Washington’s War in Yemen Has Ignited Islamist Uprising

War in Yemen Backfires

Soldiers with the 25th Mechanized Brigade near the front lines in Zinjibar Yemen. Image credit: Richard Rowley, Big Noise Films

This last week the indispensable independent journalist Jeremy Scahill released a new piece in The Nation magazine titled Washington’s War in Yemen Backfires. Scahill’s investigative journalism is pretty incredible. He travels to some of the most dangerous parts of the world in order to get the story from the front lines, obtaining firsthand accounts and facts on the ground. Not only is his method courageous, but his writing ability is truly enviable.

The war going on in Yemen is one of the more important stories that is not being talked about, and that is because it is starting to look like US counterterrorism efforts in Yemen have actually strengthened the very threat we are supposedly fighting.

First, a little bit of the important historical background.

Yemen is a deeply tribal and ethnically divided country. In fact it used to be two separate countries, North and South Yemen. These two countries existed from the time of the break up of the Ottoman Empire until the dictator of North Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, united the two countries in 1990 after a long period of civil war. Saleh was able to unite the two countries by masterfully navigating the labyrinthian tribal network and creating a patronage system with tribal leaders. The central government, located out of the capital city Sana’a, has never really controlled a lot of the country because of the power and influence of regional tribal politics. The most powerful players in Yemen are not those in the Saleh regime but tribal leaders that control huge swaths of Yemen. There are hundreds of different tribes, large and small.

Ever since the Arab Spring began just over a year ago, protests have broken out calling for the removal of Saleh and his regime. Saleh’s regime, considered by the US to be an important ally in the “war on terror”, has been crumbling, with many members of his own regime and key allies defecting to the opposition. Sana’a is divided, Shi’a Houthi minority tribes are rebelling in the north, and there are growing secessionist calls in the South.

The main charge of Scahill’s report is that Saleh is a “master chess player” who has been able to essentially play the US like a fiddle by playing up the terrorist threat in Yemen in order to amass US counterterrorism assistance (weapons and funds). He has instead used those resources to defend his regime against his domestic political opponents.

Since last May, Islamist militants have overrun and taken control over Zinjibar, the provincial capital of Abyan province, as well as Shebwa province in the south with almost no resistance from the Saleh’s security forces. Reports from Yemeni officials state that:

“Saleh himself actually handed over Zinjibar to these militants. He ordered his police force to evacuate the city and turn it over to the militants because he wanted to send a signal to the world that, without me, Yemen will fall into the hands of the terrorists.”

Scahill reports that the militants who overtook Zinjibar claimed to be a group called Ansar al Sharia. Senior Yemeni and US officials told him they were most likely a domestic front group for AQAP – al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. 

The Obama administration has been launching cruise missiles and drone strikes since the end of 2009 that sometimes hit their intended targets, but oftentimes do not. This has resulted in scores of injured and killed civilians. Popular rage against these airstrikes has exploded among the tribal leaders and among Yemeni civilians because of the large number of civilian casualties.

What Scahill found in his investigation on the ground was that tribes are allowing Ansar al-Sharia to operate in areas where the Saleh regime has intentionally left a void and a power vacuum. They have been able to win over the hearts and minds of the indigenous population because they are bringing some semblance of law and order (however gruesome and horrifying) in the midst of lawlessness. It has been an effective tactic of these Islamist groups throughout the Muslim world to provide civil services to a civilian population.

“Ansar al Sharia repaired roads, restored electricity, distributed food and began security patrols inside the city and its surroundings. It also established Sharia courts where disputes could be resolved. “Al Qaeda and Ansar al Sharia brought security to the people in areas that were famous for insecurity, famous for thefts, for roadblocks,” says Abdul Rezzaq al Jamal, an independent Yemeni journalist who regularly interviews Al Qaeda leaders and has spent extensive time in Zinjibar.”

The most important takeaway from the story is that the mounting rage against the US drone war and the years of support for the Saleh regime is beginning to create varying degrees of indigenous support for AQAP’s agenda. The US counterterrorism strategy is becoming dangerously unpopular and is sowing the seeds for massive blowback.

“President Obama’s first known authorization of a missile strike on Yemen, on December 17, 2009, killed more than forty Bedouins, many of them women and children, in the remote village of al Majala in Abyan. Another US strike, in May 2010, killed an important tribal leader and the deputy governor of Marib province, Jabir Shabwani, sparking mass anger at the United States and Saleh’s government. “I think these airstrikes were based on false intelligence from the regime, because that is the nature of the contractor,” Qahtan charges. “The contractor wants to create more work in return for earning more money.”

“I firmly believe that the [military] operations implemented by the US performed a great service for Al Qaeda, because those operations gave Al Qaeda unprecedented local sympathy,” says Jamal, the Yemeni journalist. The strikes “have recruited thousands.” Yemeni tribesmen, he says, share one common goal with Al Qaeda, “which is revenge against the Americans, because those who were killed are the sons of the tribesmen, and the tribesmen never, ever give up on revenge.”

The tribes, who once had a motivation for keeping al Qaeda in check, have lost that motivation because they do not seem to pose a threat compared to the drone war and the massive civilian casualties. They are not attacking or threatening the tribes. Instead they are able to focus a message that connects to the anger and desire for revenge against the US who is bombing their villages and killing large numbers of innocent Yemenis. Perhaps the most significant quote in the piece comes from a tribal sheik named Mullah Zadara, the most interesting character in the story. Zadara has been asked by the Yemeni government to mediate between the militants and the government.

Zabara is quick to clarify that he believes AQAP is a terrorist group bent on attacking the United States, but that is hardly his central concern. “The US sees Al Qaeda as terrorism, and we consider the drones terrorism,” he says. “The drones are flying day and night, frightening women and children, disturbing sleeping people. This is terrorism.” Zabara says several US strikes in his region have killed scores of civilians and that his community is littered with unexploded cluster bombs, which have detonated, killing children.

The situation in Yemen is quickly becoming more and more dangerous. US policy has made counterterrorism a source of profit for the Saleh regime. The greater the threat of terrorism against the US, the greater profit for Saleh and his regime. Saleh has played the US like a fiddle, being able to milk the threat and allow advances by AQAP in order to maintain his grip on power. These bombings, when we kill civilians, radically undermine our goals in the region. We are fomenting blowback. The very threat we are said to be fighting in the world is manageable right now, but if we keep fighting it the wrong way it might not be manageable for long.

Now that we are ten years into this war, we need to wake up to the reality that we could be fighting it the wrong way.

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One Comment on “Washington’s War in Yemen Has Ignited Islamist Uprising”

  1. Bob mason says:

    Powerful information. Our military strategies are really messed up.


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