It’s almost like they’re the same word. In US circles it used to be rare to see a headline mentioning Yemen that didn’t also include Al Qaeda. In media circles I guess this is understandable. US audiences want to read about that which threatens us, and ISIS and Al Qaeda are past masters at getting themselves on our radar. Terrorists generally play the media like a fiddle. What’s less forgivable is the focus of the US government. Instead of taking steps to stabilize Yemen, a country whose collapse was endlessly foretold, we ran around bombing stuff, and further empowering Ali Abdullah Saleh, the kleptocrat who was riding Yemen to destruction. The result, of course, is what we have now, chaos, and a vastly empowered Al Qaeda. Good job team!
This video, the second to last in the Yemen series for now, starts the job of bringing in a different focus for our discussion of Yemen.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there. This is my fourth video on Yemen’s disaster, and I haven’t talked about Al Queda at all! After studying Yemen for a number of months, that strikes me as about right. If I was going to rank Yemen’s greatest problems, Violent Jihadists would probably come in somewhere around number 25. But that’s not how the US government sees it. For the Bush and Obama administrations nothing mattered more in this country of almost 30 million than Al Queda.
Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s Machiavellian president recognized this, and milked it for all it was worth. I maintain that Yemen’s current disaster isn’t entirely the fault of the United States. Yemen has been a country of building pressures for decades. But Our Al Queda obsession certainly didn’t help. As the most powerful country in the world we put our finger on the scale to make Yemen just that little bit more screwed up. And in doing so we may have turned the myth of a powerful and growing Al Queda in The Arabian Pensinsual into a reality.
The most important factor in Yemen’s relationship with violent Jihad is the country’s poverty. It’s got a lot of people, and unlike the rest of the peninsula it doesn’t have much in the way of oil resources. I’ve mentioned elsewhere the way that Saudi Arabia’s hyper-development has hurt the generally poorer countries of the Muslim World. Poor countries across Africa and Asia have had their local interpretations of Islam crushed by Saudi ideas. Yemen’s location, directly to the South of Saudi Arabia, sharing a long and porous border, means that it has been harder hit than most. From the establishment of the Republic in North Yemen, the Saudis had built Wahhabi schools and Mosques.
The Saudis have made great progress with the Sunni population of Yemen, and a surprising amount of progress with the Zaydi Shia as well, causing great resentment among Yemen’s traditional leaders. The Houthi rebellion, for example, got started in 2004 as a response to the infiltration of Wahhabi, Saudi ideology, and its indirect connection to the United States and Israel.
During the first flourishing of Violent Jihad in the 1980’s Yemenis were over-represented. The US-Saudi Jihad in Afghanistan presented a spiritual opportunity for Yemeni youth, but the economic opportunity was probably just as important. Saleh turned the returning Jihadists against more local communists, using them to win the war against the South in 1994.
This history, combined with Yemen’s general Wild West vibe made it a comfortable refuge for Al-Queda. The USS Cole bombing in Aden in October 2000 provided an early indication of this.
As we mentioned Last time, in 2001 Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh had a problem. He had used oil revenues to build something that looked kind of like a Modern state. But oil revenues were fading. He needed a new source of income. September 11th gave it to him.
Saleh didn’t repeat his 1990 mistake, when he defied the international community to stay loyal to Saddam Hussein. In November 2001 he traveled to the United States to meet with Bush and Cheney and declare conspicuous loyalty for the War on Terror. He was well rewarded for his choice.
Saleh had already demonstrated his mastery of Yemeni politics, simply by surviving for a couple decades. But his playing of the United States as the oil ran out may be his masterpiece. Throughout the Bush and first Obama administrations he used US weapons and money to secure his power. He built out large counter-terrorism forces controlled by his family members, that were more often used against the Houthis and Southern Separatists than they were used against Al Queda. Saleh’s regime should have ended with the decline of the oil money, or at least been forced to change dramatically. US Counter-Terrorism money probably gave Saleh another ten years of unaccountable power.
Saleh’s actual efforts against Al-Queda militants have been heavily questioned in the West. He was reliant on Jihadi Rehabilitation programs of dubious merit, and “surrenders” and “arrests” that look a lot more like promises to do better than actual punishments. I think this criticism is merited but kind of misses the point. Saleh wasn’t really running a country. He was running a negotiation. The Yemeni government had used Jihadi ideology and money to shore up its power in the 1980s and 1990s. Much of Saleh’s architecture of power was built on Saudi money and radicalism. This Was very much in service to Saudi-US Anti-Communist objectives by the way. It was more than a bit ridiculous to expect Saleh to turn around and ship many of his major supporters to Guantanamo.
And it turns out that his approach was a lot more effective against Al Queda than the US approach. Despite all the Saudi money, and history of Jihad, there probably weren’t all that many Al Queda supporters before the acceleration of the drone war. After the failed Underwear Bombing in the skies over Detroit in 2009, the US forced Saleh to accept an accelerated program of drone strikes. These strikes, which tend to take out large numbers of civilians and the occasional wedding party have probably done more than anything else to recruit members to Al Queda.
The drone strikes certainly didn’t help Saleh retain power. His strategy of using US money to maintain his crumbling government finally fell apart in 2011. The Arab Spring brought people to the streets to protest his seemingly endless regime. More importantly, resentment over the power given to Saleh’s immediate family caused the military to split. Saleh agreed to give up power in November 2011, after surviving a rocket attack. This led to a period of barely controlled chaos from 2011 to 2014, and not at all controlled chaos from 2015 until today. Saleh has teamed up with the Houthis against the Saudis and members of his old government. It’s a mess.
And this Chaos is great for Al Queda. For year-long periods (May 2011- May 2012 Abyan Province) (Al-Mukalla March 2015-April 2016) they have managed to take over cities and surrounding territories in Provinces in Southern Yemen. They’ve been pushed out both times, but the Saudi supported government hasn’t exactly been interested in hunting them down. That government has teamed up with the Jihadists on certain fronts. In fact, the United States is now de facto allied with Al Queda, just as it was in Syria. This is what we get for supporting the Saudi agenda.
Our blind focus on Al Queda in Yemen has been completely self-defeating. Our drone war is Al Queda’s best recruiting tool. Our support for Saleh, long after everybody in the country was sick of him, contributed to Yemen’s fall into chaos. It’s this chaos more than anything else that keeps Al Queda in the Arabian Peninsula going today. Our ideas about Yemen have failed completely. Next time I’ll suggest a better way of looking at this mess, and suggest the only way out.
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