Is Yemen the new Pakistan, which was the new Afghanistan, which was the new Saudi Arabia, which was the new Egypt for jihadists seeking to strike the West? The recent attempted cargo-plane bombing certainly gives credence to those who fear that Yemen is the Al Qaeda hub most likely to kill us. Yet even though Yemen has many of the component parts that make for an ideal holy warrior laboratory, Pakistan still has a clear jihadist edge—philosophically and operationally—over what’s developing in the land once called Arabia Felix.
But let us not belittle Yemen’s possibilities. First and foremost, Yemen’s been an intellectual mess for several decades. Religious tribal Shiites have warred against pan-Arab secular tribal Shiites (Yemen is the historic home of the Zaydi, or “Fiver,” Shiites, who had ruling dynasties—the Zaydi “Imamate”—in the country more or less continuously from 897 to 1962); Sunni and Shia Yemenis have, of course, disliked each other through the centuries; many Sunni and Shia Yemenis, especially in the south of the country, once zealously fell in love with Communism. Outsiders, especially Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt and the Soviet Union, threw troops and materiel into the northern Yemeni civil war, further accelerating the crack-up of traditional institutions and ethics that always work against modern bloody mayhem. As the British travel writer Tim Macintosh-Smith pleasantly put it:
Curiously, the doctrine of Scientific Socialism pursued in the south, ‘making use of all that is positive and fighting all deviations,’ was not unlike that of the Zaydi imamate, which enjoyed ‘commanding all that is suitable and prohibiting that which is disapproved.’ To determine what constituted strayings from the Straight Path of Islam, or leftist/rightist swervings from the Socialist path, the northern sayyids studied the Book of God, while the books of Marx and Lenin became the major reference for the Socialist Politburo. Chief Politburo exegete was Abdulfattah Isma’il, an expert on Socialist doctrine who was known, wryly, as al-Faqih (literally, the scholar of the holy writ). Under his guidance, the early caliphs of Islam were classified according to their rightist or leftist tendencies.
The British presence in Aden (1837–1967) added another layer of cultural Westernization, as well as a foreign imperial presence that many Yemenis loathed. And in an always tense, sometimes violent embrace, Yemenis have increasingly intertwined themselves with their northern neighbor, as Saudi wealth and Wahhabi ideology have become magnets for Sunni Yemenis. And then there is the corrupt, weak, but not hopelessly inept government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a
Zaydi Shiite, who must be all things to all men at whatever speed is required, and, last but not least, the Yemeni diaspora, which has sent talented Yemenis, including Anwar Al Awlaqi’s father, abroad to study and find an easier though not necessarily less complicated life. Add up all of these influences, experimentation, and struggles and you’ve got a Molotov cocktail of a country
Yet Pakistan still has the advantage. Even in an age of air travel, FedEx, and DHL, Yemen’s modernity pales in comparison to that of Pakistan. Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, remains, despite the considerable progress of the last twenty years, a backwater (and it was, until recently, a pleasant spot for Western diplomats and spooks who wanted to live in a pretty, easygoing, professionally undemanding “oriental” city that few people cared about). And Aden, the city of the south, is a dump where nothing works. There are many places in the world that have fallen into total wreckage since the collapse of Europe’s empires, but Aden, once one of the world’s great refueling ports, ranks high among those Third World locales that have fallen very far very fast.
Relatively few flights connect Yemen directly to the West. The country is better connected to the Arab world, and through the Middle East, Yemenis or other Arabs “studying” in Yemen can, in theory, travel far and wide. But relatively few Yemenis have dual-citizenship: The Yemeni population in America and Europe is infinitesimal compared to other expatriate Arab populations (Algerian, Tunisian, and Moroccan come first to mind) that have experienced significant radicalization at home and abroad.
Yemenis who have to pass through Arab countries to reach the West must first run the security gauntlet of Arab regimes. Yemenis, or other militant non-European Muslims who’ve “studied” in Yemen, must get visas for Western countries, which is now an extremely difficult, unpredictable task. European or American Muslims who visit Yemen are much more likely to come to the attention of Western and Arab security services since their numbers are not large and their legitimate reasons for doing so are few. Western and Arab states could slow down trade and travel with Yemen—allowing for a pretty close inspection of people and things—without causing much commercial turbulence in the region.
None of this is possible with Pakistan, which historically is one of the baptismal fonts of modern Islamic militancy. There are hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis who carry Western passports. In the last ten years, the British domestic intelligence service, MI5, has seen massive growth in large part to ensure that it has had the means to monitor Islamic militants within its enormous South Asian community.
Trying to monitor Pakistan and Pakistanis is exponentially more difficult than doing the same with Yemen and Yemenis. And the war in Afghanistan and the militant Muslim/Pashtun insurrection within Pakistan, about which the secular Pakistani ruling elite is deeply conflicted, and the Hindu/Muslim strife over Kashmir, and just the existential angst of being Pakistani, give much more nourishment to radical Islamic movements in the Subcontinent than the problems of Yemen give to jihadists in the Arabian peninsula.
Yemen is a serious headache for Western security services; Pakistan and the radicalized Pakistani émigré population in the West is the nightmare that keeps Western counterterrorist officials awake at night. Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahiri aren’t in Yemen or anywhere else in the Arab world because these lands aren’t as safe for them as Pakistan. Bin Ladenism, that toxic Sunni Arab brew of Egyptian and Saudi Islamic militancy, is evolving. Non-Arab lands now offer it much more promise.