Al Qaeda in Yemen: mercenaries or terrorists?

Al Qaeda operative Jamal Badawi was behind the USS Cole attack. He is currently free in Yemen. Click to view.

The dichotomy of viewpoints between Yemeni and Western analysts on the recent outbreak of terror attacks in Yemen is pronounced. An article at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point finds that “Al Qaeda in Yemen was defeated by the close cooperation of the United States and Yemen during the first phase of the war (2000-2003), but it learned from the loss,” and adapted its tactics and goals. The new al Qaeda generation rejects negotiation with the regime and is heralded by a new strategy and increasing sophistication in online propaganda. As domestic pressures sap the Yemeni regime’s attention and resources, the control of al Qaeda has taken a low priority. The stability of Yemen, and the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, is the vital first step to defeating al Qaeda, the article asserts, and the US will have to funnel more funds to Yemen to achieve this goal. The author finds the US should prioritize its demands on Yemen and decide “whether it wants a partner in the war against al Qaeda, or whether it wants a country that is attempting to meet democratic benchmarks.”

This general assessment is shared by other Western analysts who also agree with the assertion that al Qaeda operatives who returned from Iraq are responsible for repeated strikes in Yemen designed to weaken the Saleh regime. ISN Security Watch describes the attacks as “designed to undermine government revenues with strikes on oil facilities and pipelines and foreign oil companies and tourists.” Similarly, Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus finds, “The attacks were a message to Saleh, and to the global community, that the chaos-producing strategy of al Qaeda in Iraq   is now being exported to the militants’ homelands.”

The opposing view is most often found among Yemeni analysts and holds that the Yemeni regime fosters and deploys Islamic extremists as mercenaries and as a tool of foreign policy. While this view is predominant among Yemen’s internal political opposition, it is not exclusive to them, and some within the Yemeni government privately express this view. In this paradigm, most terror attacks are authorized by regime-affiliated persons to achieve a variety of goals, one of which is to provoke international sympathy and funding while diminishing donors’ demands for reform and greater counterterror cooperation.

This viewpoint was expressed by Moneer al Mawari when he wrote in the Yemen Times: “But what has been proved authentic is that most of the terrorist operations in our homeland were launched by individuals whom the authority metamorphosed and transferred from the Qaeda terrorist Network to a government-controlled terrorist camp. Therefore, most of the terrorists available in Yemen   receive orders from officers in the Yemeni army and security institutions.” Mawari asserts that the regime maintains the pretense of al Qaeda as it maintains the pretense of democracy, and that the new “al Qaeda in Yemen” is a deadly puppet created to fulfill Western expectations.

Abdullah al Asnag, former foreign minister of Yemen, is a well-respected senior figure in Yemeni politics. He commented, “I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Mawari. Terrorist elements are not Al Qaida affiliated, but most of them are linked to jobs said to be connected with tribal chiefs and the ruling political party. It has been established beyond any doubt that the regime in Yemen led by Ali Abdullah Saleh and his junta has fueled the ongoing civil war in Somalia through illegal arms trafficking to parties in the conflict.”

Asnag also noted the use of state resources in facilitating criminal and terrorist activity. “Yemeni sources go as far as suggesting that senior government personnel are sponsoring the constantly ongoing processes of money laundering and the counterfeiting of US Dollars and Saudi Riyals,” Asnag said. “Arms, drugs, and child trafficking are daily incidents originating from Yemen and exported to neighboring countries namely Saudi Arabia, UAE [United Arab Emirates], and the rest of the Gulf states. The flow of volunteers holding Yemeni passports to join different war groups in Iraq is evident. Only a few weeks ago the Syrian authorities extradited a number of Yemenis crossing the Syrian border from Iraq and alleged to have been linked to terrorists in Iraq. Such infiltration of individuals holding Yemeni passports into Iraq and back cannot happen without the consent of the Yemeni dictator and his men.”

The corruption and collusion in Yemen goes all the way to the top of the political leadership, Asnag noted. “Saleh cannot be counted upon as a partner to bring stability to Yemen, even in the short term,” said Asnag. “Financial and political support will only serve to open his appetite to carry out more and more atrocities.”

Another seasoned Yemeni political observer finds that Yemen’s current political instability and the spate of terror attacks are closely related but not in the way generally perceived in the West. “What is clear from recent developments whether in the security or economy of Yemen is that the regime is ailing and using its last few cards to remain in power,” the political observer said on condition of anonymity. “One of the most successful tactics has been to create a massive media blackout locally, regionally and internationally to hide the shady deals with al Qaeda elements and the massive protests and killings of citizens in the south of Yemen. However, the truth is coming out,” the analyst noted. “That truth is that, unlike what many may think, the collapse of Yemen as a regime and as a country is close, really close. And that’s the sad reality that we should be aware of,” he concluded.

Musid Ali, Director of the Yemeni American Anti-Terrorism Center, in commenting for this article said the Yemeni regime is responsible for the recent attacks, a serious charge as several foreign tourists were killed. The attacks, he said, “are a result of the good relationship between the regime and al Qaeda.” The purpose of the attacks is to “make the west in general and the US in particular believe that Yemen is an ally of the US against al-Qaeda, but what is clear to the Yemeni people is the strong relationship between al Qaeda and the regime.” As such, the counterterror assistance provided by the US in terms of funding, training, and equipment has been used “only against the Yemen people.”

Ali went on to name several top members of Saleh’s administration who he says are affiliated with and facilitating al Qaeda. These include Brigadier General Ali Mohsen al Ahmar; Ghalib al Qamish, head of the Political Security Organization; General Yahya Mohammed Abdullah Saleh, chief of staff at the Central Security Organization; and Ali al Ansi, Chairman of the National Security Agency.

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