Exhausted survivors of a Gulf of Aden crossing wait for help on a beach in Yemen.
© UNHCR / Björgvinsson
Exhausted survivors of a Gulf of Aden crossing wait for help on a beach in Yemen.
Last updated: December 8, 2014

For Yemen, the biggest threat is the sea

Banner Icon Adding to the woes of a country already on the brink of collapse, reports have been warning that Yemen is facing a new test of its ability to stifle the advance of militants. Drawn by the prospect of unseating the government, al-Shabaab militants have been making their way into the country by posing as illegal migrants from Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea.

Using the small country of Djibouti as a springboard, throngs of migrants cross the narrow Gulf of Aden with the help of human traffickers in the hope of making it to Saudi Arabia. In response to this new threat, the Yemeni Ministry of Interior has ordered the Coast Guard and the navy to arrest any suspects arriving by sea. But can this contagion be stopped?

With the internecine sectarian conflict unfolding in Yemen, putting any hopes in the deeply embattled government to fend off the spillage of terrorists in migrants’ clothing is naïve to say the least. Yemen’s deep sectarian strife, prompted by the Sunni/Shia split, plus the growing al-Qaeda presence has raised the prospect of dividing up the country in four new states, according to the territory occupied by each faction. Thousands of protesters gathered in the southern port city of Aden on November 30 to demand independence from the central government in Sana’a.

Making matters worse, the UAE’s top diplomat has given warnings to the West by expressing his concern at the prospect of seeing ISIS and other al-Qaeda offshoots joining hands. The idea is not as far flung as it sounds – the al-Nusra Front has already signed a truce with the ISIS Caliphate, and countless groups from across Africa have pledged allegiance to the Caliph. Faced with the proper opportunity and enticed by concerns of a more material nature, terrorists tend to relegate ideology to the back seat. And with al-Shabaab expanding beyond its usual geographic area, such concerns are more than reasonable.

Djibouti to the rescue?

Barack Obama famously jumped the gun in September and declared that counter-terrorism operations in Yemen and Somalia were ‘success stories’. But the more one looks to the increasingly fluid political situation in Yemen, a completely different story arises. The wave of al-Shabaab militants crossing the Red Sea proves that point and explains why terrorism is a phenomenon that, even as it ebbs and flows, never completely disappears. Commanders are killed only to see young guns taking their place.

The U.S. has been conducting counterinsurgency operations from its military base in Djibouti, Camp Lemonnier. Flying out of that base, Predator drones and thousands of Special Forces have been waging a war of attrition against the al-Qaeda offshoots who call East Africa home, most prominently al-Shabaab. Therefore, with the renewed threat of Yemen-bound terrorists, Djibouti will be once again on the frontlines, both as a power base for the US and as a jumping-off point for militants.

"The al-Nusra Front has already signed a truce with the ISIS Caliphate"

The US State Department has already taken note of the recent to and fro movements of al-Shabaab and has issued a travel warning for Djibouti, warning that there is a heightened risk of terrorist attacks aimed at Westerners, which could include “attacks on maritime vessels in or near Djiboutian ports”. Indeed, American soldiers were the targets of a deadly suicide bomber attack back in May, when a man and a woman blew themselves up in a restaurant. It was the first attack of its kind in Djibouti, killing a Turkish soldier and wounding several others.

It is for this reason that Djibouti is now more important than ever in the ongoing fight against terrorism. That will be a big burden to bear for a country that is notoriously poor and thus prone to radicalization – three quarters of the population live on less than $3 a day, unemployment rates are in the 50s and corruption is rife. Dismal living conditions, lack of civil liberties and persecution of political opponents have created a wave of popular dissatisfaction with the local strongman, Ismail Omar Guelleh, in power since 1999. Moreover, the country has a less than stellar record in upholding its commitments to the West – recently striking up military partnerships with both China and Iran – that have raised concerned eyebrows in Washington.

YEMEN IS NOW in a tight spot, as the headways made by the US in the war on terror have proved to be only temporary. After almost two months of political infighting, the new Yemeni President, Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi, finally laid out his strategy for the country and unveiled the composition of his government. A delicate balancing act between the various rival factions and competing interests in the country, the new cabinet has the difficult mission of stabilizing the country politically. A supplementary influx of al-Shabaab militants will only put a further strain on a country already teetering on the edge.

What’s more, a growing al-Shabaab presence in Djibouti could also lead to an increase in the number of attacks conducted against Western personnel. Al-Shabaab’s new gamble seems to be paying off – for what is a terrorist’s first order of business if not to instill terror in others?

Joseph Benzekri
Joseph is a Tunisian small business owner based in Paris that has worked in the agro-export business for over two decades. He is also active in North African civil society as an advocate for increased regional integration.
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