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Islamist Militancy in a Pre- and Post-Saleh Yemen

Thursday, April 21, 2011 - 03:59 Print Text Size

By Reva Bhalla

Nearly three months have passed since the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, first saw mass demonstrations against Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, but an exit from the current stalemate is still nowhere in sight. Saleh retains enough support to continue dictating the terms of his eventual political departure to an emboldened yet frustrated opposition. At the same time, the writ of his authority beyond the capital is dwindling, which is increasing the level of chaos and allowing various rebel groups to collect arms, recruit fighters and operate under dangerously few constraints.

The prospect of Saleh's political struggle providing a boon to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is understandably producing anxiety in Washington, where U.S. officials have spent the past few months trying to envision what a post-Saleh Yemen would mean for U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the Arabian Peninsula.

While fending off opponents at home, Saleh and his followers have been relying on the "me or chaos" tactic abroad to hang onto power. Loyalists argue that the dismantling of the Saleh regime would fundamentally derail years of U.S. investment designed to elicit meaningful Yemeni cooperation against AQAP or, worse, result in a civil war that will provide AQAP with freedom to hone its skills. Emboldened by the recent unrest, a jihadist group called the Abyan-Aden Islamic Army launched a major raid on a weapons depot in Jaar in late March, leading a number of media outlets to speculate that the toppling of the Saleh regime would play directly into the hands of Yemen's jihadists.

Meanwhile, the opposition has countered that the Yemeni jihadist threat is a perception engineered by Saleh to convince the West of the dangers of abandoning support for his regime. Opposition figures argue that Saleh's policies are what led to the rise of AQAP in the first place and that the fall of his regime would provide the United States with a clean slate to address its counterterrorism concerns with new, non-Saleh-affiliated political allies. The reality is likely somewhere in between.

The Birth of Yemen's Modern Jihadist Movement

The pervasiveness of radical Islamists in Yemen's military and security apparatus is no secret, and it contributes to the staying power of al Qaeda and its offspring in the Arabian Peninsula. The root of the issue dates back to the Soviet-Afghan war, when Osama bin Laden, whose family hails from the Hadramawt region of the eastern Yemeni hinterland, commanded a small group of Arab volunteers under the leadership of Abdullah Azzam in the Islamist insurgency against the Soviets through the 1980s. Yemenis formed one of the largest contingents within bin Laden's Arab volunteer force in Afghanistan, which meant that by 1989, a sizable number of battle-hardened Yemenis returned home looking for a new purpose.

They did not have to wait long. Leading the jihadist pack returning from Afghanistan was Tariq al Fadhli of the once-powerful al Fadhli tribe based in the southern Yemeni province of Abyan. Joining al Fadhli was Sheikh Abdul Majid al Zindani, the spiritual father of Yemen's Salafi movement and one of the leaders of the conservative Islah party (now leading the political opposition against Saleh). The al Fadhli tribe had lost its lands to the Marxists of the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP), which had ruled South Yemen with Soviet backing throughout the 1980s while North Yemen was ruled with Saudi backing. Al Fadhli, an opportunist who tends to downplay his previous interactions with bin Laden, returned to his homeland in 1989 (supposedly with funding from bin Laden) with a mission backed by North Yemen and Saudi Arabia to rid the south of Marxists. He and his group set up camp in the mountains of Saada province on the Saudi border and also established a training facility in Abyan province in South Yemen. Joining al Fadhli's group were a few thousand Arabs from Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan who had fought in Afghanistan and faced arrest or worse if they tried to return home.

When North and South Yemen unified in 1990 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yemen's tribal Salafists, still trying to find their footing, were largely pushed aside as the southern Marxists became part of the new Republic of Yemen, albeit as subjugated partners to the north. Many within the Islamist militant movement shifted their focus to foreign targets — with an eye on the United States — and rapidly made their mark in December 1992, when two hotels were bombed in the southern city of Aden, where U.S. soldiers taking part in Operation Restore Hope in Somalia were lodged (though no Americans were killed in the attack). A rocket attack against the U.S. Embassy in January 1993 was also attempted and failed. Though he denied involvement in the hotel attacks, al Fadhli and many of his jihadist compatriots were thrown in jail on charges of orchestrating the hotel bombings as well as the assassination of one of the YSP's political leaders.

But as tensions intensified between the north and the south in the early 1990s, so did the utility of Yemen's Islamist militants. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh brokered a deal in 1993 with al Fadhli in which the militant leader was released from jail and freed of all charges in exchange for his assistance in defeating the southern socialists, who were now waging a civil war against the north. Saleh's plan worked. The southern socialists were defeated and stripped of much of their land and fortunes, while the jihadists who made Saleh's victory possible enjoyed the spoils of war. Al Fadhli, in particular, ended up becoming a member of Saleh's political inner circle. In tribal custom, he also had his sister marry Brig. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a member of the president's Sanhan tribe in the influential Hashid confederation and now commander of Yemen's northwestern military division and 1st Armored Brigade. (Mohsen, known for his heavily Islamist leanings, has been leading the political standoff against Saleh ever since his high-profile defection from the regime March 24.)

The Old Guard Rises and Falls

Saleh's co-opting of Yemen's Islamist militants had profound implications for the country's terrorism profile. Islamists of varying ideological intensities were rewarded with positions throughout the Yemeni security and intelligence apparatus, with a heavy concentration in the Political Security Organization (PSO), a state security and intelligence agency. The PSO exists separately from the Ministry of Interior and is supposed to answer directly to the president, but it has long operated autonomously and is believed to have been behind a number of large-scale jailbreaks, political assassinations and militant operations in the country. While the leadership of the PSO under Ghaleb al Ghamesh has maintained its loyalty to Saleh, the loyalty of the organization as a whole to the president is highly questionable.

Many within the military-intelligence-security apparatus who fought in the 1994 civil war to defeat South Yemen and formed a base of support around Saleh's presidency made up what is now considered the "old guard" in Yemen. Interspersed within the old guard were the mujahideen fighters returning from Afghanistan. Leading the old guard within the military has been none other than Mohsen, who, after years of standing by Saleh's side, has emerged in the past month as the president's most formidable challenger. Mohsen, whose uncle was married to Saleh's mother in her second marriage, was a stalwart ally of Saleh throughout the 1990s. He played an instrumental role in protecting Saleh from coup attempts early on in his political reign and led the North Yemen army to victory against the south in the 1994 civil war. Mohsen was duly rewarded with ample military funding and control over Saada, al-Hudaydah, Hajja, Amran and Mahwit, surpassing the influence of the governors in these provinces.

While the 1990s were the golden years for Mohsen, the 21st century brought with it an array of challenges for the Islamist sympathizers in the old guard. Following the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, Saleh came under enormous pressure from the United States to crack down on al Qaeda operatives and their protectors in Yemen, both within and beyond the bounds of the state. Fearful of the political backlash that would result from U.S. unilateral military action in Yemen and tempted by large amounts of counterterrorism aid being channeled from Washington, Saleh began devising a strategy to gradually marginalize the increasingly problematic old guard.

These were not the only factors driving Saleh's decision, however. Saleh knew he had to prepare a succession plan, and he preferred to see the next generation of Saleh men at the helm. Anticipating the challenge he would face from powerful figures like Mohsen and his allies, Saleh shrewdly created new and distinct security agencies for selected family members to run under the tutelage of the United States with those agencies run by formidable members of the old guard. Thus the "new guard" was born.

The Rise of Saleh's Second-Generation New Guard

Over the course of the past decade, Saleh has made a series of appointments to mark the ascendancy of the new guard. Most important, his son and preferred successor, Ahmed Ali Saleh, became head of the elite Republican Guard (roughly 30,000-plus men) and Special Operations Forces. Ahmad replaced Saleh's half-brother, Ali Saleh al-Ahmar, as chief of the Republican Guard, but Saleh made sure to appease Ali by making him Yemen's defense attache in Washington, followed by appointing him to the highly influential post of chief of staff of the supreme commander of the Armed Forces and supervisor to the Republican Guard.

The president also appointed his nephews — the sons of his brother Muhammad Abdullah Saleh (now deceased) — to key positions. Yahya became chief of staff of the Central Security Forces and Counter-Terrorism Unit (roughly 50,000 plus); Tariq was made commander of the Special Guard, which effectively falls under the authority of Ahmed's Republican Guard; and Ammar became principal duty director of the National Security Bureau (NSB). Moreover, nearly all of Saleh's sons, cousins and nephews are evenly distributed throughout the Republican Guard.

Each of these agencies received a substantial amount of money as U.S. financial aid to Yemen increased from $5 million in 2006 to $155 million in 2010. This was expected to rise to $1 billion or more over the next several years, but Washington froze the first installment in February when the protests broke out. Ahmed's Republican Guard and Special Operations Forces worked closely with U.S. military trainers in trying to develop an elite fighting force along the lines of Jordan's U.S.-trained Fursan al Haq (Knights of Justice). The creation of the mostly U.S.-financed NSB in 2002 to collect domestic intelligence was also part of a broader attempt by Saleh to reform all security agencies to counter the heavy jihadist penetration of the PSO.

Meanwhile, Mohsen watched nervously as his power base flattened under the weight of the second-generation Saleh men. One by one, Mohsen's close old-guard allies were replaced: In 2007, Saleh sacked Gen. Al Thaneen, commander of the Republican Guard in Taiz. In 2008, Brig. Gen. Mujahid Gushaim replaced Ali Sayani, the head of military intelligence (Ali Sayani's brother, Abdulmalik, Yemen's former defense minister, was one of the first generals to declare support for the revolt against Saleh). The same year, Gen. Al Thahiri al Shadadi was replaced by Brig Gen. Mohammed al Magdashi as commander of the Central Division; Saleh then appointed his personal bodyguard, Brig. Gen. Aziz Mulfi, as chief of staff of the 27th mechanized brigade in Hadramawt. Finally, in early 2011, Saleh sacked Brig. Gen. Abdullah Al Gadhi, commander of Al Anad Base that lies on the axis of Aden in the south and commander of the 201st mechanized brigade. As commander of the northwestern division, Mohsen had been kept busy by an al-Houthi rebellion that ignited in 2004, and he became a convenient scapegoat for Saleh when the al-Houthis rose up again in 2009 and began seizing territory, leading to a rare Saudi military intervention in Yemen's northern Saada province.

Using the distraction and intensity of the al-Houthi rebellion to weaken Mohsen and his forces, Saleh attempted to move the headquarters of Mohsen's 1st Armored Brigade from Sanaa to Amran just north of the capital and ordered the transfer of heavy equipment from Mohsen's forces to the Republican Guard. While Saleh's son and nephews were on the receiving end of millions of dollars of U.S. financial aid to fight AQAP, Mohsen and his allies were left on the sidelines as the old-guard institutions were branded as untrustworthy and thus unworthy of U.S. financing. Mohsen also claims Saleh tried to have him killed at least six times. One such episode, revealed in a WikiLeaks cable dated February 2010, describes how the Saleh government allegedly provided Saudi military commanders with the coordinates of Mohsen's headquarters when Saudi forces were launching airstrikes on the al-Houthis. The Saudis aborted the strike when they sensed something was wrong with the information they were receiving from the Yemeni government.

Toward the end of 2010, with the old guard sufficiently weakened, Saleh was feeling relatively confident that he would be able to see through his plans to abolish presidential term limits and pave the way for his son to take power. What Saleh didn't anticipate was the viral effect of the North African uprisings and the opportunity they would present to Mohsen and his allies to take revenge and, more important, make a comeback.

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An Old Guard Revival?

Mohsen, 66 years old, is a patient and calculating man. When thousands of Yemenis took to the streets of Sanaa in late March to protest against the regime, his 1st Armored Brigade, based just a short distance from the University of Sanaa entrance where the protesters were concentrated, deliberately stood back while the CSF and Republican Guard took the heat for increasingly violent crackdowns. In many ways, Mohsen attempted to emulate Egyptian Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi in having his forces stand between the CSF and the protesters, acting as a protector of the pro-democracy demonstrators in hopes of making his way to the presidential palace with the people's backing. Mohsen continues to carry a high level of respect among the Islamist-leaning old guard and, just as critically, maintains a strong relationship with the Saudi royals.

Following his March 24 defection, a number of high-profile military, political and tribal defections followed. Standing in league with Mohsen is the politically ambitious Sheikh Hamid al-Ahmar, one of the 10 sons of the late Abdullah bin Hussein al-Ahmar, who ruled the Hashid confederation as the most powerful tribal chieftain in the country and was also a prominent leader of the Islah political party. (Saleh's Sanhan tribe is part of the Hashid confederation as well.) Hamid is a wealthy businessman and vocal leader of the Islah party, which dominates the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), an opposition coalition. The sheikh who, like Mohsen, has a close relationship with the Saudi royals, has ambitions to replace Saleh and has been responsible for a wave of defections from within the ruling General People's Congress, nearly all of which can be traced back to his family tree. In an illustration of Hamid's strategic alliance with Mohsen, Hamid holds the position of lieutenant colonel in the 1st Armored Brigade. This is a purely honorary position but provides Hamid with a military permit to expand his contingent of body guards, the numbers of which of recently swelled to at least 100.

Together, Mohsen and Sheikh Hamid have a great deal of influence in Yemen to challenge Saleh, but still not enough to drive him out of office by force. Mohsen's forces have been gradually trying to encroach on Sanaa from their base in the northern outskirts of the capital, but forces loyal to Saleh in Sanaa continue to outman and outgun the rebel forces.

Hence the current stalemate. Yemen does not have the luxury of a clean, geographic split between pro-regime and anti-regime forces, as is the case in Libya. In its infinite complexity, the country is divided along tribal, family, military and business lines, so its political future is difficult to chart. A single family, army unit, village or tribe will have members pledging loyalty to either Saleh or the revolution, providing the president with just enough staying power to deflect opposition demands and drag out the political crisis.

Washington's Yemen Problem

The question of whether Saleh stays or goes is not the main topic of current debate. Nearly every party to the conflict, including the various opposition groups, Saudi Arabia, the United States and even Saleh himself, understand that the Yemeni president's 33-year political reign will end soon. The real sticking point has to do with those family members surrounding Saleh and whether they, too, will be brought down with the president in a true regime change.

This is where the United States finds itself in a particularly uncomfortable spot. Yemen's opposition, a hodgepodge movement including everything from northern Islamists to southern socialists, are mostly only united by a collective aim to dismantle the Saleh regime, including the second-generation Saleh new guard that has come to dominate the country's security-military-intelligence apparatus with heavy U.S.-backing.

The system is far from perfect, and counterterrorism efforts in Yemen continue to frustrate U.S. authorities. However, Saleh's security reforms over the past several years and the tutelage the U.S. military has been able to provide to these select agencies have been viewed as a significant sign of progress by the United States, and that progress could now be coming under threat.

Mohsen and his allies are looking to reclaim their lost influence and absorb the new-guard entities in an entirely new security set-up. For example, the opposition is demanding that the Republican Guard and Special Forces be absorbed into the army, which would operate under a general loyal to Mohsen (Mohsen himself claims he would step down as part of a deal in which Saleh also resigns, but he would be expected to assume a kingmaker status), that the CSF and CTU paramilitary agencies be stripped of their autonomy and operationally come under the Ministry of Interior and that the newly created NSB come under the PSO. Such changes would be tantamount to unraveling the past decade of U.S. counterterrorism investment in Yemen that was designed explicitly to raise a new generation of security officials who could hold their own against the Islamist-leaning old guard. This is not to say that Mohsen and his allies would completely obstruct U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Many within the old guard, eager for U.S. financial aid and opposed to U.S. unilateral military action in Yemen, are likely to veer toward pragmatism in dealing with Washington. That said, Mohsen's reputation for protecting jihadists operating in Yemen and his poor standing with Washington would add much distrust to an already complicated U.S.-Yemeni relationship.

Given its counterterrorism concerns and the large amount of U.S. financial aid flowing into Yemen in recent years, Washington undoubtedly has a stake in Yemen's political transition, but it is unclear how much influence it will be able to exert in trying to shape a post-Saleh government. The United States lacks the tribal relationships, historical presence and trust to deal effectively with a resurgent old guard seeking vengeance amid growing chaos.

The real heavyweight in Yemen is Saudi Arabia. The Saudi royals have long viewed their southern neighbor as a constant source of instability in the kingdom. Whether the threat to the monarchy emanating from Yemen drew its roots from Nasserism, Marxism or radical Islamism, Riyadh deliberated worked to keep the Yemeni state weak while buying loyalties across the Yemeni tribal landscape. Saudi Arabia shares the U.S. concern over Yemeni instability providing a boon to AQAP. The Saudi royals, who are reviled by a large segment of Saudi-born jihadists in AQAP operating from Yemen, are a logical target for AQAP attacks that carry sufficient strategic weight to shake the oil markets and the royal regime, especially given the current climate of unrest in the region. Moreover, Saudi Arabia does not want to deal with a dramatic increase in the already regular spillover of refugees, smugglers and illegal workers from Yemen should civil war ensue.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia and the United States may not entirely see eye to eye in how to manage the jihadist threat in Yemen. The Saudis have maintained close linkages with a number of influential Islamist members within the old guard, including Mohsen and jihadists like al Fadhli, who broke off his alliance with Saleh in 2009 to lead the Southern Movement against the regime. The Saudis are also more prone to rely on their jihadist allies from time to time in trying to snuff out more immediate threats to Saudi interests.

For example, Saudi Arabia's current concern regarding Yemen centers not on the future of Yemen's counterterrorism capabilities but on the al-Houthi rebels in the north, who have wasted little time in exploiting Sanaa's distractions to expand their territorial claims in Saada province. The al-Houthis belong to the Zaidi sect, considered an offshoot of Shiite Islam and heretical by Wahhabi standards. Riyadh fears Houthi unrest in Yemen's north could stir unrest in Saudi Arabia's southern provinces of Najran and Jizan, which are home to the Ismailis, also an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Ismaili unrest in the south could then embolden Shia in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province, who have already been engaged in demonstrations, albeit small ones, against the Saudi monarchy with heavy Iranian encouragement. Deputy AQAP leader Saad Ali al Shihri's declaration of war against the al-Houthi rebels on Jan. 28 may have surprised many, but it also seemed to play to the Saudi agenda in channeling jihadist efforts toward the al-Houthi threat.

The United States has a Yemen problem that it cannot avoid, but it also has very few tools with which to manage or solve it. For now, the stalemate provides Washington with the time to sort out alternatives to the second-generation Saleh relatives, but that time also comes at a cost. The longer this political crisis drags on, the more Saleh will narrow his focus to holding onto Sanaa, while leaving the rest of the country for the al-Houthis, the southern socialists and the jihadists to fight over. The United States can take some comfort in the fact that AQAP's poor track record of innovative yet failed attacks has kept the group in the terrorist minor leagues. With enough time, resources and sympathizers in the government and security apparatus, however, AQAP could find itself in a more comfortable spot in a post-Saleh scenario, likely to the detriment of U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the Arabian Peninsula.

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