A new and more extreme generation of al-Qaeda has arisen in Yemen in the past three years, overstepping the traditional constraints that allowed for an uneasy truce with the Yemeni Government, on which it has declared all-out war, experts warned yesterday.
They said that a military approach to tackling the crisis would only exacerbate the problem, radicalising tribes who were already sympathetic to the Islamists while failing to address key civil grievances such as massive underdevelopment, poverty and unequal distribution of key resources, in particular oil.
“A Western intervention, in particular a US intervention, will provoke a backlash” among normal Yemenis, a conservative and poorly educated population distrustful of what they considered to be an aggressive West, Saeed al-Jemhi, the author of AlQaeda in Yemen, said. “This can only work in al-Qaeda’s favour.”
Another analyst, who asked not to be named, said: “It’s like a wasp’s nest if you hit it with a stick.”
Both said that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was composed mainly of Yemeni fighters who had experience of the US intervention in Iraq, where they fought under the Jordanian leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
He was so brutal — killing thousands of Shias in suicide bombings to provoke the civil war that almost destroyed Iraq — that even Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman alZawahiri, urged him to rein in his bloody onslaught. Al-Zarqawi was killed by a US airstrike in 2006.
The latest group of terrorists has torn up a fragile détente with Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Yemeni President, and is trying to destroy the fabric of governance.
Their predecessors, the al-Qaeda Mujahidin who fought with bin Laden in Afghanistan, returned to Yemen as heroes, and although they plotted attacks on foreign targets they did not go after the Yemeni authorities, who kept them under watch but allowed them to remain at liberty.
The newest group, however, has carried out numerous attacks inside the country, including on security forces, and declared the President a heretic — tantamount to a death sentence.
Yemen has always been a recruiting ground for al-Qaeda. Many of the first generation were young Yemeni men who travelled to Saudi Arabia for work and encountered the harsher Islamic ideology of Wahhabism espoused by Saudis.
President Saleh used the Islamist card in quelling rebellion in the former Marxist south in the civil war in the mid-1990s, which some analysts said partly explained his reluctance to confront al-Qaeda until he was forced to — by Western pressure and the new brand of extremism preached by the terrorists.
The new group emerged after a prison break in Yemen in 2006 in which 23 top al-Qaeda members escaped from a high-security jail and started regrouping. Among them were leaders of the new formation, Nasser al-Wahishi, a former secretary to bin Laden, and Said Ali al-Shehri, a Saudi who was in Guantánamo for years before being released to a Saudi rehabilitation programme.
They based themselves in the mountains and deserts of eastern Yemen, which resembles Afghanistan and where the writ of the Government has never extended. Many recruits were Yemeni, some of them tribal leaders who persuaded their people to offer refuge to the fighters and join them.
“Al-Qaeda has become a banner for frustrated people,” one Yemeni analyst said.
Most agreed that military operations, while necessary to remove terrorist leaders, were not the way to tackle the problem. Poor areas needed development to take away the incentive to join the terrorists.
The US learnt late in the day in Iraq that dealing with tribal leaders, in effect buying them off and offering jobs, was far more effective than fighting them.
The Government will also need to ensure the continuing loyalty of the Salafist sect, a hardline religious grouping with an almost identical ideology to al-Qaeda. Salafist leaders have so far rejected al-Qaeda but Mr al-Jemhi said that they were like an “orchard from which al-Qaeda will pick its fruits. Ninety-five per cent of them are ideologically ready for jihad. AlQaeda takes advantage of this to recruit them.”
Analysts said that no influential religious leaders had been persuaded to speak out against al-Qaeda. Experts also emphasised the need for military operations to have a Yemeni face to avoid giving the impression that the US was repeating its armed interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Pentagon said yesterday that no troops were scheduled to be sent to Yemen, although special forces have been training anti-terrorism forces there for at least two months.
The Yemeni Government faces many challenges. It is fighting a Shia Houthi rebellion in the north, which has taken most of its attention in recent years, and a secessionist movement in the oil-rich south.
This has taken place against the backdrop of the failed Somali state across the Gulf of Aden. The al-Qaeda-affiliated Somali militia, known as al-Shabaab, has pledged to send hundreds of fighters to Yemen to counter the US and British involvement.
The Somali Government this week accused the Shia rebels in the north of Yemen — believed by Sanaa to be receiving aid from Iran — of sending weapons to al-Shabaab despite the ideological gulf between the Shia and hardline Sunni groups.