Shadows and Scalpels: Expanding the “War on Terror” in Yemen

Shadows and Scalpels: Expanding the "War on Terror" in Yemen

In an August 14 article entitled, “Secret Assault on Terrorism Widens on Two Continents,” The New York Times reported on how the US is expanding its counterterrorism role in Yemen.(1) The article describes an evolving “shadow war” where the US utilizes a “scalpel” approach to deal with the perennial threat of al-Qaeda or, in the case of Yemen, the recently rebranded al- Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The article goes on to discuss how the US has launched a series of attacks on supposed al-Qaeda encampments across Yemen and how the attacks have been carried out by a combination of cruise missiles and American Harrier jets. While the US attacks on supposed al-Qaeda encampments in Yemen may be part of a shadow war, US involvement in the attacks is common knowledge in Yemen, and is the source of growing anger against both the US and the Saleh government. Such attacks are justified by the accusation that Yemen has been a haven for al-Qaeda operatives. However, the expansion of the US-led “war on terror” in Yemen will further destabilize the country and will almost certainly end up turning it into a haven for al-Qaeda operatives.

One example of the scalpel strategy was the May 24 attack on a home in a remote wadi in the desolate, oil-producing governorate of Marib. An American UAV or Harrier jet launched a missile at a house where a suspected al-Qaeda militant was supposed to be residing. In the aftermath of the missile strike, the suspected al-Qaeda member was variously reported as having been wounded or as not having been in the house at all. However, the Deputy Governor of Marib, Sheikh Jabir Ail al-Shabwani, was in the house. Sheikh Shabwani and four of his body guards were killed. Shabwani was head of the powerful and well-armed Shabwani clan, a member of the Abidah tribe. Following the sheikh’s death, the Shabwani clan and members of the wider Abidah tribe attacked the town of Marib, the capital of the governorate of Marib. While The New York Times article cites a single attack on an oil pipeline by angry tribesmen, the attacks and resulting damage were far more widespread than this single incident. Large parts of the town of Marib were ransacked, military installations and checkpoints throughout the governorate were attacked and a number of power substations were smashed.(2)

Fearing losing control of the oil-producing governorate, Yemeni President Saleh responded to the attacks by sending tanks and troops into Marib. This led to more fighting: the tribesmen that reside in Marib zealously guard what they regard as their land, and are generally not well disposed to the Saleh government. The deployment of large numbers of government troops and tanks in Marib resulted in allied tribes joining the fight against government troops. Rather than risk all-out war, the Saleh government backed down and made use of traditional tribal mediation to try and resolve the conflict. The US attack on a single suspected al-Qaeda member further destabilized an already unstable area and further undermined the Saleh-led government.

As The New York Times article rightly points out, President Ali Abdullah Saleh is a tenacious leader. Saleh has governed Yemen by continually playing Yemen’s many tribes off of one another and by carefully balancing favors and largess with the perceived prestige of the numerous tribes, clans and subclans. Though Saleh’s formal education does not extend beyond the elementary level, he is reported to have a prodigious memory when it comes to Yemen’s complex tribal genealogies. Understanding this tapestry of tribes and tribal alliances is one of the keys to understanding Yemen and, most certainly, northern Yemen. It is an understanding that US policymakers and their Special Forces operatives lack.

President Saleh’s determination to maintain his grip on power means that he is not opposed to making use of the Americans, their money and, most especially, their weapons. In contrast to the American’s myopic focus on AQAP, President Saleh’s government is far more concerned with rebellions in the north and south of the country. In the governorate of Sadah, in northern Yemen, Houthi rebels have been fighting against the government for six years. The Houthis subscribe to a strident form of Zaidism, a conservative offshoot of Shi’a Islam. They claim that they and their beliefs have been marginalized by a government that has often deployed Salafi (Sunni Islamic fundamentalist) fighters against them. In the south, the Saleh government faces a growing rebellion by southerners who cite disenfranchisement and discrimination by the north and the dominant northern tribes. The Saleh government has been quick to link both rebellions with al-Qaeda despite the fact that in the case of the Houthis, al-Qaeda is their sworn enemy.(3) In the south, there is no evidence that any of the various political groups are in any way allied with al-Qaeda. The southern opposition groups are largely politically and ideologically opposed to al-Qaeda.

Given the dearth of Arabic speakers and Yemen experts in the US Embassy in Sana’a and the inability of US officials to travel freely in Yemen, collecting and assessing intelligence is very difficult. Assessing the intelligence provided by the often corrupt Yemeni Political Security Bureau and the Yemeni National Security Agency is even more difficult. It would be relatively easy for the Saleh government to use the US and its weapons to take out targets that have nothing to do with al-Qaeda. A recent Congressional report cited serious concerns about US counterterrorism/military aid being used against the Houthis.(4)

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In the north, as a result of the American attack in Marib, the leader of the Houthi rebels, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, has launched an “awareness” campaign that is focused on educating his followers about the threat of al-Qaeda. The Houthis along with many other Yemenis believe that al-Qaeda is an American creation designed to provide the American government with an excuse for waging war in the Middle East. Abdul Malik takes the argument further by stating that Saleh is the puppet of the Americans and is exaggerating the number and power of al-Qaeda in Yemen so that he can, with US help, maintain control of the country. The belief is one that is increasingly popular throughout Yemen.

The expansion of the war on terror in Yemen is replete with risks for both the US and, most importantly, given that it is their country, Yemenis. The US attacks in Marib and the December 17, 2009, attack on suspected al-Qaeda camps, where, according to Amnesty International, 14 women and 21 children died, have done little or nothing to impede the growth of al-Qaeda oriented groups.(5) Quite the opposite, AQAP, has used the civilian deaths as a recruiting tool. The attacks have also further compromised the Saleh government by showing that he and his regime are actively working with the Americans by allowing them to bomb Yemenis.

US politicians, like Sen. Joe Lieberman, who in a fine example of senatorial moderation, called for a pre-emptive attack on Yemen shortly after the failed “underwear” bombing, would do well to read about the two Ottoman invasions of Yemen and the more contemporary Egyptian experience in Yemen. Yemen is not kind to invaders. Though it is quite possibly one way to unify the country. I was in Sana’a in the month following the attempted underwear bombing when the language from the US cable news networks was at its most bellicose. Many Yemenis I spoke with during afternoon qat (a mild stimulant not unlike coffee consumed by most of the country) chews were convinced an American invasion was imminent. I was surprised to hear even “liberal” Yemeni friends, wealthy Yemenis who are not opposed to the occasional whiskey, making plans to return to their villages and fight.

Yemen faces an abundance of challenges: water shortages, declining oil production, systemic corruption, demographic pressures and a moribund economy. None of these problems are easily dealt with, but the answer to them is certainly not poorly planned missile attacks and increased military aid. I suspect Yemenis can find answers to their own problems if given the chance. While Yemen is often described as “lawless” and medieval, this is far from the truth. Yemen’s tribes have long governed themselves by employing tribal law, “urf” in Arabic. Tribal law is both adaptive and responsive and, most importantly, has evolved many mechanisms for mitigating and limiting conflict. Tribal law is what President Saleh fell back on to defuse the situation in Marib. However, more scalpel operations like the one in Marib could easily overwhelm any and all Yemeni efforts to defuse the resulting conflicts. The expansion of the shadow war in Yemen only adds to Yemen’s many problems and could easily result in the US being mired in another country it doesn’t care to understand.

1. Scott Shane, Mark Mazzetti, Robert F. Worth, “Secret Assault on Terrorism Widens on Two Continents,” New York Times (August 14, 2010).
2. Andrew McGregor, “Tribal Resistance and al-Qaeda: Suspected US Airstrike Ignites Tribes in Yemen’s Ma’rib Governorate,” Terrorism Monitor (June 16, 2010). Fattah Haidrah, “Tensions breakout in Marib over killing local leader,” Yemen Observer (May 29, 2010).
3. Michael Horton, “Borderline Crisis,” Jane’s Intelligence Review (January 2010).
4. “Following the Money in Yemen and Lebanon: Maximizing the Effectiveness of US Security Assistance and International Financial Institution Lending,” Committee on Foreign Relation United States Senate (January 5, 2010).
5. Amnesty International (June 7, 2010).