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.