After bin Laden: Business as Usual in Yemen

By James Gundun – Washington, D.C.

By authorizing the killing blow to Osama bin Laden, President Barack Obama has gone from goat to hero overnight. Although he received months of updates rather than a “3 A.M.” phone call, many of his disgruntled supporters are hopping back on the ride by praising Obama’s “resolve” and quick thinking. Approving a helicopter raid behind Pakistan’s back did carry significant risks, which Obama weighed during numerous meetings with his national security team.

Yet his “courage” to make such a call also demonstrates the Obama administration’s incomplete understanding of fourth-generation warfare (4GW). With bin Laden’s location coming into focus, revolution through Washington’s eyes now appears more peripheral than ever.

Despite an abandoned helicopter and an unspecified number of civilian casualties, the SEAL Team Six raid on bin Laden’s customized hideout in Abbottabad went off as flawlessly as Washington could hope: zero casualties in the JSOC’s highest profile raid. Bin Laden’s compound had piqued the interest of U.S. intelligence for over four years, but the first real lead came in August 2010 when his courier, a Kuwaiti named Sheikh Abu Ahmed, finally tracked in intelligence agents. Over time counter-terrorism officials came to suspect a high-value target at the least, before a combination of agencies began to suspect in February that bin Laden himself occupied the walled house.

On the morning after a fifth meeting with his national security team, during which Obama was presented with odds of 50-80%, he chose a helicopter raid to confirm bin Laden’s death and minimize collateral damage. A wise choice compared to the first option given in March, reportedly a B-2 raid.

As the White House and Pentagon celebrated their kill throughout Sunday night and into Monday morning – and honored the justice of 9/11 victims with their "victory" – an ironic turn events had just elapsed in Yemen. Here, according to a growing number of U.S. counter-terrorism officials, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is building itself into an equal or potentially superior threat to bin Laden’s core leadership in Pakistan. Except Yemen has received a disproportionately low level of attention before and throughout the Arab awakening, a product of one-dimensional U.S. counterinsurgency.

The timing of bin Laden’s death couldn’t be more jarring. After Obama approved the raid on Friday, he then assigned U.S. diplomats to witness a volatile political agreement with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh on Sunday. An agreement that most of the popular opposition rejects as illegitimate – an agreement that many suspected Saleh would renege on anyway. An agreement that appears to keep him in power in order to combat AQAP, now busy expanding its territory after three months of revolution. Although bin Laden’s killing has pushed the spotlight closer to Yemen because of AQAP’s threat, the magnitude of his death poses a good chance of shifting attention away from the beleaguered nation.

U.S. officials already averse to public comment are now likely to retreat even deeper into silence, except to note anything al-Qaeda related. They don’t have many excuses for supporting Saleh after bin Laden’s fall. It’s easier to declare, “There’s no doubt that the death of Osama bin Laden marks the single greatest victory in the U.S.-led campaign to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda.”

These anonymous officials claim, “We have always understood that this fight would be a marathon and not a sprint,” and yet the Obama administration has tried to take the easy way out in Yemen, a plan destined to create new instability in a main al-Qaeda haven. Obama lucked out that Saleh did abort the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) proposal by refusing to sign at the last moment – they were about to fan AQAP’s flames together. That the deal temporarily stalled doesn’t change the fact that Washington, on the same day as bin Laden’s death, had prepared to free Saleh from his own injustices against the Yemeni people.

This action would have triggered the latest defeat in America’s campaign against al-Qaeda just as the country celebrated its “greatest victory.”

U.S. officials generally contend that they’ve moved past Saleh, however the results display a murkier position that remains straddled on the fence. Jump-started into action after AQAP began seizing territory in southern Yemen, the Obama administration belatedly accepted the reality that Saleh had neared the end of his tribal support. No one else would save him now, save for his loyal Republican Guard and Central Security forces, and Saleh has deployed them with brutal effectiveness. U.S. intelligence also estimates that half of these forces have deployed out of the fight against AQAP.

Thus to extract Saleh’s family and restart the war, Washington and Riyadh cooked up a proposal under the GCC’s cover to deplete Yemen’s revolution. His son and nephew, as commanders of Saleh’s special units and Washington’s military liaisons, needed to be silenced after being funded with hundreds of millions in U.S. equipment and aid.

Meanwhile the U.S.-Saudi document called for a 90-day political transition, 30 days to Saleh’s resignation and the rest to a national election. Fearing the long waiting period and rejecting his immunity, Yemen’s popular movement staunchly opposed negotiations carried out between Saleh and the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP). Saleh’s ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) further eroded confidence by publicly admitting the GCC’s initiative was calculated to divide the JMP’s political support. Yemeni deputy information minister Abdu al-Janadi warned that the JMP must end its street protests before accepting, a clause written in by U.S. officials.

“Doubters,” if they can be called that, have been validated every step of the way as Saleh consistently undermines the proposal with violence and political maneuvering. Few were surprised when Saleh balked at signing the GCC’s document as Yemen’s president. Blaming the opposition for Wednesday’s violent outbreak is routine, as is his latest claim that he supports the GCC’s proposal – but wants the JMP to sign first.

Not even a call from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was able to swing Sunday’s agreement, and negotiations were momentarily shelved as thousands of Yemenis demonstrated against GCC “interference.” Deciding not to fall too deep into Saleh’s trap, the JMP canceled Riyadh’s ceremony without his signature. Officials now say they’re waiting for a U.S. response, except they’re still waiting three days later. Only the U.S. Embassy responded to Wednesday’s violence, but instead of condemning Saleh’s tactics, protesters were warned not to engage in provocative marches near sensitive sites.

Snipers and plain-clothed security forces had opened fire after protesters were blocked from the Saudi embassy in Sana’a.

Perhaps U.S. officials have delivered a private response to the JMP, yet the Obama administration’s over-reliance on private diplomacy becomes a disadvantage in 4GW. No one is sure of America’s policy or message in Yemen, and after Washington failed to publicly respond to the collapsed agreement, Yemenis fear that bin Laden’s death will renew sympathy for Saleh’s survival. These fears also wasted no time manifesting. Determined to keep the process stalled and “moving” at the same time, Saleh has rounded up all of his friends in the GCC to explain a big mistake had occurred.

As Saleh phoned King Abdullah, UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa and Kuwaiti Emir Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, GPC officials busied themselves crafting new excuses for their chairman. One anonymous adviser said that Saleh was “concerned about the vagueness of the agreement, and the need to maintain security during and after the transition.” Sultan Al-Barakani, assistant secretary-general in the GPC, labeled the venue as the problem, saying that Saleh wanted to hold the ceremony in Sana’a. GCC Secretary-General Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani will return to Sana’a with hopes of finalizing an agreement next weekend.

After accusing the opposition of propaganda, GPC spokesman Tariq al-Shami insisted, "The president and the GPC and its allies have accepted the initiative and cling to its implementation as a whole.”

Saleh suffers from a variety of deficiencies, but he experiences no shortage of stall tactics either. GCC negotiations alone have continued for nearly a month, steamrolling any violent outbreak by Saleh’s forces, and many protesters suspect that his impending immunity empowered his repression. Now, as he works the phones to secure political backing, Saleh has turned to Russia and China to counteract U.S. and European “pressure.” The two governments blocked a UN statement two weeks ago and Saleh has now effectively buffered himself from UN interference, unlike Libya and Syria’s embattled rulers.

Because of Saleh’s history and America’s response to their revolution, protesting Yemenis are certain that Saleh will capitalize on Yemen’s newfound importance. In an ominous sign to both Saleh and U.S. policy, bin Laden groups immediately sprouted on Facebook to warn against his exploitation. Meshaal Mujahid, an activist in Sana’a, explained, "We expect Saleh’s regime to work to use al Qaeda as evidence to confront the protests demanding his departure, but we will expose attempts like this.”

"Do not raise pictures or banners or mention bin Laden, as the regime is planning now to exploit this issue for its interests," a coalition of youth groups warned in an online statement. "To those in the protest squares across the governorates of the republic: Do not get absorbed by the matter of the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.”

This reaction alone should reveal how wrong the Obama administration is in silently choosing Saleh’s side; bin Laden built his ideology on corrupt Western despots who oppress Muslims. Now consider the Facebook pages titled “All of us are Osama Bin Laden.” Speaking to Yemeni reporter Nasser Arrabyee from Sana’a, Ameen claims that Yemenis aren’t celebrating bin Laden so much as condemning U.S. policy in Yemen.

To think that Obama could have signed bin Laden’s death warrant and Saleh’s pardon on the same day.

Already getting back to work on Monday, U.S. officials attempted to streamline bin Laden’s narrative by looking forward. High-ranking officials including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and John Brennan, the White House’s counter-terrorism chief, managed to dodge bin Laden’s strategic ramifications while applying a superficial treatment to the Arab Spring. The “snake’s head” has been cut off, according to Brennan, “and so al Qaeda, bin Laden – old news. Now is the time to move forward.”

“All over the world we will press forward,” Clinton declared, “bolstering our partnerships, strengthening our networks, investing in a positive vision of peace and progress, and relentlessly pursuing the murderers who target innocent people. The fight continues, and we will never waver. Now I know there are some who doubted this day would ever come, who questioned our resolve and our reach. But let us remind ourselves, this is America. We rise to the challenge, we persevere, and we get the job done.”

Apparently America stands for these principles simply because bin Laden didn’t. U.S. officials certainly wish it were that easy.

Yet the Obama administration continues to view Yemen’s popular uprising (and others) with hesitation, indecision that works in al-Qaeda’s favor. Democratic revolution further marginalized bin Laden and contradicted al-Qaeda’s ideology, but suppressed revolution feeds directly into it. Killing bin Laden doesn’t correct U.S. policy in Yemen – Obama’s response now makes even less sense. Instead of negating al-Qaeda’s ideology of Western stooges, Washington has reinforced this perception by first bankrolling Saleh and now cushioning his fall.

Yemen provides ample evidence that bin Laden succeeded in his goal to draw America into hostiles land. Because of a few half-finished plots and one failed underwear bomb, U.S. military operations in Yemen escalated dramatically after December 2009. Hundreds of civilians were subsequently killed by U.S. air-strikes, spawning new tensions between Saleh, Washington and the Yemeni people. More problems were created than solved, and AQAP’s growth exploded in 2010 and 2011 as a result of poor policy. Faced with high risk and low reward, the Obama administration then devised a billion dollar carrot to motivate Saleh and help quell rising dissent against his regime.

This aid package was shelved only after the revolution made it impossible to pay him off, but the White House has still managed to delay the revolution by abetting in Saleh’s stall tactics. Such a response admits to strengthening AQAP while simultaneously attempting to preserve a conducive environment for it.

The Obama administration still doesn’t appear to realize, or else is ignoring, the fact that defeating AQAP with an “orderly” transition makes no sense. Yemen’s crisis demands a rapid and pure evolution to democracy, a transition that favors both the Yemeni people and U.S. interests in the region. A new Yemen is needed, not a reconfiguration of Saleh’s government. Mohammed Saad, a protester in Sanaa, pleaded, "We are not working with al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. We have one cause and it is the fall of the regime. This is what matters to us.”

After contributing to Washington’s “order,” Clinton proclaimed on Monday, “History will record that bin Ladin’s death came at a time of great movements toward freedom and democracy, at a time when the people across the Middle East and North Africa are rejecting the extremist narratives and charting a path of peaceful progress based on universal rights and aspirations. There is no better rebuke to al-Qaida and its heinous ideology.”

There is: the administration could have put as much attention into Yemen as it did into bin Laden’s raid. Patiently awaiting Saleh’s fall, Ameen explained of bin Laden’s legacy, “Yes, he is the martyr of the Umma, he is the most respected hero of Islam, and we will be like him if Obama continues to support Saleh.”

Both sides of a fourth-generation conflict aim for one theoretical objective: integrate the military and non-military aspects of warfare as thoroughly as possible. By combining an overpowering mixture of political ideology, economic pressure, cultural influence and military development, both the insurgent and counterinsurgent attempts to break each other’s political will. Most groups, whether insurgent or counterinsurgent, fail to maximize all available tools, thus contributing to 4GW’s prolonged nature.

The full-spectrum application of 4GW was made all the more essential by the nebulous, border-defying nature of al-Qaeda. Rather than develop one strategy according to a specific location, many sub-strategies need to be fitted into a grand political strategy.

Optimal counterinsurgency leads by political example. Although the U.S. government has improved its understanding of 4GW through the hard lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq, Osama bin Laden’s termination amplifies the reality that America’s military remains its leading asset in the war against al-Qaeda. After passing the highest military test, the Obama administration’s "smart power" was scheduled to flunk a major political exam in Yemen. The same goes for Egypt, Bahrain, Syria and its subservient relationship to Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Bin Laden’s void provides unlimited opportunity to realign and amend U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, only nothing has changed before and after his death. Unfortunately Washington is back to business as usual.

– James Gundun is a political scientist and counterinsurgency analyst based in Washington D.C. Contact him in The Trench, a realist foreign policy blog, at He contributed this article to

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