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]