Don’t ignore the unknown

“Smaller” countries shouldn’t be ignored by Western policy-makers


Sam Kary, ArtSci ‘16

We can’t ignore “smaller” countries when it comes to international security.

This “Ostrich School of Thought” — where we put our heads in the sand and ignore places we don’t understand — isn’t working. Some politicians and academics are still using this paradigm, dividing the world into places that matter and places that don’t.

This worldview is already setting us up for failure in a small country a hemisphere away: Yemen.

By ignoring countries that aren’t considered world powers, we miss key information that could help foreign policy makers avert international crises and preempt security threats. Failing to identify growing threats in marginalized areas before they mature puts our national interests at risk.

In September, I watched as conservative realists, who have studied international relations their entire lives, struggled with questions about the Islamic State (ISIS). Where did it come from? How do we make it go away?

These same people flew their attention out of Iraq a year before the Americans did in 2012.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq cost the United States capital and lives. After it became clear the U.S. would be able to pull out of Iraq with relative success, the need to care about the country was gone.

When not considered in relation to the United States, Iraq lost importance. Corruption, poverty and the ethnic inequality that has since led to the rise of ISIS weren’t analyzed because those things were happening to Iraqis, not Americans.

We can see the same mistake being made in ignoring Yemen.

On Sept. 21, 2014, a rebel group called the Houthis took control of Yemen’s capital city, Sana’a. Last month, the group abducted the government’s chief of staff, demanded changes to Yemen’s constitution and took the President captive after laying siege to his palace. A ceasefire between the two sides has since been established, but the Houthis continue to capture weapons caches and cities, disregarding the agreement. Yemen’s southwest has declared independence, engaging in skirmishes with government

forces. The Prime Minister and the President have both resigned, leaving the country without a leader.

It’s impossible to sum up Yemeni politics in a single article. The country is chronically unstable and divided along more lines than a cracked egg, with a handful of factions struggling for power.

It’s precisely this complex nature that caused me to fall in love with Yemen in the first place — yet so many have written Yemen off because of it.

In the 16th century, Renaissance cartographers filled unexplored areas on maps with drawings of serpents or monsters, and labelled them “hic sunt dracones” — Latin for “here be dragons”.

This signified the area was unknown, uncivilized and basically irrelevant. They didn’t know much about it, so it must have been unimportant.

While the implication is outdated, the title remains appropriate. There are definitely dragons in Yemen, if you look for them.

Since the mid-2000s, Yemen has been home to Al-Qaeda’s most dangerous regional branch. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) membership reads like a who’s who of the movement’s best and brightest.

This includes Ibrahim Al-Asiri, an explosives expert, who uses Yemen as a safe haven to stage international attacks.

Artfully disguised explosives designed by Al-Asiri have made it on to planes before being detected on two occasions — once on Christmas Day in 2009 and again in October 2010. Al-Asiri is why the TSA makes you take off your shoes and pass through body scanners before boarding a flight.

AQAP has consistently influenced and trained individuals to carry out attacks in the West. These individuals include Charlie Hebdo attacker Chérif Kouachi, who received training in Yemen before returning to France.

AQAP controls a significant amount of territory in Yemen, regularly defeating the military in battle.

If AQAP were able to transform this territory into a pseudo state, they would have enough resources and stability to stage sophisticated attacks against the West — attacks capable of harming large numbers of people. The time would eventually come when this pseudo state posed such a large threat toWestern governments that military intervention would be necessary to deal with it.

The threat of terrorist attacks has in the past caused the Canadian government to implement increasingly stringent domestic security measures, costing millions of dollars and threatening civil liberties.

We aren’t insulated from the problems facing Yemen, or the criminals and terrorists operating there.

The U.S. and its allies used to be able to work with the Yemeni government to tackle these problems. With the government’s collapse and the rise of new threats to split the local military’s attention, they’ve lost that capability.

When Yemen descends even further into chaos and begins to threaten Western interests, the same people who ignored it will stare quizzically at their televisions and ask themselves again: how did this happen?

It’s because those same people dismissed a country that was experiencing violence and instability, instead of assuming that this was indicative of a developing crisis.

We shouldn’t be surprised when the ball we took our eye off of hits us square in the teeth.

Sam Kary is fourth-year political studies major and an intern at the Centre for International and Defence Policy.


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