In a February report published by the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), Nadwa Al-Dawsari describes the dynamics of the relationship between Yemeni tribes and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Contrary to the perceptions of some Western observers and Yemeni government authorities, Yemeni tribes have not allied with AQAP and instead reject the group’s ideology. While it is true that some tribal members have joined the group, AQAP has only been able to make significant gains in areas with a relatively weak tribal structure. To limit the spread of AQAP in their territories, tribal leaders use peaceful conflict resolution--as well as force when it is deemed absolutely necessary. Therefore, Al-Dawsari explains, Yemeni tribes are not an inherent part of the problem and instead could represent a key ally in countering the group effectively.
AQAP’S HISTORY IN YEMEN
Al-Qaeda has been present in Yemen since the end of the 1980s, when Yemenis who fought as mujahidin in the Afghanistan war against the Soviet Union returned home, with a small number continuing to want to wage jihad. Many of these fighters were supported financially by the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who used them as mercenaries against southern secessionists in the 1994 civil war. In 1998, Al-Qaeda affiliates were behind attacks against tourists in Abyan province. In another attack, 17 American soldiers were killed in 2000, when al-Qaeda bombed the USS Cole. Following 9/11, the US pressured Saleh to accept counterterrorism assistance as part of the larger War on Terror. The subsequent crack-down ensured many al-Qaeda leaders were killed or detained. However, the decline of AQAP did not last long--In 2006, 23 al-Qaeda suspects escaped from prison in San’a and the group made a comeback. Three years later, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was formed. The newly-created AQAP took advantage of the political turmoil after the January 2011 uprising against the Saleh regime, expanding rapidly and capturing cities.
When war broke out in September 2014, AQAP exploited the upheaval to gain a foothold in Ta’iz and Aden. Local militias organized by the UAE composed of tribesmen, southern secessionists, and Salafis, pushed AQAP militants out of southern cities in 2016. Since then, AQAP has retreated and stayed present in rural areas, making financial gains and integrating itself into regional political struggles, while attempting to build relationships with Yemen’s tribes.
The report defines tribes as “territory-based entities held together by reciprocal obligations of cooperation among their members” (15). Yemen has hundreds of tribes: Most Yemenis identify as members of a tribe. However, it is mainly in rural areas where tribes’ customs and social structures dominate. Over the course of the country’s history, Yemen’s rulers have developed relationships with and co-opted certain tribes, favoring some over others and creating simmering resentment for those whose regions were left underdeveloped and marginalized.
The narrative that tribes gave sanctuary to AQAP emerges from negative stereotypes that tribes are violent, backwards, and anti-state. In reality, according to Al-Dawsari, tribes are egalitarian entities with a well-developed system of laws and customs. Customary law is concerned with preservation of honor--which incorporates values of hospitality, nobility, generosity. Contrary to the stereotype, tribes are generally peaceful--and avoid using means of force unless peaceful conflict resolution has failed.
TRIBES AND AL-QAEDA
According to Al-Dawsari’s findings, AQAP has limited appeal to Yemeni tribes. It is true that AQAP has been able to recruit some tribal youth, using a narrative of humiliation, injustice, grief, underdevelopment, and corruption to tap into local discontent in marginalized areas (21). However, beyond a few youth, AQAP has not garnered wider appeal among tribal members. According to a 2011 field study, AQAP has failed to strike an alliance with any tribe; the group has only been able to gain a foothold in regions where the tribal structure is relatively weak (Hadhramawt Province and some parts of Abyan and Shabwah), whereas in al-Bayda and Marib, provinces with much stronger tribal structures, the group has only a limited presence (22). According to Al-Dawsari, there are four main reasons why AQAP has not managed to make stronger inroads into tribal areas:
- AQAP’s violent, radical vision is contrary to tribal values.
- The presence of AQAP can create conflict within tribes between pro-AQAP and anti-AQAP tribal members, threatening social order.
- Air strikes and military action resulting from AQAP’s presence cause civilian injury, death, displacement, and property destruction.
- Yemeni tribes consider AQAP’s future ambitions a challenge to the tribal system (22-23).
Tribes avoid conflict in dealing with AQAP, instead employing peaceful conflict-resolution measures in an attempt to prevent violence that could harm the community. Mediation is usually used to achieve one of two objectives: convincing AQAP to leave an area, or persuading tribal members to abandon AQAP. Negotiations to convince tribal members to abandon AQAP using these tactics have been successful. In 2015, tribal mediation played a key role in forcing AQAP out of southern cities (25). Yet these successes have not been accounted for in US counterterrorism measures.
TRIBES AND US COUNTERTERRORISM
Instead, US counterterrorism policy has relied too heavily on corrupt Yemeni leaders, according to Al-Dawsari. For example, the US provided almost unconditional foreign aid to former President Saleh, while neglecting to hold him accountable for ridding the country of AQAP. Instead, Saleh used US counterterrorism aid to strengthen his grip on power.
This overly militarized anti-terrorism approach has not been effective, the report concludes. The US military reportedly carried out 168 airstrikes in Yemen from 2011 to 2016, which killed both AQAP members and civilians in tribal areas.The Trump administration has since escalated military action: In 2017, reports suggested that the administration carried out 130 airstrikes against suspected terrorist targets in Yemen. Several US drone strikes have resulted in the death of civilians, increasing anti-American sentiment within tribes. These military actions could bolster AQAP’s recruitment and undermine tribal leaders’ ability to convince tribal members to leave the group, the report warns.
The report offers alternative recommendations for a US policy that takes Al-Dawsari’s research findings into account. These recommendations incorporate the idea that Yemen’s tribes can act as a key ally, rather than an enemy, in counterterrorism efforts against AQAP.
US POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS (verbatim):
Work to end the war as soon as possible. The civil war is devastating Yemen, opening the door for AQAP to expand, and degrading the capacity of tribes and other Yemeni institutions to counter the radical group.
Do not wait until the end of the war, however, to help Yemenis strengthen security and improve living conditions. Act now to address urgent local security, economic and humanitarian needs, especially through bottom-up approaches that engage tribes.
Limit the use of airstrikes and raids against AQAP, especially in areas where clashes between Houthis and tribes are ongoing. Such attacks generate popular anger among tribes and other Yemenis that AQAP exploits.
Explore the possibility of rehabilitation for some tribesmen who joined AQAP for economic, political, or social reasons, not out of ideological commitment. Rehabilitating such AQAP members would be controversial and difficult to implement, but it could pull hundreds of tribesmen away from the terrorist group.