We've learned a lot about Yemen in the past weeks and according to Yemen expert Brian O'Neill, some of what we've learned has been a mix of cliches and oversimplifications. O'Neill says that when the media spotlight suddenly focuses on a country, journalists play catch up and misinformation can be inevitable.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is out scribbling again this week. I'm Bob Garfield. Before Christmas Day, when a young Nigerian man with Jihadist connections in Yemen allegedly tried to detonate explosives on the Detroit-bound airplane, there wasn't a whole lot of Yemen-centric reporting going on. Since then many of us have had to play catch-up, and the media have done their best to provide the tutorials.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Coming up, is Yemen the new terror front?
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Yemen is an ideal incubator for terrorism. It is the poorest Arab country in the world.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Is Yemen the new breeding ground for terrorists targeting America? A look, three minutes away.
BOB GARFIELD: But as often happens when a previously ignored part of the world is suddenly thrust into the media spotlight, there have been mistakes, exaggerations and a general lack of context running through the coverage. Some of that is understandable and inevitable. The news hole simply can't accommodate a Yemen history lesson with every story, and most journalists are playing catch-up, too. It’s enough to make a Yemen expert, blogger and former editor of the Yemen Observer, Brian O’Neill, cringe as he watches the coverage.
BRIAN O'NEILL: There definitely is a kind of dread. We were very nervous about what the tone was going to be and basically just ignorance about Yemen, I mean, understandable ignorance because it hadn't really been in the news at all.
BOB GARFIELD: What is being reported about Yemen that you think is either explicitly wrong or which, it’s just kind of misdirection?
BRIAN O'NEILL: The media is focusing entirely on al Qaeda, with a mention of oh, and there’s a problem in the North and one in the South, whereas in Yemen itself al Qaeda is essentially a sideshow; it’s the third most important of these, of what we call the three rebellions. The one in the North takes a lot more of the government’s time and the one in the South is actually probably its biggest existential crisis, the one that really could force Yemen to no longer be the state that we know. We're focusing entirely on what should be done about al Qaeda, what should the government of Yemen do about al Qaeda, what should our government do but both giving al Qaeda more power than they actually deserve to have, than they've actually earned, and ignoring the far greater crisis.
BOB GARFIELD: One of the factoids I keep hearing is that Yemen is Osama bin Laden’s ancestral homeland.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: What you may not realize is that Yemen is the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden…
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Yemen has a special place in the history of al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden’s father was born there, and it was the scene of…
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Yemen, ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden himself, is once again on al Qaeda’s frontline.
BRIAN O'NEILL: When I hear that – you know, if I wasn’t wearing my headphones right now steam would literally be shooting out of my ears.
[BOB LAUGHS] Like that is the, the grandfather of all misleading clichés when people write about Yemen. It implies a certain weight but it’s completely weightless. The reason why there’s al Qaeda in Yemen has nothing to do with Osama bin Laden’s father living there 70-some years ago.
BOB GARFIELD: Another apparently salient fact is the notion that Yemenis are armed to the teeth, which sounds dangerous on the face of it but you believe lacks context.
BRIAN O'NEILL: It does. The cliché is that there are 60 million guns, there’s a gun for every man, woman and child, but it’s not really the case. I don't want to underestimate the problem with the arms trade in Yemen. I mean, people do walk around with guns, but a lot of those guns are World War I, World War II-era variety. They're part of the tribal identification. You know, you see a picture in Yemen of somebody walking down the street carrying a rifle on his shoulder, most of the time that rifle can't shoot more than 30 feet probably, if it can shoot at all.
BOB GARFIELD: Anything else for the checklist of conventional wisdom?
BRIAN O'NEILL: Yes, when they talk about Yemen having an al Qaeda presence, since at least the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, it doesn't really recognize the fact that in about 2003 al Qaeda was more or less destroyed, and since then, since 2006, it’s come back with the second generation of al Qaeda, who are of a completely different breed than the one that we saw before. They're much more ambitious, much more ruthless, much smarter and more patient. So it assumes this continuity of militancy, where one doesn't actually exist.
BOB GARFIELD: So on the chaos-ometer, I mean, is it Somalia, is it Afghanistan? In terms of disorder and just sheer potential danger, where does Yemen fall?
BRIAN O'NEILL: Yemen falls much closer to the Somalia side on the chaos-ometer. It’s closer to being a failed state, which Somalia clearly is. But I think, if you don’t mind me saying so, I think that the question, in and of itself, when, when people ask that, is Yemen the next Afghanistan, it is kind of misleading. I mean, we saw that where, you know, when we were talking about Afghan policy, is did what work in Iraq, will that work in Afghanistan? And so, I think the problem is the media is so busy trying to figure out is this the next Afghanistan, the next Somalia, that they're not focusing on, as trite as this sounds, it’s the current Yemen.
BOB GARFIELD: So, in other words, I am guilty of asking exactly the kind of superficial, unavailing question that I've been quizzing you about. I am part of the problem, not part of the solution.
BRIAN O'NEILL: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Is there, in fact, a delicious or particularly trenchant fact about Yemen that you think should be part of the checklist of items to include in contextual stories about the country?
BRIAN O'NEILL: The fascinating thing about Yemeni history is that until 1962 it was essentially a medieval Imamate, where people were still being beheaded as a form of punishment, and then as recently as 2004, 2005, it was the closest thing the Middle East had to a functioning democracy. It’s really skirted both extremes of what we think of when we think of the Middle East.
BOB GARFIELD: So you've described a country that was fundamentally medieval into the '60s, which flirted with democracy more substantially than any other place in the Middle East outside of, I guess, Israel and is now a failed state. Can we assume that the state will collapse still further, or is there perhaps just another iteration of Yemen right around the corner?
BRIAN O'NEILL: It’s possible that there could be. One of the problems that we had was when we first helped them get rid of al Qaeda then we, we turned our back on them and didn't address any of the structural problems. So if we do help get rid of al Qaeda again and help the development problems, it can get back to this possible democracy. But if we don't do anything then I don't think there’s a chance that Yemen will be anything but a failed state.
BOB GARFIELD: Brian, thank you very much.
BRIAN O'NEILL: Bob, it’s been my pleasure. Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Brian O’Neill blogs about Yemen at Islamandinsurgencyinyemen.blogspot.com. We'll link to his blog from our site, Onthemedia.org.