Unilateral action and attack drones will undermine moderates in Yemen

Unilateral action, for instance drone strikes, whether indiscriminate or not, may undermine moderate forces in the Yemeni government and make key local Yemenis less willing to tackle al-Qaeda themselves, writes George Readings.

The discovery of two bombs concealed in printer cartridges on one plane at East Midlands airport and another in Dubai has focused international attention on the bombs’ country of origin, Yemen. As in Somalia and the Afghan-Pakistan border areas, al-Qaeda is able to exploit the Yemeni government’s weak control over large areas of the country to operate with relative impunity.

This situation is exacerbated by the fact that large parts of Yemen’s rural population are heavily armed and hostile to the central government. Moreover, Islamism and anti-western sentiment are both strong throughout the country.

After the Yemeni authorities had landed some body blows against al-Qaeda in the country, most notably arresting and imprisoning some of its key leaders, the escape of several of these figures in early 2006 allowed al-Qaeda to regroup. In early 2009, the remnants of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia and al-Qaeda in Yemen merged to create ‘al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’ (AQAP).

This process was assisted by the Yemeni government’s continued involvement in the Sa’dah insurgency, a civil war with Shi’a Houthi rebels in the north of the country which has been rumbling on since 2004. AQAP has steadily become a major security threat, both within Yemen and worldwide.

The particular threat of AQAP is twofold. Firstly, its attacks, including the ‘toner’ bombs, Abdulmutallab’s ‘underpants’ bomb and the attempt to assassinate Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Nayef with a bomb apparently concealed within the would-be assassin’s body, have been significantly more technologically advanced than al-Qaeda attacks originating in Pakistan.

AQAP’s bomb-maker, believed to be Ibrahim al-Asiri, has managed to manufacture highly complicated bombs using a powerful plastic explosive that is almost impossible to trace. By contrast, terrorist attacks in the UK by individuals trained in Pakistan or Afghanistan have generally involved relatively crude devices manufactured from fertiliser or chapati flour.

Secondly, AQAP has an effective propaganda arm that is trying to reach out from Yemen to Muslims in western countries to encourage them to carry out terrorist attacks. The group’s most famous member, American-Yemeni ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki, is an important facet of this, as is its media operation, orchestrated by al-Awlaki’s fellow American, Samir Khan, which distributes slick video propaganda and a jihadist glossy magazine, ‘Inspire’.

Al-Awlaki has risen to prominence as an inspiration for Roshanara Choudhry, who attempted to assassinate Stephen Timms MP, as well as for Major Nidal Hasan, Faisal Shahzad and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

Before gaining this notoriety, groups and mosques under the influence of non-violent Islamists regularly fêted al-Awlaki as a preacher with great ‘credibility’ with young Muslims in western countries. Al-Awlaki’s consequent popularity, and the number of western Muslims who travel to Yemen to study, gives AQAP many opportunities for recruitment.

At the same time, he is just one part of the larger AQAP operation. Hyping him as ‘the next bin Laden’ risks exaggerating his actual influence, unnecessarily diverting resources and distorting effective policy-making. How, then, can Britain and other western countries respond to the threat of AQAP? The first priority is to acknowledge that Yemen, and its neighbour Saudi Arabia, are best able to confront AQAP.

Unilateral action, for instance drone strikes, whether indiscriminate or not, may undermine moderate forces in the Yemeni government and make key local Yemenis less willing to tackle al-Qaeda themselves. At the same time, both the Saudi and Yemeni governments could do more to tackle the ideological roots of extremism within their borders.

Yemen would also benefit from tackling problems of corruption and bad governance, particularly in south Yemen and Aden where such avoidable problems are helping to drive grassroots support for AQAP. A just settlement to the conflict with Houthi rebels, preferably one backed and overseen by international institutions, would free up Yemeni resources to tackle AQAP and other problems.

In western countries, governments need to appreciate that, without a coordinated plan to effectively challenge Islamism, and the harmful narratives associated with it, pure counter-terrorism work alone can never be entirely successful against Islamist violence, either in Yemen or elsewhere.

As seen above, it was non-violent Islamists like Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups who played a key role in promoting Anwar al-Awlaki to western Muslims. At best this makes them unreliable allies for counter-terrorism work and, at worst, an actively malign influence.

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