Winning Hearts and Minds: The Rise of Al-Qa'ida in Yemen

Syria, Iraq and Libya have become significant strongholds of ISIS, Al-Qa'ida and Jabhat al-Nusra, however the strength of the branch of Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has expanded considerably in the chaos brought about by civil war in Yemen. This rise to prominence has been catalysed by covert U.S and British military actions which have significantly contributed to stoking violence in the region and their support for the Saudi-led coalition intervening in the Yemen civil war since March 2015. Paralleling these actions, the strategy of AQAP, while violent, has gained support from local populations and has allowed the jihadist division to establish an emirate in Yemen. 

The costs of the conflict in Yemen are staggering. 83% of Yemen's population require aid, 14.4 million require food as the country totters on the brinks of famine, 2.4 million civilians have become refugees and 6,200 people have been killed and thousands more wounded since the outbreak of war in 2015.  Saudi Arabia have been accused by  Amnesty International of committing war crimes against civilians through the sustained use of cluster munitions and lethal explosive weapons banned under international law in high-density population centres. As Saudi Arabia's war continues, developments have allowed AQAP to quietly establish an emirate led by Emir Qasim al-Raymi while the continuing violence has allowed ISIS-affiliates to become a political player in Yemen. 

The emergence of ISIS in Sana'a, Shabarah, al-Bayda and Hadramawt as a potentially powerful faction in the conflict and rival to the doctrine of AQAP paints a grim picture for the future of Yemen. The sub-faction, led by Abu Bilal al-Harbi who pledged allegiance to Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi in November 2014, has sought to exploit Yemen's instability since the revolution of 2011. The competing neo-Salafist and neo-Wahhabist ideologies, methodologies, and tactics, as it did in Syria and Iraq, will deteriorate into a intra-jihadist conflicts as the competing terrorist cells seek to carve out mini-statelets in the disorder produced by the war.

“Turning a blind-eye to Saudi officials covert support for Al-Qa’ida’s establishment of a substate and fanning the flames of jihadist civil war will damage European and Saudi security prospects.”

The escalation of the Yemen civil war presented the small but lethal sub-faction with an opportunity. ISIS's injection of ultra-violent sectarian warfare into Yemen and indiscriminate targeting of Muslim civilians threatens to destabilise AQAP's agenda to create an emirate in the collapsed state. This conflict between AQAP and ISIS was kick-started by the latter's bombing of two mosques in Sana'a  (20 March, 2015) which killed 142 Yemeni civilians and followed by a triple suicide bombing in Aden (25 March, 2016) which killed 26.  While the umbrella organisation of AQAP holds more territory and military strength than their rivals in Yemen, ISIS's spectacular violence remains complimented by its ideological momentum which has gained greater influence and attraction as a brand to extremists than AQAP since ISIS establishment of a caliphate in 2014. 

However, AQAP remains as deadly a threat as ISIS to regional and international actors. The January 2015 Île-de-France attacks which killed 17 civilians were directly connected to AQAP's operations in Yemen. Saïd Kouachi (pictured right), one of the assailants who massacred employees atCharlie Hebdo magazine visited Yemen between 2009 and 2010 before spending several months in 2011 training with AQAP.  While ISIS have carried out significant attacks in Paris and Brussels which combined have killed 162 people, it cannot be forgotten that Al-Qai'da perpetrated equally lethal attacks in Madrid, London, and New York while several major plots by the organisation (including the October plane bomb plot in 2010) have been foiled by intelligence services. The rise of AQAP in Yemen and the success of the first wave of Paris attacks illustrates that Al-Qa'ida's brand of violence remains a force to be reckoned with.

Despite AQAP's violence against Western governments (what they describe as the far enemy) the organisation is not simply exploiting Yemen's instability. AQAP is being supported by members of Saudi Arabia's coalition and private donors. According to 'a BBC documentary crew...they filmed jihadists and pro-government militia men fighting rebels near the the southern city of Taiz, supported by UAE soldiers.' 

This support, direct and indirect, in conjunction to Yemen's collapse has allowed AQAP to strike significant financial gains equivalent to those ISIS had when they seized Mosul in 2014 and Sirte in 2015. According to Reuters 'AQAP looted Mukalla’s central bank branch, netting an estimated $100 million, according to two senior Yemeni security officials.“That represents their biggest financial gain to date,” one of the officials said. “That’s enough to fund them at the level they had been operating for at least another 10 years."' It is estimated that AQAP's seizure of Yemen's economic centres along the coastline in the form of Mukalla, Shaqra, Zinjibar, Jaar and Ash Shihr is producing an estimated at $2 - $5 million in revenue per day through oil smuggling, taxes and tariffs on shipping. 

However the Saudi Arabia-led coalition's covert support for the emergence of AQAP suits its short-term geo-political and ideological objectives despite the cell's long-standing opposition to the al-Saud monarchy. A Yemen destabilised by areas controlled by jihadists and terrorist groups, calculated by the Saudis as being a containable threat, is preferable to a stable Yemen state led by President Hadi, the Shiite Houthis which is influenced by Iran. 

“83% of Yemen’s population require aid, 14.4 million require food, 2.4 million civilians have become refugees and 6,200 have been killed.”

However the drop in oil prices, Saudi Arabia's fiscal deficit, overextension in proxy wars in Syria and Iraq, the country's inability to detach from its self created quagmire in Yemen, and an increase in attacks by AQAP and ISIS in Saudi Arabia question whether such a strategy will be successful in the long-term. As summarised by Patrick Cockburn:

"The Saudis have overplayed their hand, backing local allies and proxies in Syria and Yemen who are never going to win decisive victories. The fall in oil prices leading to an austerity budget has increased the incentive to beat the patriotic and religious drum in order to promote national solidarity in face of growing challenges."

Why have Saudi actions and its support for AQAP not gained traction across the international community? Saudi Arabia's officials claim that one of the core objectives of its campaign is to deny terrorists a safe haven in Yemen. This campaign has been endorsed by U.S and British policymakers and sold to the public as part of the package of the 'Global War on Terror' against ISIS. This endorsement has produced profit for the British arms trade as shown by Labour MP Diane Abbott: 'Since 1 March 2015, we have granted over 100 requests for military equipment, suspending only a handful. In the first three months of the war alone, UK business made £1.7 billion in turnover by selling arms to the House of Saud.' The consequences of nourishing this cycle of decentralised sectarian, terrorist and tribal violence have strengthened AQAP.  

AQAP have presented themselves as providers of stability and security by channelling profits made from their war economy into the communities they govern in Yemen and 'shielding' communities from the horrors of the Yemen civil war, the use of U.S cluster bombs by Saudi Arabia and the grotesque violence of ISIS. ISIS's sub-faction in Yemen and AQAP are already in direct conflict as Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS are in Syria. AQAP's strategy of limiting attacks to military and government have built support amongst many Yemeni tribes while the group deters its local Yemeni supporters from joining ISIS by presenting the graphic violence of the group across the Middle East in propaganda videos and denouncing and distancing itself from ISIS's violence against Yemeni communities.

AQAP subjugate the population to sharia law but do not brutalise the wider population as ISIS initially does and provide security for civilians displaced and afraid by the uncertainty of war. According to Reuters, a 47-year old resident claimed that "I prefer that al-Qai'da stay here, not Mukalla to be liberated, the situation is stable, more than any 'free' part of Yemen. The alternative to al-Qai'da is much worse." Another resident said her life had changed little since AQAP seize the city stating "We carry out our normal lives, they walk among the people...of course they want to build a safe haven." 

AQAP is building trust and strengthening relationships with its local populations and communities. In the long-term this is more difficult to uproot. Secure, happy populations who feel AQAP provide essential needs including clean water, food, electricity, economy and security will be less inclined to turn against them. Such needs, already scarce in the Middle East's poorest country, are now completely absent with the destruction of large chunks of Yemen's economic and state infrastructure. These economic factors only enhance AQAP's stature. 

ISIS and their foreign fighters, despite providing similar needs to appeal to local populations in Raqqa and Mosul,  glorify in the slaughter of Muslims and non-Muslims alike, indiscriminately conduct suicide attacks against mosques and impose themselves through fear and ultra-violence. These actions have alienated many local communities from their campaign thus far. 

Alongside these developments, U.S and British policymakers and its Gulf State allies have become complicit in strengthening AQAP grip on Yemen's coastline.  The successes of AQAP establishing an emirate in Yemen demonstrate the failure of President Obama's 'Yemen model' and 14 years of drone strikes in Yemen and the consequences of U.S and British policymakers support for Saudi Arabia's brutal policies in Yemen.

 While drone strikes have been effective in eliminating several high-profile figures of AQAP, including founder Nasir al-Wuhayshi, they have allowed Al-Qa'ida's message to proliferate across Yemen and open up space for them to conduct their military campaigns against domestic Yemeni opposition groups and sell their war against Western states to local populations. This is illustrated by a Arab Barometer survey carried out in 2007 which found that 73.5 percent of Yemenis believed that U.S involvement in the region justified attacks on U.S citizens everywhere. This was before the expansion of the drone wars by the Obama administration, Saudi Arabia's intervention in Yemen and British military support for Saudi Arabia's military in Yemen. 

The collateral damage of drone strikes (which have killed hundreds of civilians) and supporting Saudi Arabia has made the United States and the United Kingdom enemies in Yemen. The cost to Yemen's population as U.S and British policymakers pursue national security solidified the perception amongst many that the authorities in Yemen could not provide protection to their own civilians and that they have been coerced into supporting Washington's drone campaign. The drone wars of the Obama administration multiplied anti-American narratives and gave AQAP propaganda and recruiting tools. These tools were enhanced by military-support from British and U.S for Saudi Arabia's aerial, land and naval blockade which have ravaged Yemen and produced grave instability.

Where little support for jihadist groups such AQAP and neutrality towards the West's 'Global War on Terror' originally existed, it has been replaced by hostility, bitterness and anger towards Western policymakers and its regional allies. These international actors have endorsed, funded or directly taken part in the slaughter of civilians and frequently violated the state's sovereignty while the international community remains silent in the face of Saudi atrocities. The outbreak of civil war has only exacerbated Yemen's suffering and boosted AQAP's appeal while resentment against the United Kingdom and U.S has increased. 

Equally Western policymakers, Yemeni politicians, and Saudi Arabia have demonstrated, from many Yemeni civilians perspectives, that their welfare and security is low on their political agendas. Western policymakers have not only failed at a practical military level in eliminating terrorist groups across Yemen, they have failed at an ideological level in combating AQAP's doctrine.

AQAP's establishment of a emirate in Yemen has been aided by the civil war's relative lack of media coverage by comparison to the wars in Syria, Iraq and Libya and the conflict with ISIS. The international community's desensitisation to the people of Yemen's plight is due in-part to their limited role in catalysing the refugee crisis in Europe and Yemen's geographical isolation from major events. Similarly, broad European and American audiences are laregley unaware of the role of U.S and British policymakers have played in contributing to what has been described by the U.N described as the world's foremost "forgotten crisis" and humanitarian catastrophe. 

All these factors, short-term and long-term,  make it is easier for AQAP to sell its anti-Western narrative to its pool of recruits, sustain itself as a movement and launch attacks against regional and international targets. The consequences of a year of war and a decade of misguided Western policies in Yemen will be far-reaching at a local, regional and international level. The truce, recently announced 11 April, 2016, will do little to alter the fragmentation of Yemen, reverse the sweeping change occurring across Yemen's political landscape, and deter AQAP and ISIS from pursuing and consolidating their objectives. 

Ignoring the Conservative government and the Obama administration's support for the war crimes of Saudi Arabia in Yemen, turning a blind-eye Saudi officials covert support for AQAP's establishment of a sub-state, and fanning the flames of a jihadist civil war will damage European and Saudi Arabia security prospects. This damage produced by both deliberate and miscalculated policies will be eventually realised by future atrocities against American, Saudi and European civilians and such attacks perpetrated by AQAP will echo the famous Yemeni proverb: "What you sow, so shall you reap." 

Matthew Williams