Two passengers on a flight from Chicago were arrested at Amsterdam Schiphol airport on Sunday. Customs officials had allegedly found knives, boxcutters—the chosen weapon of the 9/11 hijackers—and a mobile phone taped to a medicine bottle in their luggage. Both were US citizens of Yemeni origin, and the itinerary on their tickets ended in the country itself.
There is no proof that the pair were, as some have speculated, on a dry run for a terror attack. Yet the circumstances and the link to Yemen seem bound to invite such speculation. Last Wednesday the Washington Post reported that CIA sources believe Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)—based in Yemen—now represents a greater threat to the US security than Al Qaeda in Pakistan. The report comes a day after Amnesty International called on Washington to clarify the role of US forces in unlawful extra-judicial killings of Al Qaeda suspects in the country.
Since the attempt by an Yemeni-trained terrorist to destroy a US-bound plane (again at Amsterdam Schiphol airport) last Christmas there has been a major crackdown in Yemen. An airstrike against suspected militants in December killed 41 civilians, including 14 women and 21 children, and a US cruise missile attack in May mistakenly killed a Yemeni government official. In the past fortnight 11 Yemeni soldiers were killed in an ambush in a town in southern Yemen, and government forces responded by killing 12 militants.
The Amnesty International report expresses concern about unlawful killings, arbitrary arrest, torture, unfair trials and enforced disappearances. It also highlights the way in which the distinction has been blurred between AQAP terrorists and Houthi fighters—Shia separatists who have waged a rebellion against the Sunni-dominated state since 2004.
The role of the US military in air strikes in Yemen has never been publicly acknowledged, but according to the New York Times the US “provided firepower, intelligence and other support” in raids across the country last December, and ABC News reported that this support has included cruise missile strikes.
Jihadism in Yemen has been fed over the decades by generations of volunteer fighters returning radicalised from conflicts abroad, such as the Afghan war against the Soviets in the 1980s, the invasion of Afghanistan in 2002 and the 2003 invasion…