The recent attempt by al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to mail package bombs likely designed to detonate in spectacular fashion over the United States has refocused attention on Yemen and the multifaceted security threats that loom over the poorest state in the Arab world.[1] Media discussions of the policy tools under review in Washington to combat AQAP outline a common set of assumptions and logic for how to proceed: increase military aid and training,[2] escalate drone activity,[3] and utilize soft power mechanisms (primarily aid for economic development) to bolster the government of President Ali Abdullah Salih.[4] While experts may disagree on the appropriate balance between these tools, the conventional wisdom suggests that some combination of these three different policy mechanisms will be essential if the United States is to succeed in convincing the Salih government to confront AQAP more aggressively.

This analysis is incomplete because it ignores the fact that large increases in economic aid and military resources to the Yemeni government are likely to increase tensions with the political opposition (which Salih has always viewed as a bigger challenge to his authority than al-Qa`ida) and with tribal leaders hostile to the Salih regime. This is because these key actors in Yemen’s decentralized political system are likely to feel threatened by the consolidation of resources and power in the central government that will accompany large increases in aid. Without assurances from President Salih that in exchange for U.S. aid he will engage the political opposition and respect their right to organize and protest, U.S. assistance could end up backfiring. To fully appreciate this point and understand the hidden trade-offs inherent in the policy tools currently under consideration, two crucial points must be recognized:

1. The Yemeni state is not failing. Yemen’s decentralized political order and the system of tribal law (‘urf) that governs much of the country are too often mistaken as leading indicators of state failure. Nothing could be further from the truth.  As one scholar recently noted, the rural areas of Yemen where tribal law and custom are the organizing principles for daily life are better understood as “alternatively governed” rather than “ungoverned” regions.[5] A far more serious challenge to Yemen’s future than the continued importance of tribal law stems from declining oil revenues and a rapidly diminishing water table that in recent years has dipped to historic lows. Nevertheless, the Yemeni state will endure as long as it avoids civil war. Policymakers must be aware that the policy tools under consideration will ultimately be counterproductive if they de-incentivize negotiations between the Salih government and the complex constellation of actors that compose the Yemeni political opposition. This is crucial because AQAP’s long-term survival is predicated on its ability to manipulate the legitimate grievances of Yemen’s political opposition to its own advantage.[6]

2. Anti-Americanism must not be confused with support for AQAP. Many journalists and analysts write about Yemen as if it was a readymade  recruiting factory for AQAP.[7] This perspective ignores the large rifts that exist between AQAP and many former jihadists, to say nothing of the Yemeni population—even though anti-American sentiment is widespread.[8] Currently, AQAP utilizes U.S. support for the Salih regime in its propaganda, and Nasir al-Wahayshi, AQAP’s leader, has stated that AQAP supports the secessionist southern movement.[9] If the Salih government engages in formal discussions with the opposition, recognizes the legitimacy of their grievances and is willing to make some discrete concessions, AQAP will lose a major propaganda and recruiting tool.

A Decentralized, Not Failing State
The most violent periods in the long arc of Yemen’s history have occurred as a result of attempts to disregard convention and centralize political power in the state. In northern Yemen for almost 1,000 years, different groups took up arms against the Shi`a Zaydi imam, the political and spiritual leader of the northern Zaydi community, when he was perceived to take too much political power.[10] More recently, cliques such as the group of Arab nationalists that deposed the imam in the Northern Civil War that lasted from 1962 to 1970 have encountered similar resistance when they tried to extend their authority over that of local tribes without acknowledging their grievances. Invariably the cycle is the same in Yemen: too much centralization of power in the state leads to political overreach that alienates tribal factions, who rise up in rebellion to reassert their independence and territorial control.

In contrast, stability in Yemen has been achieved by those leaders who, while militarily strong, were aware of the limits inherent in Yemen’s decentralized political system. The most successful Zaydi imams were highly adept at ceding authority, particularly religious and legal, to their Shafi’i subjects.[11] While President Salih has ruled for decades, he did participate in an election, a first in this region of monarchs, in which his primary rival won 20% of the vote.[12] Enlightened Yemeni leaders have always understood that in a rugged, rural country where tribal authority has always been strong, a ruler must be willing to cede power in order to maintain it. This delicate balancing act stems from a contradictory reality that is essential to understanding Yemeni politics: while the idea of Yemen as a territorial entity is widespread, it has never been associated with a powerful, hierarchical state. As one long-time Yemen expert observed, “the idea of Yemen as a natural unit has been embedded in literature and local practice. Unified power has not.”[13] In a country of high mountains and vast deserts, where even today 70% of the population still lives outside of major urban centers, a strong, centralized state authority is viewed with extreme wariness and outright hostility when it intrudes in local affairs and runs roughshod over local customs.[14]

Historically, rulers who ignored this fact did so at their own peril. Yemeni resentment and insurgency in reaction to government intrusion has been especially virulent against foreign powers that interfered in Yemeni politics, particularly those colonial powers that sought to bring tribal regions under the dominion of the state. The British, for example, had little influence over the far-flung territories of Southern Arabia (their colony in the Yemeni south) for almost the entire duration of the colony. For close to 70 years, practically the only interaction between southern tribal leaders and the colonial administration was an annual visit to Aden to be given weapons and salaries for their fighters.[15] It was only with the introduction of airpower and the ability to bomb rebellious villages from the safety of the skies that the British brought the most remote tribal territories under control.[16]

Foreign Muslim and secular powers fared no better than the English. Traditional songs about the suffering of Ottoman troops in Yemen are still sung in Turkey, and Egyptian Prime Minister Ali Sabri famously called Gamal Abdel Nasser’s decision to send thousands of troops in support of the Arab nationalists who overthrew Crown Prince Muhammad al-Badr “Egypt’s Vietnam.”[17] While the United States realistically has no other partner than President Salih, aid provided without conditions risks destabilizing the situation if it emboldens the Salih government to ignore the legitimate political grievances of its rivals and disregard the delicate balancing act that has always been essential to Yemen’s stability.

Yemen’s Opposition: Political Narrative and Grievances, Not Jihadists
Yemen is awash in political opposition to President Salih and his regime. Some prominent members of the opposition, such as Tariq al-Fadhli, are former jihadists. To date, however, there is no evidence to support claims that veterans of the Soviet jihad are supporting AQAP en masse. An examination of the ideology and grievances of the major opposition groups shows few avenues of overlap with AQAP beyond hatred of the Salih regime.[18]

The Huthis
The initial drivers of the Huthi rebellion in the north stemmed from “Zaydi revivalists who were originally fighting to protest the dilution of Zaydi identity and influence.”[19] More recently, the conflict has become a violent insurgency fueled by the lack of development in Sa`da Province (where most Huthis live) and as a reaction to “outside” military incursions into Sa`da by the Yemeni military. While the animosity is high between the Huthis and the secular clique surrounding President Salih, a strategic alliance between the Shi`a Huthis and AQAP based on their mutual hatred for the regime is improbable, especially given that the Yemeni government has reportedly sent some “Salafists” north to fight the Huthis.[20] The strongly sectarian and vitriolic anti-Shi`a rhetoric that is an essential part of AQAP’s ideology makes an alliance based on “enemy of my enemy” logic unlikely.[21]

The Southern Movement
In the south, the prospects for an alliance with AQAP are similarly unpromising. The secessionist South Yemen Movement is composed of a diverse mix of opposition groups from a variety of different ideological stripes, making it an unlikely partner for AQAP. Furthermore, the South Yemen Movement’s grievance narrative is one of dispossession, insufficient oil revenues, and political disenfranchisement; their proposed solution is secession and the recreation of an independent southern state. The most popular candidates for leadership roles (if the south were to become independent) are not jihadists, but prominent leaders of the former socialist government.[22] The South Yemen Movement is clearly a parochial project motivated by local grievances and does not fit into al-Qa`ida’s narrative of global jihad. AQAP, however, has cleverly tried to latch onto southerners’ anger with the Salih government in an effort to reorient them away from the project of creating an independent southern state and toward jihad and the establishment of an Islamic state in southern Yemen.[23] While it is not inconceivable that some tribes in the south might willingly look the other way or extend hospitality to AQAP fighters and perhaps to Anwar al-`Awlaqi (whose relationship to AQAP’s leadership is far from clear), nothing is surer to alienate the tribes of southern Yemen than civilian casualties at the hands of U.S.-trained and equipped northern troops and the sense that President Salih, their primary military rival, has access to an unlimited spigot of military aid at his disposal, provided by the United States.

The Way Forward
To date, AQAP and its affiliates have been diligent in attacking security forces and not Yemeni civilians. In fact, 64% of the attacks claimed by AQAP and its predecessor organizations from 1998-2008 have targeted security forces, government officials or utilities.[24] As long as tensions remain high between the Salih government and disaffected individuals in regions such as Marib and al-Jawf, AQAP will be able to continue this strategy. Yet if the Salih government begins dialogue with local leaders and is willing to engage the leaders of the southern movement in political negotiations and make concessions on key issues, AQAP will find itself in an uncomfortable position. Although it cannot be known for certain, it is possible that at this point AQAP, as have so many al-Qa`ida affiliates, would begin to attack civilians and local leaders in an attempt to dissuade collaboration and dialogue with the government. Such a course could lead to the group’s marginalization.

The security challenges in Yemen stem from a complex array of grievances that if they are to be resolved require Machiavellian levels of political engagement and negotiation by local leaders. This is a process that the jihadists—who are master propagandists—cannot succeed at because they do not have a political platform. Indeed, they have rejected the path of political compromise to take up arms and establish an Islamic state. They have only their own claims of righteousness and piety to legitimate the controversial attacks that they claim are essential to bring about this aspirational goal.[25] They will succeed only if their narrative is more credible than the Salih government’s. Recently, this has not been too difficult a barrier to surpass. Even with all of the Salih government’s shortcomings and widespread anti-American sentiment in Yemen, however, the entirety of the country is not an al-Qa`ida training camp. While there certainly are a small number of Yemenis who are drawn to AQAP and lured by the prospect of doing battle against the West and its regional allies, it must be stressed that it is not AQAP’s grievance narrative that motivates the vast majority of Yemenis to fight the government. Most Yemenis have taken up arms because of distinct political grievances and a perception that politics is a dead end.

There is little doubt that Washington’s Yemen deliberations will result in some mixture of additional military aid and training, an escalation of drone activities, and some additional economic aid. To the greatest degree possible, the United States should provide, through appropriate channels, transparent proposals for economic development, specific and timely releases of the evidence of AQAP’s plots against the United States, and engage the Yemeni public through editorials and press conferences explaining the rationale behind U.S. policy.[26]

While drones will probably be brought to bear in some capacity, the open source reporting on the history of drone and missile strikes in Yemen paints a very mixed picture. The value of the successful strike that killed Abu Ali al-Harithi in 2002 was undermined by U.S. claims of responsibility, which eliminated any chance of plausible deniability for the government, thus causing President Salih enormous embarrassment. More recently, a missile strike in December 2009 reportedly caused significant civilian casualties and was widely criticized by human rights groups and Yemeni officials.[27] A subsequent missile strike in May 2010 killed a deputy provincial governor, again causing the Salih government significant difficulties.[28] Furthermore, it is local actors and networks outside of Sana`a that provide the intelligence essential for drone strikes to be successful. As long as AQAP is operating primarily in areas outside of government control, it is doubtful the Salih government will be able to provide this intelligence in any consistent fashion. Moreover, local leaders will refrain from providing such intelligence if drone strikes are causing civilian casualties in their regions.[29]

Finally, military aid and training, while essential, will undermine their own utility if they are the catalyst that convinces the Huthis and the leaders of the southern movement that they have more to gain by striking now rather than waiting until the military balance has turned decisively against them. This would risk sinking Yemen into a chaos worse than anything AQAP could hope to create on its own.

The strategy devised for Yemen must be one that keeps only a light U.S. footprint in the country and exploits the contradictions and weaknesses inherent in al-Qa`ida’s ideology, which offers no political solutions in a country swimming in political problems. The greatest current danger is that through an overly heavy intervention in Yemeni affairs, the United States provides AQAP a perfect propaganda tool to point to the hand of the United States as the only force sustaining the Salih government and further exploit the grievances of the wide ranging political opposition to its own ends. Pressure on the Salih government to engage with its political rivals and an understanding that maintaining power in Yemen often requires ceding it to local leaders is essential to minimize the threat posed by AQAP to both the United States and Yemen.

Gabriel Koehler-Derrick is an Associate at the Combating Terrorism Center and an instructor at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point. Mr. Koehler-Derrick holds an M.A. in International Affairs from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and a B.A. in International Relations from Tufts University.

[1] Duncan Gardham, “Parcel Bomb Set to Go Off Over the US Police Say,” Telegraph, November 10, 2010.

[2] Most experts estimate that this will be somewhere around $250 million per year for a five-year period. See “US Funding Boost is Sought for Yemen Forces,” Wall Street Journal, September 2, 2010. A Yemeni government spokesman recently stated that Yemen wants $6 billion in total aid over two years. See “Yemen Wants Much More US Aid to Fight Terrorism,” Associated Press, November 9, 2010.

[3] Greg Miller and Peter Finn, “CIA Sees Increased Threat from al-Qaeda in Yemen,” Washington Post, August 24, 2010.

[4] Marisa Porges, “Saving Yemen,” Foreign Affairs, November 16, 2010.

[5] Stewart M. Patrick, “Are ‘Ungoverned Spaces’ a Threat?” Council on Foreign Relations, January 11, 2010.

[6] This argument is made in great detail in Alistair Harris, “Exploiting Grievances: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 2010.

[7] For one typical example, see Brad Lendon, “Yemen Fertile Ground for Terror Groups,” CNN, January 4, 2010.

[8] This generational gap and divisions between jihadists is presented in Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, “Al-Qaida in Yemen: Poverty, Corruption and an Army of Jihadis Willing to Fight,” Guardian, August 22, 2010. A 2006 interview with the head of the opposition al-Islah party, Shaykh Abdullah bin Hussein al-Ahmar, provides evidence of a more conventional split between globally-oriented jihadists such as al-Qa`ida and Islamist leaders such as al-Ahmar who are certainly virulently anti-American, praise Hamas in their rhetoric and are critical of the government yet are not advocates for global jihad. See Hussein al-Jibrani, “Asharq Al-Awsat Talks to Yemeni MP Sheikh Abdullah Bin-Hussein al-Ahmar,” Asharq al-Awsat, December 25, 2006.

[9] This statement came via a recorded message entitled, “To Our People in the South,” from AQAP’s leader Nasir al-Wahayshi. The statement was discussed in Mareb Press on May 13, 2009.

[10] The Zaydis, while nominally a Shi`a sect, are much closer to Sunnis in terms of religious practice.

[11] The Shafi’is are followers of the teachings of Imam Shafi’i, one of the four principle madhhabs or schools of interpretation of Sunni Islam. See Bernard Haykel, “Al-Shawkani and the Jurisprudential Unity of Yemen,” Revue du monde musulman et de la Mediterraneee 67 (1993), for an excellent example of how Yemen’s most prominent jurist, Muhammad al-Shawkani, blended Shafi’i jurisprudence in his own legal rulings to make the reign of the four imams who appointed him lead jurist more palatable to their Shafi’i subjects.

[12] “Yemeni President Wins Re-Election,” New York Times, September 24, 2006.

[13] Paul Dresch, A History of Modern Yemen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 1.

[14] “At a Glance: Yemen,” UNICEF, available at

[15] Dresch, pp. 9-10.

[16] As one colonial official said, “Pacification has mainly been negotiated, backed up with retribution for the evildoer from the Royal Air Force in the air and predominantly Arab forces on the ground.” See A.P. Cummings-Bruce, “The Emergence of Aden since 1956,” Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society 49:3-4 (1962).

[17] Tim Mackintosh-Smith recounted hearing a Turkish folksong describing the suffering of Ottoman troops in Yemen. See Tim Mackintosh-Smith, Travels with a Tangerine: From Morocco to Turkey in the Footstep’s of Islam’s Greatest Traveler (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2004).

[18] The Salih government has also alleged that the Huthis, the southern movement and AQAP are all in league against the government. See al-Thawra, July 31, 2009.

[19] Christopher Boucek, “War in Saada: From Local Insurrection to National Challenge,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 2010.

[20] Laurent Bonnefoy, “Deconstructing Salafism in Yemen,” CTC Sentinel 2:2 (2009). Also see Ghaith Abdul-Ahad’s interview with Khaled Abdul Nabi, former founder of the Abyan-Aden Islamic Army, who said that he was released from prison by President Salih on condition that he would help the government to fight the Huthis and the southern movement: “Al-Qaida in Yemen: Poverty, Corruption, and an Army of Jihadis Willing to Fight,” Guardian, August 22, 2010.

[21] See issue 13 of Sada al-Malahim for the article by Abu Yahya al-Libi called, “We are not Houthis, nor are We like them,” refuting Saudi allegations that AQAP was assisting the Huthis. In the second issue of Inspire, an “interview” with Shaykh Abu Sufyan, AQAP’s vice amir, provided examples of much more virulent anti-Shi`a rhetoric: “The Shi`a are polytheists and therefore amongst the worst enemies of Islam. They speak in the names of Islam but against the Muslims of ahl as-sunnah.” A recent claim of responsibility (if verified) for two attacks against Huthis on November 25 and 27 calls the Huthis rawafid or “rejectionists” and describes them as “legitimate targets” for further attacks.

[22] For an in-depth look at the southern movement and its leadership, see Stephen Day, “The Political Challenge of Yemen’s Southern Movement,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 2010.

[23] See “The Southern Issue: Secession or Unity is there another Option?” in issue 13 of Sada al-Malahim, in which the author presents jihad as the right path, not political participation in either the North or South “apostate” regimes.

[24] This figure is based on an analysis of 17 terrorist attacks from 1998 until 2008 claimed by the “Adan-Abyan Islamic Army,” “Al-Qa`ida,” “Al-Qa`ida in Yemen,” and “Sympathizers of Al-Qa`ida” using data from The Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland. An analysis of a second open source database, the WITS from the National Counterterrorism Center, shows a slightly different perspective: of 34 incidents committed by Sunni extremist groups from July 2007 until June 2010 in which there were victims, 41% were against civilians and 42% were against military and police targets.

[25] Nelly Lahoud, “The Strengths and Weaknesses of Jihadist Ideology,” CTC Sentinel 3:10 (2010).

[26] Gregory D. Johnsen has been particularly persuasive in arguing this last point. See Gregory D. Johnsen, “Yemen: Confronting Al-Qaeda, Preventing State Failure, testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” January 20, 2010.

[27] “Yemen: Cracking Under Pressure,” Amnesty International, 2010, pp. 31-32.

[28] Greg Miller, Greg Jaffe, and Karen DeYoung, “U.S. Drones on the Hunt in Yemen,” Washington Post, November 7, 2010.

[29] Ibid.

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