International Center for Religion and Diplomacy : A Case for Non-Military Counterterrorism Efforts in Yemen

The International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (IRCD) recently published two reports relating to the development and implementation of non-military counter terrorism strategies. The first report details the impact of ICRD’s project to train Yemeni activists; The second focuses on the role of religion and community in the context of Yemen’s civil war.

Empowering Yemeni Peacemakers:

Since 2016 the IRCD empowerment program has engaged 1,400 activists in San’a and 9 of the country’s 22 governorates. The strategy has had a far reaching impact with reports of trainees using the skills learned in the program to resolve local conflict. Trainees have also used their knowledge to start their own initiatives, “such as a training program for imams on religious tolerance and CVE [Countering Violent Extremism], and a Peacemakers’ Council in Taiz.” In addition to the program’s tangible success, interviews with participants displayed a greater sense of empowerment.

In the governorate of Abyan, where Al-Qaeda had previously taken over and gained some support by providing basic services that the government was not providing, some trainees worked with local leaders to build a piping system to better distribute water and prevent the escalation of a water-related conflict. These leaders engaged local youths vulnerable to extremist recruitment in installing the pipes—providing job skills and a sense of civic responsibility—and subsequently trained these same youths in peacebuilding/CVE skills.

These actions directly counter and undermine the primary tool al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has used to maintain the popular support required to govern areas of Yemen. Furthermore, the CVE aspect of the training creates a more robust population of activists. For example, the report states that “local CSOs [Civil Society Organizations] have been institutionally strengthened and empowered to sustain these efforts after the ICRD grant periods have ended.”

The recommendations provided by the IRCD focused heavily on allowing trainees a respectable level of independence and ability to replicate the program in their own way. However, the IRCD notes that if the program is to be effective, participants must be selected in a careful and deliberate manner.  

Addressing Jihadi-Salafism in Yemen:

In an aim to build a non-military CVE policy that addresses the whole of Yemeni society, the IRCD conducted research on the role of Yemen’s religious sector, and how religious leaders may be engaged to counter radicalization and recruitment. Mutual suspicion between secular CSOs, the government, and religious authorities has limited discourse and made a comprehensive strategy difficult to pursue. Given the role that religion plays in Yemen, engaging with religious authorities is a necessary facet of any ‘whole society’ initiative.  

Respondents to the IRCD’s survey provided the following suggestions:

Create more opportunities for religious actors and government officials to work together – Many respondents highlighted the importance of collaboration and interaction, with a few suggesting that there should be an established forum, assembly, or some clear mechanism to facilitate this kind of interaction.

Ensure that government officials are more respectful or reverential toward religious actors – Respondents asserted that officials should acknowledge the prestige of religious actors and their positive contributions to society. Some even took this point one step further and argued that government officials should actively seek out guidance and advice from religious actors.  

Increase government support for the religious sector – This could include providing salaries to religious actors or creating a committee to coordinate religious activity. In the view of some respondents, the government should be more active in creating space for the promotion of Islam.

However, as with the Empowerment program, mosques and religious figures must be selected carefully. While “most of these recommendations focus on positive interpersonal interactions, a few point to building a more formalized role for the government in the religious sector.” However it is important to note that there is a danger that the Yemeni government will use mosques and imams to their benefit if they are on the state’s payroll.