GLOBAL JOURNALIST: Will Yemen be tomorrow's war?

Friday, January 8, 2010 | 8:35 p.m. CST; updated 10:16 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Byron Scott, professor emeritus, Missouri School of Journalism: Our show today is about Yemen and international reactions to the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound Delta/Northwest Airlines jet. The latest al-Qaida news is characterized by a quote that I think we all heard on news shows the last few days, “Iraq is yesterday’s war; Afghanistan is today’s. If we don’t watch out Yemen will be the next war.” We’re here to explore that. First, what should we know about this country on the horn of Africa?

Faris Sanabani, editor and publisher, Yemen Observer, Sanaa, Yemen: It is a beautiful country, beautiful weather, nice people and a lot of potential. Unfortunately, we’re facing a few challenges but we have a government that is willing to face and deal with terrorism, and with international help I think we could eradicate it. We could eradicate terrorism, extremism and al-Qaida from our country.

Scott: Why are we so upset, as if we didn’t know, about Yemen?

Michael Hudson, professor of international relations and director of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.: Historically Yemen has been known as “Yemen Saiid,” or happy Yemen. It is a beautiful country with very nice people but it is a country experiencing a lot of poverty. Lately Yemen has been experiencing serious political difficulties with a well-entrenched rebellion in the North and a latent secessionist movement in the South. In the middle we have al-Qaida in Arabia, which appears to have found in the open spaces of Yemen a good operating environment. Yemen is often being called a failed state or a state on the verge of failing.

Scott: The 23-year-old alleged bomber, who has now been indicted, was Nigerian. Now Nigeria is one of 14 countries whose residents are all getting extra pat-downs and searches in any flights to the United States. What are the ramifications?

Jacques Lhiullery, regional bureau chief, Agence France-Press, Lagos, Nigeria: Nigeria is a country of extremes – super rich and super poor. You have an incredible lot of natural resources, including two million barrels per day of oil. You also have a shaky democracy and huge amounts of corruption. In the past 50 years, this country has been through eight military coups, out of which six have succeeded. Nigeria also had a very bloody civil war, the Biafra War, from 1967 to 1970. To some extent this country has experienced so much in so little time that it has acted like some sort of vaccination against extremist movements. It is very difficult to imagine that Islamist movements could succeed in Nigeria.

Scott: What’s the European perspective on this issue, particularly since the flight to Detroit originated in Amsterdam?

Valentina Pop, reporter, EU Observer, Brussels, Belgium: The issue with the European perspective is that there is none in the sense that people tend to look at Europe as a unified conglomerate of states. Especially in matters of terrorism and security, the national authorities in the respective countries have very different approaches to these issues. What the Europeans are trying to do is at least to coordinate better and to have unified rules in terms of how passengers are monitored and scanned in airports, but even that is difficult between countries. For instance, Holland and Great Britain have these full body scanners which basically show your virtual naked image, but the European Parliament, the legislative body of the European Union, has been against using the scanners in EU territory due to privacy concerns, as well as cultural concerns from Muslim and Jewish communities. Now after this attack things may change.

Scott: From the Yemeni perspective is this an overreaction?

Sanabani: We know that security has to improve, and we understand that al-Qaida and the terrorists are like a disease, like a virus. Every time you take an antibody, they find a way to escape it. All of us have to be more aware and we have to coordinate against one common enemy.

Scott:  Yet in Nigeria a lot of umbrage has come from the international reaction?

Lhiullery: Nigeria was upset by the decision to be blacklisted by the U.S. administration. They said this is absolutely unfair and unjust, and it could backfire on the relationship between the U.S. and Nigeria. The U.S. has said its oil companies – including Exxon-Mobile and Chevron – are a very vital interest in Nigeria. The Nigerians are trying to be removed from the blacklist. The U.S. ambassador has been summoned here by the prime minister.

Scott:  How are the Europeans countries feeling about the Yemen situation, entering the second decade of the “war on terror”?

Pop: Some of the European embassies have temporarily closed their operations in Yemen just as the U.S. did, (Ed. Note:  These now are reopened.) but normally one has to have patience with the European response. It usually takes a while until all the EU leaders agree on a position, and that position is usually very toned down because of contradicting views among member states. As to the war on terror, there are countries like Great Britain and the Netherlands and even France which are supporting and still seeing the reason and meaning of it. In other quarters of Europe, where terrorism isn’t a real threat, the public seems to be less willing to contribute.

Scott: In an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, former Secretary of State Zbigniew Brzezinski says that one of the major Obama administration’s foreign policy tests is going to come in this area. Is this an appropriate reaction so far?

Hudson: Terrorism is probably the main foreign policy security issue that faces the United States. The problem is that nobody really knows what to do about it.  All of this sudden attention on Yemen and the initial effort to try to deal with the problem often have unintended side effects. I think the establishment of a list of suspect countries from which people will be singled out for unwarranted security attention only in the long run tends to increase the kind of antipathy toward the U.S. that feeds these extremist Islamic groups in the first place. The U.S. has had a very close relationship with the government of Yemen for a long time. But one of the first terrorist incidents against us – the attack on the U.S. naval warship, U.S.S. Cole – occurred in Yemen. The U.S. tried to send a team of FBI agents to Yemen to solve the problem and find the culprits. But they ran into very strong opposition from the Yemeni government and from within Yemen itself. Yemen wants to be in sync with the U.S. government, but public opinion in Yemen is very much against intrusive, neo-colonial activities which are seen often as being arrogant and unwanted. But the issue of Islamist extremism is not confined strictly to Yemen. This is a trans-national global phenomenon in which networks can establish bases and take root in particular places where government is weak, so going after a particular country is not necessarily going after the problem itself. But we do have an issue in Yemen because the government traditionally has been weak.

Scott:  British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has pledged to put together an international conference on terrorism in Yemen by the end of the month.

Pop: It actually overlaps with a previously planned conference on Afghanistan. EU leaders were set to meet in London anyway, so they will now also discuss Yemen, but they may also discuss the homegrown terrorist activities.

Hudson: Is Yemen going to be represented in this conference?

Sanabani: Yes, we heard they are. The question that people are asking is what will come out of this conference? Will it include sending for international forces?  That is rejected by the people. Will it include sending assistance and training for jobs? That will be welcomed.

Scott:  Will Nigeria be at the conference as well?

Lhiullery:  It is not well-known because the Nigerian president has been away from the country for 45 days. He is in the hospital at Saudi Arabia. I wouldn’t say that there is a vacuum, but normally Nigeria should attend.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Brian Jarvis, Youn-Joo Park, Melissa Ulbricht, Tim Wall and Megan Wiegand. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.


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