May 1, 2013  

In Yemen, an adversary adapts

How to confront the evolving al-Qaida threat

It’s time to stop looking at al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula solely through a counterterrorism lens. AQAP, having realized that it requires the support of local populations to pursue its goals, has been behaving more and more like an insurgent movement. It is adroitly blending violence, community engagement, information operations and political tactics in a bid to hold territory.

As the U.S. eventually learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, the proper response to an insurgency confronts the group’s political strategy as much as its military arm. Moreover, it must be organized like the insurgents themselves: decentralized, long term and blending civil-military approaches relatively seamlessly.

This campaign will require things that only the Yemeni government can provide, including good governance and development and reconstruction efforts. But the U.S. government can do a number of things to boost Sana’a’s ability and will to act, and can help pacify al-Qaida’s strongholds more directly.


AQAP moved definitively beyond a terrorist organization in 2011, when it seized control of a number of southern Yemeni towns and districts, including the provincial capital of Abyan province. The group was exploiting the opportunity created by the withdrawal of Yemeni military forces, which had been ordered north to quash factional fighting in the capital — and was also doing the secret bidding of then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who sought a security crisis that he could use to solidify his hold on power.

Yet the group’s territorial spread reflected more than military power. Understanding its need for the people’s support, al-Qaida deployed a nuanced community engagement strategy that exploited long-standing grievances of southern Yemenis against the central government. At heart, it sought to provide better governmental services than the government. So AQAP provided rudimentary health care, humanitarian assistance such as fresh water and food stuffs, and education, even if it was only in Koranic teachings. It promoted economic development by disbursing modest development assistance.

More fundamentally, AQAP leaders sought to supplant a key function of the Yemeni state: providing order and security. It imposed a justice system based on Sharia religious law, convened regular meetings with community leaders and sought to solve local problems. They attempted to replace chaotic tribal feuds with a more ordered and religiously inspired “supra-tribal” system. This protected weaker tribes from the predatory behavior of stronger rivals and also created opportunities for some ambitious locals, including those of weaker tribal factions, to rise beyond their social position.

They also opened a sophisticated information operations campaign that rebranded the group “Ansar al-Sharia” (Supporters of Islamic Law), ostensibly an Islamist reformist organization.

This domestic political strategy reflects many lessons al-Qaida leaders learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, where its brutal rule frequently alienated the local population. In Yemen, al-Qaida pursues a softer approach not simply because it wants to but also because it must.

Tribal structures in Yemen are far stronger than they were in Afghanistan and Iraq, and tribal leaders much more adept at governing their traditional areas of control. So al-Qaida has worked hard to align its cause with local political movements, than it did in Iraq, where it affixed its goals to those of Sunni Arab nationalists. In Yemen, AQAP has affixed its interests to those southern elements interested in greater autonomy from Yemen’s central government or interested in complete independence for south Yemen, although AQAP is not likely working with the long-standing Southern Movement.

Al-Qaida in Yemen also has a less distinctly foreign character than it did in previous conflicts, making its activities less offensive to locals. This quality reduces the ability of the U.S. and indigenous government forces to separate the population from the terrorist group using national pride, ethnic and tribal differences and, in some cases, simple xenophobia to rebuff al-Qaida’s advances.

Not all welcomed AQAP’s rise. Their harsh Islamist rule alienated many and prompted the flight of thousands of others. Still, many of their efforts appealed to the population. They were better than what the local government and many tribal sheiks had provided.


In February 2012, Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi took office as Yemen’s newly elected president. He quickly authorized a determined offensive to push al-Qaida insurgent fighters from the southern areas they had seized. The Yemeni military, under new leadership, worked with tribal militias known as Popular Committees, while the U.S. contributed drone strikes and other military assistance to the effort. Together, the various forces pushed AQAP out of most of its newly acquired territories and back into their historic safe havens toward the center of the country.

Pushed back by conventional military methods, AQAP shifted tactics. It launched a campaign of murder and intimidation that targeted security, military and intelligence officials working against the Islamist group, not just in southern Yemen but also in the capital. By one count, at least 80 security officials, many of whom worked on counterterrorism, have been assassinated by suicide attacks, improvised explosive devices or small arms. The victims included the commander of the southern military region, Brig. Gen. Salem Ali Qatan, killed by a suicide attacker last June.

This campaign bought time for AQAP to replenish its ranks. Moreover, the group retains popular support in the south, where much of the population is sympathetic to its conservative and religious messaging. Many also feel that AQAP, with all of its imperfections, is a better alternative to the Yemeni government.

And Al-Qaida’s community engagement strategy has evolved. The group has apologized for the excesses of its recent rule and is making overtures to key leaders in the region to lay the groundwork for reasserting its influence.


Yemen now needs to pacify these safe-haven regions and solidify its gains in the recently reclaimed territory.

While the government’s efforts to help war refugees improved its image in the eyes of southerners, it can consolidate its support only through sustained good governance and development initiatives. Such initiatives are unlikely to be effective unless they are synchronized with military clearing and holding operations. Such a focused and decentralized effort will not come naturally to either the Yemeni or U.S. governments, and the delay in implementing one is already eroding popular support.

Our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan suggest the Yemeni counterinsurgency strategy should:

• Simultaneously confront al-Qaida’s military threat and political strategy.

• Enlist the local population into its own defense, governance and development activities, and leverage the people against the insurgency.

• Take a decentralized and village-based approach — like al-Qaida — and synchronize the delivery of population security, local governance and micro-development to rural populations that have minimal government presence.

Where al-Qaida is most active, security will require Yemeni military and police forces as well as part-time Yemeni Local Police, which are defensively oriented tribal forces answerable to the state. This approach worked well in Al-Anbar province in Iraq as part of the Anbar Awakening movement and in Afghanistan with the U.S. Special Operations Forces Village Stability Operations initiative.

This increase in security forces must be accompanied by a decentralization of political power to the governorates in Yemen, effective community engagement, and the empowering of village elders. There must be a determined effort by the Yemeni and the international community to focus funding, programming and personnel to the rural countryside where al-Qaida is strongest. Small-scale development projects such as footbridges, wells and humanitarian assistance build rapport with a local population and provide tangible benefits to a community that has turned against AQAP.

As more villagers join local protective forces, AQAP will be physically pushed out from a village and, moreover, a psychological distance from the insurgency will be created for the population. Yemenis will be able to travel more freely, attend school without fear, engage in greater commerce and use traditional justice systems to address disputes.

By adopting a bottom-up approach to stability, a pacification campaign leverages the population against AQAP and organizes them to resist insurgent intimidation and the appeal of their political program.

Daniel R. Green is the Ira Weiner Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and studies Yemen, al-Qaida and stability operations. He is a military veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq.


  1. […] AQAP’s template for rule, and moreover winning the hearts and minds, was speciously propitious—community engagement, basic service delivery, administration of justice, humanitarian assistance, population security, freedom of movement for commercial activities, etc. For beneath the humanitarian veneer laid its true, all too familiar colors: a virulent and unsparing religious rule that alienated locals and ultimately prompted thousands to flee its grip. It’s local support having soured—a Yemenite counter-offensive backed by armed US drones sallied forth, pushing AQAP into full-on retreat. […]