Yemen on the Brink?

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The Resurgence of al Qaeda in Yemen

January 25, 2010

Barak Barfi

Map of Yemen, University of Texas Libraries.

Executive Summary

Status of al Qaeda in Yemen. Yemen is dominated by powerful tribes, some members of which shelter al Qaeda in order to leverage their power vis-à-vis other political actors. Tribal support for al Qaeda is thus political rather than ideological in nature. But despite this support, the relationship between al Qaeda and the tribes is sometimes strained, and al Qaeda is unpopular with the Yemeni people.

Structure of al Qaeda in Yemen. Al Qaeda’s strongholds in Yemen are in the tribal provinces of Marib, Shabwa and Abyan, but it has been able to establish cells in non-tribal areas such as Hadramawt and Hudayda. The organization is composed of Yemenis, Saudis and some other foreigners, and also has a strong tribal component which provides regional leadership and local muscle. The organization’s chief leaders all fought in Afghanistan and most claim to have met al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden there. Though al Qaeda in Yemen has a strong and effective leadership which gives it structure, inspiration and guidance, it is nevertheless highly decentralized.

Outreach by al Qaeda in Yemen. Al Qaeda in Yemen has placed certain members in the media spotlight. Their prominence however does not necessarily mean they play important roles in the organization; the group highlights some individuals to score political points and may seek to allow its real leadership to operate unhindered in the background. It also runs a sophisticated and multi-faceted propaganda arm, publishing a bimonthly journal and releasing videos of its leaders, training films, and clips featuring suicide bombers. Al Qaeda uses a combination of theological and socioeconomic factors to draw in recruits, blending general calls to the Muslim community to join it in jihad with specific appeals targeting Yemenis and Saudis.

December airstrikes. The December 17 and 24 airstrikes were largely unsuccessful. Only one of the group’s senior leaders was killed, along with a regional commander, and the rest of the casualties were largely local foot soldiers. As a result of the mild damage al Qaeda incurred, it will emerge intact and capable of organizing more violence.

The state of Yemen. Yemen is besieged by a multitude of crises that threaten its stability. A five year old war of attrition in the north has monopolized its military resources. In the south, political discrimination and economic neglect have fueled secessionist gripes. Dwindling oil supplies account for almost 75 percent of the government’s revenue and it has not planned for a post oil economy. Yemen has not prioritized the al Qaeda file because it is preoccupied with other crises, and its long experience with radical Islamist groups has led it to believe it can co-opt elements of al Qaeda, thus crippling it.

To download a PDF of the executive summary, click here. For the full policy paper, click here.

Barak Barfi is an independent analyst who has worked with ABC News affiliates in the Middle East. His work has been published in a number of outlets, including the Washington Post and Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, and he has lived in several countries in the Middle East, including Yemen. He discussed this paper at a New America Foundation event on January 26, 2010.