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Yemen is not a terrorist factory

By Daniel Martin Varisco, Special to CNN
  • Daniel Varisco says recent news coverage of terrorist activity has tied it to Yemen
  • But, he says, most terrorists linked to Yemen are actually from other places
  • The country is torn by internal conflicts unrelated to terror; has little interest in terrorism, he says
  • Varisco: If U.S. wants to stem al Qaeda growth there, it should improve the lives of Yemenis

Editor's note: Daniel Martin Varisco is a professor of anthropology at Hofstra University and has visited Yemen over a dozen times for development consulting and research since 1978. He moderates Tabsir, an academic blog on Islam and the Middle East.

(CNN) -- Domino theorists love the Middle East. Because of this, a number of media pundits have recently added the little-known country of Yemen as a front in the unsettled aftermath of George W. Bush's War on Terror.

First came the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan, then a protracted war there and in Iraq. Iran is still in the hawkish gun-sights of conservative pundits, but the focus has now shifted to Yemen, a country most Americans could not find on a map. Is Yemen really the terrorist haven we should fear the most?

Listening to recent news reports, one would think the country is teeming with Islamic radicals. We have seen the alleged Christmas underwear bomber, who is actually a Nigerian who overstayed his visa in Yemen, and the self-proclaimed internet cleric Anwar al-Awlaqi, who grew up in Arizona and is reportedly hiding In Yemen.

And now there is Ibrahim al-Asiri, the suspected mastermind for two intercepted toner bombs on cargo flights from Yemen. Al-Asiri, who authorities say is al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's chief bomb-maker, happens to be Saudi. Where then are the homegrown Yemeni terrorists?

Yemen is not the terrorist factory reported by the major media, nor is it becoming another Afghanistan. The terrorists we need to fear most in Yemen are the homeless dregs of a decimated al Qaeda leadership, including refugees from the recent Saudi clampdown on its own terrorists.

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Official estimates vary, but al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is thought to have somewhere between 300 and 500 active members, including some Yemeni veterans of the Afghan jihad. One recent analysis by a specialist on Islamist militants at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace put the number at "several hundred." (There are more than 23 million people in Yemen.) In the 1980's, while some of these same individuals were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, news reports referred to them as "freedom fighters" because they were attempting to drive out the Communists.

After the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, most of the Yemeni fighters returned home, but only a few have carried on the ideological battle with America. Most of these have already been killed or captured by the Yemeni military and security forces with American support.

I have been traveling to Yemen since 1978, when I lived for over a year in a highland tribal village and studied the local agriculture and irrigation. At that time, being an American in this Islamic nation was a good thing. At least I did not come from a godless Communist country.

Terrorists had no presence there, even though every man I met was armed. The curved dagger or jambiya was a necessary part of a tribesman's wardrobe, although it was hardly ever used in violence.

There were more guns in Yemen than west of the Pecos in a John Wayne movie. A few of my friends even brandished Kalashnikov automatic rifles. But I never felt unsafe. Not once. This was a tribal area and the law of the land was based on an honor code. There could be conflict with another tribe, but no one would harm an unarmed guest. I had nothing to worry about.

That was three decades ago. Since that time, a poor country has grown even poorer. The national wealth from a declining oil industry, in place since the late 1980s, has been spent mainly on the military and not used effectively to provide basic services for the population.

Although Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East, the percentage of its gross domestic product devoted to the military ranks seventh in the world, despite its having no real threats on its borders.

Yemen has always been an agricultural country, one of the most fertile on the Arabian Peninsula, but it is rapidly running out of fresh water. While three-quarters of the population still lives in rural villages and towns, a few large cities have swelled, but with limited job opportunities and poor urban services.

The year I first went to Yemen was also the year that the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, came to power after a military coup. Since then the United States has provided a vast amount of military aid to his regime.

First it was to counter the socialist state in South Yemen, but there is also Yemen's strategic location across the Red Sea from the turbulent Horn of Africa. Despite this aid, Yemen teeters on the brink of collapse, corruption is rampant, and dissatisfaction with the Yemeni government makes our current Tea Party rantings look like a Sunday school picnic.

Despite the poverty, the main reason Yemen is not becoming a major international terrorist base is that the Yemeni people have their own internal problems to resolve.

Yemen is currently being torn apart by two major indigenous rebellions. In the South there is widespread unrest tied to unending poverty and discrimination that emerged after the two Yemens, one socialist in the South and the other republican in the North, united in 1990. Hundreds of people have died in clashes that have nothing to do with America being the Great Satan.

In the North, the so-called Houthi rebellion has embroiled the Yemeni government in a protracted conflict, which not long ago spilled over the border into Saudi Arabia. Hussein al-Houthi, a member of parliament and tribal leader, was an outspoken critic of the government's reliance on American military aid and of the foreign influence of Saudi Arabia. After he was killed in 2004, the dissatisfaction escalated into a war between local tribesmen in the North and the central government. The issue driving the conflict is resentment of both Yemeni government and Saudi interference in local affairs, not a war against the West.

Yemen could indeed become a terrorist haven if the United States continues to meddle in local politics and see international terrorists behind every bush. To the extent current anti-government feelings can be linked to an American role in propping up the Saleh regime, sympathy for terrorism can be created in the same way it has been in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Arming the Yemeni regime is not the answer. When U.S.-provided drones kill civilians, the rhetoric of AQAP gains an audience. Our best weapon against anti-American sentiment is to go back to the well-appreciated development aid we gave before 1990.

In the 1980s I consulted on several projects in Yemen funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. One of the most successful was a program that brought Yemeni college graduates to the United States for training in the technical and educational skills their young country needed.

I interviewed around 50 of the several hundred individuals who went through this program. Almost all were positive about their experience and respected America, even if they did not agree with our Middle East policy towards Israel. Many of these graduates entered government ministries.

One of the most important politicians in Yemen's recent history, the former Prime Minister Dr. Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, has a degree in agricultural science from the University of Georgia and a doctorate in biochemical genetics from Yale.

Our educational aid to Yemen came to a virtual halt after Iraq's Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. USAID closed its office for seven years, reopening programs in 2003 with lagging funding. But according to USAID's 2010-2012 Yemen Country Strategy, in 2009 the U.S. committed to $121 million in development assistance funds over three years.

If we focused more on improving the lives of ordinary Yemenis -- teaching Yemeni engineers how to better use their rapidly diminishing water resources, for example -- there would be no refuge for the homeless terrorists who feed on hate, and millions of Yemeni citizens would have reason to hope.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Daniel Varisco.