The Absence of Saleh: Dealing With AQAP in a Post-Arab Spring Yemen

With the emergence of the Al-Qaeda branch Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, the next American administration needs to increase aid and public support for the current Yemeni president as he navigates a volatile domestic situation to combat the growing terrorist threat. Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the foreign policy discourse in the United States has generally centered on the ouster of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, the death of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and the desperation of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. After all, the shifting sands of political leadership in the Arab world directly affect the United States, from increased stressors on oil production to the changing reality of allies in the region. With the lion’s share of the media and political attention on the three aforementioned countries, however, the political revolution in Yemen skirted by on the periphery.

In a negotiated settlement, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the longtime president who rose to power in 1978 and oversaw the country’s 1990 unification, ceded power to Abd Rabbuh Mansur Al-Hadi, his vice president. More than a year after the Arab Spring began to shake the political foundation in Yemen, Saleh stepped aside in a rather dignified and peaceful process, avoiding the desperate violence that characterized and characterizes the regimes of Gaddafi and al-Assad, respectively. However, as Yemenis celebrate a chance for change and as Yemen moves into a new era, potentially a more democratic one, the loss of Saleh’s ability to preside over the most fragmented country in the world should not be undervalued.

Known simply as The Boss, Saleh manipulated and maneuvered his way around competing factions and threats to the stability of his government by playing various groups off each other and through bribes, payouts, and positions of power. During his reign, five distinct but equally important challenges confronted his administration:

  1. Sectarian Violence: In northern Yemen, Zaydi Shiites are engaged in a violent conflict with Salafi Sunnis, a conservative and reactionary sect of Sunni Islam. Known as the Houthis, after their founder, the Zaydi Shiite organization also fought against the government forces of Saleh, who they claimed acted as a puppet of the United States and allowed for Salafi Sunnis to threaten their existence.
  2. Secessionist Movement: In southern Yemen, a movement to split the country back into a North and South Yemen threatens the stability of a country that reached twenty years of unification just two years ago. Known as Herak, the movement has survived Saleh’s attempts to end the movement through crackdowns by government forces. In justifying their efforts, the movement claims the Saleh administration has allowed northerners to monopolize power and economic opportunity.
  3. Tribal affairs: Much the same as other parts of the Arab world, tribal affiliations carry tremendous and significant power. Saleh was able to effectively play the tribes off each other in a way that maintained his own power while also appeasing the tribes and powerful individual within those tribes. In other words, Saleh knew his power depended on satisfying the varying competing tribes.
  4. Military relations: Also similar to other Arab countries, the military as whole, but also certain individuals, carry tremendous weight in the political system (see: Manaf Tlass, Syria). Saleh himself was a military man, attaining a final rank of Field Marshal to cap a military career that began as a second lieutenant. Thus, Saleh knew the importance of solidifying military support for his administration. As he did with the tribes, Saleh played potential rivals off each other and garnered support through appeasement. To illustrate the importance of the military’s support of any Yemeni government, perhaps the biggest blow to the Saleh regime was the defection of Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, considered at the time the most powerful military figure in Yemen.
  5. Al-Qaeda: The relationship between the Yemeni government and Al-Qaeda has drastically changed over the last twenty years. In the early 1990s, numerous Yemenis who participated in the fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s returned home radicalized. Prior to 9/11, Saleh incorporated these fighters into his government forces to combat the secessionist movement in the south and the Houthis in the north. During this time, Al-Qaeda’s influence and presence in the country grew as they recruited these fights to their cause. Saleh, at the time, made little note of Al-Qaeda. Following 9/11, however, Saleh quickly changed his tune out of fear of reprisal from the United States. Until his ouster, Saleh provided political cover for American drone attacks and allowed the United States to operate counterterrorism camps within the country. Besides the fear of reprisal, Saleh saw the funding he received for his cooperation as a way to replenish his coffers so that he could continue to appease the tribes and the military.

Amidst all of that, Saleh’s political brilliance should be evident. Without such brilliance, his reign would have been short-lived. Currently, however, his absence provides for great uncertainty. It is unclear if the current Yemeni president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Al-Hadi, or any successor will be able navigate all the varying challenges with the success of Saleh. If AQAP could rise to power despite Saleh’s relative control on the country and with the support of the country’s most powerful tribes and individuals, then how can the United States expect any potential successor to more successfully deal with the AQAP threat?

Formally designated a terrorist organization in 2009, AQAP is widely regarded as the greatest terrorist threat to the United States. In fact, in 2011, General David Patraeus, the current Director of the CIA, stated AQAP is “the most dangerous regional node in the global jihad”. The White House agrees as in 2009 counterterrorism advisor John Brennan said AQAP is “very, very dangerous”. The potential potency of AQAP has been evident in its failed plots to blowup an aircraft bound for Detroit using an underwear bomb and to bomb various locations in the Unites States through parcel bombs.

Perhaps the most significant evidence of AQAP’s threat to the United States is the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki. A master motivator and instrumental influence for AQAP, al-Awlaki was a key cog for the organization and a massive blow to their leadership when he was assassinated by a drone attack in 2011. He was thought to be behind that Fort Hood massacre that left thirteen Americans dead. Though a jihadist who called for violence against the United States, al-Awlaki himself was American. Putting the legality of the assassination aside, the fact that the Obama administration ordered a hit on an American citizen indicates the seriousness of the threat AQAP poses.

With political stability in Yemen uncertain and the potent threat AQAP poses, the United States should dramatically increase funding and public support for the current Yemeni government. If the current administration falters, then that opens the door for AQAP to increase its already significant influence in Yemen, creating a much more dangerous situation for the United States. In 2010, the Obama administration doubled Yemen’s counterterrorism aid to $150 million, with $45 million devoted to training Yemen’s own counterterrorism units. In my opinion, that amount is not enough. Regardless of who wins the election in November, Romney or Obama need to devote more money, time, and energy to defeating AQAP. It may be impossible to fully eradicate the AQAP threat, but the United States can disrupt the network and hinder its operations through cooperation with the Yemeni government.