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AQAP and the Vacuum of Authority in Yemen

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By Scott Stewart

While the world's attention is focused on the combat transpiring in Libya and the events in Egypt and Bahrain, Yemen has also descended into crisis. The country is deeply split over its support for Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and this profound divide has also extended to the most powerful institutions in the country — the military and the tribes — with some factions calling for Saleh to relinquish power and others supporting him. The tense standoff in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa has served to divert attention (and security forces) from other parts of the country.

On March 28, an explosion at a munitions factory in southern Yemen killed at least 110 people. The factory, which reportedly produced AK rifles and ammunition, was located in the town of Jaar in Abyan province. Armed militants looted the factory March 27, and the explosion reportedly occurred the next day as local townspeople were rummaging through the factory. It is not known what sparked the explosion, but it is suspected to have been an accident, perhaps caused by careless smoking.

The government has reported that the jihadist group Aden-Abyan Islamic Army worked with militant separatists from the south to conduct the raid on the factory. Other sources have indicated to STRATFOR that they believe the raid was conducted by tribesman from Lawder. Given the history of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) activity in the Lawder area, if the tribesmen were indeed from Lawder, it is highly likely they were at least sympathetic to AQAP if not affiliated with the group.

While it is in Saleh's interest to play up the separatist and jihadist threats as a way of showing international and internal parties how important he is and why he should remain in power, these threats are indeed legitimate. Even in the best of times, there are large portions of Yemen that are under tenuous government control, and the current crisis has enlarged this power vacuum. Because of this lack of government focus and the opportunity to gather weapons in places like Jaar, militant groups such as AQAP, the strongest of al Qaeda's regional franchise groups, have been provided with a golden opportunity. The question is: Will they be capable of fully exploiting it?

The Situation in Yemen

The raid on the arms factory in Jaar was facilitated by the fact that government security forces had been forced to focus elsewhere. Reports indicate that there was only a company of Yemeni troops in Jaar to guard the factory and that they were quickly overwhelmed by the militants. While the government moved a battalion into Jaar to restore order, those troops had to be taken from elsewhere. This confrontation between troops loyal to Saleh and those led by Brig. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar in the capital city has also caused security forces from both sides to be drawn back to Sanaa in anticipation of a clash. It has also resulted in a vacuum of power in many parts of the country. Currently, government control over large parts of the country varies from town to town, especially in provinces such as Saada, al-Jouf, Shabwa and Abyan, which have long histories of separatist activity.

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It is important to understand that Yemen was not a very cohesive entity going into this current crisis, and the writ of the central government has been continually challenged since the country's founding. Until 1990, Yemen was split into two countries, the conservative, Saudi-influenced Yemen Arab Republic in the north and the Marxist, secular People's Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south. In 1994, following a peaceful unification in 1990, a bloody civil war was fought between the north and the south. While the north won the war, tensions have remained high between the two sides, and there has long been a simmering anti-government sentiment in the south. This sentiment has periodically manifested itself in outbreaks of armed hostilities between the armed southern separatist movement and government forces.

In Yemen's northwest, the al-Houthi rebels also have been waging a war of secession against the central government in Sanaa. In the last round of open hostilities, which ended in January 2010, the Yemeni government was unable to quell the uprising, and Saudi Arabia had to commit military forces to help force the al-Houthi rebels to capitulate.

Yemen's tribes present another challenge to the central government. President Saleh had been able to use a system of patronage and payoffs to help secure the support of the country's powerful tribes, but this recently has become more difficult with Saudi influence with the tribes eclipsing that of Saleh. In recent weeks, many prominent tribal leaders such as the al-Ahmars have decided to join the opposition and denounce Saleh. The tribes have always been largely independent and have controlled large sections of the country with very little government interference. Government influence there is even less now.

Saleh has also used the conservative tribes and jihadists to help him in his battles against secessionists in both the north and the south. They proved eager to fight the secular Marxists in the south and the Zaydi Shiite al-Houthi in the north. The practice of relying on the conservative tribes and jihadists has also blown back on the Yemeni regime and, as in Pakistan, there are jihadist sympathizers within the Yemeni security apparatus. Because of this dynamic, efforts to locate and root out AQAP elements have been very complicated and limited.

The Yemeni tribes practice a very conservative form of Islam, and their tribal traditions are in many ways similar to the Pashtunwali code in Pakistan. According to this tradition, any guest of the tribe — such as an al Qaeda militant — is vigorously protected once welcomed. They will also protect "sons of the tribe," such as American-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a member of the powerful Awlak tribe (the Yemeni prime minister is the uncle of al-Awlaki's father). The AQAP leadership has further exploited this tribal tradition by shrewdly marrying into many of the powerful tribes in order to solidify the mantle of protection they provide.

Opportunities

In late 2009, in the wake of the Christmas Day plot to destroy Northwest Airlines Flight 253, the Fort Hood shootings and the attempted assassination of the Saudi deputy interior minister, STRATFOR believed that 2010 was going to see a concerted effort by the Yemenis to destroy the AQAP organization. As 2010 passed, it became clear that, despite the urging and assistance of their U.S. and Saudi allies, the Yemenis had been unable to cause much damage to AQAP as an organization, and as evidenced by the Oct. 29, 2010, cargo-bomb attempt, AQAP finished 2010 stronger than we had anticipated.

In fact, as we entered 2011, AQAP had moved to the forefront of the international jihadist movement on the physical battlefield and had also begun to take a leading role in the ideological realm due to a number of factors, including the group's popular Arabic-language online magazine Sada al-Malahim, the emergence of AQAP's English-language Inspire magazine and the increased profile and popularity of al-Awlaki.

As we noted last month regarding Libya, jihadists have long thrived in chaotic environments such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Indeed, this is exactly why the leadership of AQAP left Saudi Arabia and relocated to the more permissive environment of Yemen. Unlike the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, AQAP is active, has attempted to conduct a number of transnational attacks, and has sought to encourage grassroots jihadists across the globe to think globally and attack locally. With the government of Yemen unable to prosecute a successful campaign against AQAP in 2010, the chance of them making much progress against the group in 2011 amid the current crisis is even more remote.

The United States has spent the past several years training up a "new guard" within the Yemeni security apparatus — mainly the Counter Terrorism Unit, National Security Bureau, Special Forces and Central Security Forces, which are all led by Saleh's relatives — in an effort to counterbalance the influence of the Islamist old guard in the military (led by Saleh's big competitor right now, Ali Mohsin). These select forces are now being tasked with protecting the Saleh regime against dissident units of the Yemeni military, which means there is no one left on the Yemeni side to focus on AQAP. This situation is likely to persist for some time as the standoff progresses and even after the installation of a new government, which will have to sort things out and deal with the separatist issues in the north and south. Indeed, these issues are seen as more pressing threats to the regime than AQAP and the jihadists.

If there is a transition of power in Yemen, and Mohsin and his faction come to power, there is likely to be a purge of these new guard forces and their leadership, which is loyal to Saleh. The result will be a removal of the new guard and an increase in the influence of the Islamists and jihadist sympathizers in the Yemeni security and intelligence apparatus. This could have a significant impact on U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Yemen, and provide a significant opportunity for AQAP.

The violence and civil unrest wracking Yemen has almost certainly curtailed the ability of American intelligence officers to travel, meet with people and collect much information pertaining to AQAP, especially in places that have fallen under militant control. Additionally, the attention of U.S. intelligence agencies has in all likelihood been diverted to the task of trying to gather intelligence pertaining to what is happening with Saleh and the opposition rather than what is happening with AQAP. This will likely provide AQAP with some breathing room.

The United States has been quietly active in Yemen, albeit in a limited way, under the auspices of the Yemeni government. If the Islamist old guard in the military assumes power, it is quite likely that this operational arrangement will not continue — at least not initially. Because of this, should the United States believe that the Saleh regime is about to fall, it may no longer be concerned about alienating the tribes that have supported Saleh, and if it has somehow obtained good intelligence regarding the location of various high-value AQAP targets, it may feel compelled to take unilateral action to attack those targets. Such an operational window will likely be limited, however, and once Saleh leaves, such opportunities will likely be lost.

If the United States is not able to take such unilateral action, AQAP will have an excellent opportunity to grow and flourish due to the preoccupation of Yemeni security forces with other things, and the possibility of having even more sympathizers in the government. Not only will this likely result in fewer offensive operations against AQAP in the tribal areas, but the group will also likely be able to acquire additional resources and weapons.

In the past, the leadership of AQAP has shown itself to be shrewd and adaptable, although the group has not displayed a high degree of tactical competence in past attacks against hard targets such as the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa and the British ambassador. Still, AQAP has come very close to succeeding in a number of failed yet innovative attacks outside of Yemen, including the assassination attempt against Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the Christmas Day 2009 underwear-bomb plot and the UPS printer-bomb plot in October 2010, and the window of opportunity that is opening for the group is sure to cause a great deal of angst in Washington, Riyadh and a number of European capitals. It remains to be seen if AQAP can take advantage of the situation in Yemen to conduct a successful attack outside of the country (or a hard target within the country) and finally make it into the terrorist big leagues.

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