Local News

Sinking in Quicksand: Yemen’s Counter-Terror Operations

Just one day after the president Ali Abdullah Saleh wrapped up the quick visit he paid to France, the French Foreign Ministry issued a statement urging its nationals in Yemen to exercise greater vigilance and caution in light of the deteriorating security situation there, especially after targeting the car of the Deputy Chief of the UK Mission by the Al-Qaeda organization. The French Foreign Ministry also stressed the need for French expatriates’ families in Yemen to leave.

The French Foreign Ministry’s statement came following the Yemeni president’s discussions with the head of the French government, their Foreign Minister and intelligence officials in France. He discussed the efforts made by the Yemeni government in fighting terrorism, where the French officials confirmed their support for the efforts of Saleh government in its war against the Al-Qaeda organization.

President Saleh also discussed with the French officials, as well as businessmen from the French Total company the transaction of selling Yemeni liquefied natural gas between the two governments of France and Korea.

The statement of the French Foreign Ministry last Wednesday caused an embarrassment, in terms of its timing, as it is a clear indicator that France is dissatisfied by Yemen’s efforts in its war against Al-Qaeda.

The Yemeni Foreign Minister’s stated three days after the French statements surrounding the murder of a French citizen working for an Austrian oil company in Sana’a two weeks ago, that the murderer was aligned with Al-Qaeda, proving French fears were justified.

The statement of the Interior Minister, Mr. Al-Marsi, last Saturday contradicts the results of the preliminary investigation which the Yemen Foreign Ministry had announced a day after the incident, when it affirmed that the cause was criminal and not terrorist.

Threats made by the military leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Qasem Al-Raimi, last week warned that the organization will carry out several terrorist operations, were sufficient to arouse many fears and concerns that can greatly affect western states’ confidence in the government’s success in preventing Al-Qaeda from executing successful operations against foreign and western targets in Yemen.

The Australian Foreign Ministry compounded international doubts last Saturday when it urged its nationals in Yemen to leave, warning them about the high risk of being subject to terrorist attacks.

These consecutive western travel warnings against Yemen run against the statements of the Counter-Terrorism coordinator in the US Foreign Ministry, Mr. Daniel Benjamin. In an interview with the Arabic, London-based newspaper ‘Al-Hayat’ he expressed his country’s confidence that the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh is capable of countering terror.

He added that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) poses a real danger to the government in Sana’a. However, he pointed out that the government of president Ali Abdullah Saleh is doing the right thing and ‘taking the battle to the strongholds of AQAP’, referring to the Yemeni government’s military operations against the organization in the southern governorates of Shabwah and Abyan, which Yemen has launched since the end of last year.

The pre-emptive air strikes that targeted locations where there are supposedly active elements of the organization in the governorates of Abyan, Shabwah, Al-Jawf and Sana’a, have represented a new development in the government’s strategy in its war against the terrorist organization.

These new measures purportedly came as a result of increased international pressure for the Yemeni government to prove that it was waging an effective counter-terrorism campaign against AQAP cells, amidst suspicions that the government was exaggerating the efficacy of its claims. Harsh criticisms have gone so far as to accusing the government of actually aiding and abetting the organization, with the purpose of further milking the cash cow for further funding for its military from the US and its allies.

This significant development came after an intense series of visits by US and western military and security officials to Sana’a. General David Petraeus spearheaded the visits, and persuaded the Yemeni President to launch a pre-emptive war to, as western intelligence agencies say, eliminating the strongholds of the organization in Yemen.

The USA has used several means of pressure to drag the Yemeni government into the direction of entering battles against the Al-Qaeda organization in its strongholds or what it calls an ‘incubating environment’. Skeptics point towards the intensified frequency of security reports and statements that say that Yemen is a failed State and that it faces the danger of collapse. These and other statements outline Yemen as one of the most important strongholds of the Al-Qaeda organization that poses a threat to global security, after Pakistan.

US president Barak Obama described, in his speech which he gave in the White House in December 2009, that the state of affairs in Yemen, “produces poverty and bloody rebellion movements”, highlighting the necessity of economic assistance through which development may deny Al-Qaeda their recruitment environment, rallying grounds and deployment.

Other institutions have also been pointing at Yemen as a growing security concern. Gill De Kirchoff, coordinator of Counter Terrorism in the European Union, warned in June 2009 the growing activity of the Al-Qaeda in Yemen poses a direct threat to the European interests.

He described Yemen as, “a failed State or is on its way to being a failed State, and alarm bells must be rung around the world that Yemen is ‘a weakened state’. Therefore we need to mobilize the international community to avoid the collapse of Yemen.”

Substantial economic assistance to Yemen was the most salient and efficient tool to push the Yemeni government towards intensifying the war against Al-Qaeda and to enhance cooperation in the field of security and intelligence with America and its allies.

The conference of the Friends of Yemen, hosted in London, as well as increasing the volume of the US military assistance and the British and EU economic assistance represented a reward to the Yemeni government for responding to the western and regional demands in escalating its war against terrorism and the Al-Qaeda organization.

From the military side, Yemen has been assigned to the commander of the US Central Command (CentCom). Heading CentCom Gen. Petraeus said that there was development, albeit slowly, in the war against the Al-Qaeda. His visit to Yemen coincided with the start of security and military operations against elements of the Al-Qaeda, beginning with land units deployed in Marib governorate in July 2009. That operation, however, was a complete failure due to the Al-Qaeda’s capture of a number of soldiers and military vehicles.

According to the specialist in the Al-Qaeda organization affairs, Journalist Abdul-Ilah Haidar, Petraeus depends on three tools in the management of the conflict game: mobilizing all means of media, strengthening moderate Islam and gaining the support and allegiance of tribal sheikhs.

Land military operations soon developed into pre-emptive air strikes, in which military aircraft were used in the Al-Ma’jalah region of the Al-Mahfad directorate last December 17th where five AQ members were killed, along with dozens of women and children.

Contrary to the government reaction in2003 when a US drone attacked Abu Ali Al-Harithi along with six of his escorts in Marib desert, in which the Yemeni government denied knowledge of the operation as well as existence of any intelligence cooperation with the US to target Al-Harithi or granting license to the US to execute the operation, the Yemeni government soon announced its responsibility for the more recent airstrikes, and has not denied intelligence collaboration.

A similar operation was carried out in the Rafdh region in Shabwah governorate on 24th September last year, where Mohammed Ahmed Saleh Omair, an AQAP cell leader was killed, along with four accomplices who were with him.

The pre-emptive operations continued to use aviation technology and the intelligent missiles in Marib, Al-Jawf and Sana’a and did not stop until the killing of Aa’edh Al-Shabwani, Deputy-Governor of Marib by the hellfire missiles of a drone.

The political fallout between Yemen and the US was bitter, and both sides exchanged accusations and blame over the disaster that led to violent confrontations between the army and members of Abeedah tribe to which Al-Shabwani belonged. A power station was destroyed and a number of oil pipes were blown off as well as assassination of military commanders in retaliation.

President Saleh intervened in the issue and apologized for the mistake of targeting the deputy-governor and promised to investigate the matter.

The Al-Shabwani and Al-Ma’jalah incidents made the Yemeni government reconsider such style of operations due to the catastrophic repercussions that followed and enraged the people’s feelings and inflamed enmity towards the US and the war against Al-Qaeda.

The AQAP organization has used both incidents to mobilize localised support by promising vengeance for the civilian victims who were killed in those strikes, and also won the compassion and support of some tribal leaders and youths in those areas.

This was further proved by AQAP military leader Qasem Al-Raimi, in a recorded broadcast by Al-Qaeda on May 26, 2010, when he said that the real purpose of those military strikes was to “undermine the sovereignty of the tribes, weakening and intimidating them. Thus, we all have to stand up united against this cunning opponent to defeat and frustrate it.”

He added, “We call on our brothers, the sons of tribes, to announce Jihad, for the Almighty. The price of jihad is less than the price of ignominy and submissiveness.”

However, after those strikes AQ activity has clearly declined in a number of governorates which witnessed tightened security measures. It has subsequently moved to Shabwah and Abyan, exploiting the tense situations there and the presence of the southern movement in addition to allegiance for local leaders (over the government) in those remote areas which lie beyond the writ of the state.

Reportedly AQAP have started selling themselves as religious leaders who are much closer to the concerns and problems of the people of those regions and transforming Al-Qaeda from its complicated organizational form into what looks like a social movement expressing the aspirations of local communities which run parallel to their legitimate claims.

In this way AQAP found a place afforded local support and protection, through which it was able to exist and influence and later move into other vital zones which enabled it to carry out major multiple ambush and assassination operations against members of the army and security.

It has subsequently targeted security officials, including right in front of the Sana’a headquarters of the political security office. To greater effect, however, it made use of the chaotic and problematic security situation in those aforementioned governorates, and its propaganda has benefited from mistakes and incidents that arose between security apparatus and tribesmen, enhancing its repute and support in the region.

The Al-Qaeda organization has managed to station in a number of regions, control them and announce that such areas are under their control, such as Lawdar and Zanjibar directorates, as well as others.

Those announcements prompted the authorities to carry out large-scale security and military campaigns and enter a war with the elements of the Al-Qaeda organization in both directorates of Lawdar in Abyan and Al-Houtah in Shabwah, where dozens of security and military men were felled by the bullets and bombs of the organisation.

Al-Qaeda elements’ targeting of the security members and assassination of local and military leaders comes within the organization’s strategy to decimate military and security morale in an attempt to neutralize the efficacy of the security apparatus, especially their intelligence officers. Evidently prey has become predator.

Yemen’s operations into the Al-Qaeda lair is exceedingly costly, in terms of men, expenses and morale, and it requires more US announced support of the military and security capabilities of Yemen. The Yemeni government is fighting a war against shrouded targets in a hostile environment, where every side in those regions have their own goals, prices and demands.

Going to war against the Al-Qaeda organization in cities and residential areas, without isolating and containing them first is what the Al-Qaeda capitalizes on, where it bets on the mistakes of the military and security operations to win the support of those who are angered and affected by those mistakes – mistakes which can turn civilian to militant.

A much more effective and beneficial approach would see political settlement and responding to the development requirements of those regions, thus isolating and containing AQAP, and decreasing the immensely costly and problematizing security mistakes. Such action would need to create effective local partnerships that correspond to the needs of the people first, and not the state.

The continuation of the military operations in the strongholds of the Al-Qaeda in those regions will enable the Al-Qaeda organization to reorganize its ranks in other places and consequently carry out operations similar to what happened in the capital like targeting members of the political security and the car of the British deputy head of mission. Such operations only prolong and complicate matters.

Furthermore, consecutive western travel and political warnings against Yemen, especially the closure of embassies, do not serve the efforts of the Yemeni government in this war. They lead to further economic problems, a situation which is already far beyond its budget – the costs of war reportedly exceed the US$300 million that the US allocated for the support of Yemen’s counterterrorism efforts.

The costs of the war against Al-Qaeda is higher than what Yemen alone can afford to pay and further detriments its chances at actual industrial, economic and social development. Much like quicksand – short, sudden, panicked movements only get the individual further and deeper stuck – slower, controlled movements is the best way to clamber out of the perilous situation. The Yemeni government is vulnerable to further sticking and sinking in this quagmire – the quicksand of its prolonged war against Al-Qaeda – if it moves too quickly.