Much has been said in the past week about the potentially troubling diplomatic relations which will result from Wikileaks’ leaked State Department cables, but despite all the attention given to the Arab world’s rhetorical hatred of Iran, Qaddafi’s Ukrainian nurse and Russia’s Batman and Robin, the Yemen cables in particular could affect US national security more tangibly than any others. A recent series of foiled terror plots on US soil originating in Yemen have reinvigorated debate over Obama’s terrorism policy toward al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). And while the leaked cable only confirms what we already knew about Yemen, including its eagerness for US aid (even if it is to be used in ways it was not intended) and the presence of US air strikes against al-Qaeda , how will the public release of these cables affect the United States, Yemen, their relationship and transnational actors who also have a stake in the region?
Middle Eastern governments have always tried to walk a fine line by cooperating with the US behind the scenes to avoid public backlash and Yemen is no exception. The most damning (and oft-quoted) element of the Yemen cables is President Saleh’s “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours” in reassurance to General Patreaus that Yemen is serious about helping the United States monitor and weed out AQAP. However, other parts of the cable confirm that Saleh may have other priorities on his mind such as nearly doubling US foreign assistance to the country and as American Ambassador to Yemen Stephen Seche implies, bolstering the Yemeni military: “Raising a topic that he would manage to insert into almost every item of discussion during the hour and half-long meeting, Saleh requested that the U.S. provide the ROYG with 12 armed helicopters. Possessing such helicopters would allow the ROYG to take the lead in future CT operations, ‘ease’ the use of fighter jets and cruise missiles against terrorist targets, and allow Yemeni Special Operations Forces to capture terrorist suspects and identify victims following strikes…‘We won’t use the helicopters in Sa’ada, I promise. Only against al-Qaeda,’ [Saleh continued].”
While Saleh gives the impression that he holds the same concerns as the United States, Yemen’s characteristic misuse of US military aid and “catch and release” terrorist policies reaffirm that Saleh has different priorities. Former Ambassador to Yemen William Rugh argues that “[Saleh’s] priority, however, is not al-Qaeda but dealing with discontent in the south; the bloody, ongoing rebellion in the north [Sa’ada]; and the complex array of tribal and local interests that threaten his leadership. Yemen’s sagging economy only galvanizes Salih’s critics. At Washington’s insistence, al-Qaeda is on Salih’s list of priorities but he has other existential concerns that trump counterterrorism cooperation with the United States.”
However, with the release of confidential reports, Al-Qaeda may pose more of a threat to Saleh than he originally envisioned as public knowledge of US-Yemeni military cooperation may radicalize Yemenis against their president. Gregory Johnson, an expert on Yemen from Princeton University postulates just this, stating that “in some of the tribal areas where al-Qaida is really attempting to recruit people, having something like this where the president and his ministers are on the record talking about lying and deceiving parliament and the Yemeni public, I think it will have traction. Al-Qaida will be able to use it in the months to come.” If regime security is Saleh’s main concern, then somewhat ironically, he has been emboldening his opposition all along.
Whether news of the leaks and Saleh’s comments reach the Yemeni public remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that AQAP will use the leaks to further their own agenda. In the 1990s, Rugh argues that “Salih calculated that strong action against al-Qaeda and its tribal allies might strengthen his domestic opponents and feared that open cooperation with the United States would validate al-Qaeda’s narrative that Salih was an anti-Muslim American puppet.” This same fear exists today and presents a deterrent to full collaboration with the US, however with al-Qaeda armed with the newly leaked knowledge and poised to act, the Yemeni government, which denies the reports, may find that fighting al-Qaeda is actually in its best interest and that of its most powerful ally.