By Iona Craig, for USA TODAY
MUKALLA, Yemen — After more than a decade of U.S. counterterrorism efforts and drone strikes in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula remains a potent and growing force.
Some say it is time for a change in strategy.
Imam Abu al-Harith Omar bin Salem Bawazeer said he is one of many Muslim clerics who are part of a campaign to persuade Yemenis to reject the militancy and jihadist ideology al-Qaeda spreads in Yemen. He sees signs of success.
“These efforts not only have a significant role in raising awareness but have led to some coming back … they abandoned this (al-Qaeda) ideology,” he said.
But he worries that the military-heavy tactics of the U.S.-backed central government in Sanaa are pushing people into the arms of militancy.
“Unfortunately, our efforts have not been supported by the state,” Bawazeer said.
Mukalla is a picturesque port on the eastern edge of the Gulf of Aden famous for its abundant fish. Traditional wooden boats bob in clear green water along the town’s crumbling corniche overlooked by the former palace of long-gone sultans.
Al-Qaeda has had a presence in the region for a decade at least, often recruiting from the thousands of mujahedin who returned home after fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. The Yemeni government has partnered with the U.S. military to crush the group.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula as the Yemen branch calls itself has not been wiped out. In fact, it has been described by the Obama administration as the most lethal wing of the core group that attacked New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001. Its self-stated goal is to impose by an Islamic cleric-run caliphate in Yemen and the Middle East free of non-Muslim influence.
AQAP has been accused of a failed 2009 assassination attempt on a Saudi prince and the British ambassador in Sanaa. In May 2012, a suicide bomber killed more than 100 Yemeni soldiers rehearsing for a military parade.
AQAP has also been implicated in Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s failed 2009 Christmas Day bombing and Faisal Shahzad’s attempted 2010 Times Square bombing, along with a failed plot to down cargo flights bound for Chicago.
More recently it has shown it can operate militarily as well despite joint U.S.-Yemen attacks against it. This month AQAP allegedly launched a coordinated attack against a military base in Mukalla. Fighters dressed in Yemeni security forces uniforms seized the building and killed several soldiers before being driven out.
Long before the U.S.’ drone program in Yemen began in earnest in 2011, and five years prior to the 2009 creation of AQAP, Bawazeer began warning of the threat posed by the ideology of al-Qaeda and its insurgent arm, Ansar al-Sharia.
An imam and head of an Islamic institute for Koranic and Sharia studies based in Mukalla, the provincial capital of Hadhramaut, Bawazeer along with scholars and tribal sheikhs have been running programs for Yemeni youth who are susceptible to AQAP’s message justifying violence.
Bawazeer and his colleagues said an alternative solution must be found to the primarily military one used by the government. But he said their warnings and labors have not been heeded by the government and the threat has spread.
John Brennan, Obama’s former chief counterterrorism adviser and now head of the CIA, noted recently that the number of al-Qaeda militants in Yemen had risen from a few hundred in 2010 to “more than a thousand” in April 2012.
However, Yemen’s government said it has not failed to act against the dissemination of al-Qaeda’s ideology.
Jabri Ibrahim Hassan Kamil, general director of preaching and guidance for a government ministry, said state-run programs training imams to promote moderate Islam have been used successfully across the country along with educational and media campaigns against al-Qaeda’s extreme interpretation of Islam.
“If it weren’t for these (government) efforts, al-Qaeda would now be pervasive in the country,” Kamil said. “The aim is to disseminate moderation and rationalize the religious discourse.”
Bawazeer said he has repeatedly been rebuffed when he has asked for help from the government and international organizations to rehabilitate former al-Qaeda militants and prevent new recruits through media campaigns, education programs and cultural activities.
He said his work along with fellow imams and tribal leaders prevented insurgents from taking over towns in the southern provinces of Abyan and neighboring Shabwah when security broke down during Yemen’s political uprising of 2011. But some have paid with their lives.
Salim Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, a friend of Bawazeer’s, denounced the militants during Friday prayers in an August 2012 sermon to his congregation in the small village of Khashamir in northern Hadhramaut. He challenged al-Qaeda to show him “one piece of evidence in Islam that said killing is justified,” according to Salim’s brother-in-law, Faisal bin Ali Jaber.
Faisal bin Ali Jaber said he tried to persuade him to tone down his challenge to the militants but Salim Ahmed bin Ali Jaber told him he was determined to speak out.
“If I don’t use my position to make it clear to my congregation that this ideology is wrong, who will?” Salim told his brother-in-law.
The following evening, Faisal said Salim was killed by what he said was a U.S. drone strike as Salim stood outside the village mosque talking to three strangers who had come looking for him. The strike may have targeted the strangers, but no one knows because the United States will not comment on strikes.
Southern Hadhramaut’s security director, Fahami Mahroos, agrees that the response to terrorism can’t depend on military or law enforcement, a sentiment expressed by President Obama as well. Mahroos said the strategy against al-Qaeda needs to be a dual offensive: firstly tackling their ideology via religious scholars and secondly with military action.
But he conceded that there is a huge lack of cooperation between the central government and local community leaders in confronting the extremist ideology.
“The main responsibility should be laid on the local people and community leaders,” Mahroos said. “Maybe the government doesn’t have the skills or the abilities to do this.”
The Obama administration strategy has largely been to keep taking out senior leaders of al-Qaeda, Katherine Zimmerman, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, told the House Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence last month.
In Yemen, the strategy has killed senior leader Anwar al Awlaki, USS Cole bombers Abdul Munim al Fathani and Fahd al Quso, AQAP senior operative Mohamed Said al Umdah, spiritual leader Adil al Abab, and deputy leader Said al Shihri. But AQAP has still managed to expand during that time, Zimmerman said.
Bawazeer said two things he believes are needed to reverse the trend and challenge al-Qaeda’s ideology: a guarantee for those who leave al-Qaeda and go through rehabilitation won’t be automatically re-arrested, and support from international aid agencies to fund projects, small businesses and help provide jobs.
“As long as these two things were guaranteed then things would be easier,” he said.
Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Institute at George Washington University, agreed in testimony before Congress last month.
“Ideology is the lifeblood that sustains al-Qaeda,” he said.
Bawazeer may not be there to challenge that ideology. He and several of his family members have received multiple death threats from al-Qaeda because of his work and don’t want to be involved, Bawazeer said.
“Now I’m really discouraged to go on,” he said. “I’ve stopped.”