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Yemen: Enduring Conflicts, Threatened Transition
Yemen: Enduring Conflicts, Threatened Transition
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Military Strikes Are No Simple Answer to al-Qaeda’s Rise in Yemen
Military Strikes Are No Simple Answer to al-Qaeda’s Rise in Yemen

Yemen: Enduring Conflicts, Threatened Transition

Flawed as it is, Yemen’s political settlement avoided a potentially devastating civil war and secured President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s resignation, but now the challenge is to address longstanding political and economic grievances.

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Executive Summary

As messy as it has been and unfinished as it remains, Yemen’s transition accomplished two critical goals: avoiding a potentially devastating civil war and securing the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled the impoverished country for over three decades. It also cracked the regime’s foundations, while making it possible to imagine new rules of the game. Still, much remains in doubt, notably the scope and direction of change. The nation essentially has witnessed a political game of musical chairs, one elite faction swapping places with the other but remaining at loggerheads. Important constituencies – northern Huthi, southern Hiraak, some independent youth movements – feel excluded and view the transition agreement with scepticism, if not distain. Al-Qaeda and other militants are taking advantage of a security vacuum. Socio-economic needs remain unmet. The new government must rapidly show tangible progress (security, economic, political) to contain centrifugal forces pulling Yemen apart, while reaching out to stakeholders and preparing the political environment for inclusive national dialogue.

On 23 November 2011, following eleven months of popular protest, Saleh signed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative and an accompanying set of implementation mechanisms. Boiled down to its essentials, the GCC initiative provided the former president domestic immunity from prosecution in return for his stepping down. The UN-backed implementation document added flesh to the bones, providing valuable details on the mechanics and timetable of the transition roadmap.

The agreement outlined a two-phase process. In the first, Saleh delegated powers to his vice president, Abdo Robo Mansour Hadi. Feuding politicians then formed an opposition-led national consensus government with cabinet portfolios split equally between the former ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), and the opposition bloc, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP). The president established a military committee tasked with reducing tensions and divisions within the armed forces, which had split between pro- and anti-Saleh factions during the uprising. Phase one ended with early presidential elections, on 21 February 2012, in which Hadi was the uncontested, consensus candidate.

In phase two, Hadi and the government are given two years to, among other things, restructure the military-secu­rity apparatus, address issues of transitional justice and launch an inclusive National Dialogue Conference with the goal of revising the constitution before new elections in February 2014. It is a laudatory program, but also plainly an ambitious one. Already the scorecard is mixed, as implementation has fallen short.

Indeed, although much has changed, a considerable amount remains the same. Begin with the most important: the settlement failed to resolve the highly personalised conflict between Saleh and his family on the one hand, and General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, as well as, the powerful al-Ahmar family, on the other. As both camps seek to protect their interests and undermine their rivals, the contours of their struggle have changed but not its fundamental nature or the identity of its protagonists. Likewise, the underlying political economy of corruption has remained virtually untouched. The same families retain control of most of the country’s resources while relying on patronage networks and dominating decision-making in the government, military and political parties.

For frustrated independent activists, the struggle at the top amounts to little more than a political see-saw between two camps that have dominated the country for some 33 years, a reshuffling of the political deck that has, at the party level, hurt the GPC and helped the JMP. This has serious policy implications. As politicians squabble in Sanaa, urgent national problems await. Humanitarian conditions have worsened dramatically since the uprising, with hunger and malnutrition levels growing at an alarming rate. A year of political turmoil has resulted in severe shortages of basic commodities; aggravated already high poverty and unemployment rates; and brought economic activity to a virtual halt.

The army is still divided, with warring commanders escaping the president’s full authority. Armed factions and tribal groups loyal to Saleh, Ali Mohsen or the Al-Ahmars remain in the capital; elsewhere the situation is far worse. The government’s writ over the periphery, already tenuous before the uprising, has contracted sharply since. In the North, the Huthis have vastly expanded their territorial control. In the South, the government must contend with challenges from the Hiraak and its affiliated armed groups. Most worrisome is the spread of Ansar Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law), a murky mix of al-Qaeda militants and young local recruits, many of whom appear motivated by economic rewards more than by ideological conviction. The government, fighting alongside local popular committees, has recaptured territories in the South, but the battle with al-Qaeda is far from over.

Yet, despite these multiple crises, partisan politics and jockeying for the most part persists in the capital. Encumbered by infighting and lacking capacity, the new government has yet to articulate or put forward a political and economic vision for the transitional period. What is more, it has done too little to bring in long-marginalised groups and is sticking to a largely Sanaa-centric approach. Reformers are concerned that vested interests in both the GPC and JMP are seeking to maintain a highly centralised, corrupt state that favours northern tribal and Islamist leaders, thus further deepening the divide with the rest of the country.

Securing Saleh’s peaceful exit from the presidency was hard enough; implementing the remainder of the agreement will be harder still. Neutralising potential spoilers – competing elites associated with the old regime as well as the divided military/security apparatus – is a priority. This cannot be done too abruptly or in a way that privileges one side over the other, lest it trigger violent resistance from the losing side. Instead, Hadi should gradually remove or rotate powerful commanders in a politically even-handed fashion and end their control over individual army units, while forcing them to demonstrate respect for the military chain of command under the president and defence minister. In like manner, the influence of powerful political parties and interest groups should be diluted in a way that ensures no single one finds itself in a position to dominate the transitional process. Equally important, the national dialogue needs to be broadly inclusive, requiring immediate confidence-building measures and continued outreach efforts toward sidelined groups: the youth, the Huthis and the Hiraak.

Implementation also is suffering from its overall opaqueness. No one – not the government, parliament, or military committee – has publicly kept score so as to shed light on who is violating the agreement and how. Nor has Hadi formed the interpretation committee, even though it is mandated by the agreement, and even though it could usefully settle disputes over the meaning of the initiative and its implementation mechanisms.

The political settlement has numerous flaws. It was an elite compromise that excluded many original protesters as well as marginalised constituencies. It failed to adequately address issues of justice, and it kept in power leaders and parties at least partially responsible for the country’s woes. But, at a minimum, it offers the chance for a different future. If politicians in Sanaa fail to resolve, or at least contain, the ongoing elite confrontation and move forward with an inclusive dialogue, the country risks experiencing further violence and fragmentation. Yemen has long run away from critical decisions. It should run no more.

Sanaa/Brussels, 3 July 2012

Yemeni security forces gather in Aden's Mansura district, where a car bomb was used by suspected al-Qaeda fighters to target the city's police chief on 1 May 2016. AFP/Saleh Al-Obeidi

Military Strikes Are No Simple Answer to al-Qaeda’s Rise in Yemen

High civilian casualties from the latest U.S. counter-terrorism raid in Yemen risk aggravating rather than helping to resolve a conflict that is the principal reason for the growth of al-Qaeda in the devastated country. 

The first counter-terrorism raid authorised by U.S. President Donald Trump over the weekend targeted al-Qaeda in Yemen. How effective was the operation, and what is known about the new administration’s broader strategy on Yemen? 

The raid in al-Bayda, a key battlefront in Yemen’s civil war where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its local affiliate Ansar al-Sharia (AAS) are embedded in the conflict, is a good example of what not to do. The use of U.S. troops and the high number of civilian casualties – local sources report that at least ten women and children were killed – are deeply inflammatory and breed anti-American resentment across the Yemeni political spectrum that works to the advantage of AQAP. The raid ignores the local political context, to the detriment of an effective counter-terrorism strategy. The tribesmen targeted had links to AQAP/AAS, yet many, if not most of them, were motivated less by AQAP’s international agenda, including targeting the West, and more by a local power struggle in which AQAP is viewed as an ally against the Huthis (a Zaydi/Shiite militia) and fighters aligned with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. At a local level, the raid not only plays into AQAP’s narrative of the need to violently oppose what they claim is a U.S. war against Muslims, but it also gives AQAP an opportunity to accuse the U.S. of assisting Huthi/Saleh forces in the fight for al-Bayda, an accusation that will likely resonate with the anti-Huthi/Saleh population in this area. This is ironic, because the U.S. is assisting Saudi Arabia in bombing Huthi/Saleh forces. 

It is too early to determine what, if any, broader strategy the Trump administration has in Yemen. On counter-terrorism, it seems he will continue former President Barack Obama’s policy of relying heavily on drones and special operations. Yet drone attacks have shown limited effectiveness and a propensity to backfire politically when they cause high civilian casualties. Although they have dealt repeated blows to AQAP by killing key leaders and ideologues, they have failed to stop its rapid growth – in large part because the opportunities provided by the war outstrip its losses 

How serious is the threat posed by the Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda? 

AQAP is stronger than it has ever been. While Islamic State has dominated headlines in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa, in Yemen, al-Qaeda has been the success story. Over the course of the country’s failed political transition and civil war, it has exploited state collapse, shifting alliances, a burgeoning war economy and growing sectarianism to expand its support base, challenge state authority and even govern territory at times. It has morphed into a local insurgency, attaching itself to a larger “Sunni” opposition to the Huthi/Saleh alliance and pursuing a strategy of gradualism by avoiding aggressively offending local norms and by working with local communities to improve services and swift provision of justice. AQAP is embedded in a war economy that spans the various political factions, including Huthi/Saleh fighters, and it has obtained new resources by raiding banks, controlling the port of Mukalla for over a year, looting army bases and indirectly obtaining weapons from the Saudi-led, U.S.-backed coalition that is supporting the internationally recognised Yemeni government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi against Huthi/Saleh forces. 

Although AQAP has pursued a “Yemen first” strategy of addressing local grievances and blending into local conflicts, it continues to balance local and global objectives, calling for attacks, particularly “lone-wolf” attacks, against the West. There is debate about the degree to which the group poses a risk to the U.S., in particular, but a long-term threat remains.

Who are AQAP’s friends and enemies in Yemen? 

Yemen’s political elites have a long history of collaboration with and co-optation of Sunni jihadist groups, including AQAP. This creates obstacles to combating the group, as elites have the ability and sometimes an interest in using it for their own financial or political gain. On the other hand, given that AQAP and its local affiliate, AAS, are primarily Yemeni organisations with legitimate local grievances – lack of justice provision, services and jobs – there are opportunities to weaken its transnationally-focused leadership by addressing these domestic concerns. 

While virtually all Yemeni and regional belligerents claim AQAP and IS as their enemies, they have all contributed to their rise. The Huthi/Saleh front’s military push into predominantly Sunni areas has opened vast opportunities for AQAP and IS to insert themselves into a broader “Sunni” opposition. The Huthi/Saleh side has a counterproductive propensity to conflate a range of opponents, including southern separatists, the Sunni Islamist party Islah, AQAP, and Islamic State. For its part, the anti-Huthi bloc has operated on the principle of the “enemy of my enemy is my friend”, only turning on AQAP and IS once the Huthis are pushed out of territory. The Saudi-led coalition has focused on the Huthi/Saleh advance, which it views as part of Iranian expansionism, as priority number one, allowing AQAP to govern large territories for extended periods and reap the attendant financial benefits. In April 2016, coalition forces from the United Arab Emirates dislodged AQAP from Mukalla, for instance, but the group was not defeated and merely melted away into the hinterland. Meanwhile, it profits from continuing conflict, especially along the front lines. In short, AQAP is in the paradoxical position of being the enemy of all parties yet arguably the war’s biggest beneficiary. 

Last week, UN Envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed briefed the Security Council and recommended an immediate ceasefire. How close are the parties to reaching any agreement to halt the fighting?

There is little chance of reaching a settlement at the moment, largely because the Saudi-led coalition and the Hadi government appear determined to secure military gains along the Red Sea coast before returning to meaningful talks. In October, the Huthi/Saleh alliance agreed to negotiate based on the terms of the “Kerry plan”, which combined security and political compromises allowing for Huthi/Saleh withdrawals from Sanaa, phased disarmament, and the formation of a national unity government in which they would be part. But it was unclear how far they would compromise on details of withdrawal and disarmament that are important to the Saudis and their allies. Ultimately, the intervention from then Secretary of State John Kerry proved too little, too late, as the Hadi government rejected the plan, an indication of its understanding that the Obama administration was a lame duck unable to press the Saudis toward a peace deal. Now efforts to restart negotiations are effectively dead. Although the UN remains an essential umbrella under which to negotiate a settlement, after three rounds of failed peace talks and numerous ceasefire attempts, it has lost credibility on all sides and is unlikely to revive meaningful negotiations absent a change in the main belligerents’ calculation as to what constitutes an acceptable compromise. 

If the prospects for bringing the war to a negotiated settlement remain distant, what can be done in the near term to limit the threat posed by al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups?

The most effective way to reverse AQAP’s gains is to address the conditions that made these possible, by ending the war through a durable, inclusive political settlement. As this is a distant prospect, there are several steps that could reduce the group’s influence. For states and groups operating in areas currently or previously under AQAP control, such as the Hadi government, affiliated militias and the United Arab Emirates, these measures include: prioritising basic security, service and justice provision, especially quick and transparent dispute resolution; disaggregating rather than conflating the wide range of Sunni Islamist groups; and using military and policing tools judiciously and in accordance with local norms and laws. For the U.S. and other governments interested in fighting AQAP, it means being willing to evaluate and constrain local and regional partners who may tolerate or even encourage AQAP/AAS for their own political or economic gain. It also means avoiding heavy-handed military action outside of a political strategy, such as the 29 January raid in al-Bayda, which is likely to aggravate rather than mitigate the problem. The Huthi/Saleh bloc could help by avoiding further military incursions into predominantly Sunni areas, which have inflamed sectarian tensions and fuelled AQAP and IS propaganda. All Yemeni and regional belligerents should refrain from labelling enemies in crude sectarian terms.