Comparative Counterinsurgency in Yemen

Posted in Terrorism , Africa , Democracy | 05-Oct-10 | Author: Jane Novak| Source: MERIA Journal

Yemen is among the world's most corrupt and least developed nations, factors that explain a long running war in the north and an exploding independence movement in the south. Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Salih deals with legitimate dissent by jailing journalists, shooting protesters, and bombing civilians on a scale that reaches the level of war crimes. Salih has long been an al-Qa'ida enabler, but the December 25, 2009 Christmas Day terror attack brought new urgency to U.S.-Yemeni relations. However, the United States risks becoming a party to violent repression, as well as enhancing the support system of one of the world's most ambitious al-Qa'ida affiliates.

The government of Yemen is engaged in three counter-insurgency campaigns. Southern secessionists, northern rebels, and al-Qa'ida are each challenging the state. The calls for independence, revolt, or jihad arose as the state came to exist as the equivalent of a privatized mafia, but only al-Qa'ida in Yemen (AQIY) presents a transnational threat. The lethal jihadi attack on Fort Hood in November 2009 and the December 2009 attempted bombing of an airliner over Detroit were linked to al-Qa'ida terrorists in Yemen.

AQIY's global ambitions arise in part from its lack of credibility within Yemen, where AQIY is widely perceived as a corrupt entity exploited by the state for political gain. The current interlude of "hunting" notwithstanding, the regime of Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Salih has had a mutually beneficial d├ętente with al-Qa'ida for decades. Since the 1980s, Yemen has been an incubator and exporter of terrorists. Since 1992, substantial al-Qa'ida attacks in Yemen targeted Western interests, embassies, and persons--with only one exception.

Beyond an expansionist al-Qa'ida, Yemen is facing two sustained domestic conflicts: the northern Sa'ada War and the southern secessionist movement. Both these anti-government groups arose from the economic marginalization and political exclusion that impact all non-elite Yemenis. They tap into an indigenous pro-democracy consensus by claiming discrimination and demanding application of the law. Their narratives dilute the draw of al-Qa'ida by verbalizing national grievances tailored to a local context.

In contrast to Yemen's appeasement of al-Qa'ida, indiscriminate state violence against the northern Huthi fighters and southern demonstrators-and civilians in both conflict areas-triggered escalating cycles of conflict and public frustration. The state's failure to respect the norms of civilian immunity has become a primary grievance of both movements. Yemen, like al-Qa'ida, legitimizes attacks on civilians as a necessary feature of progress and justified by identity. The state of Yemen, like al-Qa'ida, considers host populations as combatants and endorses jihad.


Through two administrations (George W. Bush and Barack Obama), the United States government had little condemnation as Yemen engaged in bloody warfare against its own citizens. The United States is perceived in Yemen as endorsing random violence or state terrorism against Yemeni civilians. The Obama administration deems the domestic unrest an internal Yemeni affair, a threat to regional stability, and a diversion from counter-terror activities.

U.S. authorities are concerned about citizens returning from Yemen to launch attacks, for good reason. "Underwear" bomber, Nigerian Farouk Abdulmatallab, said he trained in Yemen for December's operation alongside English speaking non-Yemenis. The FBI has arrested a number of Americans on charges relating to terrorist plots or associations that trace back to Yemen.[1]

Although President Salih has long been a duplicitous and inconsistent ally in the War on Terror, the Obama administration appears confident of his new found sincerity.[2] Current U.S. strategy--like previous U.S. strategy--hopes to strengthen the Yemeni government's capacity to tackle the al-Qa'ida threat. Since December 2009, the United States boosted levels of intelligence sharing, equipment, and financing to Yemen.

Results are disappointing. Contrary to multiple erroneous Yemeni press releases, AQAP's (al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula) entire leadership structure remains at large. On December 17, 2009, an errant airstrike killed 43 civilians in Abyan. The deaths inflamed anti-American sentiment, stoked fears of a U.S. invasion, and became a focal point of al-Qa'ida's propaganda. In June 2010, a prominent pro-government shaykh in Marib, set to meet a surrendering al-Qa'ida operative, was killed in another misdirected airstrike. Marib tribesmen bombed a pipeline, closed roads, and clashed with security forces. The abdication of rural Yemen to tribal proxies means that military forces must negotiate for access, making real-time intelligence difficult to obtain.

As a result, Yemen is also having trouble locating the Yemeni-American jihadi blogger and self-proclaimed cleric, Anwar Awlaki, in Shabwa province. Awlaki mentored Nidal Hassan and Farouk Abdulmutallab and supported several al-Qa'ida operations. Yemeni authorities initially defended Awlaki as a legitimate preacher, but later said they would bring him to trial if captured. Yet Yemeni courts have found that jihad in Iraq is legal and admirable.[3] If Yemeni law supports the murder of U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians in Iraq, there is no basis to expect that conspiring to murder U.S. soldiers at Fort Hood is against Yemeni law.[4]

Beyond strengthening Yemen's counter-terror capacity, the second prong of U.S. strategy focuses on economic development and basic services, a reversal from earlier years when political reform was a key goal. Yet Yemen's growing terror menace, bloody instability, and grinding poverty are all rooted in "the personalization of the state."[5]


The United States, as part of its whole of government approach, seeks to "halt and reverse troubling socio-economic dynamics" in Yemen. It is a Herculean task, as these dynamics were entrenched over four decades and form the underpinnings of the criminalized oligarchy in Sana'a. A USAID corruption assessment notes that as the state's military and security apparatuses have been subverted to personal interests, a tribal parasitic bourgeoisie reliant on state contracts has emerged and further captured state resources for private gain. Documented cases of state corruption and embezzlement in 2007 totaled over YR 72 billion.

Yemen's per capita income is ranked 166th of 174 countries. Its press freedom ranking is 167th. Unemployment is about 40 percent. A third of adults are malnourished, and half of children are physically stunted from chronic hunger. One third of all under-five deaths occur from vaccine preventable diseases. Donor aid has had little impact. Only 10 percent of the $4.7 billion pledged by donors in 2006 has been disbursed, largely due to the failure to complete necessary paperwork.[6]

Yemen is facing predicted economic crises while long-standing patterns of grand corruption inhibit reform.[7] Diesel subsidies cost four billion dollars, but half of subsidized diesel is smuggled abroad.[8] Oil revenues, accounting for 70 percent of state funds, dipped more than half in 2009. As the patronage system becomes unglued, violence is increasing. In June 2010, soldiers in Mahwit and tribal fighters in Amran demanding overdue pay clashed with military forces.

Yemen is also running out of water....


*Jane Novak is a freelance journalist and long time Yemen analyst, well known in Yemen and the Middle East. Her website has been banned by the Yemeni government since 2007.