Two big questions

While I work on a couple of long, detailed blog posts—one on the tactics and messaging strategies of AQAP and Ansar al-Shari`ah, and one on why President Hadi might want to take a page out of his predecessor's playbook—I needed to take a minute and flesh out two questions that keep coming up in my interactions on Twitter, but are too big to easily tackle in that format. I don't have answers to either of these questions, so I would love it if readers would offer their thoughts, either here in the comments or on Twitter.

Big Question Number One:

AQAP and Ansar al-Shari`ah: are they one and the same? Most serious analysts and specialists who know a lot about Yemen and/or al-Qa`idah believe that they are. More specifically, they accept the explanation that AQAP itself has offered, that Ansar al-Shari`ah (AAS) is simply a new brand name that AQAP operatives use when they think the al-Qa`idah name might not go over well with locals. This is the interpretation Gregory Johnsen, Aaron Zelin, and Will McCants—three very smart analysts I tend to agree with—accept, and it's the one presented on last week's PBS Frontline special. That program reached a much broader audience than usually pays attention to news from Yemen.

But there are others who don't accept this easy explanation of the relationship between AAS and AQAP. Wall Street Journal correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer has been very vocal, on Twitter at least, in insisting that locals in Abyan view the two organizations as separate and distinct. Knickmeyer claims that "a sizeable number of researchers currently working in Yemen" understand the two to be distinct, although she became inexplicably hostile and refused to talk to me when I tried to discuss this with her on Twitter. Another San`a-based American analyst whom I respect a great deal told me recently that AQAP's leadership has no direct relationship to AAS, and that AAS was originally, according to his sources, made up primarily of mercenaries, though it's not clear exactly to whom they answered.

The two groups still maintain separate media operations. As I'll explain in more detail in an upcoming post, I think that the messaging and media of the two groups tells us a good deal about their relationship. Most importantly, no one in the "AAS and AQAP are the same" camp has yet presented a detailed explanation of the whole operational structure of the unified organization. If AAS is just a marketing campaign, we have to understand how AQAP has been able, in just one year, to transform from a rather small network of militants primarily focused on carrying out bombings and other small operations to a quasi-state entity, capable of commanding a small army and governing whole towns.

Big Question Number Two:

Who really controls armed groups associated with Islah and the Southern Movement in 'Aden and elsewhere in the south? A few minutes ago I had the following interaction with Tweeter Haykal Bafana` after tweeting a story from the Yemen Post about new recruits in the Yemeni army firing at the Defense Minister's car:

[View the story "New Story" on Storify]

This conversation reminded me of another one I had last week with tweeter Amel Ahmed about recent fighting between armed men identified as members of the Southern Movement (al-Hirak) and others identified as Islahi gunmen. Now, it's commonly understood that al-Hirak is not a unitary group with a single, central leadership. So it's very hard to know whom we're talking about when we use phrases like "Hiraki gunmen" or "southern separatist fighters." A recent story in the Guardian explained how some Southern Movement factions are seeking support from/being courted by foreign powers or other factions, including Iran and AQAP. So it's always important to ask, when clashes involving "separatists" are reported in 'Aden, Hadhramawt, or elsewhere in the south, who exactly these separatists are, and who commands, supports, or arms them.

Likewise, it's not clear (at least to me) who the so-called Islah party gunmen are in 'Aden (or in Abyan, as per Haykal's assertion above). Most analysts will tell you that party membership has never been the primary mode of identification, or the primary loyalty, of most Yemenis. Party ranks below family and tribe for most people. But in the past year there have been fighters described as "Islahi" involved in conflicts in al-Jawf, San`a, Arhab, `Aden, and now Abyan. So who are these fighters, and who commands them? Should we assume that all of these groups are in fact commanded and paid by the Islah party leadership? Of course, Islah has never been a perfectly unified entity either, so who among the leading figures in the party is responsible for these militias? Hamid al-Ahmar? 'Abd al-Majid al-Zindani?

As armed groups continue to proliferate throughout Yemen, and as the United States becomes increasingly involved in the Yemeni state's fights against some of these groups, those of us who seek to understand Yemeni affairs need to do a better job of understanding and explaining the issues raised above.

*********** Update: The first response to this post came via Twitter. I can't post Storify pieces in the comments section, so I'll add it here:

[View the story "New Story" on Storify]

AQAP turns three, still sucks

Today is the three-year anniversary of the formation of al-Qa‘idah in the Arabian Peninsula  (AQAP, formally Qa‘idat al-Jihad fi Jazirat al-‘Arab), created by the merger of the Saudi and Yemeni AQ affiliates in 2009. Jihadologist Aaron Zelin (@azelin) has found this statement, written by an AQAP supporter on an online forum, celebrating the anniversary. I'm posting the link here to remind everyone what a despicable and morally corrupt bunch of bastards the AQAP leadership is, and because most mainstream media pieces on Yemen, though obsessive about the threat of terrorism, give no insight into the actual motivations and beliefs of these "terrorists" (note that in the statement in question, the epithet is self-applied).

While not an official statement, this document reflects in both content and form statements that have been released over the years by the organization's official media organs (you can read two such statements, sloppily translated by yours truly, here and here). Though we should always be mindful of the gap between rhetoric and motivation--whether reading the statements of politicians, jihadists, or even revolutionaries--there is insight to be gained here about how AQAP thinks about itself and its mission. This is particularly important now, as the spread of apparently AQAP-affiliated groups in certain parts of Yemen shows that some part of the group's political ideology, if not its religious philosophy, resonates with an increasingly wide segment of Yemen's population.

I have friends in Yemen who swear that AQAP is a phantom, conjured, funded, and controlled by elements of ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh's regime, and that it will evaporate once the regime is gone. I respectfully disagree. This is an attractive theory, but I think it overstates the power of the regime. Since the 1970s, Yemen has been home to a wide variety of Islamist activists and jihadists. Many of these have found themselves on the government's payroll at one time or another. The individuals and groups that became al-Qa‘idah in Yemen and later AQAP include some of these, and some of them doubtless still have ties to Saleh and/or other powerful officials (including Saleh's now arch nemesis, ‘Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar). This does not mean that anyone in the regime can control these militants. President Saleh has absolutely manipulated the threat of AQAP and has played games with AQAP and with the US government in its pursuit of AQAP, but Saleh is not pulling all the strings here.

I'm confident that AQAP will continue to exist once Saleh is gone. The big question is how many Yemenis will continue to be sympathetic to the group's message. In the late 1990s, most Yemenis mocked and reviled AQ and groups like it. The present surge in sympathy and popularity is mostly due to two things: the desperation of the Yemeni people in the face of a stubborn regime and an ineffectual government, and the escalating--and escalatingly idiotic--US counter-terror operations. Of course, the vast majority of Yemenis are still opposed to AQAP, but the increase in the organization's ranks will be reversed only if the new Yemeni government can get its act together AND the US can develop a more rational and constructive way to combat terrorism and extremism.

(There's a third cause as well, but it's related to the other two: money. It seems that the new AQAP-affiliate groups, like the one now operating in Rada‘ under the leadership of Tariq al-Dhahab, are recruited and funded by local strongmen, and are probably the most lucrative source of employment available to many men. The ways this relates to good governance and good CT policy should be obvious.)

The current matter of AQAP or AQAP-ish groups taking over places like Rada‘ is one I will come back to later, but the larger point is clear: extremist militancy, like all of Yemen's other threats (hunger, poverty, unemployment, etc.), can only be solved by better governance and constructive international cooperation. The sentiments we read in the pro-AQAP statement above are as out of touch with Yemeni reality as the statements of the regime, and such ideas will get no traction in a Yemen where government responds to the needs of the people. As to how to build such a Yemen, well, we're still working on that.

Inspired rhetoric

The Jihadology blog has the latest issue of AQAP's English-language magazine, Inspire, which was released earlier this week. I haven't had a chance to read the whole thing yet, but two things caught my attention right away. First, in a brief commentary about AQAP's new campaign of violence against so-called Huthi supporters, the magazine's editor makes the following claim:

We would like to state that our war is with the Rafidha [Rejectionist] Shi'a sect which is alien to Yemen and was only imported recently from Iran, and not with the Zaydi Shi'a sect which is considered to be the closest sect of Shi'a to ahl as-sunnah.

This statement is remarkable for two reasons: first, it is identical to the false claims the government of Yemen has been making since the beginning of the Sa‘dah wars (that the rebels are Iranian agents). Second, it states that AQAP has no problem with Zaydiyah, which is an unexpected position for them to take. It seems illogical at best for AQAP to distinguish between Shi‘i sects. That Zaydiyah is close to Sunnism is a cliché, but the reality is that the Huthi rebellion grew out of a very Zaydi revival movement that, among other things, stressed the opposition between Zaydiyah and the kind of Sunnism espoused by AQAP.

As I see it, the best reason for AQAP to make the above claim is that it has had time to think, since the attacks of November, about the implications of declaring war on Zaydiyah, and has realized the danger in such an act. Maybe AQAP and the government can effectively drive a wedge between al-Huthi and the Zaydi population at large, but I doubt it, especially when we all know that al-Huthi's network of support has in the past transcended sectarian identities.

The second thing I noticed in this issue of Inspire is that the magazine provides translations of only one of the two statements AQAP released about its attacks on Huthi targets. We were able to publish translations of each statement within twenty-four hours, so why doesn't Inspire have both of them now? If I'm not mistaken, Brian O'Neill and Greg Johnsen have both hypothesized in the past that the editors of Inspire, and perhaps even the editors of AQAP's Arabic magazine, are too distant from the organization's operational branches to even know about operations in time to include them in publications. This seemed to be the case with the original Arabic statements on the attacks, which were much-delayed, and is probably the case again here.

Comments on the AQAP statement

This statement has something of a different tone from the previous one; whereas the first adopted the attitude of a proud victim, this one is absolutely gleeful, as its title suggests. It gets a bit dull, though, once the author starts talking about the false deceptive lying falsehoods of the lying Huthis (there are a lot of ways to say "lie" in Arabic). I guess what strikes me is that the author seems to assume that he is addressing a sympathetic audience. His audience is not just the jihadi community, but the Yemeni people as a whole, and he expects them to be happy to hear the wondrous news of this new campaign of violence against the Huthis. I'm holding to my previous assertion, that in the medium and long term this kind of violence won't be well-received in Yemen. But it's important to note that according to this statement, both of the suicide bombers were Yemenis. This is made clear by their names: we aren't given the real names of either man, but both have kunyahs (noms de guerre) containing the adjective "San‘ani." Add to this the assertion, in the final paragraph here, that the Huthis now have the backing of the CIA. The intended take-away is that these were attacks carried out by Yemenis against foreigners, for the sake of the Yemeni people.

Time will tell if this tactic pays off for al-Qa‘idah. But I'm more interested and concerned with the Yemeni government's reactions. So far I haven't heard much, but still think it's likely that President Saleh will try to fan the flames of this conflict for his own twisted reasons.

New AQAP statement

Al-Qa‘idah in the Arabian Peninsula has released another statement about their attacks on supporters of al-Huthi, giving additional details about their "martyrdom operations."

"Glad tidings to the faithful concerning the series of activities in defense of the People of the Sunnah

[We announce that] our heroic, martyred brother Abu ‘A’ishah al-San‘ani al-Hashimi carried out a blessed operation against the procession of influential apostate Huthis in the province of al-Jawf, and that he killed in this operation more than thirty people—among them many of their leaders—and wounded scores of them. This was at 8:40am, the morning of Wednesday the 18th of Dhi al-Hijjah (November 24th), according to our sources at the scene of the bombing.

Our sources present at the scene of the event also informed us that one senior leader of the Huthis was present at the procession, but that his name had previously been withheld by the Huthis.

They then informed us that they would attempt to discover this name in the days that followed. Before long they sent us word that [the person in question] was one of the leading turbaned mullahs. After that the news leaked out that the deceased was the head of evil and corruption, Badr al-Din al-huthi himself, the founder of the apostate Huthi group. He had been in al-Jawf to preside over the celebrations for ‘Eid al-Ghadir, while his son ‘Abd al-Malik presided over them in Sa‘dah. So God enabled us to transform their Day of Ghadir [which literally means “stream” or “brook”] into a Day of Hellfire for the enemies of God who distort Islam and pollute the land of the Prophet (PBUH). For God is great, God is great, God is great, and all praise and thanks be to God.

So our organization issued urgent instructions to send another car bomb—from among several such cars we have prepared for them—to intercept the funeral processions [for al-Huthi]. This blessed martyrdom operation was undertaken by the heroic brother Abu ‘Abdullah al-San‘ani in the stronghold of the Huthis (the area of Dahyan) in the province of Sa‘dah on the morning of Friday the 20th of Dhi al-Hijjah 1431 hijri [November 26 2010]. According to our sources at the scene, this attack killed at least seventy and injured scores of Huthis, who filled the hospitals of Sa‘dah.

The Huthi gang has said—though they are not able to conceal the truth—that Badr al-Din al-Huthi died from natural causes. The Huthi gang wants to deceive the people by claiming that al-Huthi’s funeral, which followed our blessed operation by only one day, was the result of a natural death. The have tried to hide the facts of his death and to circulate information inconsistent with reality, but despite all of this, we have been able to obtain reliable information from within them about the killing of Badr al-Din.

The lies and forgeries and subterfuges [of the Huthis] will not fool any but the most foolish of their followers. The most loathsome of their lies was that their investigations indicated that the blessed martyrdom operation had been carried out by the Israeli Mossad and American intelligence agencies! The truth is that the American intelligence agencies are your helpers; they halted the war [between the Huthis and the Yemeni state] for your sake so that you could work for them in their war against the mujahidin, the vanguard of the Muslim Ummah....

AQAP vs. al-Huthi

In a recently released statement, al-Qa‘idah in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has officially taken responsibility for the two bombings that targeted Huthi supporters this week. If it's legit, this proves my original thesis wrong. The original Arabic statement can be found on the Jihadology blog. Below is my English translation of the statement in full:

“After repeated appeals from the Sunni people to their brothers the mujahidin for defense, and after the failures of the apostate governments in San‘a and Riyadh—with all their armies, resources, and funds—in addressing the apostate “Huthis” (failures that have abandoned the People of the Sunnah to a fate unknown); the mujahidin of the Arabian Peninsula have decided to begin these martyrdom operations in defense of the land of our Prophet (PBUH) and his Companions (may God bless them all); and in defense of our brothers among the People of the Sunnah, after we have seen them killed, their honor violated and their homes destroyed, driven from their homes and neighborhoods, receiving no assistance.

So we call upon the sons of the People of the Sunnah to enlist in the brigades for the defense of the land of the Prophet (PBUH). The Shi‘i peril is near, and if it is not dealt with, these apostate Shi‘ah will do as they have done to the Sunnis of Iraq and Afghanistan. Hasten, before it is too late; and know that the armies of Saudi Arabia and Yemen do not represent the People of the Sunnah.

Thanks to God we have formed special units to defend our brothers, and to guarantee the extermination of the malignant seeds that have been planted by the apostate Iranian Shi‘ah in Sa‘dah and the adjacent areas, under the leadership of the apostate Huthis.

The People of the Sunnah should know that the apostate Huthis are a legitimate target for us. So we caution our brothers to avoid the Huthis’ gatherings and processions. We call upon those at risk to abandon the apostate Huthis, before it is too late. We have prepared for them, and we will not rest until we have cleansed the land of their filth and their crimes against the People of the Sunnah, and until there is no fitnah, and the only religion is the religion of God, and all evildoers are overthrown and destroyed.”

In the coming week we'll see more analysis of this statement on Waq al-Waq and other blogs, including this one. The first thing that strikes me about this statement is that AQAP claims to be acting in self-defense. No one associated with al-Huthi has ever attacked AQAP. Earlier this year, Huthi supporters took a couple of prisoners linked to AQAP and, in an attempt to advance the peace process, handed them over to the central government. Other than that, the two groups have had no contact.

I think some observers—foremost among them Brian O'Neill—will argue that AQAP is trying to appeal to its international fan base by targeting the Yemeni Shi‘ah (though really, Yemenis almost never refer to Zaydis as Shi‘ah). Their goal is to attract foreign jihadis to their organization. But I have a feeling that this move will end up hurting AQAP, in that it will destabilize the networks of tribal and local support they've built up over the years. Maybe I'm misjudging the Yemeni populace at large, but I really don't think many Yemenis will tolerate sectarian violence on a large scale. Nevertheless, the government is likely to try to exploit conflict between its enemies to its own benefit.