The crime and tragedy of the killing of two hostages by Al Qaeda during an attempted US rescue mission in Shabwa Province, Yemen, should provoke not only outpourings of grief for the two people killed but also a reconsideration of how the world treats countries like Yemen.
The US raid appears to have gone wrong when dogs in the camp of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) began yapping, alerting the terrorists. Hostages Pierre Korkie (a South African teacher) and Luke Somers, an American journalist, received injuries and died after the US team put them on aircraft. AQAP, a tiny group of Sunni extremists, has planned some prominent bombings and is fascinated by non-metallic PETN explosives, which they tried to use to bring an airliner down over Detroit in 2009. Within Yemen, they have tried sometimes to hold territory, but have had several defeats in the past three years. Most recently, some of their bases have been taken over by the Houthis, a militant movement of the rival Zaydi Shiite branch of Islam that has captured the capital, Sana, and several other important cities. Since AQAP has rather bizarrely blamed the United States for the rise of the Houthis and the rollback of Al Qaeda, it is even possible that their plan to execute Somers, whom they kidnapped from Sana, was intended as revenge on the USA for the reversals they have suffered.
AQAP might well exist for reasons of political and religious discontent even if Yemen were a middle-income country. It is not a large organization, and a few hundred or even a few thousand malcontents can always be found. But it would be far less likely to be able to operate with impunity in a country that was not an economic basket case. Poverty does not cause terrorism, but poor countries face special problems in dealing with it. Poor countries, moreover, are especially open to the kinds of outside manipulation that produce the discontents that lead to terrorism. Shabwa Province in southern Yemen is so little taken note of globally that even its Wikipedia entry is a stub. Like the 24 million Yemenis in general, the people of Shabwa are desperately poor. Since 2012 a little over half of Yemenis have been below the poverty line. About half of children are malnourished and a third are estimated to go to bed hungry each night. The country faces a severe water shortage, worse even than the rest of the Middle East, which is likely exacerbated by climate change. Insecurity has made it difficult to pump the little oil or gas the country has, so that hydrocarbon income is down this year, and will fall further with the substantial decline in oil prices this fall.