By Manuel Almeida
2 May 2015
Last month, two picturestaken in Yemen caused great apprehension: Khaled Batarfi, an al-Qaeda commander who had just escaped from prison together with hundreds of other inmates, was photographed posing inside the office of the provincial governor of Mukalla, the capital of Hadramawt province.
One of the pictures shows Batarfi standing over a Yemeni flag lying on the floor, with the index finger of his right hand pointing up in a sign of success. In the other, he sits comfortably on a couch talking on the phone while holding what it appears to be a Kalashnikov on his left hand.
After the collapse of the Yemeni government following the Houthi military offensive, episodes such as the one in Mukalla have led to renewed calls from within Yemen as well as outside for the U.S. and the Saudi-led coalition to focus at least part of their military efforts on preventing the spread of al-Qaeda.
Unaware that the Houthis have used the fight against al-Qaeda as a pretext to expand their territorial reach and pursue their military goals, some even argue that the movement should go unopposed because it can be an asset against al-Qaeda.
The fact is the Houthi offensive seems to be having the opposite effect. The Houthis tend to label most of the armed opposition they face, especially tribes, as al-Qaeda. Their over-ambition, expansion to predominantly Sunni areas and excessive violence, coupled with their Zaydi revivalist drive, is giving al-Qaeda an unprecedented local recruitment boost.
Yemen’s Al-Qaeda branch, known outside as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) since 2009 when it merged with the organization’s Saudi branch, has for long been taking advantage of local instability and misgovernment to develop its activities and plan attacks as far as the United States. It became famous in 2000 with the attack on the USS Cole stationed in the port of Aden which killed 17 U.S. servicemen.
The U.S. response has taken essentially two forms. One is the financial and logistical support to the Yemeni government in exchange for the promise (seldom not kept during the years of President Ali Abdullah Saleh) to fight the organization’s presence.
The other is the controversial drone strikes program responsible for the killing of many of the organization’s leaders such as Anwar al-Awlaki and Ibrahim al-Rubaish. It has also generated great hostility among local tribes not only against the U.S. but against the Yemeni government due to the civilian casualties, thus pushing many youngsters to the hands Al-Qaeda.
There should be no doubt that AQAP is a very dangerous organization, for the region and the world, and the current chaos in Yemen is the perfect environment for it to thrive. In a recent display of confidence, its leadership declared it would offer 20 kilograms of gold to anyone who captures or kills the Houthis’ leader, Abdelmalik Al-Houthi, and former president Saleh.
To make things more complicated, ISIS’s local representatives have gradually made their presence felt. Only yesterday theyreleased a video claiming to show the beheading of four Yemeni soldiers and the shooting of eleven others in the southern Shabwa province.
However, the calls to focus on tackling the organization’s expansion via an intensification of drone and conventional aerial strikes would risk worsening the problem.
Despite the danger it represents, a strong focus on al-Qaeda or ISIS at this point would divert much-needed attention away from the root causes of Yemen’s crisis. A similar example is the way that the overemphasis on ISIS gave the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad, which has the biggest share of responsibility for the radicalization of the opposition and a track record of using jihadists, some breathing space while not bringing the Syrian crisis anywhere closer to a solution.
The complexity of the war in Yemen and the collapse of state institutions means that it will take a long time until there is a united Yemeni army that can take responsibility for the country’s security. At the moment, the army and security forces are little more than an extension of the rivalries between competing factions. The resistance to the military reforms that President Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi tried to implement shows how difficult it will be to change this.
A temporary solution could lie in reaching out to local tribes with guarantees of financial and logistical support as well as assurances that the areas they control would not be targeted by drones.
Ultimately, the road to curbing al-Qaeda’s activities in Yemen is the same than the one to put a stop to the Houthis’ aggression or Saleh’s eternal ambitions: an inclusive political deal that paves the way for a serious transition with parliamentary and presidential elections backed by a consistent program of economic reconstruction. Only this can lead to a relatively stable situation with a reformed Yemeni army and security forces doing what they are supposed to do.
For now, Yemen’s jihadist problem will persist and it can only be contained, not resolved. Rushing in with half-baked military options backed by no sensible political plan will only add fuel to the fire.
Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.