Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies recently published an article by Farea al-Muslimi and Adam Baron on the limitations of the US military campaign in Yemen against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The paper examines the rise of AQAP in Yemen and how the organization has been able to incorporate itself into local society in the governorates of Abyan, al-Baydha, and Shabwah. It highlights the imperative forthe United States to develop an understanding of the socio-cultural, tribal, economic, and political dynamics that AQAP has so successfully used to further its own agenda in Yemen.
“Given the scale of the catastrophe in Yemen, the Trump administration’s singular focus on the military option is myopic and ignores the factors that have enabled AQAP’s continued expansion in the country. AQAP cadres have deep operational awareness of the historical context and socio-political, tribal, security and economic dynamics present in the areas in which they embed themselves. This has allowed the group to repeatedly tailor its operations to the specific circumstances it encounters, adapt, leverage local realities, the civil war and the humanitarian crisis to strengthen its support base, increase its operational capacity, and recover from tactical losses.”
The article discusses AQAP’s history in Yemen, along with the realities on the ground in the three aforementioned governorates in which the organization is most heavily involved. In al-Baydha, where AQAP is deeply embedded in local tribal dynamics, the organization has been able to frame itself as playing a protective role for locals. In Abyan, whose population has been largely ignored by the central government, AQAP’s affiliate Ansar al-Sharia was able to garner local support by providing social services to local communities. Meanwhile, in rural Shabwah Governorate, tribal dynamics are an essential aspect of the socio-political landscape. AQAP, sensitive to this reality, has a significant presence here but works hard to avoid conflict with Shabwah’s tribal leaders, relocating during increased US drone strikes to avoid civilian casualties. Many locals in all three provinces are more concerned with the threat posed by the Houthis than with combating AQAP.
The authors emphasize that AQAP’s entrenchment in local communities and the social fabric of Yemen will likely only be deepened by the civilian casualties and destruction of infrastructure that have characterized the US approach in the country thus far.
“The improved delivery of basic services and necessities that often accompanies AQAP’s occupation of an area indicates that the group’s presence is largely a functional result, rather than a cause, of marginalization. This calls attention to the larger issues that have created an environment in which AQAP is able to thrive, and the fact that combating AQAP cannot simply mean killing AQAP fighters: efforts to promote local governance, to improve provision of services and, perhaps most importantly, to establish security forces that locals view as both fair and competent, will ultimately do far more to combat terrorism in Yemen than heavy-handed military policy.”
Rather than taking a single-minded military approach, the authors urge US counterterrorism policymakers to focus on understanding the historical, cultural and political dynamics that characterize the Yemeni context. It is crucial for the US to grasp Yemen’s tribal, political and economic realities, to cooperate with regional and local actors on the ground, and to contextualize counterterrorism efforts within the ongoing civil war and the resulting humanitarian crisis if it is to succeed against AQAP.