Ali Abdullah Saleh 311 R.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Does the recent successful killing of American-born al-Qaida cleric Anwar
al-Awlaki vindicate US policy towards Yemen, or is a change in approach needed?
The question is particularly relevant as Awlaki has been an online figure of
inspiration for many jihadists and their sympathizers (e.g. the failed
“Christmas Day” bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who may have received training
in Yemen as well).
Contrary to all expectations, President Ali Abdullah
Saleh of Yemen has recovered from severe injuries suffered during a rocket or
bomb attack back in June and has returned from Saudi Arabia to the country’s
capital of Sanaa. What are the implications for the outside world? Currently,
the main concern of US officials is the presence of al-Qaida in the Arabian
Peninsula (AQAP), which they fear will use Yemen as a base to launch attacks
against Western targets. Are these concerns valid?
To answer this, a clear
overview of the situation needs to be established. It is evident that Saleh has
no intention of stepping down from power, and the capital is now firmly divided
between supporters and opponents of the tottering Yemeni regime. Violence has
intensified since Saleh’s return and spread to cities like Aden and Taizz with
heated battles between security forces loyal to the president (e.g. the
well-trained Republican Guard Units, commanded by Saleh’s son Ahmed) and army
defectors led by Major General Ali Ahmar, who has aimed to protect demonstrators
and anti-government tribesmen since he defected in March.
analysts are beginning to consider the prospect of a full-blown civil war, as
Yemen also faces existential challenges like the depletion of oil and gas
reserves, dwindling water supplies and a swelling population.
factions like the Zaydi Shi’ite Houthi rebels in the north, who have been in
conflict with the central government since 2004 but generally left alone by
Saleh once the demonstrations began in February this year, have not hesitated to
take advantage of the growing chaos.
In fact, the Houthis are no longer
content with limiting their autonomy to their home province of al-Jawf, and have
expanded their power base southwards through various tribal alliances and truces
with groups such as the Islamist Islah party.
In this context, therefore,
commentators like Bruce Reidel, a former CIA officer and fellow of the Brookings
Institution, argue that AQAP is among “the winners for now” because the
organization’s bomb-makers “can perfect their wares with less and less fear of
Saleh’s security forces.”
Nevertheless, Reidel’s assessment is based on a
misunderstanding of Saleh’s policy towards AQAP and other Islamist militants in
Yemen. Although Saleh has presented himself to the West as a staunch ally
against terrorism, it is more accurate to say that he effectively played a
double game. True, he has allowed the United States to conduct drone strikes
(like the one that killed Awlaki) and occasionally called in his own air strikes
against Islamist militants, but he has also diverted aid intended for cracking
down on al-Qaida to suppress domestic opposition. In the words of analyst Ellen
Knickmeyer, Saleh has pursued a strategy of “trying to co-opt,” rather than
eliminate, key al-Qaida figures in Yemen.
Saleh’s double game is
especially apparent in disclosures from the Wikileaks cables. For example, in
one cable, former US ambassador to Yemen Stephen Seche said a commando group
that had been trained by the United States and Britain to deal with al-Qaida was
being used instead to suppress the Houthis in the north, despite their having no
links to al-Qaida or Iran.
Saleh has been remarkably tolerant of al-Qaida
figures in Yemen. At lunch with a US envoy in 2007, Saleh bragged about having
met with Jamal Badawi (the mastermind behind the bombing of the USS Cole
2000) only two weeks before. Although he assured the envoy that Badawi was under
house arrest, the militant’s whereabouts are now unknown.
abetted militants elsewhere in the country. For instance, his regime supported
the notorious Al-Iman University, renowned as a center for violent Islamists in
Yemen. More recently, domestic critics of Saleh argued in June that the
president encouraged Islamist militants to take over the southern town of
Zinjibar, hoping to scare the Obama administration into providing greater
financial aid to the Yemeni government.
If al-Qaida, with only around 300
members, has established a firm foothold in Yemen, then Saleh’s actions are
primarily to blame. However, it should not be thought that the radical group is
necessarily capable of focusing on conducting operations abroad as part of
international jihad anytime soon. So long as the West avoids direct military
intervention in Yemen, al-Qaida’s efforts will be diverted towards competing
against rival factions such as the Houthi rebels and the southern
Against the former, al-Qaida recently claimed responsibility
for a suicide bombing in mid-August, acting for the first time on its formal
declaration of jihad against the Houthis last winter, while the southern
separatists, strongly influenced by secular values, are natural enemies of
al-Qaida, which backed Saleh in the 1990s civil war against remnants of the
former Marxist regime of South Yemen.
In short, a descent into complete
anarchy and civil war would be a humanitarian catastrophe for Yemen, but not a
strategic disaster from the perspective of Western security interests. The best
option lies in pursuing a “hands off” policy, ending aid to Saleh’s government,
and halting all drone attacks so as to avoid giving al-Qaida a further casus
belli for acting outside Yemen, while issuing a stern warning that any further
aggression will be met with severe retaliation as part of a containment
strategy.The writer is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford
University, and an intern at the Middle East Forum.