Focus on Al Qaeda in Yemen Magnifies Chronic Instability

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

In a recent conversation, the White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan and Yemen’s newly elected President Abdrabu Mansour Hadi “pledged that the two countries, together with Yemen’s other international partners, will work closely together to confront Yemen’s security and economic challenges”.

Despite the fact that Yemenis signed a power-transfer deal in November in the hopes of achieving lasting political change, this process was not mentioned in that high-level conversation. Undoubtedly, political progress has been made, with the election of a new president and the formation of a coalition government, yet economic improvements have yet to be delivered. Yemen is increasingly insecure, as the number of drone attacks has risen post-revolution.

No wonder The Washington Post reported last week: “The CIA is seeking authority to expand its covert drone campaign in Yemen by launching strikes against terrorism suspects even when it does not know the identities of those who could be killed, US officials said.”

Since the February 25 inauguration of Yemen’s new president, Abyan province has become the front of a new war against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). In mid-March, the bombing of Abyan resulted in the deaths of more than 60 militants.

By mid-April, violence had escalated; at least 222 people were killed in five days of clashes around the southern town of Loder. This escalation sends a clear message that a security solution is being pursued even more aggressively today than under the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who still wields considerable power in the country. Recent actions also suggest that the pattern of investing resources in a security solution – even at the expense of economic development – is also surviving in Yemen’s post-Saleh period.

With the “Friends of Yemen” scheduled to meet next month, the international community should think carefully about the aid it provides. Investing resources in fighting AQAP has caused more harm than good.

In the past few years, focus on military spending to aid the fight against AQAP has perpetuated domestic instability. This can take place in two ways. First, in the context of instability, units created to preserve security can be manipulated to serve narrow political agendas. For example, the counterterrorism unit which the US helped to create and train, headed by Mr Saleh’s nephew Yahya, opted to stay in Sanaa to protect the former president during the uprising – rather than mobilise in the South to preserve security.

Yemen’s security establishment remains divided between supporters of the former regime and Mr Hadi and his supporters, creating dangerous conditions for the manipulation of security resources.

Second, the fight against AQAP has created beneficiaries who now depend on continued fighting for their survival. AQAP, for instance, announced that its attack against the Yemeni army, immediately following the inauguration of Mr Hadi, killed over 100 soldiers and led to the capture of their weaponry. Al Qaeda is arming itself with the weapons meant to fight it.

Some Yemeni analysts such as Abdul Ghani Al Iryani trace the emergence of Ansar Al Sharia – an AQAP-linked group – to the December 2009 drone attack that killed over 40 people, many of whom were civilians. Mr Al Iryani suggests: “Of the thousands of Ansar Al Sharia now fighting in Abyan, the majority were not Al Qaeda; they were angered by what they saw American aggression … one event that radicalised the entire [province]”.

A third reason the international community should not invest in additional attacks is that the security solution has failed miserably. The most noticeable accomplishment of the drone attacks has been the aggravation of the security situation on the ground. Yemen analyst Gregory Johnsen agrees, stating that “such an approach actually does more to exacerbate the problem of Al Qaeda than it does to solve it”. AQAP, which has something to fight against as long as attacks continue, has recently become stronger in Abyan, gaining control over areas such as Arhab, Jaar, Shaqra, Rawdah and Azzan.

Furthermore, continuing drone attacks are overshadowing Yemen’s political process. Success in the country has been measured by the number of AQAP members killed, rather than by the development of a viable political system post-Saleh. Indeed, five months have passed since the signing of the transfer of power, yet no agreement has been signed on the location, participants or agenda of the upcoming national dialogue.

The Friends of Yemen meeting on May 23 should keep in mind that true friendship to Yemen involves helping the country become self sufficient through the delivery of economic assistance and the launch of a genuine, inclusive and sustainable national dialogue. It is also imperative for a clear political road map to emerge. The GCC-mediated power transfer led to a fragile peace, yet mistrust in the political process lingers. A successful national dialogue process may secure the now-fragile peace.

Pursuing a security solution in Yemen has created greater instability. A development strategy featuring an inclusive national dialogue should help break the cycle of violence. The time has come for a paradigm shift. A security solution is not sustainable in the long term in Yemen, yet economic development and a viable political road map are.