There appear to be some good business opportunities in Yemen, but they may not be what they seem. Yemen is the poorest Arab nation, and one of the poorest countries in the world, with an estimated annual per capita income of $1,061. It is running out of water, and production from its few oil fields is declining. Apart from that, it produces nothing and is increasingly becoming a center for drug trafficking. It is also corrupt, ranking 164th on Transparency International’s 2009 list, just ahead of Cambodia and the Central African Republic. It is a country that is remarkably devoid of resources or of a developed middle class of consumers, and it is best known for its ongoing multidimensional civil war, pitting the central government against various tribal groups. In spite of all that, there has been a surge in investment in the country by a number of small American companies — all the more remarkable as the U.S. economy itself has been in recession. A similar pattern is observable in Kenya, with an annual income of $912 and ranked just ahead of Yemen at 146th for corruption, and in Ethiopia, with an income of $390 per capita and coming in at 120 for corruption.
So what do these countries have in common? They are frontline states in the burgeoning but still secret phase three of the Global War on Terror being planned by the Pentagon and spy agencies with the concurrence of the Barack Obama White House. Those who thought there might be some kind of peace dividend with the Democrats holding the presidency can bid those thoughts goodbye. The administration is clearly thinking beyond Afghanistan (and even Iran), anticipating the next battlefronts in Yemen and Somalia. It is assiduously gathering resources to enter the fray, including setting up business fronts that can be used by covert operatives.
Why go through the subterfuge? First there is the American side of the story. Given the shrinking public support for Afghanistan, the White House does not want to telegraph that it is planning escalation into yet another war or even two wars, depending on how you count them. And then there are the concerns of the always shaky Yemeni government. Yemen, as part of the Arabian Peninsula regarded as sacred soil to Muslims, is extremely sensitive to the presence of foreign soldiers in uniform, an issue that has been exploited by al-Qaeda and other militant groups in neighboring Saudi Arabia. So the solution is to create an infrastructure of ostensibly private-sector enterprises that can serve as mechanisms for having American special ops soldiers and intelligence officers inside the country to gather information and assist the local government without appearing to do so. For the intelligence officers involved, this is called, not surprisingly, business cover. It is the sort of cover Valerie Plame used against possible nuclear-proliferation targets. Business cover is expensive to set up and maintain and the officers who work under it know that they will not have the protection of diplomatic immunity if they are caught in flagrante, though it is to be assumed that there is an understanding with the local governments that intelligence and other special-status personnel operating as civilians will be protected insofar as possible. What makes it all exceedingly tricky is the fact that the American intelligence agencies normally do not reveal all of their assets to the locals, even in those cases where the government supports the effort. The potential for an embarrassing incident is very high.
In Kenya and Ethiopia, the U.S. is similarly disinclined to have too heavy a footprint, as African Union willingness to persevere in Somalia is decidedly limited and could vanish altogether if it were seen as an American operation. The U.S. military’s African command, or AFRICOM, is actually located in Stuttgart, Germany, but its principal operational component is located at the large French military base Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. The CIA runs its drone operations targeting Somalia and Yemen out of that same location and has been using its assets on the ground in those countries to help direct predator strikes against suspected terrorist targets. CIA and special ops soldiers have been busy placing sensors and electronic surveillance devices throughout the Horn of Africa and in Yemen to permit greatly expanded operations. Both CIA and Army units in Djibouti have recently been beefed up in expectation that fighting will intensify in 2011.
And what is the nature of the threat justifying major military and intelligence operations in two new countries? Well, according to the State Department’s own recently issued report on global terrorism, the only terrorist incident originating in Yemen that directly threatened U.S. interests was the unsuccessful Nigerian underwear bomber in December, an attack that was carried out in retaliation for a deadly CIA drone strike shortly before. And there have been allegations that U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi might have influenced Major Malik Nadal Hasan’s shooting rampage at Fort Hood last November. Apart from that, terrorism in Yemen is internally directed with some spillover against neighbor Saudi Arabia. In Somalia, al-Shabaab, which the State Department describes as “a disparate group of armed militias, many of whom do not adhere to the ideology of the group’s leaders,” is the target of Washington’s ire. Foggy Bottom concedes that the group is linked to al-Qaeda only by “mutually supportive rhetoric.” It has not targeted the United States at all, though some government officials have expressed concerns that Somali-Americans who travel back to their country of birth to join al-Shabaab might return to the U.S. to commit terrorist acts.
So we are again talking of secret wars conducted in places where we do not understand the local issues or players very well, all part of a massive overreaction directed against low-level troublemakers who do not actually pose any serious threat against the United States. Where it will all lead is anyone’s guess, but it should be noted that the pattern of new terrorism emerging as the response to misdirected and heavy-handed American intervention has been repeated over and over again during the past ten years.