Echoes of Iraq: Yemen’s War Against al-Qaeda Takes a Familiar Turn

Tribal militias have joined the campaign against the local franchise of the radical movement. It may have helped oust al-Qaeda from a few cities, but it may not guarantee peace in the long run

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Yemeni soldiers stand guard outside the al-Saleh Mosque during a memorial service in Sana‘a, Yemen, on Aug. 5, 2012 to commemorate the victims of a suicide bombing in Abyan province

Even amid the escalating suicide-bomb campaign across Yemen, the attack on a wake in Jaar in southern Yemen’s Abyan province was particularly grisly and premeditated, designed to inflict maximum damage. It took place on Aug. 4, at around 11 p.m., as some 150 neighbors and relatives gathered outside the home of local tribal sheik Abdulatif Sayed following the funeral of his close relative. While they were grieving, a young al-Qaeda recruit from Jaar infiltrated the crowd, resting on a cooler he had brought with him. Then, according to several survivors, he detonated his suicide vest, and that blast ignited the cooler, which was packed with more explosives and metal ball bearings. Shrapnel killed some 50 guests, including the sheik’s two brothers.

However, the intended target, Sayed, survived. Al-Qaeda had particularly wanted to assassinate him. Sayed had defected from the terrorist organization three months earlier to head a growing force of anti-al-Qaeda tribal militias, also known as Popular Committees, sweeping the region.

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If the tribal uprising against al-Qaeda sounds familiar, then you are hearing echoes of Iraq. Aysh Awas, director of Security and Strategic Studies at Sheba, a think tank in Sana‘a, says Ansar al-Shari‘a — the political front of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) — is doing in Yemen what al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) did following the U.S. invasion in 2003: wage suicide-bomb-led jihad to derail the country’s nascent Washington-supported democracy and replace it with an Islamic state based on Shari‘a. And just as anti-al-Qaeda, U.S.-backed tribal sheiks in Iraq banned together to secure their territory from AQI, Popular Committees are popping up across Yemen to combat the local franchise of the movement founded by the late Osama bin Laden. “In light of the recent attacks, it seems that anything is likely to happen, and the situation in Yemen may be turning into the Iraqi model,” Awas says.

Unlike Iraq, however, the tribal Popular Committees don’t seem to be getting the big boost that Iraq’s Sunni Awakening groups did. In the past couple of weeks, the suicide-bombing campaign has led local Popular Committees to abandon their patrols and refuse to return unless Yemen’s new government provides them with greater autonomy, salaries and other benefits enjoyed by government troops. But President Rabu Mansour Hadi, who succeeded Ali Abdullah Saleh earlier this year, is mired in a military-reform battle with the country’s top brass and unwilling or unable to act on those demands.

Amid the tumult of last year’s Arab Spring–related popular uprisings in Yemen, AQAP and Ansar al-Shari‘a seized Jaar and neighboring towns like Lawder along the Gulf of Aden. It took the government months — with the help of the Popular Committee militias — to take back Jaar and the AQAP-occupied towns.

But morale has broken down. Popular Committee fighters from Lawder have stopped cooperating with government soldiers in their pursuit of Ansar al-Shari‘a, claiming that it is their land and they are responsible for protecting it. “My men won’t continue to fight alongside the military. We have shown that we can handle Ansar al-Shari‘a ourselves, and we are prepared do it, but not for nothing,” says Popular Committee leader Ahmed Ashawi from Lawder. Ashawi argues that the tribesmen need to be accommodated soon, before their allegiance shifts to other power brokers in the region. The tension has fueled mutual distrust between the two groups, leading some government troops to return to Sana‘a.

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Soldiers in the region took another blow on Aug. 6, when President Hadi placed Lawder’s Republican Guard brigade, along with more than a dozen others, under a new commander. The move was seen as part of Hadi’s attempt to tip the country’s balance of power toward himself and away from its top two military commanders: the former President’s son, Brigadier General Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, head of the elite Republican Guards; and his chief rival General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who broke away from Saleh’s forces during last year’s uprisings, taking the First Armored Division with him. Hadi designated himself the head of the Presidential Protective Forces, which is made up of three Republican Guard brigades and one from the First Armored Division.

Ahmed al-Zurqa, an independent political analyst and AQAP expert, describes Hadi’s decree as a farsighted measure. “It’s an initial step toward rebuilding the military away from personal loyalties to make it capable of conducting the war against al-Qaeda without parties playing the al-Qaeda card as a weapon in their own conflicts,” he says. Both generals Saleh and Mohsen have been suspected of playing the al-Qaeda card to settle personal disputes and further political objectives.

Like other observers, al-Zurqa would rather the war against al-Qaeda not depend on tribal militias. “The role of the Popular Committees must be terminated or they must be incorporated within the security forces because at the moment, they are militias with independent loyalties. They may soon become a source of problems.” The long-term solution to Islamic extremism, according to Awas, would involve conducting a “smarter war based on intelligence and enforcing the state through public services, job opportunities, resettling conflict refugees and rebuilding what the war destroyed.”

The problem, however, is that the government must quickly establish itself as the chief power broker in the Abyan — otherwise, allegiances cannot be guaranteed. “Like Sheik Sayed, people here will change sides if they see an opportunity. Life’s tough in Abyan, they take what they can get,” says a Yemeni intelligence official from the area. Though it has been displaced from the cities it once occupied, Ansar al-Shari‘a has in the past proved adept at winning local support through a combination of ironfisted rule, the provision of basic necessities and lucrative payouts to fighters. It is far from implausible that the group and al-Qaeda will surge back into power in Abyan.

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