This article addresses the deteriorating economic conditions in urban and rural areas of Yemen, which have led to increased local support for Ansar al-Sharia, an Islamist militant group with apparent ties to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. This is the first of two parts.
Yemen’s exacerbating economic and political crises are contributing to the spread of local support for Ansar al-Sharia (AAS), an Islamist militant group claiming allegiance to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Local analysts claim this support does not necessarily extend to ideological sympathies, but AAS' new tactic of providing public services to local communities grants them access to safe-havens and transit routes. This concern of increasing local support goes beyond physical control over strategic territory, such as parts of the Abyan province. The AAS raises further threats to the re-establishment of central authority following the youth-led revolution of 2011.
Significantly, security deteriorated further on May 21, a day before Yemen’s Unity Day celebration, when a suicide bomber killed approximately 100 soldiers and injured over 200 during a parade rehearsal in the capital city Sana’a. Foreign analysts and the Yemeni government were quick to direct responsibility for the attack to AQAP. US President Barack Obama later echoed this during a press conference at the NATO meeting in Chicago. Others reserved their analysis, looking for evidence in the usual communication outlets used by Islamic militant groups, such as online forums or Facebook pages claiming to represent al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Only one Facebook page, for al-Madad media, provided information purportedly by the AAS indicating that the AQAP had claimed responsibility for the attack in Sana’a. This was nearly 24 hours after a similar page had warned of "a surprise" to come on May 21.
It is interesting to note that even though the AQAP claimed responsibility through a brief communiqué, the latest video by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri did not include a reference to the incident. Al-Zawahiri and the AAS Arabic language online newsletter, al-Madad, did not make any reference to the suicide bomber in Sana’a. Instead, they merely continued their propaganda rhetoric against foreign presence in Yemen and directed insults towards President Abdo-Rabo Mansour Hadi, who they saw as the new deputy of American interests in the Arabian Peninsula.
Local Militants or an Al-Qaeda Extension?
For over a year, media sources and international observers battled over whether to label Ansar al-Sharia (Supporters of Islamic Law) as al-Qaeda or as a separate entity. This depends primarily on how we define al-Qaeda today.
The targeted killing of militants by US Special Ops or via Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) has undoubtedly had an effect on the militants’ overall capacity to fulfill their mission and to sustain a credible and effective threat to Western powers and their allies in the Muslim world. Along with many other junior operatives killed in Yemen, the US has succeeded in eliminating al-Qaeda’s leader Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, US born preacher Anwar al-Awlaqi, and Jordanian Muhammad Fazi al-Harasheh al-Zarqawi (Abu Hammam) in Yemen, and most recently Abu Yahya al-Libi in Pakistan.
Whether the killings of al-Qaeda leaders and operatives have damaged either the organization’s ability to recruit and train militants or its ability to retain financial resources, still remains to be evaluated. Events developing from the Arab uprisings have created new narratives on Islamic militancy and on the structures of such movements. In retrospect, all the Arab rulers deposed in 2011, including Syria’s incumbent Bashar al-Assad, warned of the role played by al-Qaeda under the mask of ‘youth revolutions’. This narrative allowed them to label all revolutionary groups as ‘terrorists’, and created power vacuums that got filled by well-funded militant groups that now identify with organizations such as al-Qaeda.
Such a scenario presents new perspectives on what al-Qaeda is and how it has shifted its mission under current conditions, mainly in countries transitioning from the revolutions of 2011. The AAS’ origins in Yemen provide further evidence of this shift in mission, and therefore in tactics and leadership. The group may come to represent more than an ‘insurgency arm of AQAP’, as proposed by Yemen-based freelance journalist Iona Craig. This label would grant the AAS a position as a full-fledged al-Qaeda or AQAP component. The leadership and foot-soldier composition of AAS since it resurfaced in Ja’ar, Abyan, on March 28 2011, proves that it is a mixed network of old Yemeni fighters from the Afghan war against the USSR in the 1980s and a new generation of militants from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and many other Muslim countries. The AAS is also said to have its origins among Yemeni militants with experience in Afghanistan and who participated in the civil war of 1994 between northern and southern Yemeni forces. Among these, for example, is Khaled Abdulnabi, recognized by many Yemeni analysts as the second man under Shaykh Tareq al-Fadhli in Abyan.
Abdulnabi was thought to have been killed in the late 1990s in Yemen, but he later resurfaced and declared his opposition to the Yemeni regime of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yemeni observers reported that officials such as General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, ‘the engineer’ of government relations with militant irregular forces used by the north in 1994, gave property in the province of Abyan following the 1994 civil war to people like Abdulnabi. The properties given to many Arab-Afghans were mostly in the area of Ja’ar, Abyan. Operatives such as Abdulnabi who preceded the rise of al-Qaeda under bin Laden, were also responsible for the creation of the Islamic Army of Aden and Abyan (IAA-A) in the 1990s in Yemen. This organization, with links to currently jailed UK-based preacher Abu Hamza al-Masri, has its ideological base on a Hadith (Prophet’s tradition) prophesizing the coming of an Islamic Emirate that will spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula, from Abyan. It is interesting to note that such a prophecy was the focus of Shaykh Abdul Majid al-Zindani’s initial 20-minute impromptu sermon at Change Square in Sana’a on March 2, 2011, weeks before the take-over of the Ja’ar ammunitions depot by AAS forces.
The province of Abyan has always been a strategic location within Yemen. This is the birth province of current President Abdo-Rabo Mansour Hadi and many of his closest allies. The capital Zinjabar is located on the Gulf of Aden coast, across from Somalia. It is also the coastal outlet for the most unstable tribal belt in Yemen, extending north to the oil and gas rich Shebwa and Mareb provinces, and to the border with Saudi Arabia along the northern line of the al-Jawf province. Even though Abyan is claimed by Shaykh Tarek al-Fadhli, a relative of General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, as a natural domain of the Fadhli Sultanate dissolved by the socialist government of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen 1967-1990), al-Maraqasha is said to be the strongest tribe of Abyan. This tribe claims ancient rule over an extensive area of Abyan, including Ja’ar. It is the tribe of the young Emir of Ansar al-Sharia, Jalal al-Bal’ayidi al-Zinjubari (Abu Hamza).
Such facts begin to shed light on the importance of the Islamic Emirate of Abyan under Ansar al-Sharia and relations within its complex leadership structure. The fact that the Emir, who studied at Abyan University and was the goalkeeper of the al-Hassan football team, hails from a strong tribal group may also explain how the strong voice of Shaykh Tareq al-Fadhli may have been muted over the past twelve months, following his constant agitation in support of the Southern Movement (Herak) through media sources and public speeches since 2009.
The rise of Emir Jalal remains unexplained. Yemeni observers cannot properly indicate how this young tribesman, under 30 years old, came to eclipse personalities such as Khalid Abdulnabi, his brother Mohammed Ahmed Abdulnabi, and Shaykh Tareq al-Fadhli. Foreign observers have also failed to explain the rise of an individual with no prior experience and who is an outsider to the established AQAP structure within Yemen. Local observers claim his rise occurred following a brief disappearance from Abyan between 2010-2011, after which he reappeared during the first battle between government forces and militants after the take-over of the ammunitions factory in Ja’ar in February 2011. Yemeni journalists such as Ahmed Zurqa indicated that Mohammed Ahmed Abdulnabi was killed in this battle along with many of Khalid Abdulnabi’s fighters. This weakened the latter’s capacity to remain leader of the AAS, which is said to have been founded by him in the late 1990s in the province of Lahj while he was moving between that province and Ja’ar. Local observers indicate that the losses sustained by Khalid Abdulnabi were first announced by Jalal al-Bal’ayidi, in what may appear as a conspiracy to remove Khalid from the structure. This would grant the leadership of the AAS a new generation detached from any links to the former regime, and as Ahmed Zurqa commented, with the blessing of AQAP leader Nasser al-Wuhayshi (Abu Bashir).
If evidence now points to the direct leadership of the AAS and the Emirate of Abyan by the AQAP’s Abu Bashir, then there is no doubt that the AAS will be classified as an extension of al-Qaeda. This would also represent the re-franchising of al-Qaeda in Yemen. Until February 2011, AQAP was the only known actor representing al-Qaeda central in the Arabian Peninsula. This long-standing local branch of al-Qaeda, with operational personnel in the low hundreds, was said to have had links to all known militant groups in Yemen. Therefore, why would it allow an obscure group led by an inexperienced young Emir take over the public persona of AQAP? Also, Ansar al-Sharia’s online Arabic language newsletter al-Madad is now on its 22nd issue while the AQAP’s English language online magazine Inspire is now offline as a possible consequence of the extra-judicial killing of Anwar al-Awlaqi and Ibrahim Banna. Indeed, local observers and government officials often refer to the AAS as a phenomenon much like the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Read the final part of Fernando Carvajal's analysis on Yemen's Ansar al-Sharia on July 4.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.