ARLINGTON, Va., Dec. 27 (UPI) -- Yemen is grabbing sensational headlines again, this time over a controversial Dec. 12 drone attack that killed 14 civilians. Detractors say the target was a wedding convoy, not a terrorist caravan as Washington says.
Drones are sideshow to the real issues at stake, however. The real headlines are that Yemen's complex and messy war is threatening to sink Yemen as a country, which also jeopardizes regional and international stability. It moreover puts the oil and natural gas sector at risk.
There are three main threat groups in Yemen: al Hirak, the Houthi, and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
Al-Hirak, based in Yemen's south, aims for an autonomous, liberal, socialist state, which it might get after U.N.-sponsored talks ended seemingly successfully on Dec. 24.
The Houthis, in Yemen's northwest, aim for a Shiite state free of Sunni control. They are suspected of having militant ties to Iran.
AQIP fights to carve out its own territory in Yemen and launch regional and international operations from there.
Yemen also has independent-minded tribes that occasionally attack the government over policies they don't like and they align with the above-mentioned groups when it suits their needs.
All these organizations have been highly active in 2013. Suspected Islamist assassins have methodically killed 93 security officials and dozens of civilians this year. The killings seem to be part of a broader, anti-government plan, suggests Yemeni political analyst Abdulghani al-Iryani.
December has been a particularly violent month in Yemen and reflects the country's overall troubles.
On Dec. 21, the Hadramout Tribes Alliance staged a massive protest, seizing three oil towns over the army's killing of Sa'ad Bin Habrish, a popular local leader. The government said he was working for AQIP. Locals vehemently denied this. A drive-by attack on three Yemeni soldiers and a kidnapping of four others followed the protests.
From Dec. 18-21, Houthi militants attacked the ultraconservative, Sunni Salafist town of Damaj with rockets and tanks, killing 55 people. The Houthi claim Damaj has imported foreign militants to bolster its strength in their Shiite versus Sunni contest. Damaj says its guests are students attending a local religious school.
On Dec. 16, AQIP released a video threatening to strike multiple security and government targets with truck bombs.
On Dec. 15, militants in Sanaa tried to kidnap a Japanese diplomat and stabbed him and his bodyguard.
On Dec. 5, AQIP carried out a punishing raid on Yemen's Ministry of Defense, killing 52 and injuring 215. A suicide bomber drove his explosive-laden car into the ministry's gates and detonated it, creating an opening for as many as 12 gunmen in a follow-on vehicle to assault the compound. One of their main targets was a Defense Ministry hospital where they killed several medical workers. After video footage made the news, AQIP in a very rare move apologized for targeting the hospital.
On top of all this violence, there have been scores of attacks on Yemen's oil and gas sector. Militants bombed its biggest oil pipeline at least four times in December. These attacks sever oil flowing from the Marib fields to the Ras Isa export facility on Yemen's west coast, effectively halting all Marib oil operations.
On Dec. 6, militants attacked the Belhaf Liquid Natural Gas Plant on the Gulf of Aden. Belhaf is Yemen's largest and most important industrial complex. French energy titan Total and Texas company Hunt Oil operate it.
Attackers reportedly fired "rocket-propelled explosives" at a gas storage facility and exploded it. While the blast reportedly caused no injuries and no interruption in the plant's operations, Total quietly evacuated key personnel to Dubai and Djibouti in the attack's aftermath.
What's it all mean?
First, because Yemen's many threat groups are ramping up their activities all at once, Yemen is at risk of disintegrating, especially if violence continues to trend upward.
Second, the potential Iranian link to Houthi rebels suggests Tehran might do in Yemen what it did in Iraq -- use Shiite militants to destabilize its rivals. This would increase Arabian Peninsula-Iran tensions, which are already at a high stress point.
Third, the war in Yemen has the potential to spill over onto its neighbors. This is particularly true regarding AQIP. Riyadh defeated AQIP's 2003-07 campaign to unseat the Saudi royal family, which forced the militants into Yemen. AQIP, then, has unfinished business in Saudi.
More, Saudi citizens continue to join AQIP in Yemen. Three of them were arrested on terrorism charges in September and went on trial in Sanaa in December. AQIP could use its Saudi agents in Yemen to relaunch its war on Riyadh. It could similarly use Yemen as a base to lash out at Oman and United Arab Emirates.
Fourth, the war is having negative effects on the oil industry. Locally, oil revenue accounts for 70 percent of Yemen's national income. But attacks on this sector have cost the government $4 billion since 2011. This hinders the government from funding security and aid operations, which keeps Yemen from stabilizing.
Regionally, Yemen's war threatens the gas and oil sectors of its neighbors. High-tech drillers that have saturated the U.S. market and continue to grow are headed to Saudi Arabia. Service firms such as Baker Hughes, Schlumberger, and Halliburton all see great potential there beginning in 2014. And BP just signed a deal to invest $16 billion in Oman's Khazzan gas project. As these firms pour into the Arabian Peninsula, they will make potential targets for militants, particularly AQIP, from Yemen.
Internationally, if Yemen's war continues out of control, it will give market speculators plenty of "political risk fodder" to drive up the price of oil. True, Yemen isn't one of the world's biggest producers but its violence, coupled with instability in Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, and Egypt will insure the price of oil stays high, even in the face of globally increased production.
In the final analysis, Yemen is another one of the world's hot spots that has security implications far beyond its global ranking and borders.
Drone strikes alone have done little to help stabilize the country and neither has revamped domestic political and economic policies -- the recent treaty with al-Hirak being the only potential bright spot. Yemen's war shows no signs of stopping any time soon, and the risks are adding up, daily.
(Jeff Moore, Ph.D., is the chief executive officer of Muir Analytics, which assesses threats from insurgent and terror groups against corporations.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)