Al Qaeda in Yemen, unwanted nomads or essential nucleus?
The announcement that al Qaeda in Yemen’s (AQIY) leadership escaped to Somalia in recent weeks is not the end of Yemen’s terrorism woes, but may instead signal the Yemeni al Qaeda group is taking a leading regional role among al Qaeda factions from Saudi Arabia to Somalia and beyond.
The flight of al Qaeda’s leadership is at best a temporary move and at worst may be an indication of continuing collusion between Yemeni President Saleh and terrorists seeking to harm the US.
Al Qaeda in Yemen dubbed itself “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” in January 2009 after it integrated Saudi al Qaeda figures driven to Yemen by the kingdom’s harsh counter-terror measures. Last month Saudi Arabia announced the arrest of over 100 al Qaeda operatives including 51 Yemenis. Explosive belts were seized. Saudi authorities reported the group had been planning attacks on oil and security targets inside the kingdom on orders from leaders in Yemen, indicating the group’s continued focus on and capacity within Saudi Arabia. Al Qaeda’s movement from Yemen to Somalia is much different than its earlier shift from Saudi Arabia to Yemen.
By air or by sea?
The relative ease with which these wanted leaders exited Yemen is an indication of the weakness of Yemen’s effort in combating the group. One group of about 15 AQIY operatives including prominent leaders departed the al Mukalla port in early March, Yemeni sources reported. The exiled AQIY group issued orders from Somalia to cells in Yemen to cease activities, communication and meetings until the end of June by when they expect Yemeni security efforts to relax.
Mukallah is a primary debarkation point for illegal weapons flooding into Somalia. The UN monitoring group on the Somali arms embargo found that the lack of regular Coast Guard patrols in al Mukalla “means that arms traffic continues unabated.” The port is under the control of the Republican Guard, headed by President Saleh’s son, and the Central Security, headed by his nephew and is notorious as a drug smuggling hub as well.
Somali sources tell a different story. An al Qaeda group arrived in Somalia from Yemen via plane disguised as humanitarian workers. Somalia officials said 12 Yemeni commanders arrived in the last two weeks of March and were carrying cash to aid the al Qaeda linked al Shabab’s recruiting efforts. Somali Treasury Minister Abdirahman Omar Osman said that AQIY’s purpose in Somalia was to “assess the situation to see if al Qaeda may move its biggest military bases to southern Somalia since they are facing a lot of pressure in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
The designation of AQIY as al Qaeda Central’s forward scouts and terror tutors in Somalia indicates the predominance of the group among all regional affiliates, a function of the comfort level that the core al Qaeda has with its Yemeni affiliate.
Hybred al Qaeda
Al Qaeda in Yemen is unique among terror groups due to its enmeshment with the state. The Yemeni al Qaeda and Al Qaeda Central, specifically bin Laden and Zawaheri, have long standing ties with President Saleh. Bin Laden notoriously advised his minions in Afghanistan to surrender, not fight, if they were captured in Yemen. Ayman al Zawaheri was reportedly in and out of Yemen through the 1990’s and again in 2001. Saleh released Khalid bin Attash from jail at the request of bin Laden in 1999, the 9/11 commission found. Attash later went on to a leading role in the terror attack on the USS Cole.
The Yemeni government portrayed al Qaeda’s exodus to Somalia as an indication of its success in cracking down on the terror group, but President Saleh’s regime has a long history of appeasement and facilitation of al Qaeda. Aspects of the security, military and intelligence forces have long been co-opted by al Qaeda operatives, sympathizers and veterans.
State resources comprise an essential part of al Qaeda in Yemen’s infrastructure. Conversely, the Yemeni regime has used al Qaeda as mercenaries in the Sa’ada Wars (2004-2010) and trains them in state run camps.
While President Saleh may lack both the will and capacity to combat al Qaeda, Yemeni tribes resent the intrusion of al Qaeda, their foreign ideology and norms, and have created an inhospitable environment in many areas. A study by Sarah Phillips at the Carnegie Foundation found that “Al-Qaeda’s goal of establishing an international caliphate, propensity for extreme violence against civilians, and hard-line religious ideology conflict with local norms and weaken al-Qaeda’s appeal to the Yemeni people, including the tribes.”
A new deal?
The relocation may be the fruition of an earlier offer by President Saleh bribing the group to leave Yemen. The Telegraph reported that in January 2009, Yemen offered to free all imprisoned al-Qaeda militants if the group agreed to leave the country. President Saleh also offered money to the AQIY’s leadership. Yemen released over 100 jihaddists as a good will gesture to al Qaeda and then defended the release internationally as good governance. According to a former government official, Tariq al Fadhli, they were al Qaeda members and the move was part of the broader negotiation with al Qaeda.
The duplicity of the Yemeni government is notorious, extensive and sometime comical. Authorities announced the death, three times, of AQIY leader Qasim al Reimi although he is alive. A March report by the Yemeni weekly Attagammua indicated that Ammar al Waeli, reported killed by the authorities is fact in Saada, alive and well and recruiting for al Qaeda. Al Waeli was listed on a US 2002 seeking information bulletin, implicated in the 2007 murder of eight Spanish tourists and two Yemeni guides in Mareb and declared dead by Yemeni authorities on January 15, 2010.
This level of duplicity is long standing. In 2004, Yemen reported to the US that Aden Abyan Army leader Khalidabdul Nabi was killed in a firefight when in reality he had been captured and let go.