Two failed attacks, both apparently carried out by alleged Islamist terrorists, have featured prominently in global headlines over Christmas and New Year. On Christmas Day, a Nigerian man is suspected of trying to blow up a plane as it landed at Detroit. The US now says the suspect has links to an al-Qaeda group in Yemen. And in Denmark, a man with alleged ties to Somalian Islamist group al-Shabaab broke into the home of the artist responsible for the infamous Prophet Mohammed cartoons. The man has now been charged with attempted manslaughter.
And so, Yemen and Somalia are suddenly back on the radar of world leaders, with phrases such as 'incubators of terrorism' being bandied around. We're more used to hearing that sort of thing in relation to Afghanistan and north-west Pakistan, where there was also a recent deadly terrorist attack during a volleyball game. The arguments about how to deal with the security problems in those countries are often debated, but how western countries might deal with the threat posed by terrorist groups operating out of Yemen and Somalia hasn't received much public discussion in recent years. The recent attacks mean that will surely now change, but there seem to be even fewer potential solutions than there are for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Somalia's al-Shabaab formed out of the remnants of the UIC, a Taliban-style Islamist group which briefly ruled Somalia in 2006 until it was overthrown by US-backed Ethiopian forces for, well, being a bit too much like the Taliban. Since then, there's been little central government to speak of in Somalia, which is why pirates have been able to operate with such impunity from Somali ports. Some of the pirates' cash ends up going to al-Shabaab, and the Danish incident demonstrates it now has both the ability and willingness to attempt terrorist attacks abroad. If further international attacks take place, the US may be forced to turn once again to its Ethiopian allies for help in fighting al-Shabaab, the deployment of US troops to Somalia being still far too sensitive a subject following the 1993 Black Hawk Down incident.
As for Yemen, there is at least a central government, and the US has given it tens of millions of aid dollars to help root out terrorists since the attack on the USS Cole in Aden harbour in 2000. Following the failed Christmas Day bombing in Detroit, expect more help for the Yemeni authorities, including more US drones flying over remote parts of the country in an attempt to find terrorist hideouts. The solution to the Yemen problem may be a little more straightforward than that in Somalia, but the potential scale of the Detroit attack shows that al-Qaeda in Yemen already has the ambition to strike at major targets in the US homeland. The Obama administration knows it must act quickly in Yemen before the next terrorist plot becomes a reality.