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The Yemen Nightmare Scenario

There are a lot of nightmare scenarios when it comes to the Middle East.  Some of these are already visible on the horizon as the New York Times outlines in this article about national security challenges President Obama will likely face in his second term.

The NYT article mentions two potential wild cards, India and Cuba.  That may indeed be true, but lately I’ve been thinking about another worrying hypothetical.  We all remember, of course, that on Christmas Day 2009, AQAP smuggled a bomb on board a plane over Detroit and came worryingly close to bringing it down.

In the aftermath of that attempt, President Obama asked his staff to imagine if the attack had succeeded.  I think that is a useful exercise.  There is no need to be alarmist but there is a need to be prepared.  And we know from the undercover agent who delivered the most recent version of AQAP’s underwear bomb to his Saudi handlers earlier this year that AQAP is still fixated on attacking the US and particularly aviation.  

The situation in Yemen today is much different than it was in 2009.  For one the US has been carrying out air and drone strikes for the past three years and, unlike in 2009, the US is well aware that AQAP is looking to carry out attacks in the west.

So, in this environment, I think it is important to do exactly what President Obama asked his staff to do in the wake of the 2009 attempted bombing: imagine AQAP is able to carry out a successful terrorist attack in or on the US.

Now, to be clear, the US has done much to improve security since the attempts in 2009, 2010 and, one would assume, after uncovering the one in 2012.  But in the US, our leaders in both political parties have done, in my view, a poor job of preparing the American public for the possibility of a terrorist attack.

Instead, likely driven by domestic politics, our leaders have led Americans to believe that we should expect a 100% success rate when it comes to preventing terrorist attacks.  I don’t think this is particularly helpful,wise, or even realistic.  Because when one happens, even if it is relatively small, there is a tendency, driven by expectations of complete success, to overreact.

So, given that and given that the US has now been carry out bombing raids in Yemen since December 2009, how does the US react to an attack that is traced back to Yemen?

President Obama has been clear on his desire to avoid another ground war in the Middle East, and thankfully most elected officials in both political parties appear to realize that sending troops to Yemen would be a catastrophe and not in the best long-term interests of the US.

So, in this hypothetical, what does the US and the Obama administration do? 

Is it enough, in the wake of a successful attack, to simply tell the US public that the US will continue doing what it has been doing for the past three years – carrying out drone and air strikes on suspected targets in Yemen?

The US has dramatically increased the number of these strikes since President Hadi took office in February 2012 and if – a very big if, but such is the nature of being prepared for worse-case scenarios – AQAP is successful what other options does the US have in its quiver?  More drone strikes? It has already done this several times.  Special Forces raids on the ground?  Would these covert actions, which by nature and with the exception of the bin Laden raid aren’t publicized, be enough to convince the US public in the days after any successful attack?

I’m not sure there are any easy answers to these question, and hopefully they are ones that the US will never have to deal with.  But hoping them away doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be prepared. 


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