WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs, today chaired a hearing focused on U.S. policy in Yemen and the threat that al Qaeda in Yemen poses to U.S. national security.
“Al Qaeda’s presence in Yemen is not new, but it has grown increasingly worrisome in the past several years,” said Senator Casey. “Given the direct threat that al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula poses to U.S. national security – and taking into account significant gains made in U.S. operations against al Qaeda elements in Afghanistan and Pakistan over the past year – counterterrorism efforts in Yemen must be a central focus of our national security strategy.”
Yemeni terrorists have targeted the U.S. homeland, sending explosives in packages to the U.S. last October. One of the bombs was bound for Philadelphia International Airport.
The subcommittee heard testimony from Janet Sanderson, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs; Daniel Benjamin, Coordinator for Counterterrorism for the Department of State; Christa Capozzola, U.S. Agency for International Development Deputy Assistant Administrator, Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance; Dr. Christopher Boucek, Associate, Carnegie Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and Daniel Green, Soref Fellow, Washington Institute on Near East Policy.
Senator Casey’s full opening statement is below.
U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs
Senator Robert P. Casey, Jr.
U.S. Policy on Yemen
July 19, 2011
We are here today to discuss the complex set of challenges facing U.S. policy in Yemen amid five months of popular protests and political unrest. Just yesterday, security forces opened fire on protestors during a march in the capital Sana’a, killing one and injuring eight. And, in a separate incident, around 100 journalists marched outside the residence of Vice President Hadi, currently the acting head of state, to protest censorship by the Yemeni authorities.
During this historic period of sweeping change in countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Syria, Yemen often goes overlooked. However, as a result of the power vacuum caused by President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s departure to Saudi Arabia in June, there are serious concerns over the government’s ability to prevent al Qaeda from gaining a stronghold in the country – as well as broader concerns about the growing humanitarian and economic crises plaguing Yemen today.
Al Qaeda’s presence in Yemen is not new, but it has grown increasingly worrisome in the past several years. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or “AQAP,” has carried out multiple attacks against Yemenis, Americans, and citizens of other countries. We all remember the foiled Christmas Day attack in 2009, which revealed AQAP’s strategy of direct attacks on the U.S. homeland. In October of last year, Yemeni terrorists again targeted the U.S. homeland with UPS packages containing explosives. One of the packages was bound for the Philadelphia International Airport, in my home state of Pennsylvania.
Given the direct threat that AQAP poses to U.S. national security – and taking into account significant gains made in U.S. operations against al Qaeda elements in Afghanistan and Pakistan over the past year – counterterrorism efforts in Yemen must be a central focus of our national security strategy. That said, our counterterrorism concerns are closely intertwined with serious political, economic, and developmental challenges, which the U.S. must work to address as part of a holistic approach.
First, we need a better understanding of the political opposition and prospects for democratic reform. Acting President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, Saleh’s vice-president, has only a small power base, and the opposition appears fractured between the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) and other individuals, such as Ali Mohsen, former Commander of the First Armored Division, and Sheikh Sadeq al Ahmar, leader of the powerful Al Ahmar family. Over the weekend, elements of the opposition announced the formation of a shadow government, though the composition and support for the group remains unclear. It is clear, however, that a transition process will take place – President Saleh has committed to eventually stepping down which will result in new leadership for Yemen for the first time in 33 years. The U.S. needs to be prepared for this post-Saleh government – whatever that may be.
Second, we must be prepared to address a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian crisis. The violence between pro-Saleh forces and opposition demonstrators has only exacerbated already chronically poor conditions in Yemen, where the average citizen survives on less than two dollars a day. A third of Yemen’s population is undernourished, and the country is facing a severe water shortage and food crisis as fuel prices continue to soar. Yemen’s education indicators are among the lowest in the Middle East, with only 32% of girls attending secondary school. The U.S. needs to send a message of clear solidarity with the Yemeni people, that we are concerned for their well-being and the prospects for their future. While the U.S. will not be able to solve the daunting development and economic challenges facing Yemen, we can help to mitigate their impact through our development and humanitarian assistance.
Third, the U.S. and our international partners should develop a long-term strategy on conflict resolution in Yemen. In a country rife with tribal conflict, most notably the Houthi rebellion in the north and secessionist movement in the south, al Qaeda has found safe haven. This is a clear example of how our counterterrorism strategy must have a civilian component. USAID has done good work through community outreach programs aimed at fighting youth extremism – but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Saudi Arabia has a unique role to play, given its strong ties to the Yemeni people and security interests, and we must think strategically about how to best leverage our collective resources to achieve a sustainable development policy.
As we turn to our witnesses, it is important to emphasize that Yemen cannot be viewed through a single lens. In a country where vast political, security, humanitarian, and development challenges continually converge, the U.S. must endeavor to formulate a coordinated short-term and long-term policy based on our core national security interests. I commend our diplomats in Yemen, ably led by Ambassador Gerry Feierstein and Deputy Chief of Mission Elizabeth Richard who continue to work tirelessly in an increasingly difficult environment. I look forward to hearing more about how the U.S. can better address the threats posed to our national security from Yemen, and ultimately help to better meet the legitimate needs of the Yemeni people.
In our first panel, we will hear from The Honorable Janet Sanderson, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs; The Honorable Daniel Benjamin, Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the Department of State; and Ms. Christa Capozzola, Deputy Assistant Adminstrator in the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance at USAID.
Our second panel will include testimony from Dr. Christopher Boucek, Middle East Research Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Mr. Daniel Green, Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute on Near East Policy. Thank you to all of our panelists for taking the time to be with us here today and share your expertise on the situation in Yemen.