Even Yemeni Government Spokesman Finds Foiled Plot Hard to Believe

Even the spokesman for the Yemeni embassy in Washington, D.C. is having a hard time believing a plot by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that the Yemeni government says it foiled.

Several news agencies -- including the BBC, the New York Times, and Bloomberg, among others -- reported this morning that the Yemeni government claimed it had stopped a large AQAP attack in Yemen's Hadhramaut province. As the BBC reported:

Yemeni government spokesman Rajeh Badi said the plot involved blowing up oil pipelines and taking control of certain cities -- including two ports in the south, one of which accounts for the bulk of Yemen's oil exports and is where a number of foreign workers are employed.

"There were attempts to control key cities in Yemen like Mukala and Bawzeer," said Mr Badi.

"This would be co-ordinated with attacks by al-Qaeda members on the gas facilities in Shebwa city and the blowing up of the gas pipe in Belhaf city."

That didn't sound right to Mohammed Albasha, a spokesman for the Yemeni embassy, and he said so on his personal Twitter account:

AQAP notably tried to seize Yemeni towns in 2011 and 2012, as the country's popular uprising drew the military's attention to the capital, Sanaa. And it was a strategic blunder for the organization. AQAP and its political arm, Ansar al-Sharia, alienated the towns they occupied and were ousted by the Yemeni military and "popular committees" -- militias formed by local sheikhs to retake the area. Since being pushed out in mid-2012, AQAP has remained in hiding.

The New York Times was more measured in its appraisal of the threat, reporting that the target was not whole cities, but rather a specific Canadian-operated oil installation in the Hadhramaut port capital of Mukallah. But even this seemed strange to some Yemen experts.

"[Yemeni authorities are] claiming that this plot that they've foiled includes attacks planned against oil pipelines here, specifically to take control of several ports in Yemen," Iona Craig, a correspondent for the Times of London, told BBC World Service from Sanaa. "Now, the oil pipelines get attacked on a regular basis -- in fact, they've been blown up twice in the last two weeks -- so that's not unusual, and it's not always related to al Qaeda." In fact, oil pipelines are frequently targeted by Yemeni tribal groups as a means of forcing concessions from the central government.

Adding to the dubious nature of the report: The Yemeni government did not specify how it thwarted the supposed attack. The United States conducted an airstrike in neighboring Shabwa province on Wednesday, killing seven, but that hardly seems sufficient to stop what was, by the Yemeni government's account, to be a large-scale attack.

The Yemeni government has a history of making outsized claims about its counterterrorism successes; on at least two occasions, officials claimed to have killed AQAP's deputy emir, Said al-Shihri, only for Shihri to release statements demonstrating that he was still very much alive. But there's little wonder why the Yemeni government would claim a victory now. With the U.S. diplomatic community in lockdown in response to a terror threat emanating from Yemen -- Craig, speaking to the BBC, describes the persistent hum of P-3 Orion electronic surveillance planes circling Sanaa today -- the government has every reason to try and demonstrate that it's doing its part in combating AQAP. As for what precisely that part has consisted of -- well, Yemeni officials have been more tight-lipped on that front.



Rising Water Levels Solve Another Geopolitical Problem

We all know climate change is supposed to create more human conflict, but what about the problems it's solving? Xinhua reports on an elegant solution to a long-simmering Sino-Russian border dispute: 

In the next 10 days, the water level around Heixiazi Island is expected to submerge the whole land mass, which usually has an average altitude of 37 meters, said an official with the flood control and drought relief headquarters with northeast China's Heilongjiang Province.

China and Russia ended a century-long dispute over the island and held a border redrawing ceremony in 2008, declaring each side owned half of the 335-square-km piece of land, which is located at the confluence of the Heilongjiang River, known as the Amur River in Russia, and the Ussuri River.

Yes, the waters will subside eventually, but the long-term trends don't seem promising. Precipitation in the area was 47 percent higher last month than in previous years and the current water level of the Heilongjiang River exceeds the previous record by more than half a meter, according to Xinhua. The Chinese half of the island is largely unihabited, though a small community apparently lives on the Russian side, which presumably will need to be evacuated. 

Perhaps Heixiazi, or Bolshoi Ussuriysky Island as it's known in Russia, will one day meet a fate similar to New Moore Island, a territory in the Bay of Bengal claimed for years by both India and Bangladesh until it sank beneath the waves forever in 2010. Then there's Okinotorishima, the tiny coral atoll that Japan has spent $600 million to protect from the surrounding seas. 

Sooner or later, water wins all island disputes.