Elisabeth Kendall’s recent piece in The Washington Post reveals the true challenges of battling al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and explains why the organization has been able to maintain local support by using what Kendall describes as “Robin Hood” tactics. Despite widespread disapproval of al-Qaeda’s extremist ideology, many Yemenis living in towns controlled by militants will admit that the group has an ability to provide basic services, such as repairing water lines and resolving local disputes--things that Yemen’s government is frequently unable or unwilling to do.
Although AQAP still carried out periodic Sharia punishments, such as execution for adultery or sorcery and amputation for theft, its primary emphasis had shifted onto local power-sharing models accompanied by an energetic program of community development. To help fund this, it robbed the rich in the name of the poor. Three months ago, AQAP wrote to oil and telecoms companies in Mukalla, demanding large payments ‘in order to meet the needs of the people.’
The strategy of shoring up local support, or at least tolerance, for extremist Islamic groups by providing social services has also been implemented by the Islamic State group, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood. This strategy is particularly effective in a war-torn country like Yemen, where militant groups can provide relative stability in the face of governmental ineptitude and dire need for basic services.
Kendall also notes that the recent ‘defeat’ of al-Qaeda in Mukalla, resulting in their departure from the city, may have, in fact, constituted an ideological victory for the group, as residents saw their decision to withdraw rather than fight as an effort to avoid civilian casualties.
Kendall concludes that the best strategy for fighting al-Qaeda may lie at the local level, rather than a military or “top-down” approach. As long as al-Qaeda is the only actor providing much-needed aid and support to Yemen’s marginalized communities, they will remain a strong and influential presence in the country.