One year ago, on Christmas Day, al-Qaida operatives in Yemen tried unsuccessfully to take down a U.S. airliner with a suicide bomber, who came to be known afterward as the "underwear bomber." One year later, the United States has substantially increased its financial assistance to Yemen and is trying to stabilize the middle eastern country.
In ancient times, Yemen was known as "Arabia Felix", meaning "Happy Arabia" Today, it is one of the poorest countries in the world, with 40 percent unemployment. Thirty percent of its people are undernourished. The country faces political turmoil with Houthis in the north fighting the government. And rebels in the south calling for secession. Analysts say all this combines to make Yemen an attractive recruiting ground for al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula, the most active node of al-Qaida's terrorism network.
In addition to assisting the "underwear bomber," the terrorist group is also accused of an October plot to send bombs aboard U.S.-bound cargo planes.
"Even if there were no threats to our security eminating from Yemen, the circumstances would be more than worthy of America's attention. Yemen matters. The people of Yemen matter," said John Brennan, the top terrorism official at the White House.
With that in mind, the United States raised assistance to Yemen three times this year, to $300 million. That's more than a 1,200 percent increase over 2008 when the money topped out at $22 million.
Mohammed Al-Basha, a spokesman for Yemen's embassy in Washington, says his country is looking beyond Washington. "We're not just looking at the U.S. as being a funder. This is a problem that has to be addressed and supported by regional, international partners, " he said.
Christopher Boucek, who has written widely on the Middle East, says the U.S. should offer more. "The scope of American involvement does not match the rhetoric and the importance that Yemen poses to American domestic security," he said.
Boucek says that security was recently compromised by Wikileaks. One classified cable, published by the website, revealed that Yemen's nuclear material was left unsecured for a week. Another has Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh claiming responsibility for air strikes on al Qaida which were actually carried out by the U.S.
Boucek says al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, will use these revelations in their recruiting. "For sure this will be used by the AQAP [al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula] to show, 'the regime is not acting in your interest This is not a legitimate government,'" he said.
To this, Brennan argues al-Qaida will twist anything it can to benefit its cause. "They are a bunch of murderous thugs. They are individuals who are determined to destroy and kill," he said.
Meantime, most of the remaining detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison are Yemeni Nationals. Brennan says the U.S. has no indication that the eight already repatriated from Guantanamo have returned to terrorism. Many say a post-release support program will guarantee they do not.
But like everything else, that costs money. "The daunting social and economic challenges. That's what keeps me up at night," Al-Basha said.
Analysts agree the only policy that will ultimately work in Yemen is two-fold: an emphasis on security and on reform, including economic, social and political.
Yemen received an increase in U.S. aid in 2010. Experts say any success will require more in 2011.