According to Yemeni officials and the state-controlled press, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has seized the city of Jaar and declared an “Islamic Emirate” in Abyan Province. This is certainly a frightening development that raises concerns about the future of the Yemeni uprising, but there is more to the story than meets the eye. There are strong indications that President Saleh is using – and has used – the terrorist group to bolster his tenuous grip on power, claiming that the country faces peril without him.
Although President Saleh has been relatively cooperative with the U.S. in fighting terrorism, he has also used Islamic extremists to his own advantage. Lately, he has warned of the rise of Al-Qaeda should he leave office, causing one writer to dub him, “The President Who Cried ‘Al-Qaeda!’” For example, his press secretary has said that “Al-Qaeda is making use of the loose security situation caused by the protests” and “is encouraged by the obstinate position of the opposition over a peaceful transfer of power.”
The recent advances made by Al-Qaeda in Yemen fit Saleh’s narrative that his opponents are helping the terrorist group, and that the West must support him. Fox News was told by a Yemeni official about the seizing of Jaar, and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has declared an “Islamic Emirate” over Abyan Province. It was ruled that women could not go outside except for in an emergency, and in that case, must have identification and a male chaperone. The regime immediately blamed Al-Qaeda for an explosion at an ammunition factory that killed at least 150 people, saying the group looted it and sparked the blast.
Abdul Ghani al-Iryani, a top Yemeni analyst, says that Saleh’s elite U.S.-trained counterterrorism units in the area did not battle the advancing Al-Qaeda forces, showing that the territory was handed over to the group without resistance. “It is ridiculous to think that these units could not have held off an ill-equipped Al-Qaeda advance. If Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was strong enough to take control of an entire governorate, they would have done so much sooner,” he said. It raises the possibility that the Yemeni government wanted Al-Qaeda to rear its head for political purposes.
The leader of the Al-Qaeda offensive is a man named Khalid Abdul Nabi, who led the Abyan Aden Islamic Army that has long worked closely with Saleh’s government and underwent the terrorist “rehabilitation” program. His group participated in the fight against the Houthi rebels, who challenged Saleh from 2004 to 2010. The Jawa Report says that it was his group that announced through a captured radio station that an “Islamic Emirate” was created, not Al-Qaeda. Another commander involved in these operations is Sami Dhayan, another jihadist with close ties to the regime.
The Joint Meetings Parties, an umbrella group of opposition parties, says that Saleh’s government is using Al-Qaeda as a political tool and bears responsibility for the explosion at the ammunition factory. A major tribal leader named Sheikh Hamid al-Ahmar, who recently turned on Saleh and is a supporter of Islah, the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate in Yemen, agrees. He says that Saleh has never been fully committed to eradicating Al-Qaeda and that a new government could destroy the “nuisance” in months with enough resources. Of course, Islah has an Islamist agenda and therefore poses its own problem for the West, but the opposition as a whole is accusing Saleh of being inconsistent and untrustworthy when it comes to fighting terrorism.
The criticism of Saleh’s bona fides as a partner in the War on Terror has merit. His government has a history of cutting deals with Al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremists, and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has prospered under it. In February 2006, 23 members of Al-Qaeda, including participants in the 2000 U.S.S. Cole bombing and the 2003 Riyadh bombings, carried out a very suspicious escape from a high-security prison. Those that were captured were pardoned as long as they promised not to return to a life of terrorism. In February 2009, Saleh’s regime released 170 members of Al-Qaeda after they made a similar pledge. The Arab press reported in November 2009 on the presence of at least two Al-Qaeda camps in Abyan Province, one of which was recently opened, that went untouched.
Al-Qaeda may be a threat to Saleh, but it’s a useful threat for him. His use of Al-Qaeda to justify his rule is part of a pattern that other Arab tyrants use. Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi repeatedly claimed that the popular uprising against him was orchestrated by Osama Bin Laden and that the enemy fighters were on hallucinogenic pills that Al-Qaeda put in their coffee. Most recently, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad has used the fear of an Islamist takeover to his advantage. One of his advisors claims that Muslim Brotherhood theologian Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi inspired the uprising against his regime, and when he released 260 political prisoners to try to appease the protesters, all but 14 were Islamists.
Many of his secular opponents remain in prison, on house arrest or silenced through other means, because Assad cannot allow their voices to be heard. A secular opposition leader named Riad al-Turk says that Assad is “using the threat of the Islamists taking over and arguing that our people are not yet qualified to practice democracy.” This has been a long-standing practice of the Assad regime, which has sometimes allowed anti-American Islamist protests to take place while forbidding secular, pro-democracy ones. In February 2006, the Assad regime organized riots in reaction to the publication of the Mohammed cartoons, as part of this strategy. A secret document released by WikiLeaks cites a source saying that the objective was to say “we are the only thing standing between you and the Islamist hordes.”
The West has legitimate concerns about how Al-Qaeda and Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood will be able to exploit the instability in the Middle East. A window of opportunity has opened for them. At the same time, tyrants like Saleh and Assad use this threat to justify their own rule even though they have fostered the growth of these organizations. The West must be aware of how well-organized Islamist forces can fill a power vacuum, but must also be aware of how tyrants view this as a problem worth having.