Yemen: Key Battleground in Fight Against al Qaeda, by Andrew Vitelli

June 24, 2014 0 Comments

The al Qaeda movement was born in the mountains of Afghanistan and founded by Saudi native Osama bin Laden in the late 1980s.  Created as a response to the nation’s Soviet Union invasion in 1979, the formation of al Qaeda brought fighters from across the Muslim world to Afghanistan to battle Soviet control.  At the end of the war many mujahedeen, or holy warriors, found only one country willing to welcome them back with open arms. Thousands of hardened fighters affiliated with bin Laden’s nascent organization returned or resettled in Yemen, the homeland of bin Laden’s father Mohammed.

Yemen, which was divided into North Yemen and South Yemen until its unification in 1990, has played a prominent role in al Qaeda’s growth ever since. Though Afghanistan and Pakistan have long constituted the central command of the terror organization, influence has been shifting to Yemen since the U.S.-led “war on terror” decimated al Qaeda’s Afghanistan-based leadership following the September 11th, 2001 attacks. Even before bin Laden’s death in 2011, experts were predicting a shift of al Qaeda’s core to the impoverished Gulf state. In 2009 al Qaeda’s Yemeni and Saudi branches merged to form al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, led by former bin Laden secretary Nasir al-Wuhayshi.

“When it comes to al Qaeda, one of the main, I would say, dominant phenomena in the recent decades is the coming back of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan to the east of Yemen,” explained Uzi Rabi, the director of the Moshe Dayan Center of Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University and the author of the newly-published book Yemen: The Anatomy of a Failed State. “It is very interesting to see how they have managed to build kind of a patronage network where some of the tribes, the local tribes, provide them with logistical assistance and support.”

The tribal structure of Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world with nearly half its population living in poverty, predates al Qaeda by generations.[i] In the 1930s, a British official warned that the country’s Hadhramaut province alone contained approximately 2,000 different governments.[ii] Al Qaeda has long been successful in taking advantage of its operatives’ familiarity with the country’s tribal make-up as it’s battled the Yemeni government and plotted attacks against Western targets.

“They are not that strong to rule over the whole country. They are not that strong to topple the regime,” Rabi explained. Referring to the government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who took office in 2012, he continued, “but the regime is not that strong to make them evaporate, so basically we have a stalemate here.”
In April 2014, two al Qaeda operatives were reportedly killed in Sana, Yemen’s capital, attempting to kidnap an American Special Forces commander and C.I.A. officer from a barbershop. The brazen kidnapping attempt – and the presence of the Americans at a downtown barber[iii] – once again put a spotlight on the role of the United States in the battle against AQAP.

While al Qaeda’s affiliates in Syria, Iraq and throughout North Africa have focused on battling for power and influence locally, AQAP remains committed to striking Western targets. The organization was behind the 2009 Fort Hood, Texas shooting that resulted in the death of 13 Americans, a failed 2009 bombing attempt in which a Nigerian sought to take down a Northwest Airlines flight with explosive-laden underwear and a failed 2010 attempt to take down a U.S.-bound cargo plane.

The United States has been active alongside the Yemeni government in battling AQAP. Under President Obama, the U.S. has relied on Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles to target al Qaeda operatives throughout the country. In addition the U.S. has also helped train Yemeni Special Forces.
Rabi said President Hadi has been playing a double game in the government’s American-backed battle against al Qaeda.

“While getting support from the United States in order to do this war on terrorism thing,” Rabi explained, “the regime is providing al Qaeda activists with some support in order to buy immunity.”

Such an arrangement recalls al Qaeda’s complicated relationship with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled Yemen from 1990 to 2012 and North Yemen from 1978 to 1990. In the early 1990s, Saleh and the Islamists were convenient allies in Saleh’s fight against the socialists battling for control of the country. Looking to win American backing while avoiding a full-on confrontation with bin Laden’s supporters, Saleh half-heartedly cooperated with the American investigation[iv] following al Qaeda’s October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in the port of Aden[v] in southern Yemen. The attack killed 17 American sailors. It wasn’t until after the September 11th attacks – and the bombing of an oil tanker in the Gulf of Aden a year later – that Saleh changed his direction and cracked down on al Qaeda in earnest.

By 2003, the joint U.S.-Yemeni effort had crippled al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch. In February 2006, however, 23 al Qaeda members including Wuhayshi tunneled out of a Yemeni prison and sparked the group’s resurgence. By 2009, AQAP was again considered to be the most dangerous al Qaeda affiliate in the region. The group took over several towns in Yemen’s Abyan Governorate in 2011 as the Arab Spring spilled into Yemen and eventually forced Saleh to step down. Hadi managed to regain control of these areas a year later.

According to Rabi, Al Qaeda’s fight against Yemen’s government is just one of many power struggles in the country. Rabi called Yemen a failing or failed state, saying it should be analyzed as a collection of power centers rather than a nation state. 

“The state has weakened, and a byproduct of that is a strengthening of what you would call the extremist movements,” Rabi said. “You have different powers, different players, and each one of them has a different dream about how Yemen should look like in the future.”

[ii] Schanzer, Jonathan, “Yemen’s War on Terror,” Orbis, Summer 2004.
[iii] Schmitt, Eric and Almosawa, Shuaid. “2 Yemenis Shot by Americans Are Linked to Qaeda Cell.” The New York Times, May 10, 2014.
[iv] Johnsen, Gregory. The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and the Battle for Arabia. (New York, NY: Oneworld Publications, 2012.) 84.
[v] “USS Cole Bombing Fast Facts.”, September 18, 2013.


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