For years, drone strikes have been a regular feature of U.S. counterterrorism strategy in Yemen. They have taken out many of al Qaeda’s most important leaders, yet the organization’s reach has increased dramatically.
One explanation for this apparent contradiction is that, since the drone strikes started, the Yemeni government has happened to become weaker, giving al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) the advantage of relatively ungoverned spaces from which to operate. Another is that the drone strikes have killed civilians, giving weight to AQAP’s claim that Yemen is under attack by a foreign power and bolstering the group’s appeal.
There is probably an element of truth to both. But to a significant degree, the problem is also a product of the West’s failure to grasp how Yemenis view AQAP—a failure that both facilitated the group’s expansion and undermined those best placed to contest it: the majority of Yemenis who believe that the group is an elite fabrication.
There are two errors in conventional Western thinking about AQAP. The first is the belief that the government in Sanaa is necessarily motivated to fight groups that violently challenge its rule—and is understood to do so by its population. The second is that AQAP authentically represents a segment of Yemeni society, which gives the group a firm foundation from which to expand its support base.
For Yemenis, though, the line between the state and AQAP is not always clear, and a loss for AQAP is not necessarily a win for the central government. Many believe that competing factions in Yemeni politics stoke the AQAP threat for political advantage. In turn, the fight against AQAP is just a stage on which other domestic power struggles play out. By viewing AQAP as merely a terrorist organization—and not also part of a plotline that has sustained a squabbling elite—the West has been left fumbling around in a domestic confrontation that it continues to misunderstand. The consequences of this are borne by ordinary Yemenis, who are “caught between a drone on one side and Al-Qaeda on the other,” as one cleric told a researcher from Human Rights Watch.”
Take, for example, the suicide bombing that killed nearly 100 members of Yemen’s central security forces in Sanaa in May 2012. The incident was internationally reported as an al Qaeda attack, and the terrorist group quickly claimed responsibility. But Yemeni media outlets buzzed with alternative theories. Those affiliated with Ali Muhsin (a powerful commander who led a chain of high level defections from the regime the previous year) claimed that people loyal to the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, had masterminded the attack. Outlets affiliated with the former president maintained that, in fact, Muhsin had recruited the bomber.
In both cases, AQAP was seen as nothing more than a tool of more powerful players. Indeed, in Yemen, the belief that AQAP has little free will is longstanding and pervasive. Photos of the demonstrations that triggered Saleh’s resignation in 2011 show protesters holding a banner that reads “the removal of the regime = the removal of al Qaeda.” Earlier this year, Tawakkol Karman, a journalist who won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her role in the Yemeni uprising, wrote on Twitter that “Al-Qaeda in Yemen is the deposed Ali Saleh’s militia.”
Al-Qaeda in Yemen is the deposed Ali Saleh’s militia with al-Qaeda logo on their front lines
— توكل كرمان (@TawakkolKarman) March 22, 2015
On August 10, 2014, Mona Safwan, another well-known journalist, wrote on her own Twitter account that “al Qaida and the Houthis are just toys in the hands of the two main rivals in Yemen for more than ten years: Ali Abdullah Saleh and Ali Muhsin.”
The Yemeni media also widely reports the tweets of “Tameh,” a source believed to either have access to, or be highly placed within, the Yemeni security services. Tameh alleges that the current head of AQAP, Qassim al-Raymi, cooperates with Saleh and his family. He even claims that Saleh paid al-Raymi $70 million to publicly claim that AQAP was responsible for a December 2013 assault on al-‘Ordi Hospital, which is located in the Ministry of Defense compound in Sanaa. The attack killed 56 civilians. Saleh and his supporters, Tameh implies, had launched the attack to try to assassinate Saleh’s successor, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. After their plan failed, they wanted the attempt to be covered up.
The notion that AQAP has little free will isn’t limited to journalists. In a recent Al-Jazeera documentary, Hani Mujahid, a member of AQAP who claims to have been working as an agent for the Yemeni government, made similar accusations.
Mujahid claimed to have warned Saleh’s nephew Ammar Saleh (the powerful deputy head of Yemen’s U.S.-funded National Security Bureau) of an impending AQAP attack on the U.S. embassy in Sanaa in 2008—to no avail. The attack killed at least a dozen civilians and guards. Mujahid also alleges that Ammar Saleh arranged to provide al-Raymi with the explosives used in the suicide attack against a convoy of Spanish tourists in Marib the previous year. Mujahid describes al-Raymi, as “a creation of Yemen’s National Security Bureau” and claims that “many al Qaeda leaders were under the complete control of Ali Abdullah Saleh.”
In 2011, Hamood al-Hitar, the former minister of religious affairs who led a government-sponsored dialogue with al Qaeda, argued that “Saleh uses al Qaeda to blackmail foreign countries so that he can get more financial support from them.” Likewise, numerous sources with access to Saleh have recounted, in conversations with me, Saleh’s boast that he was in control of AQAP and that the group therefore did not pose a serious threat.
The truth of such statements is beside the point. Such views, expressed routinely and publicly, reveal a profound distrust of official narratives about AQAP and what sustains it. They also challenge the West’s understanding that AQAP provides an outlet for disaffected or impoverished Yemenis, and that it benefits from a “natural base of Yemeni popular support.”
If the Western view is correct, the way to fight AQAP may be to bolster Yemen’s capacity to improve the lives of its citizens while disrupting the terrorist networks. However, if the Yemeni view is correct, then assistance to the state might only exacerbate the problem by rewarding the regime for its charade. Aid and attacks on the network may also overstate the societal significance of AQAP, ignoring the degree to which ordinary Yemenis would have resisted the terrorist group without external prompting.
The West, of course, opted for drone strikes and cooperation with the Yemeni state despite its own suspicions about Yemeni motives, which arose as early as 2006, when 23 of al Qaeda’s most senior figures were able to break out of a state jail with little apparent trouble. Even then, support for the regime was still perceived as the only viable option. As U.S. Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter said in April, “It’s always easier to conduct counterterrorism when there’s a stable government in place.”
Moreover, some in the West believed that, without external intervention, Yemenis might opt to back AQAP. As evidence, they cited historical facts that are of little relevance to the current situation. “Many mujahedeen returned to [Yemen] after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan,” said Carl Levin, who was Democratic Senator from Michigan, during 2009 congressional testimony, and “it is the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden.”
Within Yemen, however, what little survey-based evidence that does exist suggests that AQAP is unpopular. An opinion poll of 1,005 Yemenis from March 2011 found that 86 percent of respondents saw AQAP as either “very” or “somewhat” unpopular in their local area. At the same time, 96 percent said that they disapproved of the Yemeni government’s cooperation with the United States. So AQAP is bad, but the domestic and international politics surrounding its extermination are worse—indeed, in most narratives, they are what sustain the group. The West’s attempts to bolster a central government to fight terrorism, and that government’s penchant for playing the terrorism card, has probably given AQAP longer legs than it ever would have had from popular support alone.
Yemenis do not deny that AQAP exists, but their understanding of the group includes reasons for its resilience that are fundamentally different from the ones in most Western minds. Drone strikes may degrade the AQAP that the West sees—the non-state terrorist entity that shelters in the Yemeni hinterland—while simultaneously empowering the one most visible to Yemenis, that is, the AQAP that signifies a multitude of domestic injustices, many of which the West has been a party to.