With a curved dagger in his belt and a beard dyed flame red, Yemen’s most influential cleric on Monday laid down limits on growing counterterrorism assistance from the United States and said dialogue could solve problems with Al Qaeda militants in Yemen.
Sheikh Abdul-Majid al-Zindani, who has been labeled a “global terrorist” with Al Qaeda links by Washington and was once close to Osama bin Laden while fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s, said Yemen would “accept any cooperation in the framework of respect and joint interests,” but would oppose military occupation.
That difference matters in Yemen, where elements of the government have often maintained expedient ties with militants of all stripes—including Sheikh Zindani, and even Al Qaeda, analysts suggest—which complicate efforts to crack down.
Zindani illustrated the dilemma when he criticized a US-backed Yemeni airstrike against a suspected Al Qaeda target in mid-December. “Many citizens were killed,” he said. “Is this right? What about a government that calls in any force to strike whoever it wants in this way, without any restrictions?”
Washington is boosting its counterterrorism cash and training for Yemen in the aftermath of Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s alleged attempt to blow up a US airliner on Christmas Day. It sees the main threat as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which claimed responsibility for the plot.
But removing Al Qaeda from Yemen will not be easy. And analysts warn that the threat of Al Qaeda’s offshoot here is being overplayed in the West, at the expense of more serious problems faced by Yemen’s weak government such as an uprising in the north that has claimed thousands of lives and a secessionist movement in the south.
Adding a dose of discrete American assistance might help, analysts say, but could also backfire if too weighted toward military action, or seen to be propping up an unpopular government.
“The American presence in this equation will cause an inevitable spike in Al Qaeda recruitment,” says Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, a political consultant in the capital, Sanaa. While some militants may have been killed, reports of dozens of civilian casualties were “unacceptable” to most Yemenis, he says.
“I don’t think the Americans need to get involved in any more visible way,” says Mr. al-Iryani. “The greatest risk Yemen faces today is greater foreign intervention, not Al Qaeda. It will turn large numbers of Yemenis who are not radical into Al Qaeda.”
US intervention tricky
Calibrating the American role will be tricky, in a country that analysts routinely describe as a “failing state” where government contacts with Islamic militants have been deep since President Ali Abdullah Saleh deployed them in 1994 in Yemen’s civil war. Some 23 militants— including Jamal al-Badawi, one of the organizers of the 2000 attack on the USS Cole—escaped from Yemeni jail in 2006, reportedly with the help of sympathetic Yemeni intelligence officials.
About 90 Yemenis remain in detention at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Though the US had originally planned to release most of them to Yemeni custody, that plan has now been held up on concerns some of them might seek to attack US interests after their release.
An estimated 200 to 300 Al Qaeda militants—foreign and Yemeni alike—are believed to operate in the poorest Arab nation that boasts nearly three weapons for every one of its 23 million citizens. Tribal allegiances dominate and religious extremism is prevalent in the rugged terrain at the southern flank of the Arabian Peninsula.
“There are probably thousands, but even if there are only 300, they can plan and recruit and train—the environment is there,” says Abdullah al-Faqih, a political scientist at Sanaa University.
“This [underpants bomber] incident was a good thing—it brought attention,” says Dr. al-Faqih. “If there is instability in Yemen, you can be sure that Al Qaeda can attract all kinds. But stability can limit their reach. The Saudis have a good experience going after Al Qaeda. If you want to control them, you must do door-to-door war, not airstrikes.”
President Saleh on Sunday renewed his commitment to taking on Al Qaeda, which in the past year and a half has begun to hit Yemeni targets for the first time and joined with its Saudi counterpart to form Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
“Dialogue is the best way…even with Al Qaeda, if they set aside their weapons and return to reason,” Mr. Saleh told Abu Dhabi TV. “We are ready to reach understanding with anyone who renounces violence and terrorism.”
That view was echoed by Sheikh Zindani, who did not explicitly criticize the government’s expanding cooperation with the US: “The president of the republic called for dialogue. The opposition also called for dialogue. The majority of the people see that dialogue will be the best way.”
Yet analysts describe layers of interwoven loyalties in Yemen which have coincided with a self-radicalization of militants and a reaction to harsh measures by the government in its myriad conflicts.
“The American government has tried to have this policy mix between development and security,” says a European analyst with long Yemen experience who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of his work. “Unfortunately, the stress has been more on security than development. By the US Agency for International Development targeting certain regions, positive things can come out of this.”
“AQAP has shifted its strategy,” says the analyst. “The [Sept. 2008] attack against the American embassy—symbolically, it is something Al Qaeda can brag about—but inside of Yemen, everyone says, ‘Ok, we might agree with striking Americans, but who was killed? Only Muslims’ This is very bad for them; no one is going to support this.”
“So AQAP has started to strike people working inside security, specific targets that are not directly civilian,” adds the analyst. “That’s why we shouldn’t overrate the threat from Al Qaeda. By overrating it, we are actually strengthening it. Because there is this fertile ground…with strong anti-Americanism, because the government is not delivering, and is increasingly unpopular.”
“The anti-terror issue in Yemen for the government is a kind of resource,” says the analyst. “But the Americans and the West should be cautious not to feed this threat.”
President Barack Obama said he had “no intentions of sending US boots on the ground” to Yemen or Somalia, in an interview with People magazine released on Monday. In countries like Yemen and Somalia, Mr. Obama said: “ I think working with international partners is most effective at this point.”
Gen. David Petraeus, who visited Yemen shortly after the alleged attempt to bring down the US airliner on Christmas Day, said on Sunday that Yemen’s foreigner minister was “quite clear that Yemen does not want to have American ground troops there.” The US “would always want a host nation to deal with a problem itself,” Petraeus told CNN. “We want to help. We’re providing assistance.”
“Some people are cognizant of the pitfalls. But sending Petraeus on a high-profile mission to Yemen, clearly trying to cater to the domestic pressure—what is the Obama administration doing about this?—has a negative impact in Yemen,” says Joost Hiltermann, the deputy director of the Middle East for the International Crisis Group in Washington.
“That’s a difficult dilemma. On the one hand, the American public needs to be reassured that the government is taking the necessary measures,” say s Hiltermann. “On the other…if you are dealing with countries like Yemen or Pakistan, that are extremely fragile, you’ve got to have an extremely light footprint. Because if you go in more heavy-handed, by sending in military advisors and predator strikes and whatnot, you are going to drive a good number of the population into Al Qaeda’s arms.”