What is the US doing in Yemen?

If there is one thing we know about terrorism it is that what we do – or what we don’t do – has a real chance of effecting what terrorist groups do.  For terrorist groups are really good at telling the world why they use violence and usually place the blame for their carnage on us (“You make us kill!”).  When the story told by these groups is robust enough we call it a narrative.

In the case of Islamist extremist groups, this narrative has even received a name: it is called the Common (or Single) Narrative.  It has been studied and documented to death (no pun intended) and goes something like this:

a) the West hates Islam

b) the West is at war with Islam

c) “true” Muslims have a divine obligation to fight and die

One of the most important acts that we as Westerners can take that supports the narrative and convinces terrorists that they were right all along is military intervention and/or occupation.  Intervention/occupation, no matter how noble the intent, seldom works out well.  Even if in the end the policy is deemed a success, enough death and destruction inevitably results to create years if not decades of a seething anger and a desire for revenge.

We have ample historical proof for how military action leads to terrorism.  Without the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan there would be no Al Qaeda.  Without the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia there would be no Al Shabaab.  Without the US occupation of Iraq there would be no Islamic State.  And the list goes on and on.

In this light you would think that states would think twice before engaging in further military moves in regions where there is a significant Muslim population.  And you would think that the US, already burned badly in Afghanistan and Iraq, would not be keen to try again.  And yet it appears that this is exactly what is happening in Yemen.

The situation in that corner of the Arabian Peninsula is a little different than other areas where the US has resorted to bombing or troop deployment.  Yemen is in the midst of a civil war where a Shia group called the Houthis has taken over part of the country and where outside forces, mostly the Saudis, have sent their aircraft and men to beat them back.  A lot of this is understandable if you recall that the Wahabbis in Saudi Arabia detest the Shia and are in a what they perceive as a mortal battle for dominance in the Muslim world with (Shia) Iran.  There is also some evidence that Iran has been arming the Houthis, although I suspect that this support is wildly exaggerated for political purposes.

Now enter the US.  It has been providing its Saudi ally with intelligence, training and perhaps equipment for some time now (the US has the same inexplicable obsession with Iran despite the fact that the terrorist threat from Sunni extremism – some of it derived from Saudi-style Islam – dwarfs by orders of magnitude that from Shia Islam).  Just a few days ago a US warship launched missiles into Yemen to take out a radar station it claims had been used to launch rockets at the ship.

On the one hand this may be a one-off retaliatory attack and seen as legitimate self defence. On the other it may be merely the beginning of a creeping involvement in yet another war in the Middle East.  It is far from clear that whatever is happening in Yemen has any bearing on US security or US interests and yet that country seems once again to be dragged into a conflict the future of which is opaque and the consequences of which are unpredictable.

I read once that the justification for the 1983 suicide bombing of the US Marines barracks at Beirut airport was born in the volley of missiles fired into the hills of the Bekaa Valley by US ships offshore during President Reagan’s decision to deploy to Lebanon.  We all remember how that deployment ended.  So why would the US opt for a similar move in Yemen?

We really have to stop doing “stupid shit” to quote President Obama.  And we really have to stop feeding the narrative the terrorists use to advance their cause.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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