AQAP shot up the offices of French magazine Charlie Hebdo today, killing a dozen people. Like always, this will be spun off into support for imperialism in the Middle East, but I’d like to highlight how it will be done, so you can inoculate yourself against it. In the coming days, the fact that Hebdo is a left-wing magazine will be repeated. It is true that many of the people killed ranged from social democratic Keynesians to supporters of the Left Front and the French Communist Party. This is ideological subterfuge, a lie intended to play on your lack of understanding of French political culture.

In France, the policy of laicite, official secularity, is accepted by virtually everybody who matters as a pillar of white French civilization. This allows them to portray immigrants, who are typically religious, as brown invaders intent on destroying France, a traditional colonialist trope. Official secularity is used to denigrate the dress of North African and Middle Eastern immigrants as specifically religious without recognizing the way that Christian trends have become secularized in France, much as somebody might say Ramadan is a religious holiday but Christmas is secular. The French Left adopted this out of the long tradition of the Catholic Church being on the right wing. Removing the Church from the lives of peasants would help socialism flourish. Consequently, there’s a general lack of understanding of how religion affects the lives and identities of immigrants to France, both Muslim and Jewish (since the Holocaust and de-colonization, most French Jews have been North African). This pushes them towards Fascists like Alain Soral and Pierre Lurcat, as well as to groups like AQAP that fit into a similar mold. The far right in France has a long history of adopting elements of leftism for their cause, like the Neosocialists in the 1930s who joined the Vichy regime. Soral and his group have adopted defense of French Muslims as defense of La Republique. Meanwhile, the French Left’s condemnation of anti-immigrant policies seem fake when combined with many of its figures’ condemnation of Islam itself (in a similar manner to previous condemnations of Catholic Church), something immigrants often view as part of their identities. For the most part, this has tended to occur around the French Socialist Party, which attempts to hold up the banner of the left and of official anti-racism while at the same time adopting anti-immigrant and anti-Roma stances to appeal to the same right wing it courts with its Neoliberalism. There are figures associated with the Left Front, the NPA, or anarchism that do the same, however (most notably Hebdo cartoonists).

If there was one thing Charlie Hebdo was seriously committed to, one thing it made its name and publicity off of, it was defending laicite in this manner. Its political cartoons repeated the most racist caricatures and dogwhistles possible. When the editor of Hebdo says that its attackers (in a previous instance of firebombing) are “idiots who betray their own religion”, he replicates the paternalistic voice of colonialism, the white man calling the brown subjects children. Its racialized secularism resembles the American right wingers who say “I’m not racist, I hate white trash and n***** just the same”. It rarely makes a substantive critique of anything it despises, simply doing the baby South Park school of “draw the person but nude” satire. A couple of examples of their works linked here (click every word). 

That doesn’t mean that they should be shot, of course. The institutions that they attacked were also usually wildly awful and things the left should target with substantive critiques. But they represent a major institutional issue with the French left that gives the right more power. At this point, only a few of their positions actually differed from the Nazis in the Front National. They both condemn Neoliberal Capitalism, the European Union, foreign intervention, and Muslims as human beings. The right will hold them up as martyrs to barbarian subhumans, and ask leftists why they don’t mourn one of their own. We should respond in a manner that does not feed the rising tide of racism in France and puts what Charlie Hebdo represented in context.

So Yemen’s spineless “President” flees from Aden just as the Houthis are about to enter it.

I feel bad for the South, we have a “President” who already abandoned us once in ‘94 to defect to the North and is abandoning us again. We have Houthis, who are allied with Ali Abdullah Saleh the war criminal, on our doorstep. And we have Al Qaeda who are funded by the Saudis to fight the “Iran-backed” Houthis but who end up killing civilians. Oh and we also have US drones flying above us. Can it get any worse?

Behind the scenes of my glamorous life.

Set-up for a morning of working from bed - the closest spot to Wifi router - and four hours of Skype interviews. This is what worldwide Yemen hysteria brings to my small corner of Sana'a.

Note: I don’t normally sleep with a map of Yemen over my head. That’s just for TV. Had to get the Blu-Tack out at 5am

The Ingratiating AQAP

Gregory Johnsen’s recent post “Jihadis talking in Yemen” inspired a brief exchange between the two of us on Twitter.  When I suggested that AQAP’s attempt to build a popular support base in Yemen was more frightening than its recent attacks, such as the parcel bombs of last year, Johnsen sagely noted that both strategies are dangerous.  As I responded at the time, it seems like AQAP may be making some attempt to transition into … something different.  I suggested insurgency or a real political party, but I’m not sure that’s it entirely.  I do think AQAP is learning lessons from other groups’ past mistakes, such as the way al-Qaeda in Iraq lost so much support by essentially going on a killing spree against anyone who did not fully agree with it  - a point I’m not sure was entirely clear in my other tweet.

All that being said, I suppose I should preface what follows by saying it is speculation based on scant evidence.  I am not so much arguing that it is happening as saying it could happen, though I think there is some indication that it may be happening.

I’ve been arguing for a while now that AQAP is intentionally ingratiating itself to the Yemeni populace.  In a post last June, I mentioned two New York Times articles on Yemen’s crisis and the “militants” operating in southern Yemen.  Quoting from my previous post:

Southern Yemen, an area already hostile to the predominantly Northern Yemeni army, partially thanks to Saleh’s actions, is perhaps the area most prone [to] control by Islamists.  But it’s not just because of Saleh’s actions, past or present; part of it has to do with what the Islamists themselves are currently doing, and how they are seen by the people in the area.  AQAP has already made it a practice to reach out to the populace, ingratiating itself to the people.  These militants in southern Yemen - who may or may not be AQ - are following the same path:

Although the refugees were all deeply upset by the violence that had forced them from their homes, most seemed more frightened by the Yemeni military than the gunmen. Several refugees said the gunmen used loudspeakers to warn residents to leave their homes, especially in areas where the military was shelling heavily. The army, they said, showed no such concern for civilians.

Some residents said they had initially been frightened by the gunmen, many of whom wore their hair long like northern tribesmen. But they added that the fighters treated them more respectfully than the local security and police officials, who are widely viewed as occupiers, or worse.

“These Al Qaeda people didn’t steal our houses, they protected them,” said Ali Muhammad Hassan, a 31-year-old government clerk. “If they saw people carrying furniture or other things, looters, they would tell them to return it.”

Mr. Hassan and others also said the militants seemed highly disciplined and had put local Yemenis in charge rather than northerners or foreign jihadists, in an apparent bid for grass-roots support.

“They seemed to have a clear military plan,” he said. “They moved in cells; they were highly organized.”

Granted, telling you when to leave before destroying your village or asking looters to put your stolen goods back is not the same thing as providing teachers or even weapons, as I have written about before.

[The article quoted in the previous post above is Robert Worth’s Chaos in Yemen Creates Opening for Islamist Gangs.]

Johnsen’s recent post, which briefly analyzes a short newsletter put out by Ansar al-Shariah (which may or may not be the militants mentioned above, who may or may not be part of AQAP - but probably are on both accounts), points to an intentional message of reaching out to the people of Yemen:

The organization is both talking and apparently moving towards providing social services.  The newsletter mentions providing food stuffs to citizens during Ramadan, which meshes with Abab’s talk of the sewer problems back in the spring.  AQAP has also, in my analysis, been moving towards being more sensitive to local concerns in recent years, particularly by providing teachers to isolated villages in 2009.  This is more of the same.

Robert Worth wrote about the teacher issue in his 2010 article “Is Yemen the Next Afghanistan?"  When USS Cole-linked al-Qaeda leader Fahd al-Quso showed up in Rafadh, the tribal leaders there sheltered him for two reasons, Worth says: because he looked like a victim of the government, and because he provided teachers.

But the tribesmen of Rafadh continued to shelter Quso and his men and not just because of their shared hatred of the government. Quso had offered to supply teachers for the village school. Local families knew he was with Al Qaeda but welcomed the news for a simple reason: there were no teachers in the school at all. "The people were saying, ‘We would rather have our kids get an Al Qaeda education than be illiterate,’ ” Jifri told me. After hearing about Quso’s offer, Jifri went to officials in Sana and delivered a blunt message: “Right now you have one Al Qaeda guy in Rafadh, tomorrow you will have 700.”

Initially, Jifri said, the government refused to provide teachers, saying any town that was willing to accept help from Al Qaeda was beneath contempt. Finally, they relented.

“The government agreed to send 6 teachers,” Jifri told me. “Fahd brought 16.”

Now, I suppose it should be pointed out that the new CTC report on AQAP and tribes in Yemen suggests that Yemeni tribes do not support or shelter AQAP, as has been suggested; the report footnotes Worth’s article as part of the narrative of “remote regions, [in which] the group was able to rapidly expand its influence among Yemen’s poorly integrated tribes, using a combination of marriage, coercion, bribery and public services (p14)."  This narrative, the author suggests, is at the very least incomplete (though I have not yet read the full report, and cannot give a good accounting of the report’s counter-narrative.)

That being said, support for ideological reasons is perhaps harder to attain than support for pragmatic ones.  As Christopher Boucek pointed out in a recent Q & A session - and as he’s been pointing out for months now - Yemen’s biggest challenges are things like the economy and broken infrastructure.  While the US and other Western countries focus solely on counter-terrorism, and while the Yemeni government fights to keep Saleh in power, AQAP has an opportunity to provide real answers to real problems, if it chooses to do so.

And there are several good reasons for why AQAP should try to ingratiate itself to the Yemeni people, not merely the fact that massive protests against Saleh and the Yemeni government give it room to do so.  I’d like to briefly talk about 3 of those reasons:

  1. Damage to the al-Qaeda brand
  2. Support for Islamism
  3. Success of prior examples

First, the idea that the al-Qaeda brand has been tarnished.  Aaron Zelin wrote about this back in August, in a blog post titled ”What’s in a Name: The Death of the al-Qa’ida Brand?“  Feeling out the relationship of Ansar al-Shariah to AQAP, Zelin notes:

Ansar al-Shari’ah may be a subsidiary of AQAP used for recruitment and foot soldiers in Yemen’s incipient civil war. It is telling that AQAP may be recruiting individuals using a different name.

We have also recently learned that Usama bin Laden may have been looking to change the name of al-Qa’ida central. According to press reports based on leaked information from the raid that killed bin Laden, al-Qai’da’s central leadership in Pakistan was debating a couple of options for its name. This was spurred in part by the Western habit of referring to the group as al-Qa’ida, rather than its official name of Tandhim Qa’idat al-Jihad (The Base Organization of Jihad). The leadership felt that the West’s habit of omitting the word “jihad” robbed them of some of their religious legitimacy. Unfortunately for al-Qa’ida, the two alternative names on the table were a mouthful – Ta’ifat at-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad (Sect of Monotheism and Jihad) and Jama’at ’I‘adat al-Khilafah al-Rashidiyyah (Restoration Group of the Rashidun Caliphate). Ultimately, they decided to stick with Tandhim Qa’idat al-Jihad.

Putting it quite succinctly, Zelin writes, "All told, the al-Qa’ida brand is not favorable anymore – even for its senior leadership.  It’s a big problem if AQAP is able to recruit more individuals by rejecting the brand and taking on a name with more religious significance.”

Now, one response to a tarnished brand is to change the name entirely; consider Blackwater’s change to Xe Services, or Coke’s transition from New Coke to Coca-Cola Classic.  Another is to try to refurbish the image.  I think AQAP is trying to do both.

If, under the auspices of Ansar al-Shariah and a wink-and-a-nod, AQAP is able to cast itself as the protector of the people - whether physically from Western and corrupt Saleh-an forces, or more indirectly through social services - AQAP will set the stage for accomplishing far-reaching goals in Yemen.  In fact, I think it could be argued that such a strategy is a continuation of bin Laden’s use of shelters and charities to fund, train, and equip the mujahadin in Afghanistan.  Doing so would also put a new, more positive spin on the al-Qaeda name.

Secondly, the support of Islamism in Yemen (and throughout the Middle East).  Though there are certainly questions as to Islamists’ roles in parliamentary government systems - see Will McCants’ brief post on the subject over at Jihadica, for example - there is little doubt that for Yemen and other Muslim countries, Islamism is a powerful force.  While definitions of proper Islam abound, as do ideas of what constitutes Islamism, the Islamic foundation of Yemen’s constitution provides a basis of any entity claiming Islamic roots to make an argument that it knows best how to implement the law under shariah. (For when I speak of Islamism or Islamists, I keep in mind Jillian Schwedler’s definition of “a shared commitment to the implementation of Islamic Law [shari’ah] in all spheres,” whatever their “tactics, strategies, or even specific objectives."  See her book Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen for more.)

Just as the government of Yemen argued that it was a legitimate Islamic establishment when Hamoud al-Hitar was trying to dialogue jihadists out of terrorism in Yemen, Islamist parties in Yemen and elsewhere have long asserted that they should be supported because they know how to lead a Muslim people properly.  The very name Ansar al-Shariah is an obvious attempt to take advantage of those sentiments, and actually backing the name up with genuinely useful actions has the potential to shift local perception, at least, to viewing al-Qaeda as a real support for the Yemeni people.

Which brings us to the third point, building on the success of other groups.  While I’m certainly no authority on Hamas, AQAP could learn much from Hamas’ successes.  See, for example, the Council on Foreign Relations’ backgrounder on Hamas, which both asks and answers questions:

Is Hamas only a terrorist group?

No. In addition to its military wing, the so-called Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigade, Hamas devotes much of its estimated $70 million annual budget to an extensive social services network. Indeed, the extensive social and political work done by Hamas–and its reputation among Palestinians as averse to corruption–partly explain its defeat of the Fatah old guard in the 2006 legislative vote. Hamas funds schools, orphanages, mosques, healthcare clinics, soup kitchens, and sports leagues. "Approximately 90 percent of its work is in social, welfare, cultural, and educational activities,” writes the Israeli scholar Reuven Paz. The Palestinian Authority often fails to provide such services, and Hamas’ efforts in this area–as well as a reputation for honesty, in contrast to the many Fatah officials accused of corruption–help to explain the broad popularity it summoned to defeat Fatah in the PA’s recent elections.

If AQAP could achieve a status similar to Hamas’ it would have a much greater chance of success than it does currently.  While such success would also leave it prone to the political dissatisfaction of its constituents that Hamas currently faces, and while it would still be classified as a terrorist organization (as Hamas is), the genuine backing of the people would force the US to change the way it operated in relation to AQAP.  A full-blown insurgency would likely necessitate either military intervention or complete withdrawal - neither one of which would be good options for the US.  In the long term, it would do a lot in al-Qaeda’s favor, though.

As I said at the outset, this post is mostly speculative.  Whether all of this will happen, or whether it even could, is still up in the air.  A recent piece for the Huffington Post quoted Fawaz Gerges as saying AQAP “does not possess the material, human means or endurance to sustain a transnational campaign, nor does it have the assets or resources to build viable alliances with Yemeni tribes and a social welfare infrastructure."  And yet, al-Qaeda as a whole and AQAP in particular has proven itself to be imaginative, resourceful, and evolving.  Thus, I stand by the assertion I made in the conclusion of my June post referenced before: that while I don’t know the best solutions for Yemen, I do know that nothing good can come of giving al-Qaeda the upper hand in the battle of ideas over who will provide greater safety and security to the common Yemeni citizen.
Wash Post: Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh Speaks

The declarations of a man barely clinging to power:

Q: I want to ask you about Yemeni-U.S. relations, which is important: On the day you returned to Yemen. . .

SALEH: This is the last question.

Q: On the day you returned to Yemen. . .

SALEH: The Yemeni-American relationship is good. In fact, it has not been affected during the past 33 years. And we have relationships with many political powers in Washington, both in the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. There have been some differences during the last Gulf war because of the Yemeni stance, but then the Americans realized that we were right and that we were not just defending the Iraqi regime.

Q: But the Americans. . .

SALEH: And these were accusations by analysts, diplomats and so on that turned out not to be true.

Q: But the U.S. has asked you to step down.

SALEH: I am addressing the American public. I want to ask a question: Are you still keeping your commitment to continue operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda?

If Washington is still with the international community in fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda, who have disturbed the world peace, that will be good. But what we see is that we are pressed by America and the international community to speed up the process of handing over power. And we know where power is going to go. It is going to al-Qaeda, which is directly and completely linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Watch on

In addition to Afghanistan, the United States is fighting al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula. We discuss the impact of Osama bin Laden’s death on al-Qaeda across the globe with Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project and former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst. “From an operational standpoint, Osama bin Laden doesn’t maintain very tight operational control over the different al-Qaeda franchises that are out there, including in Yemen, including in Somalia, and other places as well. So this is more of a symbolic victory,” says Foust.

via (5/2/2011)

GCIS INTELLIGENCE BRIEFING: Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland - Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)

ISSUED BY: GCIS Communications Command Center

SOURCE: Carnegie Endowment

03March2011 9:08amEST

GCIS INTELLIGENCE UPDATE: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the organization behind the attempted Christmas Day 2009 attack and last October’s cargo bomb plot, has repeatedly attempted to strike American interests. In testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee, Christopher Boucek warns that AQAP is now the greatest single terrorist threat to the United States—a greater danger even than al-Qaeda’s senior leadership. (read full report)

“GCIS INTELLIGENCE UPDATE” is an intelligence briefing presented by Griffith Colson Intelligence Service, and provided to the public for informative purposes only. All subject matter is credited to it’s source of origin, and is not intended to represent original content authored by GCIS, it’s partners or affiliates. All opinions presented are those of the author, and not necessarily those of GCIS or it’s partners.
Terrorists Target Cargo

Almost two weeks after a suspect bomb was removed from a cargo plane in Britain, Scotland Yard released a statement indicating that the bomb would have exploded in the early morning, as the plane flew over the United States’ Atlantic coastline en route to Chicago.  Officials attribute the delay of information to difficulties reengineering the bomb, which was located inside a printer cartridge. The explosive—PETN, a type of plastic—was undetected by K-9 units or explosive detectors because X-rayed PETN mimics the qualities of printer ink. 

Keep reading

The lost land of Abyan

Overlooking the province of Abyan: Lawder, Ja’ar, Zinjibar, Shaqra and all the way to the Arabian Sea.

The ‘frontline of the war on terror’ looks innocuous from here. Perched on the 1,000 meter-high ledge it’s hard to comprehend how this patch of land that stretches just 35 miles to the Arabian Sea is responsible for generating such fear and loathing in Washington.

It’s easy to imagine this place at the edge of the ancient incense trail as hundreds of camels carried frankincense from India to the Mediterranean. It’s just as you start to romanticise about this beautiful country and the wonderful people that the reality hits. Whether it’s a bomb blast like the one that killed 96 people last week, or the phone call we received an hour later whilst driving through Abyan, relaying information that the road ahead in a steep-sided valley was being held by al-Qaeda, prompting our minders to load their rocket propelled grenades. Wistful thinking goes out of the window rather rapidly here.

Veracity is something easily lost in Yemen and nowhere more so than in Abyan.

It just doesn’t add up

Since this latest offensive against Ansar al-Sharia, which began nearly three weeks ago, we’ve all been relying on government and military officials for casualty figures. Everyday new military advances are relayed and deaths reported: 22 militants here, six soldiers there.

“At least 353 people have been killed, according to a tally compiled by AFP, including 259 al-Qaeda fighters, 58 military personnel, 18 local militiamen and 18 civilians.” (May 30)

From speaking to civilian casualties, injured soldiers, hospital doctors, resistance fighters in Lawder and the governor of Abyan, I can tell you these figures are far, far removed from the reality on the ground.

In Lawder alone 93 fighters and soldiers died battling for the town (a figure given by a commander of the people’s committee of resistance fighters and backed up by Abyan’s governor Jamal Nasser al-Aqel).

One civilian casualty of a double air (possible drone) strike on May 15 in Ja’ar told me a day after the attack that 26 people – all civilians - were killed. Official figures on the day put civilian deaths at eight.

If I took these official numbers with a large pinch of salt before, I now know they’re absolutely worthless. All I can be sure of is many more people are dying than we know of, or are being told about.

Who’s who?

Less anticipated was the strong secessionist presence and sentiment in the south beyond Aden.

Anti-government protests last year changed the face of Aden. The town was festooned with southern flags. From the mountain side of Crater to almost every wall, advertising billboard and car dashboard the flag of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen became ubiquitous.

On a more than five-hour drive through the south the feeling of being in another country grows. Southern Movement checkpoints dot the roads, outnumbering the government-controlled barricades. Switching back and forth between the old southern and Yemen national flag protruding from old rusting oil drums it’s hard to tell who controls what and that’s before you get to the black flags of Ansar al-Sharia. At night some roads change hands for 12 hours or so as Ansar al-Sharia set up roadblocks before vanishing after sunrise.

Lawder as a blueprint

Southerner’s feelings towards the military are palpable in Abyan. From light-hearted jeering from the resident militias at their military counterparts, to subtle attempts to prevent us showing government troops in a good light, the underlying tension between the two recent allies is ever present.

The resistance fighters of Lawder, backed by leading Southern Movement figure Mohammed Ali Ahmed (a native of the town), in turn supported by President Hadi, are the first signs of southerners becoming militarily organised – admittedly very loosely - since being defeated in the 1994 civil war.

There’s much talk of Lawder and its resistance force, or popular committees, being the ‘blue print’ for the fight against Ansar al-Sharia and as a long-term solution to keep al-Qaeda out of southern towns.

Certainly the local fighters appear to have been crucial in the battle to oust the insurgents from Lawder. They took nearly twice as many casualties as the soldiers.

What also appears glaringly obvious on the ground is the long-term consequences of expanding this model across the south.

The men of Lawder and the surrounding villages are revelling in their victory and now consider themselves a credible fighting force. A force who’ve defeated one enemy and is now bullish enough, should they wish to, to take on (note: I don’t say defeat) another: their northern suppressors, as they see them.

The call for arming and supporting the south in the fight against al-Qaeda is widespread. From Yemen’s government to Western diplomats, they’re all pressing to get the southern tribes involved. But have they overlooked, or are they just choosing to ignore, the long-term impact of such a strategy? Perhaps those in the higher echelons understand and accept the risk of building this rag-tag force that may eventually turn on its creators. Those I’ve spoken to so far about this are in denial and refuse to see it as an issue.

I should stress that Mohammed Ali Ahmed expressed to me his ultimate desire for separatism, with federalism as the catalyst, but he says he’ll pursue these changes through political channels, not by force or the creation of a southern army.

But if this tribal army expands, what happens next is likely to be beyond his or any other individual’s control. Encouraging and arming men to fight is the simple part. Choosing their enemies for them is likely to be rather more problematic.


Travelling from Sana’a to the Tihama, Abyan to Hajjah, the one thing every Yemeni (and one grumbling foreign journalist) has repeatedly demanded is water and electricity. These two most basic services are severely lacking across most of the country, something Ansar al-Sharia benefited from as they set out to provide electricity, water and food for residents in towns across Abyan, where out-governing the state isn’t a tough challenge.

In Lawder the local power station was destroyed in the fighting. When asked what they’d do for electricity one of the commanders gave me a knowing look and smirked: “we wait for the government?”

As most of the country continues to ‘wait’ for regular electricity he and I joked about how ‘the men down the road’ [Ansar al-Sharia] could solve the problem, probably in a matter of days. But really this is no joke.

If Lawder is going to be held up as a shinning example of how to crush the insurgency then the state has to step in immediately and provide or renew basic services in order to convince people government rule is the better option. At the moment for many people across Yemen it’s not.

See all reports from Abyan trip

Reading List 10/6

(Or, my browser is running slowly because there’s too many tabs open).

I’ve skimmed a couple of these, and started on the CTC study, but that’s about it.

Anwar al-Awlaki

AQAP and Yemen


Before Being Killed By the CIA, A 13-Year-Old Yemeni Described Living in Constant Fear of Drones

A 13-year-old boy killed in Yemen last month by a CIA drone strike had told the Guardian just months earlier that he lived in constant fear of the “death machines” in the sky that had already killed his father and brother. …

Several anonymous US government officials told Reuters that the strike had been carried out by the CIA and had killed “three men believed to be al-Qaida militants”. …

Maqdad said the family had been wrongly associated with al-Qaida, and family members strongly deny that Mohammed was involved in any al-Qaida or anti-Houthi fighting.