May 21, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: Yemen: A New Dimension of Environment-Driven Terrorism


As of late May 2012, the intensifying counterterrorism (CT) efforts implemented by the United States against a surprisingly resilient al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) could become the first of an increasing number of similar scenarios where global CT efforts are inexorably exacerbated by a persistently worsening environmental crisis. Yemen's chronic water shortage has reached a level where experts predict that Yemen's capital, Sanaa', could actually run out of water in less than two decades, leaving the current two million residents with few choices but to decamp to other, as yet undetermined locations in an exodus accompanied by uncertainty and chaos.


The Shifting Context for Radicalization

This water crisis is directly related to Yemeni extremism and radicalization in much the same way as poverty or political and social oppression are related, and will have to be similarly addressed if the Yemeni government and international community hope to stabilize the country. As such, this unfolding reality presents policymakers with an altogether new dimension of environment-driven terrorism: extremism as an outgrowth of a degrading environment that can no longer support a given population.

This new perspective — a departure from the traditional view of eco-terrorism as violent acts carried out in the name of protecting the environment  — will demand new CT tactics and strategies that take into account an array of contributing factors of terrorism that include systemic natural causes that, although beyond immediate resolution, must still be addressed. The security consequences of the water crisis in Yemen, a long-acknowledged problem that has yet to spur meaningful action for a variety of compelling reasons, can be a test case for the international community.

Current American CT efforts, with its intensive use of drone attacks and liaison with the Yemeni security services, are proving to be effective at keeping AQAP off balance, though as recently disrupted plots prove, these efforts are effective only if they are continuous as AQAP appears to have a seemingly limitless supply of talented plotters, committed members, and resilient supporters. Yet the reason extremism and radicalization in Yemen is so intractable and difficult to fight is arguably the same as that which makes Somalia's instability similarly unyielding: the natural environment is so austere and unforgiving that it actually feeds political and social unrest. As explored below, Yemen's impoverished condition is largely due to its inhospitable natural environment, compounded by the lack of funds necessary to effectively employ technology to address these environmental problems. But the problems will have to be addressed to some degree, as the U.S military will almost certainly run out of drone aircraft well before Yemen runs short of extremists arising from the country's severe environmental crisis.


Nature's Barriers to Success

Research into the worsening water situation in Yemen has revealed that a substantial percentage of available water goes into the cultivation and production of qat, the narcotic plant that is the country's main cash crop and export commodity. This has led some to suggest that Yemen cut back on qat production and save that water for future drinking needs. This argument fails for precisely the same reason the argument for Afghanistan to turn away from opium production fails: qat grows very well in the Yemeni climate and enables farmers to earn more money than any other crop (and the list of crops that can survive Yemen's brutal climate is exceptionally short).

Yemen cannot escape the upcoming water crisis by switching to the cultivation of corn or wheat — even if Yemeni farmers could be persuaded to adopt these less profitable crops. And drilling deeper for water is becoming a diminishing option as well in that Yemeni wells are already among the deepest in the world, at more than 1000 feet in average in the highlands where Sanaa is located. Even using the type of deep drilling equipment that is normally used for oil exploration, Yemeni water tables are still dropping 20 feet a year, with demand remaining far ahead of supply and annual replenishment. Quite simply, absent a marked increase in average rain fall (which would likely lead to flooding issues that would create its own set of problems) the international community will be forced to carefully consider how to address the coming crisis, both out of sheer humanitarian concerns, but also specifically as counterterror and counter-radicalization measures.


Preventing Local Problems from Becoming a Regional Nightmare

These latter concerns will present policymakers with a complex problem set that won't be satisfactorily addressed by efforts to reform social and political institutions through shared expertise and increased funding. Chronic drought and steadily dropping water tables — factors that have created conditions where the average Yemeni citizen exists on an amount of water below the level the United nations has established as the minimum to support health — can't be resolved in the same way as corrupt political systems or the lack of social mobility. Similarly, effective, but costly strategies such as desalinization, currently an option available only to wealthy, but water-poor countries such as Qatar, are far beyond the ability of either the Yemeni government or the international community to fund over the long-term.

Nonetheless, robust engagement by regional and Western interests cannot be delayed much longer. In the absence of a workable solution, Yemen's neighboring countries will be left to manage unsustainable numbers of water refugees and the United Stated will be caught in a lingering battle against AQAP — or other extremist groups — that can attract what can seem to be an inexhaustible number of adherents.

To make matters even more onerous, Yemen is not the only country in the region facing widespread poverty, increasing social tensions, or increasing environmental degradation. Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia find themselves at varying stages along this continuum. To prevent the environment-based radicalism unfolding in Yemen from spreading to other corners of the Middle East and North Africa, it will become even more vital for the international community to devise effective, viable, and scalable solutions to Yemen's vexing challenges. Without such action, this new dimension of environment-driven terrorism will become a punishing reality throughout the region.



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