Al-Qaeda spreads its tentacles in Yemen

Yemen's most influential cleric Sheik Abdel-Majid al-Zindani, centre, considered an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist by the United States, attends a conference in the capital San'a on January14, 2010.  

A combination of several factors has bracketed Yemen with the list of countries from where the al-Qaeda brand of terrorism, with its distinct ideology and operational style, is radiating to several parts of the globe.

Overnight Yemen became the target of intense media coverage and hotspot of international investigations after the failed attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian, to blow up an American airliner bound for Detroit on Christmas day. The youth had apparently spent time with Islamist radicals in Yemen, before embarking on his mission, with explosives sewn in his underwear. The al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a group based in Yemen, later claimed responsibility for the failed attack. The AQAP drew attention in January 2009 when its Saudi Arabian and Yemeni branches merged into a single powerful unit.

Yemen, which grabbed international attention in 2000 with the bombing of the United States Navy ship, Cole, maintained a relatively low profile in subsequent years, despite its President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, joining the so-called war against terror as a U.S. ally following the 9/11 attacks. In fact, the Yemeni government’s focus shifted inward during those years, as it battled a fierce Shia insurgency in the north and a separatist movement in the south.

However, several forces related to global jihad have been in operation behind the scenes, which coalesced with deadly effect and revealed themselves in bold attacks since 2008. In fact, Abdulmutallab’s attempt caps a list of conceptually spectacular, though not always successful, terror attacks by the AQAP.

These included a September 2008 strike on the U.S. embassy in Sana’a that killed 10 Yemeni guards and four civilians along with the six attackers.

Al-Qaeda’s regrouping in Yemen, threatening the neighbouring Gulf countries, the Horn of Africa and the U.S., can be traced to a daring prison break on February 3, 2006. That day 23 suspected al-Qaeda members escaped from a Yemeni prison, probably with the help of prison guards. Only a few were recaptured or killed. Among the escapees was Nasser al-Wuhayshi, who at one time was Osama bin Laden’s personal assistant in Afghanistan. Wuhayshi subsequently emerged as a prominent leader and is believed to be the driving force behind the merger of the Yemeni and Saudi Arabian branches of the al-Qaeda. Another escapee who became part of the al-Qaeda’s core leadership in Yemen is Qassim al- Raimi, a military commander of the group. The nucleus of the AQAP’s leadership expanded when two freed Guantanamo Bay inmates joined the group. One of them was Said Ali al-Shihri, a Saudi Arabian national. In 2001, Shihri visited Afghanistan, where, apparently, he was wounded. The Pakistanis captured him in December that year as he attempted to cross the border. For six years he languished in the U.S. Guantanamo Bay facility before being released in a Saudi Arabian rehabilitation centre in December 2007. However, he disappeared from Saudi Arabia to emerge in Yemen at Wuayshi’s side. Also to emerge from Guantanamo was Ibrahim Suleiman al-Rubaysh. He too was captured by the Pakistanis in 2001 and sent to Guantanamo, only to be released to the Saudi rehabilitation programme and finally to surface in Yemen as the AQAP’s spiritual guide.

Another bigwig who apparently supports the AQAP but may not necessarily be its member is the American-born Anwar al-Awlaki. He apparently played spiritual mentor to Nidal Hasan, U.S. Army Major who, by all accounts, killed 13 people during a bizarre shooting spree at Fort Hood, a military facility in Texas. The Internet-savvy clerical figure is also suspected to have established links with Abdulmutallab. Awlaki spent 18 months in prison in Yemen over suspected links to a terror plot before his release in December 2007. He then travelled to Britain and is believed to have returned to Yemen the following spring.

In Yemen, as in the case of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas, the al-Qaeda appears to have infiltrated some prominent tribes whose leaderships take positions that largely define rival political alignments. This became apparent in the case of Awlaki for, he is well protected by Yemen’s influential Awlaki tribe, which, in all probability, extends political patronage to the al-Qaeda. It is, therefore, not surprising that the al-Qaeda has been working towards building alliances with major tribes in several provinces, including Marib, which has oil; Hadramawt, the area to which Osama bin Laden’s ancestors belonged; Shabwah; and Abyan, which is closer to the the Gulf of Aden.

Two other factors appear to have deepened al-Qaeda’s influence in Yemen. First, the substantial migration from Somalia, where a significant section of the population has been exposed to the radical Salafi Islamic tradition. More than 1,00,000 Somalis have taken refuge in Yemen, with around 50,000 crossing into the country in 2008 alone. An earlier report in The New York Times said U.S. intelligence agencies had detected an increase in communication among the jihadi groups operating in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen following attacks by U.S. drones on top al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan.

Secondly, Yemeni migrants returning from Saudi Arabia, where they were influenced by jihadi ideology. Extensive poverty, water shortages and political corruption are the other factors that appear persuading people to concur with extremist ideology and behaviour.

After the failed Christmas day bombing plot, President Saleh is under extreme international pressure to show results in the offensive on the al-Qaeda. However, that would not by any measure be an easy task.

The political circumstances are such that the President is bound to remain distracted. For instance, Mr. Saleh has to pay attention to the northern Sadaa mountains, bordering Saudi Arabia, where the Shia Zaydi community has for years been battling government forces and recently came under attack from the Saudi Arabian Air Force. Neither can Mr. Saleh neglect the Southern Mobility Movement, a secessionist campaign led by the former Vice-President, Ali Salim al-Bid. Recently, the AQAP committed its support to the southern secessionist movement. Consequently, apart from confronting the al-Qaeda, the Yemeni forces are engaged in an unsustainable combat on two separate fronts.

The President may be reluctant to launch a straightforward offensive on the al-Qaeda. In the past, Mr. Saleh relied on political Islamists for support, especially during the 1994 civil war. Credible reports also suggest that jihadi groups have taken on the Zaydis in the northern campaign. Besides, Mr. Saleh has to take into account the consequences of a heavy offensive on the al-Qaeda on the loyalty of his troops, some of whom are bound to be jihadi sympathisers.

Nevertheless, like the former Pakistani President, Pervez Musharraf, after 9/11, Mr. Saleh may find himself facing intense external pressure, depriving him of any significant space for manoeuvre. Apart from pressure from the Americans, without whose intelligence inputs and weapon supplies the Yemenis are unlikely to make any headway, the government in Sana’a is susceptible to pressure from Saudi Arabia. It is estimated that last year, Riyadh provided Yemen with a $2-billion aid. By all accounts, the Saudi Arabians are hell-bent on persuading Mr. Saleh’s government not to slacken its counter-terror campaign. Riyadh’s uncompromising position stems from a failed assassination attempt by the AQAP on its Deputy Interior Minister, Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef. Armed with PETN, the same explosive with which Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up the American plane, the assassin came close to killing Prince Nayef, who escaped with minor injuries, during Ramzan observances in August.

Because of their unique geographic location — close to international shipping routes and piracy-infested waters — all oil-rich Gulf countries fear the forces of destabilisation emerging from Yemen. Apart from Saudi Arabia, from where Bahrain and Kuwait is accessible, Yemen shares a border with Oman, the gateway to the United Arab Emirates.

Consequently, the entire Gulf region is making serious demands on the Yemeni government to rein in the AQAP.

Aware of his predicament, Mr. Saleh has already taken steps to put out some of the fires. He ushered in the new year with an offer of reconciliation with the Zaydis, who also go by the name Houthis.

Within days of this ceasefire proposal, Mr. Saleh extended an olive branch also to the al-Qaeda with a call for talks. In an interview with Abu Dhabi television, he said: “If al-Qaeda lay down their arms, renounce violence and terrorism and return to wisdom, we are prepared to deal with them.”

Given the string of complex challenges that Mr. Saleh faces, the stage is set in Yemen for prolonged turbulence.

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