Gathered in the sitting room of a sumptuous house in the Yemeni capital, a mix of relatives and friends wile away the afternoon chewing qat, a leafy stimulant popular in the country. The gathering of members of the country’s educated elite included a prominent surgeon, his activist son, a professor at Sanaa University, and a high-ranking security official, and the topics discussed range from local politics to the ongoing unrest in Egypt to the pros and cons of different smart phones.
Noticeably unmentioned is the issue that’s landed Yemen in the headlines in the United States and Europe: the heightened terror alert after intercepted communications between Al Qaeda leaders hinted at a potential attack. It takes a news report on the subject on a flat screen television hanging on the room’s wall to prompt perturbed comments – but they're not about the possibility of getting attacked.
“There’s no sign of any understanding from the way America deals with Al Qaeda,” the surgeon says, receiving general agreement. “They just can’t get that it’s simply a result of bigger problems – something that has to be dealt with through development, education and more effective governance, rather than the use of force alone.”
It’s rare for Yemen to land in the headlines, and when it does, it is usually for reasons that seem far removed from daily life here. The disconnect between discussions among Yemenis and news coverage of the country is vast. Foreign media outlets cast Yemen as a nation on edge, anxiously discussing the vague threat of an imminent attack by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the country’s local terror franchise.
But save loudening complaints about spy planes hovering in Sanaa’s skies and drone strikes on suspected Al Qaeda targets becoming a nearly daily occurrence, Yemenis' lives have continued as usual. Many are bemused by the attention their nation is receiving – if they are aware of it at all.
It’s not as if Yemenis have nothing to fear from Al Qaeda-linked groups: nearly all of the victims of attacks by AQAP and its antecedents have been Yemenis themselves. But the threat of an impending attack is always present, and few see any justification for the current state of alert, which left Western embassies across the region shuttered for a week and spurred the evacuation of the bulk of British and American diplomatic staff from their diplomatic posts in Yemen.
Unemployment and underdevelopment concern Yemenis more. Unemployment is estimated at 35 percent, while the United Nations ranks Yemen 151st out of 177 countries according to its Human Development Index (HDI). Even discussions of security concerns stemming from the central government’s weak hold over much of the country cast AQAP as a secondary issue and say focusing on AQAP – and neglecting economic and governance issues – exacerbates the problems that have fed the group's growth.
Higher ranking operatives may dominate the minds of those who have cast AQAP as a direct threat to the United States, but prominent militants like Ibrahim al-Asiri, a top AQAP bombmaker whose creations were used in separate botched attempts to blow up an American passenger airline and assassinate Saudi Security chief Mohamed bin Nayef, barely register here.
Instead, discussions tend to center on the low-level fighters who make up the bulk of the group’s members. While Mr. Asiri and those at his level pose the greatest danger, when members of AQAP’s leadership are killed, the footsoldiers who make up the group’s backbone remain. And Yemenis across societal lines tend to stress that they’ll never be eliminated through military means alone.
"The 'Al Qaeda' who usually get killed are just poor kids – not people who pose some special threat," says a sheikh from Marib, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic. "And, in addition to that, they're very, very easy to replace."
Even when US airstrikes in Yemen succeed in killing their prominent militant leader targets, they do not deal a fatal blow to AQAP, say Yemeni tribesmen and educated analysts alike. There will still be plenty of poor, aimless young Yemeni men lacking opportunities and searching for meaning, which the global terror franchise could provide. By inflaming anti-American sentiment, the strikes make it even easier for AQAP to recruit, they say.
Even ostensibly significant military victories seem to prove short-lived. A spring 2012 Yemeni military offensive pushed AQAP-affiliated militants out of many of their former strongholds in the south but, after their retreat, the fighters took refuge in other parts of the country where the central government's presence is weak and resentment of the central government is strong.
As many Yemenis see it, AQAP’s resilience demonstrates the error of treating the battle against the group as simply a military issue. And as the US government responded to the current terror alert by launching a marathon of drone strikes, leaving both known militants and civilians dead, a number of analysts here have criticized the country's actions as a “overreaction," reiterated complaints that it's counterterrorism policies here are flawed.
“In the end, a long distance war on terrorism won’t be effective,” said Abdulghani al-Iryani, a Sanaa-based political analyst. “The root causes must be dealt with on the ground.”