Yemen’s Al Qaeda Strategy: Different Strokes for Different Folks

This piece by Gregory Johnsen speaks to the generational split between the AQ-Yemen Afghan generation (AQ-Yemen-A) and the newer Zarqawi-inspired generation (AQ-Yemen-Z). I agree with a lot of what’s written here. I have been saying for a while now that the regime treats the two generations differently – and with good reason. Not only does AQ-Yemen-Z seem not as receptive to government negotiation and deal making, but they exhibit a different preference of target selection – choosing to attack tourists instead of the norm of oil infrastructure,government and military targets. The targeting of the tourism sector is worrying for the government which, until the bombing, had been working to improve its image.

I am therefor sympathetic to Johnson’s argument that the Yemeni government’s dealings with al Badawi may be an attempt to further separate the generations. In its strongest form, the government may be looking to play them against one another. I have no doubt that the regime would be happy to have an inter-AQ conflict – even if it means empowering the older generation to a degree. This is not a strategy confined only to Yemen after all – consider the release of jailed Fatah party members by Israel in the days following the Hamas take over of the Gaza Strip.

In its simpler form, the government may have just been practicing appeasement. With three or four fires raging around them already, the regime cannot afford to have a resurgent AQ-Yemen-A/AAIA, and of course it is not out of character for the Yemeni government to deal for a truce.

Lastly, we also cannot discount the possibility that the government was looking for a deal to counter not AQ-Yemen-Z, but one of the other fires out there threatening it – the Sa’dah conflict, or the southern separatist/officers movement. This scenario, too, is not without its historical merit – as the regime is widely known to have employed Salafi extremist against the Sa’dah rebels, as well as Afghan Arabs against southerners in the ’94 civil war. 

Al Qaeda’s generational split

By Gregory D. Johnsen
November 9, 2007

RECENT CONFUSION over the status of Jamal al-Badawi, one the masterminds of the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, illustrates the difficulties of containing an increasingly fractured jihadist movement. Badawi, who escaped from prison early last year, had surrendered to the Yemeni government in early October, only to be released as part of a plea deal. These events have sparked confusion and anger in the United States.

In Yemen, meanwhile, authorities have continued to make misleading and ambiguous statements about his whereabouts. It would be easy to assume, as many have done, that the country’s reaction was that of a reluctant ally eager to shirk its responsibility in the war against Al Qaeda. This reading, as Rudy Giuliani suggested, demands that the United States threaten Yemen with a reduction in aid.

But what to the United States is a cohesive organization bound together by a common hatred is to Yemen a fragmented movement that is rife with infighting and dissension.

Over the past several months, a generational schism has emerged within Al Qaeda’s ranks in Yemen, pitting younger, more radicalized members against the more experienced old guard. Since 2003, the Yemeni government and Al Qaeda in Yemen have reached what could best be described as a tacit nonaggression pact. Through a combination of military action and negotiation, Yemen has attempted to convince the militants not that their beliefs are incorrect, but rather that they would hurt their own cause and base of operations by acting violently within the borders of the state.

These negotiations have led to the release of numerous Al Qaeda operatives, who have pledged not to carry out attacks within the country. Yemen has a long tradition of co-opting its enemies; the government used this technique to buy off southern officers after a secession attempt in 1994.

To the new generation of Al Qaeda in Yemen, many of whom have been radicalized in Iraq, this arrangement is tantamount to a treasonous alliance with tyrants. This summer, under the leadership of Nasir al-Wuhayshi – Osama bin Laden’s former secretary and a fellow escapee of Badawi’s – the new generation issued a statement articulating its policy.

The statement, which was aimed at Al Qaeda’s old guard, warned that jihad could not be paused in order to seek the release of prisoners. Indeed, the new generation showed little interest in the worldly fate of those prisoners. “If they are killed,” the statement said, “they end up as martyrs.”

This rare, public outburst spoke volumes about the levels of dissension current among Al Qaeda in Yemen. The old guard had advised younger members to have patience and allow for negotiations with the Yemeni government to continue. They were also concerned that any attacks within Yemen could lead to a government crackdown on its leadership, much like what happened in the aftermath of the USS Cole attack and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The break between the two generations was finalized later in the summer when, on July 2, a suicide bomber struck a caravan of tourists in Marib, killing 10 people. After the attack Yemen has attempted to drive a wedge between the two generations. Those members who agree to negotiate and pledge not to carry out attacks in Yemen are rewarded with their freedom, while authorities hunt down those who refuse, such as the four Al Qaeda members who were killed in a raid on a safe house a month later.

The four months of negotiation and subsequent release of Badawi is coherent with this strategy. Obviously, any policy that includes releasing terrorists responsible for US deaths, especially a policy that is as opaque and personalized as the Yemeni one, is not one that is designed to please the United States. But the solution is not to try to change Yemen’s priorities by threatening to withdraw aid at a time when it is struggling with a host of economic and security problems. An insistence on viewing all jihadists as part of the same organization will not help either.

Yemen’s effort to play two generations of Al Qaeda off against each other is a nuanced and local response to a complex problem. The United States has to realize that a one-size-fits-all approach to the war on terrorism is not in its long-term interests. Diplomatic carrots rather than threatening sticks are the only way to convince Yemen to pursue a counterterrorism strategy that benefits both countries.

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4 Responses to “Yemen’s Al Qaeda Strategy: Different Strokes for Different Folks”

  1. Gregory Johnsen Says:

    Trey, I agree with you that al-Qaeda is not at the top of Yemen’s to-do list. It is, at best, 4th or 5th in my reading of the situation. Also, a small point: the last name is “Johnsen.”

  2. Trey Campbell Says:

    heh, sorry…will edit.

  3. NYT on Yemen’s Catch-and-Release al Qaeda Policy Says:

    […] excellent article from the NYT…Very balanced. I am happy that the author discusses the generational differences between the old Afghan-trained al Qaeda (which I call AQ-Yemen A) and the new Iraqi, Zarqawi […]

  4. Jamal Says:

    Sorry for being off-topic, but you totally remind me of one of my ex-girlfriends. I miss her a lot.,

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