Another Rescue Gone Wrong

Late Friday night, American photojournalist Luke Somers and a South African teacher Pierre Korkie, who were being held hostage in Yemen by al-Qaeda militants, were killed by their captors during a failed rescue attempt by US special forces:

It was the second U.S. attempt to free Somers in 10 days and Kerry said it had been approved because of information that Somers’ life was in imminent danger. “It was our assessment that that clock would run out on Saturday,” one U.S. official said. However, the Gift of the Givers relief group, which was trying to secure Korkie’s release, said it had negotiated for the teacher to be freed and had expected that to happen on Sunday and for him to be returned to his family.

Somers’s death, after two attempts to free him, has reignited the debate over whether the US’s policy of never paying ransoms for captives held by terrorist groups is appropriate. Joel Simon argues that it’s time to rethink that blanket prohibition:

The US government has said it will not review the prohibition on paying ransom, which I believe is a missed opportunity.

While I accept the US government’s logic that the payment of ransom increases the risk for kidnapping, there should be some flexibility built into the policy to address extenuating circumstances. The review should certainly explore ways to engage with hostage takers through other means. According to Diane Foley, her son’s kidnappers were angered by the fact that the US government refused to respond to their emails. Communication with kidnappers is not the same thing as negotiating with kidnappers. It is akin to the local police talking through a bullhorn to someone holding up a bank in order to buy time, gain intelligence, and seek a possible resolution. Talking should be a normal and natural response when lives are at stake.

But the Bloomberg View editors are still resolutely opposed to changing the policy:

Since 2008, the kidnapping-for-ransom industry has raised as much as $165 million for terrorist organizations, most of it paid by European governments. Those governments routinely deny making the payments, because they know it’s bad policy: It encourages further kidnappings, and it funds terrorist operations as well as the slaughter of civilians in the Middle East and Africa. It also contravenes multiple international commitments.

As for the U.S. and U.K. governments that ran the unsuccessful military raid, there are certainly questions as to how they failed to know that Korkie’s release was to happen on Saturday, or that he might be with Somers. But whatever the answers, they are irrelevant to the question of whether governments should ransom their citizens. That calculation remains the same: The only way to end the ransom business is to close the market.

Jonathan Tobin criticizes the South African charity that was working to ransom Korkie:

Unfortunately, the problem with ransoms is not limited to the aid the transactions give to the terrorists. By not coordinating with Western governments, the efforts of groups like the Gift of the Givers charity—the organization that was working for Korkie’s release—make it difficult, if not impossible for the U.S. military to avoid operations that might interfere with a hostage’s release. Instead of castigating the United States for a rescue operation that went wrong, those who, even for altruistic reasons, conduct negotiations that aid the terrorists are ultimately to blame.

Jazz Shaw zooms out:

I’m sure there will be some backlash since we failed to get Somers out alive, but given the circumstances it doesn’t sound like the odds were very good in the first place. A better question is what we should be doing about Yemen in the long run. The government there, such as it is, appears to be on the brink of collapse. Their leadership has been pointing their fingers at Washington and accusing the Obama administration of fomenting unrest. They lost control of their own capital, Sana, earlier this year to a group of rebels called the Houthis. Outside of a couple of major population centers, nobody is in control, which is probably what made it such an attractive destination for al Qaeda.

With no reliable governmental partner to work with, our options appear limited except for high risk military incursions such as this one. And until the larger problem of terrorist networks is dealt with, I’m afraid we can expect repeat performances of this raid in the future.

The Other Failed State In The Middle East

Ishaan Tharoor calls attention to Yemen, which remains embroiled in a civil conflict with a dangerous sectarian dimension after Houthi rebels took over the capital Sanaa last month:

The Houthis are alleged to be Iranian-backed; their traditional slogan (“Death to America! Death to Israel!”) echoes that of Hezbollah, Iran’s Shiite proxy in Lebanon. Al-Qaeda and its Sunni allies have energetically taken the fight to the Houthis, giving the conflict a worrisome sectarian edge — one that is similar to the awful bloodshed wracking Syria and Iraq.

But like in Syria and Iraq, the situation is not that simple. The Houthis are from the Zaydi branch, a distinct sect of Shiite Islam that is closer to Sunni Islam than most. … There are also suggestions that Sunni regimes in the Gulf have tacitly backed the Houthi surge, seeing it as the best bet for stability in perennially fractious Yemen. Whatever the case, a narrative of sectarian violence plays into al-Qaeda’s hands. Some elements of the Yemeni branch also declared support for the Islamic State, extremists who butcher all those they consider heretics or apostates. Things could very well get worse before they get any better.

Indeed, the crisis has re-invigorated southern Yemeni separatists, and fighting is ongoing in several parts of the country:

Fighting continues in Yemen between the Houthi rebels and al-Qaeda-backed Sunni tribesmen, leaving at least 68 Houthi fighters dead in the province of Bayda. The news came as protesters in Yemen’s capital Sanaa called on the Houthi fighters to leave after a deadline to form a new government passed on Tuesday without an agreement.

Sporadic clashes erupted between the Houthis and tribesmen in Radaa after the Houthis killed an army officer belonging to the Qaifa tribe, Al Jazeera has learned. In retaliation, tribesmen reportedly attacked Houthi armed rebels in the northeast of Radaa. Al-Qaeda fighters are also reportedly in control of the four main areas of Odain district, with the goal of preventing Houthi fighters from advancing in Ibb province in central Yemen.

Looking back at the history of the Houthi movement earlier this month, Peter Salisbury examined the conditions that enabled their sudden rise to power:

Conditions were ripe for the group to enter the capital. Sanaa is home to a number of traditionally Zaydi families, plenty of intellectuals and liberals fed up with the remnants of the Saleh regime, and many of others who do not approve of the way the country is being run. Living standards have scarcely improved in Yemen in the three years since the uprising and elite infighting of 2011. Half the population is out of work and a similar proportion under the poverty line. A roster of names familiar from the Saleh era occupied the top jobs in government as part of a power-sharing agreement. Corruption is endemic — worse, even, than it was under Saleh. Yemenis who supported the 2011 uprising have become dejected, realizing that they are unlikely to see tangible improvements in the way the country is run.

What The Hell Is Happening In Yemen? Ctd


The State Department ordered some US embassy workers to leave the country today, following this weekend’s Houthi takeover of the capital. Adam Baron says the events in Sana’a reveal the myth of the so-called “Yemen model,” which he describes as “a general steamroller of a narrative casting the United States’ intervention in the country as a multifaceted success”:

Yemen’s internationally-brokered transition, we were told, was a model for a region in post-Arab Spring upheaval; the Obama administrations cooperation with the Yemeni government, Obama trumpeted roughly two weeks ago, had lead unparalleled progress in the battle against the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Both narratives have come to a head with an increasingly disparate reality as of late, as rebel fighters belonging to the Zaidi Shi’a lead Houthi movement managed to seize virtual control of Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, with little resistance from the Yemeni military, raising immediate questions regarding the utility of hundreds of millions of dollars in US military aid and a US-sponsored program of military restructuring, to say nothing of the viability of Yemen’s already fraught transition. …

Regardless of the ultimate fallout – which remains unclear – the fact remains that such issues as the battle against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) cannot be dealt with as separate issues from the larger challenge facing Yemen at the moment:

the establishment of inclusive, accountable governance and the shoring up of state authority – which, at the moment, verges on nonexistent – across the country. As the US-supplied military equipment currently being paraded in the streets of Sanaa by jubilant Houthi militants demonstrates, a counter-terrorism centered policy risks missing the forests for the trees.

The UN humanitarian news agency IRIN suggests the turmoil in Sana’a will have “significant” consequences for the Yemeni government’s fight against AQAP:

In recent months the group, the virulent local franchise of the extremist organization, has been stepping up its activities and rhetoric, with at least 20 people killed in attacks on military outposts by the group in August. Earlier this year the military launched a major campaign against AQAP, but it has struggled to make gains; the offensive has not been able to significantly weaken the group, which has even expanded its presence in the eastern province of Hadramawt.

There are also fears that the Houthis’ power play could encourage the Sunni Islam AQAP to increase violence in Sana’a as they seek to fight back against the Shia group.In mid-September a regional leader of Ansar al-Sharia, an AQAP offshoot which does much of its work on the ground, announced that the group was increasing its presence in Sana’a in preparation for a fight with the Houthis. Government officials say the standoff and fighting with the Houthi rebels distracted the military – which is both weak and divided – from the fight. “I think the Salafists and Al Qaeda will use the opportunity to strengthen their presence in Sana’a; that would be logical for them,” said a senior government official. “Al Qaeda are attacking the army and the PSO [intelligence agency] … This is a good environment for Al Qaeda.”

Meanwhile, a reader responds to our previous post with some personal history:

How fitting that this week of turmoil and chaos in Yemen is also the 52nd anniversary of the Great Revolution. Well, there have been government changes, and coups d’etat, and uprisings since then, but this one was the most significant, since it ended the centuries long monarchy and propelled Yemen into a Republican state. There have been subsequent Great Revolutions, and not many of the young people know much about the one in 1962.

The monarch, Imam Ahmad, died Sept 18, 1962, and his son Muhammed al-Badr assumed power. My family arrived in Taiz on September 23, where my father would take up his new post as political officer in the US Embassy. Communication in those olden days meant that, between the time we left Washington, DC (which was in the throes of the Cuban Missle Crisis), then sailed across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean to Athens, from whence we flew to Cairo, and then to Aden (then a British Colony), and then drove a jeep up the rough unpaved roads to the mountain lair of Taiz, a whole revolution had occurred.

Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser, wishing to set up a puppet government that he could control in his conflicts with Saudi Arabia, appointed a Yemeni Army Colonel named Sallal to head the government. The heir Muhammed al-Badr could not get the support of Yemeni Army officers, so he disappeared from Sanaa and escaped to the northeast, near the Saudi border, where his tribal supporters gathered. I heard rumors that al-Badr couldn’t get enough support from tribes because he was believed to be a homosexual, but I’ve found very little documentation to that effect, outside of my own late mother passing along gossip, and the beliefs of Arabists who knew all of the monarchs in the 1950s and 1960s.

That Revolution ended up being a disaster for Yemen and even moreso for Egypt, which was committing 50,000 soldiers a year for the conflict, plus it was very expensive. It was subsequently known as “Egypt’s Vietnam”, since there was never any real resolution, despite the presence of UN Peacekeeping forces.

Sadly, things just got worse for Yemen. The new dictators, especially Saleh, were really mediocre rulers, only interested in extracting graft for their relatives. The Saudi oil boom from the 1970s on meant that working-age Yemeni men were leaving in huge numbers to work all over the kingdom, as well as in the Gulf States, which meant that Yemen’s former excellent agricultural infrastructure collapsed, and farmers resorted to growing more khat and less food. The birth rate was, at one point in the past 20 years, the highest in the world. Urbanization, overcrowding, political chaos, religious chaos, and then add jihad on top of it, and it’s a really sad country.

I’m so sorry to see it deteriorate even further. The Yemenis were the kindest, most pleasant nationality I encountered in my life as the daughter of a Foreign Service Officer, and Yemen had a special place in my heart. It’s devastating to realize that the people of this country are living among such violence and chaos, and there is no end to it in sight.

(Photo: Yemeni girls scouts salute as they take part in a parade marking the 1962 revolution that established the Yemeni republic, in the capital Sanaa on September 25, 2014. President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi warned earlier this week of “civil war” in Sunni-majority Yemen, vowing to restore state authority, as Shiite rebels cried victory over their apparent seizure of much of the capital. By Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images)

What The Hell Is Happening In Yemen?

Maria Abi-Habib explains how the Yemeni capital came to the brink of a coup this weekend during the worst fighting since the 2011 overthrow of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh:

The militants known as Houthis have been protesting outside government ministries in the capital Sana’a since August, complaining about Houthi rebels take position around Yemeni Government TV in Sanaarising fuel prices and demanding the government quicken the pace of political overhauls. By Sunday evening, they had taken over the central bank and the defense, interior and finance ministries, adding to advances last week that included the airport.

Shortly after Sunday’s takeover, the Houthis, President Abed Rabbo Mansour al Hadi and most of the country’s major parties signed a United Nations-mediated cease-fire that included an agreement to form a new government. Mr. Hadi will choose the next prime minister but must consult with the parties that signed the agreement, details of which were scarce. The Houthis are likely to have an edge in those negotiations after their recent display of force.

Khalil Harb suggests that the Houthi movement acted “strangely” by inking a deal “while having all the makings for a successful coup d’état in their grasp.” Meanwhile, Peter Salisbury notes that many Sana’a are skeptical that the deal will hold:

“Considering the massive military victories the Houthis have gained in recent days, it’s quite hard to imagine they’d give up Amran and al-Jawf in the absence of massive concessions,” says Adam Baron, a London-based Yemen analyst who lived in the capital for three years. “Concessions that the government is unlikely to be willing, or able, to give,” Baron said.

Others argue that the Houthis clearly have their sight on Maj. Gen. Mohsen, a presidential military adviser who led successive campaigns against the Houthis in Sa’dah between 2004 and 2010.”I just don’t see the Houthis coming this close to him [Mohsen] and giving up,” says a Yemeni politician who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He devastated Sa’dah for years, and they think had [the Houthis’ founder] Hussein al-Houthi killed [in 2004]. It’s hard to believe they’ll take political gains over revenge and power.”

Ibrahim Sharqieh explains how it got to this point:

After Saleh was overthrown in 2011, the new transitional government acknowledged the past mistreatment of the Houthis, and officially apologized for the six wars Mr. Saleh waged against them between 2004 and 2010. But it did not address all of the historical grievances of the Houthis, who pressed on with their insurgency. Many Yemenis believe that the Houthis are acting as agents of Iran, which backs them. To legitimize their rebellion, the Houthis had to come up with popular proposals to address rising energy prices and incompetence in the government. It was the poor performance of Yemen’s transitional government that allowed them to succeed. President Hadi, and his government – including Prime Minister Mohammed Salem Basindwa, who just stepped down – failed miserably to deliver basic services, spur economic development and, most important, create jobs. Unemployment was one of the main drivers of the revolt against Mr. Saleh.

Gregory D. Johnsen notes that the Houthis have “moved far beyond their narrow sectarian origins” over the past two years:

They have broadened their appeal beyond their traditional power base of Zaydi Muslims – a branch of Shiite Islam that is relatively close to Sunni Islam – and in the process become Yemen’s primary opposition group. They are also, as the latest agreement makes clear, the closest thing Yemen has to a kingmaker. The Houthis may not have enough power to impose their will upon the rest of the country, but they now have enough supporters and weapons to act as an effective veto on Yemen’s central government. This is a remarkable turnaround for a group that once believed itself to be on the verge of political and religious extinction in Yemen.

Adam Baron agrees that the conflict shouldn’t be viewed through the prism of sectarianism, “even if the Houthis are largely followers of Zaidism, a northern Yemeni brand of Shia Islam, and their adversaries are overwhelmingly Sunni Islamists”:

The Houthis’ biggest achievement has been to transcend their roots in the mountains of the devoutly Zaidi far north to position themselves as a national movement. Notably, the Houthis’ ties with Iran notwithstanding, the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) has issued a statement welcoming the peace agreement. The Houthis themselves acknowledge that they have received political and media support from Iran, while their adversaries claim that they receive Iranian arms and funding, something that has long raised the suspicions of Yemen’s Gulf neighbors.

Meanwhile, Zack Beauchamp reminds us that the situation in Sana’a isn’t the only conflict roiling Yemen:

As if the Houthi movement wasn’t enough, southern Yemen plays host to an entirely separate Sunni Islamist rebellion. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is the driving force here, along with Ansar al-Sharia, a group that’s either simply an extension of AQAP or affiliated with it. The weakness of the Yemeni government and broad national insecurity, as discussed above, has allowed AQAP to fester here. While Yemeni government offensives and a US bombing campaign have pushed AQAP out the most populated areas in southern Yemen, the group still has a hold a lot of territory in the rural areas of the region. The US National Counterterrorism Center sees AQAP as the terrorist group “most likely to attempt transnational attacks against the United States.”

The two rebellions are not directly linked, but the Yemeni government’s inability to fight informs its failures against the other, and the weaker that the government gets, the easier it will be for both groups to grow unchecked.

(Photo: Houthi rebels take position around Yemeni Government TV during the clashes between Houthi rebels and government forces in al-Caraf north of Sanaa, Yemen on September 21, 2014. By Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)