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.
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.