An American Hostage in an Unraveling Yemen
Al-Qaeda's new video of Luke Somers, an American journalist currently being held by the violent group, is a small part of a huge problem in the Gulf country.
On Thursday, Yemen's local al-Qaeda affiliate posted a video purportedly of Luke Somers, a 33-year-old American journalist kidnapped in the capital of Sanaa last year. The group is threatening to kill him unless their demands, which they said had been relayed to Washington, are met. (The Pentagon later announced that an attempt to rescue Somers had failed.)
While the video couldn't be independently confirmed, the story can't help but resemble the recent spate of ISIS hostage videos that have horrified millions in the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.
The video is also a vivid sign of growing instability in Yemen, but President Obama didn't mention that when he addressed the nation on ISIS in early fall. On September 10, he delivered the official version of his "degrade and ultimately destroy" ISIL speech from the White House. In it, the president promised:
This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground. This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.
But the problem is that the strategy hasn't been successful in Yemen. Days after the president's speech and despite the "air power and support for partner forces on the ground," Houthi militias⎯who are Shiite and aligned with Iran (and almost certainly funded by them)⎯took over most of Sanaa. Citing the unrest, the United States later ordered its diplomats and embassy staff to leave.
The Houthis, who comprise 30 percent of Yemen's population, present an entirely separate problem from the al-Qaeda insurgency. On Thursday, Reuters reported that Saudi Arabia had suspended most of its financial aid to Yemen as an ineffectual power-sharing deal with the Houthis has raised alarms with the Saudis. The United States, which also seeks to check Iran's influence in the region, can't be happy either.
Nevertheless, the Houthis are the enemies of al-Qaeda in Yemen, so as with Iran's opposition to the Islamic State, the United States will accommodate what it perceives to be the lesser of two evils. With hardly any journalists left in the country, it's difficult to know exactly what's happening in Yemen. But the country is looking less and less like a success story—that is, assuming it ever did.