Emilee Carver The Middle East and North Africa

Divided We Stand: Crisis in Yemen

President Ali Abdullah Saleh was removed from power in Yemen after hundreds of thousands marched in the streets calling for a new government.  Saleh’s brutal crackdown on protestors and the political chaos that ensued provided an opportunity for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to consolidate power and seize territory unopposed in the south. It now appears that the new administration under President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the country at large hang in the balance amid a divided administration and military that is facing threats on numerous fronts.

The flag of al-Qaeda that reads, “No God but one God” with the seal of the prophet waves over Ansar al-Sharia territory..

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)  & Ansar al-Sharia

The turning point for AQAP can be traced back to one critical moment in 2006, when 23 convicted terrorists escaped from a prison in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a.  Among them was Nasir al-Wuhaysi, Osama bin Laden’s personal secretary and confidant who effectively used bin Laden’s blueprint in Afghanistan to revive al-Qaeda in Yemen. Avoiding the failures in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Wuhaysi has worked to limit civilian casualties in Yemen— one of the key aspects of al-Qaeda’s failure in those countries. AQAP has been re-structured in a way that allows the group to survive amid the loss of its key leaders, a lesson learned in 2002 when a US drone strike killed cell leaders and essentially destroyed AQAP in Yemen. Since then AQAP has become decentralized, affording operatives in different regions of Yemen far greater flexibility in decision-making and executing plans, a structure that is very different from the top-down hierarchical structure that al-Qaeda previously operated under.

The name Ansar al-Sharia was first heard in 2011 and is recognized as the local franchise of al-Qaeda in Yemen. Though the exact relationship between the two groups is unknown, many regard Ansar al-Sharia as a rebranding attempt by AQAP in order to avoid the baggage and negativity that many non-ideological Muslims associate with the jihadist group. Ansar al-Sharia represents a new kind of AQAP in that they are more like the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan because they seek to control and defend territory while administering local authority of multiple inhabited towns.

The Houthi insurgency, which is backed by Iran, controls multiple towns in Yemen.

A Four-Front War

In addition to fighting a renewed AQAP in the south, the government faces other distinct autonomous movements in the north and south. In Yemen’s northern mountainous region a rebel Shia ethnic group called the Houthi claim they are being religiously and politically persecuted at the hands of the Yemeni government and are seeking independence. The Yemeni army only has the ability to contain the Houthi revolt, an insurgency that is numbered in the tens of thousands, rather than directly confront them. As a result, the Houthis have taken control over the governorates of Sa’dah and al-Jawf, and are close to taking over a third governorate. The Houthis have begun erecting barricades north of Sana’a in preparation for renewed conflict.

Houthi rebels are based across the border from Saudi Arabia and are externally backed by Iran through a steady stream of automatic rifles, grenade launchers, bomb-making material, and millions of dollars in cash. Yahya al-Jifri, leader in an opposition political part in Aden stated: “Iran is hoping to use Yemen as a pressure point against Saudi Arabia and all the countries in the Arab Gulf.” These guerilla fighters fought a brief war in 2009 with Saudi Arabia while serving as an Iranian proxy force. With the Hadi administration exerting virtually no control outside of the capital, another threat exists on the border in the shadow wars being played by Iran.

Yemen faces conflict on a fourth front from powerful and armed secessionists in the south. The South Yemen Movement has been opposed to northern rule since 1994, after the south accused the north of not abiding by the 1990 peace accords that ended the civil war. While the secessionist fighters seek independence from the northern government, they are also opposed to the rule of al-Qaeda.

The most important factor in all of these conflicts is the millions of tribesmen in Yemen. In fact, the biggest threat to AQAP is not the US or the Yemeni army, but the tribes of south Yemen. AQAP is extremely keen on not disrupting or upsetting them because of the lessons al-Qaeda learned in Iraq; trying to force rule on unwilling Sunni tribes caused the tribes to rise up against al-Qaeda. In fact, the first military defeat of AQAP was in Lawdar at the hands of local tribesmen in retaliation for AQAP killing their tribal leader. Ultimately, if millions of tribesmen collectively decide to kick out AQAP, they will disappear — that is the kind of power the tribesmen hold in Yemen. On the flipside, the tribesmen could also turn against the US because of civilian casualties from drone strikes, which would be problematic for both the Yemen and the US. Another battle is being fought politically in the capital between the new government and loyalists from the previous regime.

United We Stand, Divided We Fall

The new government of President Hadi remains extremely weak outside of Sana’a and faces an entrenched opposition that is populated with many Saleh loyalists who remained in power after the revolution. Family members of ousted President Saleh have remained in authoritative roles in the intelligence and military. His nephew Yahya Saleh, heads the Central Security Forces and his son, Ahmed Saleh, commands the Republican Guards. As a result, there is a power-struggle between loyalists of the old regime and defected factions of the military and tribes who opposed it. The military remains weak and divided, holding open protests against their ‘corrupt’ commanders. Jamal Benomr, UN envoy to Yemen warns, “this situation can also get out of control. Although we can say there is progress, when it comes to the implementation of the [power transfer] agreement generally, this country is facing major challenges and the situation is very fragile.”  As Yemen’s army attempts to fight on numerous different fronts, it remains itself divided from within.

‘Friends of Yemen’

 Since the USS Cole bombing and the 9/11 attacks, Washington dispatched Special Forces and intelligence officers to aid the campaign in Yemen, which has been regarded as central in the fight against Islamic militancy and the wider War on Terror. The first US operation, in the form of a drone strike, killed Abu Ali al-Hauthi, leader of the al-Qaeda cell. By the end of 2003, al-Qaeda in Yemen was largely on the decline. The resurgence years later by a newly minted AQAP merged from a local group in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, transformed al-Qaeda into a regional franchise capable of global action. After years of ‘successful’ attacks, the US and Yemeni governments renewed its fight against AQAP, after Yemen officially declared war on al-Qaeda in 2010. In support of the new Hadi government and its renewed fight against al-Qaeda, US President Obama has intensified and expanded its drone program in Yemen in hopes of dismantling the most active and lethal terrorist cell. The US focuses specifically on AQAP in Yemen because it is the most prone to attacking the west.

In recent years AQAP plots against the US include: the 2009 shooting rampage at US Army’s Fort Hood base in Texas, the failed attack on a transatlantic flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009, the 2010 attempted car bombing in Times Square, and most recently the foiled under-wear bomb plot to destroy a US-bound airliner.

In May, at a ‘Friends of Yemen’ gathering in Riyadh, nations pledged $4-billion for Yemen, the bulk of it from Saudi Arabia. The United Kingdom pledged $44-million, stating that Yemen was at a “critical moment” due to its fragile political transition and growing al-Qaeda problem. There has also been talk that the UNSC may use sanctions to bolster the Yemeni government, all five veto-carrying members have expressed “concern over the growing number of attacks carried out or sponsored by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.”

With military advisors and contractors deployed, drone strikes intensified, and aid funding increasing, Washington and its allies are being drawn deeper into the country and the internal conflicts that plague it.

The secessionist movement in the south seeks independence from the north, claiming they have not abided by the peace accords that ended their civil war.

The Road Ahead

While drone strikes have proven successful in eliminating AQAP targets, local civilians often become the collateral damage of such operations. In 2009, a drone strike in Majala mistakenly killed 56 civilians including 14 women and 21 children.  A prolonged and intensified drone campaign, like the one Obama has initiated, risks alienating the local population and fuels recruitment drives for the very terrorist groups the drone strikes are meant to destroy. Many non-ideological Muslims are pushed into the hands of groups like AQAP and new generations of terrorist are produced. In Yemen, this is particularly dangerous because of the powerful role played by tribesmen who may choose not to fight al-Qaeda if these casualties continue to climb.  Clashes and drone strikes have created a serious refugee problem; over 100,000 Yemenis in Aden alone have been displaced. Bringing the fight to al-Qaeda is coming at a serious cost, both Yemen and the US risk losing the support of the local population, central to combating the AQAP insurgency.

Several international agencies have warned that low literacy, high unemployment, rapid population growth, and dependency on foreign aid have Yemen on a direct path towards catastrophe. This, combined with a looming water shortage and other resource scarcity issues has created a severe humanitarian crisis. It is another added dimension that the fragile government must deal with as nearly half of the population lives in poverty and tens of thousands have been displaced.

Though a new leader is in place, the country’s institutions and bureaucracy are still highly populated with members from the old regime — no real change can be affected and no conflict properly addressed when the military and intelligence leadership are littered with loyalists from the old regime. The divided government is in a precarious situation as it faces threats on four-fronts.

Yemen’s fate remains in the balance as it trudges along as a failed state. If the US and its allies are unable to bolster the fragile political transition, the new Hadi government may fall. Numerous groups are waiting to fill the void if this does happen and the growing secessionist movement in the south has the potential to push the country into civil war, an ideal breeding ground for an AQAP insurgency.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)  & Ansar al-Sharia

The turning point for AQAP can be traced back to one critical moment in 2006, when 23 convicted terrorists escaped from a prison in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a.  Among them was Nasir al-Wuhaysi, Osama bin Laden’s personal secretary and confidant who effectively used bin Laden’s blueprint in Afghanistan to revive al-Qaeda in Yemen. Avoiding the failures in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Wuhaysi has worked to limit civilian casualties in Yemen— one of the key aspects of al-Qaeda’s failure in those countries. AQAP has been re-structured in a way that allows the group to survive amid the loss of its key leaders, a lesson learned in 2002 when a US drone strike killed cell leaders and essentially destroyed AQAP in Yemen. Since then AQAP has become decentralized, affording operatives in different regions of Yemen far greater flexibility in decision-making and executing plans, a structure that is very different from the top-down hierarchical structure that al-Qaeda previously operated under.

The name Ansar al-Sharia was first heard in 2011 and is recognized as the local franchise of al-Qaeda in Yemen. Though the exact relationship between the two groups is unknown, many regard Ansar al-Sharia as a rebranding attempt by AQAP in order to avoid the baggage and negativity that many non-ideological Muslims associate with the jihadist group. Ansar al-Sharia represents a new kind of AQAP in that they are more like the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan because they seek to control and defend territory while administering local authority of multiple inhabited towns.

A Four-Front War

In addition to fighting a renewed AQAP in the south, the government faces other distinct autonomous movements in the north and south. In Yemen’s northern mountainous region a rebel Shia ethnic group called the Houthi claim they are being religiously and politically persecuted at the hands of the Yemeni government and are seeking independence. The Yemeni army only has the ability to contain the Houthi revolt, an insurgency that is numbered in the tens of thousands, rather than directly confront them. As a result, the Houthis have taken control over the governorates of Sa’dah and al-Jawf, and are close to taking over a third governorate. The Houthis have begun erecting barricades north of Sana’a in preparation for renewed conflict.

Houthi rebels are based across the border from Saudi Arabia and are externally backed by Iran through a steady stream of automatic rifles, grenade launchers, bomb-making material, and millions of dollars in cash. Yahya al-Jifri, leader in an opposition political part in Aden stated: “Iran is hoping to use Yemen as a pressure point against Saudi Arabia and all the countries in the Arab Gulf.” These guerilla fighters fought a brief war in 2009 with Saudi Arabia while serving as an Iranian proxy force. With the Hadi administration exerting virtually no control outside of the capital, another threat exists on the border in the shadow wars being played by Iran.

Yemen faces conflict on a fourth front from powerful and armed secessionists in the south. The South Yemen Movement has been opposed to northern rule since 1994, after the south accused the north of not abiding by the 1990 peace accords that ended the civil war. While the secessionist fighters seek independence from the northern government, they are also opposed to the rule of al-Qaeda.

The most important factor in all of these conflicts is the millions of tribesmen in Yemen. In fact, the biggest threat to AQAP is not the US or the Yemeni army, but the tribes of south Yemen. AQAP is extremely keen on not disrupting or upsetting them because of the lessons al-Qaeda learned in Iraq; trying to force rule on unwilling Sunni tribes caused the tribes to rise up against al-Qaeda. In fact, the first military defeat of AQAP was in Lawdar at the hands of local tribesmen in retaliation for AQAP killing their tribal leader. Ultimately, if millions of tribesmen collectively decide to kick out AQAP, they will disappear — that is the kind of power the tribesmen hold in Yemen. On the flipside, the tribesmen could also turn against the US because of civilian casualties from drone strikes, which would be problematic for both the Yemen and the US. Another battle is being fought politically in the capital between the new government and loyalists from the previous regime.

United We Stand, Divided We Fall

The new government of President Hadi remains extremely weak outside of Sana’a and faces an entrenched opposition that is populated with many Saleh loyalists who remained in power after the revolution. Family members of ousted President Saleh have remained in authoritative roles in the intelligence and military. His nephew Yahya Saleh, heads the Central Security Forces and his son, Ahmed Saleh, commands the Republican Guards. As a result, there is a power-struggle between loyalists of the old regime and defected factions of the military and tribes who opposed it. The military remains weak and divided, holding open protests against their ‘corrupt’ commanders. Jamal Benomr, UN envoy to Yemen warns, “this situation can also get out of control. Although we can say there is progress, when it comes to the implementation of the [power transfer] agreement generally, this country is facing major challenges and the situation is very fragile.”  As Yemen’s army attempts to fight on numerous different fronts, it remains itself divided from within.

‘Friends of Yemen’

 Since the USS Cole bombing and the 9/11 attacks, Washington dispatched Special Forces and intelligence officers to aid the campaign in Yemen, which has been regarded as central in the fight against Islamic militancy and the wider War on Terror. The first US operation, in the form of a drone strike, killed Abu Ali al-Hauthi, leader of the al-Qaeda cell. By the end of 2003, al-Qaeda in Yemen was largely on the decline. The resurgence years later by a newly minted AQAP merged from a local group in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, transformed al-Qaeda into a regional franchise capable of global action. After years of ‘successful’ attacks, the US and Yemeni governments renewed its fight against AQAP, after Yemen officially declared war on al-Qaeda in 2010. In support of the new Hadi government and its renewed fight against al-Qaeda, US President Obama has intensified and expanded its drone program in Yemen in hopes of dismantling the most active and lethal terrorist cell. The US focuses specifically on AQAP in Yemen because it is the most prone to attacking the west.

In recent years AQAP plots against the US include: the 2009 shooting rampage at US Army’s Fort Hood base in Texas, the failed attack on a transatlantic flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009, the 2010 attempted car bombing in Times Square, and most recently the foiled under-wear bomb plot to destroy a US-bound airliner.

In May, at a ‘Friends of Yemen’ gathering in Riyadh, nations pledged $4-billion for Yemen, the bulk of it from Saudi Arabia. The United Kingdom pledged $44-million, stating that Yemen was at a “critical moment” due to its fragile political transition and growing al-Qaeda problem. There has also been talk that the UNSC may use sanctions to bolster the Yemeni government, all five veto-carrying members have expressed “concern over the growing number of attacks carried out or sponsored by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.”

With military advisors and contractors deployed, drone strikes intensified, and aid funding increasing, Washington and its allies are being drawn deeper into the country and the internal conflicts that plague it.

The Road Ahead

While drone strikes have proven successful in eliminating AQAP targets, local civilians often become the collateral damage of such operations. In 2009, a drone strike in Majala mistakenly killed 56 civilians including 14 women and 21 children.  A prolonged and intensified drone campaign, like the one Obama has initiated, risks alienating the local population and fuels recruitment drives for the very terrorist groups the drone strikes are meant to destroy. Many non-ideological Muslims are pushed into the hands of groups like AQAP and new generations of terrorist are produced. In Yemen, this is particularly dangerous because of the powerful role played by tribesmen who may choose not to fight al-Qaeda if these casualties continue to climb.  Clashes and drone strikes have created a serious refugee problem; over 100,000 Yemenis in Aden alone have been displaced. Bringing the fight to al-Qaeda is coming at a serious cost, both Yemen and the US risk losing the support of the local population, central to combating the AQAP insurgency.

Several international agencies have warned that low literacy, high unemployment, rapid population growth, and dependency on foreign aid have Yemen on a direct path towards catastrophe. This, combined with a looming water shortage and other resource scarcity issues has created a severe humanitarian crisis. It is another added dimension that the fragile government must deal with as nearly half of the population lives in poverty and tens of thousands have been displaced.

Though a new leader is in place, the country’s institutions and bureaucracy are still highly populated with members from the old regime — no real change can be affected and no conflict properly addressed when the military and intelligence leadership are littered with loyalists from the old regime. The divided government is in a precarious situation as it faces threats on four-fronts.

Yemen’s fate remains in the balance as it trudges along as a failed state. If the US and its allies are unable to bolster the fragile political transition, the new Hadi government may fall. Numerous groups are waiting to fill the void if this does happen and the growing secessionist movement in the south has the potential to push the country into civil war, an ideal breeding ground for an AQAP insurgency.

 

Emilee Carver
Emilee Carver is a Security Analyst with The Atlantic Council of Canada. She holds an Honour’s Degree in International Relations, Political Science, and History from the University of Toronto.