Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has claimed credit for the cargo plane bomb plots, making the Yemeni government’s fight against the terrorist group a central front. Unfortunately, the government is weak and corrupt and has its hands full with two other conflicts. The battle ahead with Al-Qaeda in Yemen will not be easy and may require direct U.S. intervention.
The Yemeni government is battling a secessionist movement in the south and has a shaky truce with the radical Shiite Houthi rebels in the north that could break at any moment. Last year, Iran waged a major proxy war against the Yemenis and Saudis using the Houthis. The government’s resources are overextended and like in Pakistan, the government lacks effective control over large swaths of territory. As one senior diplomat explained, “the government is practically caged in the capital” of Sana’a.
Already, the fight has been costly as at least 70 police officers and soldiers have been killed by Al-Qaeda in the past month.The Yemeni government has sent an additional 3,000 soldiers to participate in its offensive in Abyan, Shabwan and Marib Provinces where 300 to 500 Al-Qaeda members have found refuge. The high number of Yemenis in the terrorist group indicates they have a significant pool of support beyond their actual membership.
Bin Laden’s following in Yemen is so strong that the editor of Al-Quds Al-Arabi, Abdul Bari Atwan, says it is possible that the terrorist mastermind is actually hiding there. Atwan says that when he met Bin Laden in November 1996, Bin Laden said that he’d go to Yemen if he was kicked out of Afghanistan because “its mountains are like Tora Bora’s and the country will embrace me and be warm towards me.” Atwan adds that a Yemeni tribal leader told him that he was contacted by Bin Laden before 9⁄11 to discuss a possible safe haven.
The population’s distrust of the government further complicates any offensive against Al-Qaeda, as many Yemenis believe the government is exaggerating the threat from Al-Qaeda or altogether making it up as a way of getting Western aid and clamping down on opposition. President Saleh’s insecurity has led him to install family members as the heads of his national security apparatus, a move designed to stabilize his rule but that creates further distance from the population.
The Yemeni government’s past willingness to coddle Al-Qaeda has allowed the terrorist group to establish a base which now must be removed. The government has openly negotiated with radical Islamic militants since 2005, a process that meetings with a former Al-Qaeda official once seen next to Osama Bin Laden. In January 2008, a member of Al-Qaeda in Yemen confirmed the deal-making, saying some of them had been recruited to fight the Shiite Houthis. These dealings apparently included the release of imprisoned detainees, such as when 170 suspected members of Al-Qaeda were freed in February 2009 after they pledged to change their ways.
Anwar al-Awlaki, the American citizen who is now the spiritual leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has been effective at recruiting followers and is a member of Yemen’s Awlak tribe, which is one of the country’s largest. These family ties will be hard to break, especially considering the government’s lack of credibility. Al-Awlaki’s family and members of his tribe have stood by his innocence. This is an important advantage for Al-Qaeda. In Iraq, they were foreigners who brought violence and oppression to the tribes, sparking the Anbar Awakening. In Yemen, al-Awlaki and other Al-Qaeda members are part of the tribes and they have not jeopardized the relationship by acting aggressively against them.
The Yemeni government has reason to fear the power of tribes like the Awlakis. In many areas, they exercise more control than the government does and when a power struggle arises, it often turns violent until an agreement is reached. Al-Awlaki was arrested in 2006 and Al-Qaeda demanded his release. After he was disavowed his old ways, he left and moved to al-Saeed district of Shabwa Province in December 2007.
A division appears to have developed in the Awlaki tribe about Anwar al-Awlaki. The Yemeni government claims it has worked with the tribe to oust Al-Qaeda since October 2009, yet the terrorist group still has a powerful presence. A statement allegedly from the tribe was issued in April that they would “not remain with arms crossed if a hair of Anwar al-Awlaki is touched, or if anyone plots or spies against him” and threatened anyone “cooperating with the Americans” in targeting him. The leading sheikh of the tribe denied that the statement reflected their stance, but claimed they did not know al-Awlaki’s location but that the government did.
More recently, a statement was issued by Al-Qaeda loyalists in the al-Awlaki tribe saying they “were deeply saddened to see the leaders, chiefs, and dignitaries of our community go personally to meet with the government envoy.” Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Awlaki says that his tribe collaborates with the government fights terrorism but dodged the question about turning over Anwar al-Awlaki. “This is the government’s affair and it is able to arrest Anwar,” he said. As of right now, there is no convincing evidence to suggest that the tribe has turned on al-Awlaki or Al-Qaeda, but the former statement clearly shows they are worried about it.
On November 2, the Yemeni government wisely began trying al-Awlaki in absentia and has now issued an arrest warrant. It must begin releasing incriminating evidence to counter the public’s skepticism towards the accusations against him. Personal presentations to the leaders of the al-Awlaki and other tribes should also be given in order to court them for support.
The U.S. government is reportedly considering the authorization of CIA drone strikes like those in Pakistan. Given the pace of terrorist plots by Al-Qaeda in Yemen, the U.S. cannot afford to miss opportunities to strike its leadership, but such action can also alienate the tribes. In May 2009, tribes in Marib Province clashed with the Yemeni army after an airstrike killed one of their leaders. The tribes then met with the Houthi rebels.
The Yemen front is a complicated affair but the activity of Anwar al-Awlaki and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula cannot be ignored. The battle ahead is a costly and long one, but it is a fight that must be fought without hesitation.
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