While the fighting in Afghanistan continues to dominate news coverage, one Middle Eastern country has emerged as a leading flashpoint of Islamic terrorism.
Yemen, most recently in the headlines as the home of Anwar al Awlaki, the exiled imam who fled to the country after inspiring Fort Hood murderer Nidal Malik Hasan, has become a haven for al-Qaeda even as its internal turmoil has drawn in regional rivals like Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Yemen is the poorest and most unstable of all Middle Eastern countries. Located in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, it occupies a strategic position that makes the country difficult to ignore.
At its south-western tip, Yemen straddles one side of the strategic, 20-mile wide Mandab Strait that connects the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea, a vital international shipping lane leading to the Suez Canal. Equally important for world commerce, Saudi Arabia’s oil fields lie just across Yemen’s northern border.
It is Yemen’s northern area, particularly the Saada region, which is beginning to attract international attention. A bitter civil war there is threatening to turn into a regional conflict pitting Iran against Saudi Arabia. A rebellion among Saada’s Shiite tribes, called the Houthis (the name of the clan leading the revolt), against Yemen’s central government has seen the two rival Muslim states stake out sides in the conflict.
Iran, which champions the Shiite cause throughout the Islamic world, has reportedly sent combatants from its own Revolutionary Guards as well as from Hezbollah, its proxy Shiite fighting force in Lebanon, to help the Houthis. Last month, Yemen’s navy exposed the extent of Iran’s involvement in the conflict when it seized a ship off its coast carrying Iranian arms for the Shiite rebels.
Saudi Arabia, the leader of Islam’s majority Sunni branch and home of the intolerant and anti-Shiite Wahhabi doctrine, has been backing Yemen’s government with money and weapons of its own.
But a Houthi incursion across the porous and mountainous Saudi-Yemeni border earlier this month, in which three Saudi villages were seized and a border guard killed changed that.
The Saudi government reacted immediately to this escalation, sending warplanes to bomb Houthi positions in Yemen’s mountainous northern region and an army column across the border to confront the rebels directly.