Yemen, we are told, is the next Afghanistan. Yet with some relatively minor and inexpensive initiatives, the U.S. may be able to keep it from becoming al-Qaeda’s next haven.
From the bombing of the U.S. Navy destroyer Cole in 2000 to the failed Christmas Day attack on an airliner over Detroit in 2009, al-Qaeda has used the arid, mountainous country as a sanctuary and staging ground for attacks against the West. Even the 2009 shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, track back to Yemen and the American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki inciting jihad over the Internet.
As drone strikes have debilitated al-Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan, its Yemeni affiliate -- al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula -- has emerged as the next vanguard of global jihad. But the group has a second, more tangible objective: Yemen itself.
Emboldened by political turmoil and eager to hijack the Arab Spring, AQAP began a Taliban-style insurgency in the spring of 2011. Operating under the name Ansar al-Sharia (“Supporters of Islamic Law”) and reinforced by foreign fighters from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Somalia, the movement seized two provinces and infiltrated 10 more.
Not surprisingly, a suicide bombing May 21 in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, bore all the hallmarks of an al-Qaeda operation. Clad in a Yemeni army uniform, the perpetrator infiltrated long columns of marching soldiers and set off an explosion tearing through their ranks like fire through a stand of birch trees. As soldiers lay dying in Sanaa’s Sabeen Square, a second assailant rushed forward to attack Yemeni officials on a reviewing stand with a rocket-propelled grenade. More than 90 troops were killed. (Another suicide attack this week killed the Army’s top commander.)
I recently returned from a week of fieldwork in Yemen examining the insurgency from a local perspective. My goal was to evaluate AQAP’s attempts to recruit, indoctrinate and control the Yemeni population. I hoped to identify instances where tribal and religious leaders successfully resisted al-Qaeda’s advance. After 40 lengthy interviews with Islamists, Salafists and tribal leaders from 14 of Yemen’s 21 provinces, I distinguished three troubling trends.
Although Western analysts typically describe AQAP’s influence in religious terms, I found that Yemenis overwhelmingly emphasize economic factors. Tribal leaders from Abyan, al-Jawf, Hadramout, Lahj and Marib provinces all described how insurgents lure idle young men with the promise of a rifle, a car and a salary of $400 a month --- a veritable fortune in a country where nearly half the population lives on less than $2 a day. Although tribal elders in some drought-stricken districts help AQAP recruit in exchange for new wells and food, the terrorists typically target disaffected individuals rather than tribes as a whole.
Tribal and religious leaders also describe how AQAP establishes territorial control: bolstering weak sheiks by providing the manpower, money and weapons necessary to reassert their tribal authority. AQAP also governs some areas, using armed militias and Shariah courts to prosecute criminals, protect private property and establish a brutal yet orderly society. In doing so, the movement exhibits a pragmatic approach that has more in common with the Taliban’s operations in Afghanistan than it does with Osama bin Laden’s globalized, decentralized jihad.
Most significant, AQAP deftly manipulates tribal customs to divide the indigenous population. Fighters recruited from one tribe are frequently dispatched to another tribe’s territory. If these forces are attacked, then their entire tribe is likely to retaliate. This approach discourages the sort of local uprisings against al-Qaeda witnessed in Iraq’s so-called Sunni Awakening. It also separates recruits from their own tribal authorities, thus strengthening AQAP’s control.
Each of these trends cements AQAP’s home-field advantage. Unlike in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other locations on Islam’s geographic periphery, AQAP’s fighters speak the local language, understand the local culture and are grounded in the local society. Even the movement’s Saudi members are marrying the daughters of sympathetic tribesmen, in a manner recalling the bonds bin Laden forged with his Taliban hosts. The group is the first al-Qaeda franchise to successfully blend the ideological dictates of global jihad with the practical requirements of local insurgency.
This adaptation presents challenges that cannot be resolved by drone attacks or military force alone. The U.S. and its Yemeni allies must erode AQAP’s influence from the ground up, rather than striking from the top down. This means engaging the tribes in a manner that isolates AQAP’s supporters, attracts neutral sheiks, and establishes a functional equilibrium between Yemen’s tribes and the transitional government that has been in power since President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down in February.
This strategy would involve three essential steps. First, the U.S. should finance Yemeni efforts to mediate tribal disputes through local religious and nongovernmental organizations. Mediation would limit al-Qaeda’s ability to exploit local grievances while reducing the prospect of inter-tribal conflict. It could also encourage sheiks to deny customary protections for tribesmen who join AQAP, allowing other tribes to attack and expel them without fear of retaliation.
Second, the U.S. and the Yemen government should embrace the tribal and community-based militias that have recently gained strength in several southern provinces. For example, in Lahj’s Radfan district tribal leaders are rallying forces and expelling AQAP fighters. Such partnerships provide a hedge against AQAP’s efforts to infiltrate the Yemeni security services because tribal leaders are intimately familiar with their communities and can identify and purge hostile outsiders.
Finally, we need to give local decision makers a stake in Yemen’s political transition. For diplomats, this means facilitating dialogue between the national unity government and Islamists, secessionists and tribal leaders. Development specialists should work through tribal leaders to address hunger, water and infrastructure challenges. On the military side, the Yemeni armed forces need help establishing better communications with local militias.
None of these steps requires the prolonged deployments or huge investments made in Iraq and Afghanistan. To the contrary, the U.S. will ultimately accomplish more in Yemen by adopting a light footprint, empowering local allies and allowing Yemenis to take credit for U.S.-backed initiatives. If Washington can approach these challenges with nuance and local insight, Yemen’s struggle against terrorism may offer a unique opportunity to defeat al-Qaeda while laying a stronger foundation for national reconciliation.
(Christopher Swift is a fellow at the University of Virginia’s Center for National Security Law and author of the forthcoming “The Fighting Vanguard: Local Insurgencies in the Global Jihad.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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