The US evacuation of its embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, leaves a Middle Eastern country with 25 million citizens, a leading Al Qaeda branch, and real estate along one of the world’s busiest oil transit choke points without much of an American diplomatic presence.
The US isn’t the only country to pull out of Yemen either, with France, Britain, and even Saudi Arabia — a country with a complex tangle of interests regarding its southern neighbour — temporarily shuttering their diplomatic missions as well.
Complicating matters for the US is that the embassy was reportedly also the site of a CIA station, at least according to intelligence reporter Matthew Aid. Anonymous government sources provided the Washington Post with specifics as to what the agency was pulling out of the fractious Arabian country. The US embassy in Sanaa had been “the primary base in Yemen for US intelligence operations,” the Post reports, and its closure has required the agency to evacuate “dozens of operatives, analysts and other staffers.”
It isn’t immediately clear what the departure of intelligence and embassy staff will mean for the most high-profile and controversial aspect of US national security policy in Yemen: the CIA-directed drone campaign against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the global jihadist organisation’s most threatening branch.
As the Washington Post article reports, the US has a drone base in the Saudi desert that it uses for operations in Yemen. And the CIA has contingency plans in places so chronically unstable yet critical to US national security.
Annexes or other facilities could allow the agency to continue its work without having to depend on the embassy’s CIA station. The drone campaign also might not depend on intensive manpower: the US doesn’t need dozens of staffers working from the comfort of an embassy to be able to run sources and coordinate with foreign partner organisations, and intelligence can always be analysed back at CIA headquarters in Langley rather than in-country.
That doesn’t mean that the closure of the embassy won’t have certain consequences in the intelligence sphere. There’s an intrinsic connection between diplomacy and intelligence that goes far beyond the security and office space that an embassy can provide.
The pullout could signal to the US’s intelligence partners in the region — specifically Saudi Arabia — that Washington’s commitment to Yemen just isn’t all that deep.
This could carry a more-than symbolic cost, as Robert Caruso, a former Navy cryptologist who was based in Djibouti, just across the Red Sea from Yemen, explained to Business Insider. “The model is entirely predicated on drones, which are fed information by partners which now have zero confidence that we’re committed to the war on terrorism,” Caruso says.
More tangibly, the lack of an embassy means that the US will not be ideally positioned to cultivate new relationships within the emerging Yemeni government.
This week’s regime change in Yemen — triggered by the Iran-allied Houthi rebel movement — means that US intelligence partners and sources within the Yemeni state are now out of power. In a few months, Yemen may have a new set of generals and intelligence chiefs, and their US-friendly predecessors may have lost a lot of their intelligence value from Washington’s perspective.
The US will be able to continue intelligence collection even without an embassy CIA station. But as former CIA analyst Nada Bakos explained to Business Insider, the US’s premiere spy agency will be at somewhat of a disadvantage without a US diplomatic presence in Yemen.
“We’re challenged with lack of access and influence when a new government is forming, and we are unable to establish a coalition to help stabilise the new government,” she says. The embassy closure “doesn’t help with further diplomatic relations when it comes to coordinating counter-terrorism strategies with their policymakers and establishing that sort of shared common goal.”
Eventually, Yemen will have some kind of new government and the US will restore its diplomatic and intelligence presence in Sanaa. But that might be years in the future. In the meanwhile, an opportunity to develop new contacts and build rapport at a sensitive point in the country’s political transition will have been lost. “It’s hard to continue to coordinate any kind of intel when you don’t have a relationship with the host government,” Bakos says.
The embassy pullout might also end up exposing the shortcomings of a counter-terror strategy that depends on unstable or unreliable allies. As Caruso explained, target selection with the assistance of the Yemeni government and Saudi intelligence was the “lynchpin” of the US’s efforts against AQAP in Yemen.
With the embassy closure, “that lynchpin is gone,” says Caruso. “I don’t know if it can come back when it’s all said and done.”
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