Yemen: Can AQAP mount an insurgency?

This post was co-authored by the editor of the recently released report "A False Foundation? AQAP, Tribes, and Ungoverned Spaces in Yemen", Gabriel Koehler-Derrick, and the author of the same report. For reasons of security and to facilitate future research in the region the author's name has been withheld from the report. Gabriel is an associate at West Point's Combating Terrorism Center and an instructor in the Department of Social Sciences.

On 15 January a member of a United Nations team was kidnapped from an upscale neighborhood in Yemen’s capital.  He was reportedly taken to the eastern governorate of Marib and held for more than a week by heavily-armed tribesmen who demanded the release of their relatives held on suspicion of supporting al-Qa`ida. The day of the abduction, word spread of militants from an alleged al-Qa`ida affiliate, Ansar al-Sharia`a, overrunning a city just 80 miles south of Sana’a.  A week later, footage of an alleged commander of the group, a tribal sheikh and brother in law of Anwar al-`Awlaqi named Tariq al-Dhahab, was posted on YouTube.  The clips seem to show Ansar al-Sharia`a fighters in control of the city’s mosque, enjoying support from some local residents, and for the first time on video, soliciting oaths of allegiance from young men on behalf of al-Qa`ida’s leaders in Yemen and Pakistan. (Click here for videos)

Both events have been interpreted as the latest evidence of Yemen’s imminent collapse, an outcome especially troubling for the United States. Whereas the Arab Spring has spurred varying degrees of optimism regarding political developments in Tunisia, Egypt, and even Libya, Yemen appears headed in the opposite direction. The prospect of al-Qa`ida inspired militants moving to fill the void left by a faltering central government makes a bad situation that much worse. AQAP is not alone in taking advantage of the chaos. Across the country the Yemeni government is ceding ground to a variety of sub state actors. These include Southern Secessionists in the former PDRY (People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen), Houthi insurgents in the North, and since May of 2011 in Abyan and perhaps Baydah governorates, al-Qa`ida’s local offshoot, al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Ansar al-Shar`ia. 

Given the grim picture, bleak predications about Yemen’s future are inevitable. But they represent only part of the story.  The abduction of the UN official or seizure of Rada’a while troubling, are not proof of Yemen’s “failure” – much less victory for AQAP.  While these events might be conclusive evidence of collapse in a country with a history of a strong, centralized government, Yemen has never neatly matched up with Weberian concepts of sovereignty. To make sense of where Yemen is going, events must be evaluated using Yemeni metrics rather than ahistorical assumptions about territorial control taken from the West, or other Arab countries for that matter.

The recent kidnapping of Gert Danielsen is a useful example.  Although the Norwegian was rushed to an area long considered beyond the writ of the Yemeni government, his safety and ultimately his return to the capital was ensured precisely by the norms and social organizations long accused of weakening the Yemeni state: tribesmen and customary law. This conclusion may seem contradictory to those who presume that safety and stability are exclusively the purview of the central state. But given President Saleh’s departure and the political gridlock in the capital, governance does not end at Marib’s borders.  Accepted methods of dispute resolution were enacted immediately following news of the kidnapping.  A delegation of sheikhs from `Abeeda, ironically one of the tribes most frequently accused supporting al-Qa`ida, headed mediation efforts with the kidnappers, and within days an agreement was struck that returned Gert to Sana’a.

Ansar al-Shari`a’s takeover of Rada’a is also telling.  The week long ordeal seemed to confirm suspicions that al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula had once again diversified its operations. No longer content with simply attacking security forces, the group or its affiliates appeared to be seizing territory and administering social services in a strategic shift that is typically associated with insurgent movements, not small terrorist groups.  Though AQAP has only vaguely in described its exact role in these developments – save for an unusual online question and answer session last April – Ansar al-Shari`a’s recent actions are much less circumspect.  The group has reportedly raised al-Qa`ida’s banner and screened AQAP media in areas in which it retains a presence. Its media wing (al-Madad) has used a series of newsletter to “preview” upcoming AQAP releases in addition to spreading news of its own activities. (click here for access to all of al-Madad’s recent releases from Aaron Zelin’s jihadology blog)

To be sure, links exist between these groups.  Based on the newsletters alone there is evidence to suggest coordination between members of the media wings of both groups.  Yet, overlapping manpower and interests hardly constitutes a formal alliance. Even if the two groups are coordinating their activities, a loose alliance with semi independent groups also has its downsides for AQAP.  According to our report:

The growth of sympathetic movements certainly bolsters al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula‘s presence in Yemen. Yet the rise of jihadists who display none of the characteristics that have sustained AQAP‘s resilience does not. An Ansar al-Shari`a accused of kidnapping children, beheading civil leaders and imposing Taliban-like shows of justice does not strengthen the integrity of the AQAP brand. Regardless of the veracity of the claims—few of which have been definitively proven—a nominal al-Qa`ida ally that is thus far incapable of matching its sponsor‘s skill for messaging or disciplined use of violence dilutes the integrity of perhaps AQAP‘s most valued asset, the credibility of its name.

More importantly, even if al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula was behind the capture of Rada`a, and `Azzan, Houta, Ja`ar, and Zinjubar before it, such an embrace of insurgency may in fact be the surest route to the group’s defeat in Yemen.  Unlike the Houthis who have been fighting since 2004, AQAP’s background is in terror not insurgency.  Furthermore Yemen is neither Iraq nor Afghanistan.  Attempts by AQAP to highlight a limited U.S. military presence in the country notwithstanding, there is no foreign military occupying Yemen.  In Rada’a, the nearest thing to an “occupying” force was likely Ansar al-Shari`a itself. 

Even if AQAP could potentially evolve into a deft practitioner of insurgency in the future, such a transformation will involve significant organizational tradeoffs.  Al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula has thus far proven successful in Yemen thanks to a cadre of leaders who have imposed unusual discipline on the group, balancing competing constituents while pursuing local, regional, and more recently international agendas.  However, the principles that help to explain AQAP’s success as a small, leader-centric group will not predispose them for success in insurgency.  Disciplining a tightly bound group focused on terrorist attacks and assassinations is one thing; keeping a hodgepodge of "insurgents" in check and on message is another. A larger AQAP means a broader movement, one less under the direct control of the Yemeni leaders who have guided the organization for more than five years.  As we noted in our report last October:

While organizational flattening will improve internal security, decentralization can be expected to erode AQAP‘s ability to discipline the use of its narrative and violence. Greater distance between the group’s talented founding commanders and newer cells and sympathizers leaves a swelling cohort animated by the rhetoric of al-Qa`ida’s ideology but less restrained by the foresight of AQAP’s leadership. Regulating the behavior of members who are loosely tied to the group’s command will pose a serious risk to AQAP’s coherence of behavior and message.

Such dangers are rendered more likely with the continued rise of Ansar al-Shari`a.  As the Rada`a case indicates, while liberating communities from corrupt security forces may generate local support, imposing governance on existing and accepted forms of social organization, including tribal law (to which al-Qa`ida’s ideology is fundamentally opposed) does not.  Ansar al-Shari’a’s success has come in part because they are directing their efforts against Yemen’s highly unpopular security forces, in areas where their presence has long been resented, and where turmoil in Sana’a makes it difficult for Yemeni soldiers to stay and fight.  Yemen’s tribal units share none of these disadvantages. 

A confrontation with Yemen’s tribes would force AQAP or Ansar al-Shar’ia to fight levies of tribal fighters on their home territory, in regions where they represent the most legitimate governing force, and where tribal notions of honor and prestige will propel them to defend their land, unlike an average 18 year old conscript in the Yemeni military.  Rather than success against Yemen’s security forces, carefully observing how Ansar al-Shar`ia and AQAP engage with local and tribal communities, at least in the short run, is probably the best barometer for evaluating the group moving forward.