Only Good Governance Can Defeat Al Qaeda in Yemen

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.

Though the Yemeni government has undoubtedly bolstered its efforts in the fight against Al Qaeda, its actions serve to contain, rather than to defeat, the terrorist threat. To dispel the organization from their country, Yemeni leaders must think about long term strategies, based on good governance and solid institutions. These strategies are the ones that can resolve the conflict, rather than simply manage it.

Since this conflict started a few years ago, there have been doubts whether the Yemeni government is doing enough to eradicate Al Qaeda fighters from the country. Some believe that the government is merely responding to growing international pressure to ramp up security, rather than sincerely trying to defeat the organization.

These doubts are generally explained in three different ways: (1) the government does not have the power to win a war against Al Qaeda, which enjoys tribal protection in the harsh terrain of Shabwa and Maerib; (2) the government wants to use Al Qaeda against its traditional common enemy in the northern province of Saa’da, the Al Houthis, who are backed by Iran; and (3) a conspiracy explanation emphasizes that the government of Yemen is using Al Qaeda’s presence to receive money and aid from the United States and other countries.

To understand whether the Yemeni government is doing enough to combat Al Qaeda, we should look at what this war means for the major stakeholders involved. For the United States, the combat in Yemen is an integral part of the global war on terrorism. For Al Qaeda, a weak and fractured Yemen presents an opportunity to recruit and train followers, as well as launch attacks. For the Yemeni government, however, the war is mainly about regime survival.

To ensure that it will survive the crisis, the regime tries to strike a balance between appeasing external pressure to crack down on terrorism, and avoiding being perceived as a puppet government allying with foreign government against its own people, an idea that is at least partly the cause of the country’s recent protests. To alleviate external pressure, the government performs operations, like tightening security at airports and launching raids on suspected Al Qaeda targets. Such actions show, at minimum, a reasonable level of compliance with external demands.

Internally, the government is also adopting a crisis management approach to combat Al Qaeda without upsetting the public. One of these new government strategies is the “Yemenization of the process.” When the government became unable to resist external pressure to arrest Awlaki, the national court tried him in absentia. Furthermore, senior officials have announced that, if caught, Awlaki will not be extradited to the United States but will only be tried in a Yemeni court. The desire for Yemenization has even led senior government officials to declare that no foreign forces will be on Yemeni soil and that the entire fight of Al Qaeda will be waged by Yemeni forces.

Acting within Yemen’s social and cultural context, the government has also built coalitions with tribal leaders in the provinces of Shabwa, Abyan, and Maerib. Forging such alliances, the government is hoping the tribal system will legitimize its military operations against Al Qaeda. In seeking much needed credibility from its citizens, the government is also allying with religious figures who are publicly seen as “granters of legitimacy.” In fact, after the recent failed parcel bomb attempt, President Ali Abudullah Saleh himself reached out to a religious committee headed by Sheikh Zindani, the president of Al-Iman University, to encourage Yemeni youth to shun terrorism and instead to look after the interest of their country.

What the government does not realize, or refuses to accept, however, is that its crisis management approach is not built for a long-term scenario, in which the confrontation is likely to escalate. External pressure has intensified into what the Yemeni government calls “collective punishment,” as the international community has imposed a sort of economic sanction on the country by refusing to transport cargo and, in some places, people in and out of the country.

Internally, there is growing dissatisfaction with the government’s performance, as economic conditions continue to deteriorate and external intervention in the country becomes increasingly obvious. These factors suggest that the government must move from a conflict management to a conflict resolution approach in handling Al Qaeda. A sustainable solution does not begin with increased military or financial aid; rather, it starts with good governance. The government will have to demonstrate a genuine change in internal governance.

Ineffective governance and rampant corruption are the primary reasons that marginalized and angry Yemeni youth turn to terrorism. Violence has become an outlet for their growing frustration with their government’s inability to improve economic and security conditions. The Yemeni government therefore must undertake serious economic and political reforms if it truly wants to solve, rather than manage, the Al Qaeda crisis.