The War Against al-Qaeda in Yemen Heats Up

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Mohammed Huwais / AFP / Getty Images

Mansur Shabwani Dalil, left, and Hedi Mubarak al-Saleh, both suspected al-Qaeda members, await trial in a Yemeni court specializing in terrorism on July 4, 2010

With its insurgencies and economic problems, the government of Yemen could only begrudge coexisting with elements of al-Qaeda in the country. And for the most part, the radical militants have focused on other targets, leaving the Yemeni government relatively unscarred. But after Yemen, at the behest of the U.S., started cracking down on the terrorist organization, al-Qaeda has begun to wage war on high-profile Yemeni-government targets, becoming another potential threat to the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The southern port city of Aden, considered a government stronghold, was thrown into chaos in June when suspected militants from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group's Yemeni arm, stormed the city's security headquarters, lobbing grenades and shooting into the smoke. Eleven people died in the assault, including three women and a child. Last weekend, two al-Qaeda suspects were arrested after a senior intelligence officer was gunned down, the second security officer to be killed in less than a month. "The attacks from al-Qaeda are major. The military is worried," Yemeni political analyst Abdul Ghani al Iryani told TIME.

Analysts number AQAP militants in the low hundreds, including former Guantánamo detainees who crossed the border from Saudi Arabia. Critics of Saleh's government say that until recently, it had only taken halfhearted measures to fight the militants because keeping the threat going, at a low simmer, kept U.S. counterterrorism dollars flooding in. It has also had other challenges to confront. Sana'a is fighting a bloody secessionist movement in the south and trying to maintain a fragile truce with Houthi rebels in the north. Unemployment running at 40%, a dire water crisis and a government almost entirely dependent on revenue from depleting oil wells compound the problems.

But President Saleh, a former military officer who has ruled Yemen since unification in 1990, has had to step up the fight against al-Qaeda under pressure from the White House, which itself was reacting to the attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian student trained by AQAP in Yemen, to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day with explosives concealed in his underwear. This year, Washington doubled counterterrorism assistance to the impoverished republic; it has also started training the Yemeni military, which has received fresh equipment from the U.S. Washington clearly wants results from Saleh.

Al-Qaeda's major targets in Yemen have usually been American or Western, starting from the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000. Otherwise, it has used Yemen as a base of operations to go after objectives elsewhere in the region, including Saudi Arabia. So, will it now go after Yemeni targets? Security analysts say it's not clear whether AQAP will turn its sights exclusively on the Yemeni government. "Al-Qaeda has always been rather broad in its target selection in Yemen, striking at both local-government offices as well as Western targets," Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University, told TIME. "What we are seeing at the moment is a result of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula regrouping after a number of strikes [against it by the Yemeni government] in December and January."

Analysts say heavy-handed Yemeni air strikes that have led to civilian casualties in the eastern desert region of Maarib, where local tribes are sheltering AQAP militants, have helped fuel retaliation — and played into al-Qaeda's hands. In May, a Yemeni air strike mistakenly killed Jaber Ali al-Shabwani, a government mediator and provincial official, as he was trying to persuade tribes not to give refuge to al-Qaeda. Tribesmen took revenge by blowing up an oil pipeline. AQAP seized on local anger over the air strikes, calling on the eastern tribes to rise against Saleh's government. "Defend your honor, land and homes," the U.S. monitoring group SITE quoted a statement released by AQAP as saying. "Allah willing, we will light up the ground with fire under the tyrants of infidelity in the regime of Ali Saleh and his helpers, the agents of America." A day later, the security headquarters in Aden was attacked.

Still, some Yemenis think even that apparent alliance between the tribes and AQAP is not set in stone. Sheik Muhammed al Shaif, a tribal leader from the eastern province of al-Jowf, regularly visits Maarib to mediate disputes among local tribes. "It's true that some tribes in Maarib protect terrorists, but not many," he told TIME. "The majority don't care about al-Qaeda, but when the government bombs surrounding tribes by accident, they will react with violence — not because they support al-Qaeda but because they have to retaliate under tribal custom." The sheik drives a beat-up Toyota through the streets of Sana'a, the Yemeni capital. A machine gun with a grenade launcher attached lies under a blanket in the trunk. Yemen is a country where owning a gun is a matter of honor. And the angry tribes in Maarib are just as well equipped to defend their honor.

Iryani, the analyst, isn't worried about the government's capacity to wage war. "I'm convinced, despite appearances, that security forces are quite capable of fighting al-Qaeda," he says. But he has a more pressing concern: "I don't see a coherent strategy. The government may be forced to take premature action by its Western backers, resulting in civilian casualties," which would only set in motion a cycle of retaliation and revenge. However, he also doesn't think the U.S. should step in directly. "If American boots were on the ground, half of Yemen would be bearing arms against the U.S. The alternative has been less than satisfactory, but it is less dangerous."