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.