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Saleh, Al-Qaeda, and the South Yemen Question

The Obama Administration and Western media outlets are presenting a narrative of Yemen as a hotbed of Al-Qaeda-brokered violence and terrorist plotting. However, problems of the Yemeni counterrevolution mesh with bitterness in the country’s southern provinces in a more subtle reality.

In the paranoia surrounding Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the exact circumstances that have led to its growth have been ignored. Media coverage tends to center on Yemen as a breeding ground of tribal violence. However, these narratives state much more about the observer than the observed. The idea of Yemen as a “wild frontier” and the AQAP as a malicious group within it, speaks more about the American imagination than about Yemen itself. Understanding the AQAP requires an analysis of the Yemen of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and how his neglect of southern Yemen directly led to the May 22, 2012 bombing of Sana’a which killed 101 soldiers.

Saleh and the Yemeni Uprising of 2011

By summer 2011, Saleh recognized that the Yemeni uprising was a serious threat to his rule over the country. Even opposition leaders from previous eras, such as Nasserists, were quickly losing ground to energetic younger activists. The latter included students, women, and previously overlooked organizers such as Nobel Laureate Tawakkul Karman. Summer 2011 will be considered a pivotal moment in the future of Yemeni politics, as it was a time when the majority of activists believed that Saleh could be toppled during the Arab uprisings. Lingering tensions between “North Yemen” (previously known as the Yemen Arab Republic) and “South Yemen” (seen in pre-unification as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen) were eased as a result of non-violent protests during the uprising.

However, activists underestimated their opponent.  Saleh survived the Cold War without taking sides because of his ability to manipulate foreign leaders. Military museums in the country are a testament to this, containing photographs of Saleh shaking hands with diverse leaders from US presidents to Saudi kings to Soviet chairmen. The images reflect his immense skill as a diplomat and his understanding of what truly motivates popular perception and global policy. Internationally, Saleh allied himself with various foreign powers just enough to ensure he had no significant enemies. Domestically, Saleh maintained power in the pre-unification Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) mainly by precariously balancing himself against powerful tribes, such as Sheikh Abdullah bin Hussein al-Ahmar’s Hashid tribal confederation. The combination was supplemented by other political patterns seen in full effect during the uprising.

Saleh managed to extend his power mainly through fear of potential chaos without his presence. This is especially true of the years leading into the 1990 unification with the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). His strategy was to allow tribal power and skirmishes, with occasional state intervention, and to deliberately ferment strife in times of political risk. The Houthi tribe, based in the northern Sa’ada region near the Saudi Arabian border, is a perfect example as multiple wars have been waged against the group mainly resulting from the state’s harassment. Yemeni tribal dynamics, especially in the north, are therefore feared and lamented as "complicated." The statement “Yemen is complicated” is linked to that of “Yemen needs a strong leader”, which is how Saleh ultimately benefited.

Fearing resignation, Saleh quickly began bloody crackdowns on the predominantly non-violent protests. Army units were deployed in cities such as Sana’a, Ta’iz, and Ib, using live ammunition as well as tear gas and armored jeeps. Tribal elements were bribed to attack Change Square in Sana’a and occupy sections of the city. The Hashid tribal confederation, led since 2007 by Hussein al-Ahmar’s son Sadiq, began clashing with the Yemeni military and its allies during the first phase of the Battle of Sana’a in May 2011.

Houthis also had a role to play. Saleh recently sought to exploit this tribal chaos narrative to gain increased military assistance from the US, linking the Zaidi Shi’a Houthis to Iran without evidence. Wikileaks’ documents from the US Embassy in Sana’a showed the American ambassador ridiculing Saleh for making this connection without supplying proof. However, the illusion perpetuated by Saleh quickly gained ground mainly due to Yemen being a poorly understood country. During the uprising, it took on a life of its own and became a part of the alleged chaos in the state.

The autocrat pointed to these actions as proof of the breakdown that would ensue in a post-Saleh Yemen, pressuring both domestic and international actors to support him. These included the Gulf Cooperation Council, especially Saudi Arabia, and the US. Domestic protests continued as international support was slowly forming behind Saleh due to events in southern Yemen.

During the summer, Saleh withdrew army units from large sections of the south. Most military officials left the southern provinces, being reassigned to government crackdowns on fresh protests in urban areas of the north as well as Aden, the old capital of the PDRY. Saleh did this very deliberately. Predictably, Islamist militants, including Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), took advantage of this absence to seize territory and launch assaults against minor cities. The armed group Ansar al-Shari’a (AAS), an affiliate of AQAP, captured the provincial capital of Zinjibar in May 2011. It was here that previously wavering international opinion began to solidify.

The US had until this point not settled on a firm policy in Yemen. President Barack Obama himself was reluctant about significant intervention in the Arab uprisings, seen particularly through his hesitance to intervene in Libya.

Zinjibar eliminated this uncertainty, as the AAS had previously declared its entire province of Abyan to be an Islamic Emirate. Noting that the Taliban called their Afghan territory an Islamic Emirate during the 1990s, the Obama Administration reached a consensus on Yemen. Despite continued fighting between militants and the few remaining army units, many of which defied orders to leave as they fought for the south against Saleh during the 1994 Yemeni Civil War, a firm strategic outlook was implemented in the country.

As more cities, such as Lodaar and Jaar, became captured, Saleh was confident that international actors would support his continued rule in order to ensure a crackdown by Sana’a. Saleh miscalculated the US, however, which intended on playing into classic interventionist behavior in Yemen that supported limited domestic change.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

The Obama Administration’s concern was still overstated. Despite the dramatically increased popularity of AQAP since summer 2011, it remains a fringe political group in the Yemeni national consciousness.

AQAP is a relatively new organization that was formed through a merger between Al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia and Al-Qaeda in Yemen. Al-Qaeda retreated from Saudi Arabia during local crackdowns, and AQAP was formed in January 2009 following its leadership’s reestablishment among Yemeni allies in the neglected south of Yemen. The group’s heavily decentralized command structure allowed for AQAP, in addition to Al-Qaeda cells in Somalia, to begin asserting itself under the organization’s wider umbrella.

AQAP’s former leader, the American-educated Anwar al-Awlaki, quickly began to rally a group that worried American observers. Al-Awlaki occupied a disturbing place in the American cultural imagination, as he was an allegedly assimilated Muslim who nevertheless returned to his native country and became radicalized. The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, officially labelled AQAP as a terrorist organisation in December 2009, and events such as that month’s attempted ”underwear bombing” propelled the group into international attention. However, al-Awlaki was considered to be an overlooked radical in Yemen itself as AQAP did not significantly intersect with public life.

AQAP has therefore always been an American story, with offenses against it being more about the US and its post-9/11 grief than anything considered “Yemeni.” This is perhaps the most dangerous mistake the American government is making. It depends on another colonial narrative against an Arab country, that of Yemen being a geographic space for threats against the US to fester. It does not depend on an analysis of the “complicated” Yemeni political landscape. And ultimately, the Yemenis who are being courted by the expanding shadow of AQAP are alienated.

The entire uprising was overshadowed by events elsewhere in the region, because Yemen has always been an ignored country. Few experts and journalists exist who can sufficiently report on the state, and as a result, Saleh’s strategies were successful.

It must be noted that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak attempted a similar narrative in Egypt during the three weeks before his resignation; releasing prisoners and bribing looters. However, in Egypt, forces of accountability and international disdain were too strong. Saleh did not have this problem in Yemen, and this allowed 18 months to pass from the Obama Administration’s classification of AQAP as a terrorist group to the adoption of hard-line policies towards it. The knowledge of this fact has caused a great deal of frustration and desperation within the Yemeni protest movement, already ripe with numerous emerging divisions.

Saleh, teasing a Saudi-brokered resignation several times after a rocket attack on his home left him injured, believed he could firmly rely on US support. He received medical treatment in New York, raising parallels between himself and Iran’s Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi during the Iranian Revolution.

In September 2011, a US drone strike killed the AQAP leader al-Awlaki in southern Yemen. The attack was hailed as a major step against AQAP in the country, despite bewildered Yemenis noting that the victory was more American than Yemeni. The Obama Administration had successfully assassinated a radicalized American Muslim without due process, despite revoking his citizenship previously. It marked a new era in global anti-terrorist policy.

Eventually, Saleh resigned in November 2011. His vice-president since 1994, Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi, was elected after being the sole candidate following the recent elections. Hadi was sworn in as president of Yemen in February. Soon afterwards, the Obama Administration devoted itself to this controlled change by supporting Hadi’s efforts to combat the patronage of Saleh’s inner-circle and to reform the Yemeni military. This has intensified significantly since March, as events such as Saleh loyalists attempting to freeze activity at Sana’a International Airport have resulted in stronger assistance for Hadi by the US.

Although Hadi himself is not a radical departure from Saleh’s political elite, Obama intends on implementing controlled change in Yemen that excludes both Saleh and a sweeping revolution in the country. The dominant narrative is that a large-scale Yemeni revolution is too risky for Saudi and American interests in the country, which involve “stabilizing” it by destroying AQAP. It is more than likely that Saleh did not anticipate this behavior, and his reaction in the coming years is difficult to predict at this stage.

Nationalism in the South

It must be noted that none of these actors or events have taken into account the factor of nascent southern separatism. Southern nationalism is rarely discussed in Western analysis of the country; however, it remains one of the most crucial political dynamics in Yemen today. South Yemen is filled with bitterness against an exploitative north previously led by Saleh. Saleh is still seen as a figure that tricked the PDRY into its 1990 unification, promising federalism but instead seizing land and crucial industries such as a dwindling oil supply. Saleh placed these industries under the control of “North Yemenis,” a rhetorical label used to refer to Saleh’s personal elite in the north.

These grievances led to political chaos when former Yemeni Prime Minister and former President of the PDRY Haidar Abu-Bakr al-Attas resigned from his post, at the start of  the 1994 Yemeni Civil War when southern provinces attempted to secede. After Saleh’s victory in the two-month conflict, marginalization of the south intensified. This fermented separatist alignment in both violent and non-violent groups.

During the Yemeni uprising, as has been noted, separatism appeared to wane as bonds of solidarity formed between north and south Yemeni protestors. Federalized democracy seemed more approachable with a revolutionary government.

However, Hadi’s ascent to power marked a familiar story in Yemeni politics; change only as long as it is favorable to international actors. Bitterness was mainly directed at the Saudi Royal Family, which regards Yemen as within its sphere of influence. Saudi involvement has been integral in making peace between Saleh and his tribal opposition in 1978, attempting to subvert the 1962 revolution that ended decades of oppressive Imamate rule, and otherwise intervening in Yemeni political affairs. However, in the wake of drone strikes and American military assistance for Hadi, dangerous strings of anti-Americanism threaten to enter the separatist movement.

The Gains of AQAP and the Attraction of Ansar al-Shari’a

Witnessing the Yemeni uprising ending in apparent failure, despite its continued protests, many separatists renewed their hatred against the north and embraced violent opposition. Actions by Saleh’s and Hadi’s forces in the past year to destroy non-violent groups catalyzed this shift, with many frustrated southern nationalists seeking an effective means for political change. Desperation has led them to embrace violent resistance, which AQAP has become a part of mainly due to Saleh’s counterrevolutionary policies and American counter-terrorism.

The allowed gains of AQAP, and groups such as AAS attracted many discontented southerners, greatly increasing its material and rhetorical power within Yemen. Although it is still a fringe group, AQAP is now increasingly powerful. Its growth directly led to the bombing of Sana’a, which was the largest attack on Yemeni soldiers outside of war in national history. The attack was provoked by Hadi’s offensive in the south, and is a brutal testament to Saleh’s political manipulation of the country.

Perhaps not coincidentally, it occurred days before Unification Day and celebrations of the hated fusion of North and South Yemen. If AQAP and its affiliated groups manage to blend Islamic militarism with south Yemeni nationalism, it spells disaster for an increasingly involved US that is overlooking the separatist narrative.

Meanwhile, Yemeni forces are beginning large offensives in the cities of Lodar and Jaar. There are plans under way to also retake other cities, notably Zinjibar, while Hadi’s government moves against lingering parts of the Saleh regime with Obama’s firm support. However, AQAP’s growing presence in the country continues to be a result of Yemeni inabilities to access the central government in Sana’a. This is seen in both northern and southern Yemen, where exhausted and disillusioned activists are desperately attempting to build a new civil society while more violence looms on the horizon. If the core demand of the uprising – federalized democracy – is not met, then Hadi’s government will be unable to combat AQAP without assistance from international actors.

Yemenis must be able to trust peaceful means for social change in the country. If peaceful methods are not successful, then that same desire for change will inevitably lead to a strengthened AQAP. The question for Yemenis therefore, becomes of the path forward, as AQAP, the US, and the Hadi government are currently in a three-way tie for the most unpopular entity in the country. It is a given that predicting events in Yemen is a bit of a fool’s game, but revolutionaries are still nervous about where this all ends.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.