Saturday, 6 November 2010

Yemen tribal leaders can make or break Al Qaeda

Source: Los Angeles Times, By Jeffrey Fleishman, 06/11/2010

As the U.S. contemplates military options against the Islamist extremists, it risks running afoul of traditions, thus perhaps deepening resentment of America and further weakening Yemen's government.

Reporting from Sana, Yemen — They race through mountain passes and across deserts and cities, daggers stuffed in their belts and heavily armed bodyguards at their side, exuding a sense of power that for centuries has defined Yemen's dangerous and cunning political landscape.

This nation's tribal leaders, grandiose personalities with often disparate interests, are a key to stability from the sand-swept border with Saudi Arabia to the edges of the Red Sea. They are the men with the potential to break Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or allow it to flourish, depending on whispered deals, money and territorial gambits.

As the U.S. contemplates the possibility of drone strikes and other high-tech military options against the Islamist extremists, it will have to consider the risk of running afoul of ancient traditions and thereby possibly fueling deeper resentment of America and further weakening Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's besieged government.

"If the U.S. intervenes uninvited, the jihad door will open and it will be easier for people to support Al Qaeda," said Mohammed Salhi, a young tribal leader sitting with his compatriots as dusk fell over the hills ringing the capital. "The militants will grow stronger and stronger."

"We are Arabs," said Mohammed Safwan, a friend of Salhi's from another tribe. "It is our custom to support the weak and those fighting the outsider."

Al Qaeda's strength in the hinterlands here is calibrated on ancestral ties, rural justice and Islamic codes. Local militants, along with scores journeying in from as far off as Afghanistan, have found refuge on these lands, not necessarily over shared jihad or ideological aims, but because tribes and families will not abandon them to soldiers and tanks.

Such blood and religious bonds are similar to allegiances in the militant havens of Pakistan and Afghanistan, where U.S. airstrikes thunder almost daily. But unlike in those countries, where key tribes endorse and aid Al Qaeda's mission, many of Yemen's clans are less fanatical and remain open to negotiation with a government that for years has provided them with payoffs and public works.

Saleh's government fears that wider U.S. military intervention — Washington is providing funds, equipment and advisors —could prove counterproductive by radicalizing the tribes. Clan leaders were infuriated by airstrikes in December that killed 41 civilians in the southern province of Shabwa. Yemeni officials said the attack came from a U.S. drone. Washington has not commented on the incident.

"There are tribal ties with some terrorist elements," said Tarek Shami, a ranking official with the ruling General People's Congress. "We're telling them, 'We want you to turn the terrorists over or there will be more military operations.' But they fear the fighters will be handed over to the U.S., and we're saying, 'No, they'll be tried in Yemen.'"

Al Qaeda has been skillful at exploiting tribal grievances with the country's corrupt government, which runs on patronage and inside deals for the politically connected, for its own benefit. But talks between government and tribal leaders, along with military incursions that have swept through villages, are forcing clans to reassess the value of harboring Al Qaeda figures, such as the U.S.-born radical cleric Anwar Awlaki and the group's bomb maker Ibrahim Hassan Asiri.

Yemen announced this week that over the last month, 29 suspected Al Qaeda fighters surrendered in the southern province of Abyan. On Wednesday, Al Qaeda urged Awlaki's tribe not to cooperate with Saleh's government, which it claims is a U.S. puppet. The group's statement followed a meeting between tribal leaders and Yemeni officials.

"If the U.S. steps in, some tribesmen will be extremely happy," said Jar Salehi, a former intelligence officer and tribal leader, referring to how clans would take advantage of a wider war. "There would be chaos, fighting, looting and stealing. Tribesmen have everything in their arsenals except tanks and airplanes."

He and other young, educated clansmen lounged in a sitting room, their faces aglow behind laptops. They chewed khat, a narcotic leaf enjoyed by most Yemenis, and spoke of tribal rules, conspiracies and last week's failed plot to blow up U.S.-bound aircraft.

They said Al Qaeda's prowess is exaggerated and that many of their countrymen believe the group is a fiction created to advance American interests. They had been hardened by living in a land of ceaseless tumult: Al Qaeda firefights, a rebellion in the north, a secession movement in the south, high unemployment, malnutrition and drought. But they most preferred spinning intrigue and political scenarios.

"What about the timing of this bomb plot?" said Salhi, who is the editor of a news website. "Maybe it was designed to help President Obama in the elections."

"Or maybe it helps Saudi Arabia look good since its intelligence agents supposedly tipped off the U.S.," said another.

What about Al Qaeda's role?

"Yes," said Salhi, "Al Qaeda tries to find sympathetic tribesmen to give them shelter. This doesn't mean the whole tribe is sympathetic. Once they're invited in by family, you can't disown them. But if you can convince the tribes, they can convince their sons to turn themselves in."

That could take time. The U.S. is growing impatient with Saleh's corrupt government. Yemen's recent military campaigns have pounded villages, spawning refugees but netting few Al Qaeda fighters. Western intelligence agencies worry that Yemen could tumble into being a failed state at the intersection of the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, where another Al Qaeda branch is battling the government of Somalia. Such instability would endanger neighboring countries and further jeopardize the pirate-laden shipping lanes around the Arabian Peninsula.

"Al Qaeda is growing. Fighters are coming in from Afghanistan and Iraq," said Hakim Almasmari, publisher and editor of the Yemen Post. "Saleh has limited power. He's trying to help but that's all he can do."

Shami, the ranking party official, said much of it comes down to Yemen's tribes: "We know how to deal with them," he said. "This is a very sensitive society when it comes to religion and Islam. Tribesmen once listened to the Islamists, but the government has been able to convince them that Al Qaeda is far from religion."

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