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:
- Damage to the al-Qaeda brand
- Support for Islamism
- 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.