The recent kidnapping of nine foreign aid workers in Yemen, three of whom were reported killed Monday, has heightened attention on the activities here of Al Qaeda – which some analysts blame for the attack.
The group appears to be using Yemen's factionalism to gain momentum in the country, one of the poorest in the Arab world.
A separatist movement in the south and an unrelenting rebel group in the north have left Yemen's central government with little control reaching beyond the capital of Sanaa. That makes the country an ideal place for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – the regional branch of the international movement – to gain popularity among those disenfranchised by the government.
"It is natural when there are extremists in a country for them to use instability of the country their advantage," says Mohammed Haidar, a researcher at the Sheba Center for Strategic Studies in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital. "Many of the issues Yemen faces are because of its economic problems. The government couldn't develop after unification [of northern and southern Yemen in 1990]. This created a poor class of people ready to join any extremist group."
In February, a month after Al Qaeda in Yemen merged with its Saudi counterpart to form AQAP, Dennis Blair, the US director of national intelligence, identified the country as a potential new haven for the group.
"Yemen is reemerging as a jihadist battleground and potential regional base of operations for al Qaeda to plan internal and external attacks, train terrorists, and facilitate the movement of operatives," said Admiral Blair (ret.).
The New York Times reported last week that Al Qaeda is finding a homeland in Yemen as militants from Pakistan have relocated to the south of the Arabian peninsula. However, both American officials and the Yemeni government subsequently have claimed that the article is unsubstantiated.
"Perhaps there is more communication between Al Qaeda in Yemen and groups in Pakistan," says Gregory Johnsen, a researcher on Yemen at Princeton University in New Jersey. "And while in Yemen we've certainly seen Al Qaeda growing stronger, there has been no evidence that they are coming from Pakistan."
Why analysts believe Al Qaeda is behind kidnappings
On Sunday, the bodies of three murdered foreigners who were working for a church-affiliated Dutch relief agency were found in the volatile Saada Province in northern Yemen – a region whose mountainous geography and lack of control by the central government makes it an ideal hideout for extremists. The victims, two German women and a South Korean woman, were abducted last Friday along with six other foreign nationals while picnicking in the region.
The fate of the six others is still unknown, according to the office of General Security in Sanaa. Yemen has offered a reward of $275,000 "for information leading to the capture of the kidnappers," according to Reuters. The news agency also reported on Thursday that suspected Al Qaeda agent Nayef Yahya al-Harbi, a Saudi, has turned himself in.
Yemen has a long history of taking foreigners hostage, with tribal factions using their abductees as bargaining tools to settle grievances with the Yemeni government. Roughly 200 foreigners have been kidnapped in Yemen over the past 15 years. In almost every case, they have been released unharmed.
The Yemeni government has accused the Houthis, a Shiite rebel group that has been violently clashing with Yemeni forces in Saada since 2004, of the abductions and murders. The group, however, has strongly denied involvement in the incident.
Furthermore, analysts say that the executions carry the mark of Al Qaeda, not the Houthis.
"The first sign [that Al Qaeda is responsible] is the nationality of the victims and their job descriptions, because they [belong] to a Christian organization," says Mr. Haidar.
No. 1 problem for Yemen: threat of secession
Yemeni tribal violence contrasts greatly with the ideology of Al Qaeda. If Al Qaeda is indeed responsible for the attack in Saada, they will claim responsibility in the coming weeks, say four political analysts from the Sheba Center interviewed by the Monitor.
AQAP has repeatedly threatened the lives of foreigners and foreign institutions in Yemen, with attacks increasing over the past few years, including an attack on the US Embassy in Sanaa in September 2008 that killed 16.
Additionally, AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi released an online audio statement in early May declaring the organization's support for the southern separatists in attacking government interests.
"The Yemeni government has a finite amount of resources. Right now the No. 1 problem of the Yemeni government is the threat from secession in the south," says Mr. Johnsen. "The more these conflicts are instigated and continue on, then the better this is for Al Qaeda, because the Yemeni government isn't able to decapitate the leadership of the organization."
Only in 1990 did the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, or South Yemen, unify with its northern neighbor to create the Republic of Yemen. Since unification, southern separatists claim that they have been marginalized by the government in Sanaa, which is located in the north of the country. Calls to secede from the republic have increased in southern provinces during the past few months.
Since the beginning of May, 22 Yemenis have been killed in clashes relating to the southern separatist movement, according to the Associated Press.
"Because of the growing problems in the south right now, Al Qaeda is trying to mingle with the people to attract them to their cause," Haidar says. "This will help Al Qaeda over the passage of time, to fulfill their goal of creating an Islamic state in the south Yemen."