they have to help themselves.
Greg Beals is a political analyst based out of the Middle East. He has worked for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and for the U.N. Security Council Somalia Monitoring Group. You can contact him here.