Analysis: Yemen gives wounded al Qaeda a chance to regroup
Source: Reuters, 27/05/2011
By Fernando Carvajal
LONDON - War in Yemen would hand al Qaeda's boldest militants greater scope to attack the West and repair the group's morale after the loss of Osama bin Laden.
With President Ali Abdullah Saleh's government mired in worsening political strife, the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is likely to have more freedom to apply a proven talent for daring and inventive bombing plots.
The small group -- some estimates put it at 300 individuals -- has nothing to do with a youth-based uprising seeking to end Saleh's long rule, or with opposition forces who fought pitched battles with his loyalists this week in the capital Sanaa.
But AQAP has international importance because it is al Qaeda's most intrepid community of attackers. It is adept at fielding operatives overseas, manufacturing and concealing sophisticated explosives, and producing compelling online propaganda that instigates attacks by others.
Its capacity to do all this from hideouts in remote regions in the provinces of Shabwa, Abyan, Jouf and Marib will grow to the extent that state security is distracted by political upheaval.
"Given how distracted Saleh's government is in its attempts to cling to power, AQAP has much more open space in which to operate at the moment," said Yemen scholar Gregory Johnsen.
A senior British counter-terrorism official said aspects of AQAP were "very troubling," including its ambition to strike outside its immediate neighborhood and what he said were its efforts to establish networks in East Africa and Europe.
SALEH FOCUSES ON "REGIME SURVIVAL"
"They've penetrated the global aviation system, they've got very competent explosives experts, seemingly we believe more competent than those of al Qaeda's senior leadership," he said.
The official said AQAP was operating "in a state which is failing and whose security apparatus ... has been diverted onto other matters, namely regime survival, creating areas of Yemen that are even less governed than they were a year ago."
More than 40 Yemenis were killed in Sanaa on Thursday, the fourth day of clashes since the collapse of an agreement for Saleh to step down and bring an end to four months of unrest.
A complete collapse in state authority would worsen a host of ills of more concern to Yemenis than AQAP, including graft, crime, unemployment and failing water supplies.
But it is AQAP that is the West's top security concern.
Saleh told Reuters this week that al Qaeda had stepped up its attacks over the past few months but coordination with Washington in the fight against terrorism was going well.
Yet his critics say it is his misgovernment that has caused a range of problems including Islamist militancy, so much so that an end to his rule would be a gain for counter-terrorism.
"His continuation in power will only contribute to the underlying causes of al Qaeda to flourish in Yemen -- lack of opportunity, corruption, cracking down on freedoms and rights, and killing Yemeni citizens in the name of fighting AQAP," Nadwa Al-Dawsari, head of Partners Yemen, a conflict prevention group working with tribal communities, told Reuters.
"If he stayed, the youth demonstrating now will be so frustrated they may want to join AQAP, or other groups engaged in smuggling, in gangs, in drug dealing and other social ills."
Views such as Al-Dawsari's are widespread. But analysts caution that if Saleh is replaced, his successor will come under exactly the same pressure from the West to tackle al Qaeda.
Whether the current government's policies will be greatly altered by a new leadership is an open question.
"NO MAGIC MISSILE SOLUTION"
Many feel more emphasis on improving governance in security and the judiciary would be better than the occasional U.S. missile attacks the government has allowed or tolerated.
"There is no magic missile solution to the problem of AQAP in Yemen," said Johnsen.
"If the U.S. continues to pursue strategies built solely around killing leaders of the AQAP without partnering that with a much more aggressive and nuanced development and political approach, then it will continue to reap short-term gains at the expense of long-term stability," he told Reuters.
Lasting advances in counter-terrorism are bound to be a long haul in a country where state authority is often limited to big cities and main roads and where tribes often dominate the surrounding mountains, valleys and deserts.
Barbara Bodine, who served as U.S. ambassador in 1997-2001, told Reuters drones "most assuredly do far more harm than good. While frustrating, this is a case of finding training and supporting indigenous capabilities, not doing it ourselves."
Firm word on the scope of AQAP's activities is sparse, but analysts suspect it exaggerates its presence on the ground.
An AQAP cleric last month said the group was growing in Marib province and "openly in control" in Shabwa province.
Fernando Carvajal, a Yemen specialist at Britain's Exeter University, said religious leaders in Marib would not hesitate to run al Qaeda elements out of their areas if they became "liabilities" to relationships between communities.