January 8, 2013
Thoughts on “The Last Refuge”

Gregory Johnsen’s The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia is a one-of-a-kind take on the rise, fall, and resurrection of al-Qaeda in Yemen.  Richly detailed, it provides more than just a sequential list of attacks and their perpetrators.  Instead, it’s a compelling narrative of al-Qaeda’s development and practice, including the group’s non-violent side.  No matter how much you know about al-Qaeda or Yemen, you will no doubt learn something new in the pages of this book.

Johnsen is not content to tell just the story of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the post-2009 amalgam of Yemeni and Saudi al-Qaeda members that is the most dangerous terrorist threat facing the United States today.  Rather, Johnsen takes the reader back to the beginning, telling the story not only of jihad in Afghanistan and the roles Abdullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden played in that conflict, but also relaying relevant stories from Mohammad’s life in appropriate places.  In this way, Johnsen’s obvious knowledge of the Middle East in general and Yemen in particular clearly shows through.

The story is not just about al-Qaeda but also about modern Yemen – the complex, at times nearly incomprehensible to outsiders, deeply complicated country that has been at times a key ally and at others a main threat in the war on terrorism.  What sometimes might seems like deviations from the main thrust of the book nearly always return to violent jihad’s role in Yemeni society.  To understand the role of jihadists in Yemen’s government, for example, one must know about former Yemeni President Saleh’s use of jihadists in the 1994 Yemeni civil war.  That, in turn, takes one back further into the history of Saleh’s precipitous 30-year-plus rule, Yemen’s former division, Cold War politics, and Saudi and Egyptian battles for power in Yemen.

The interwoven tale of Yemen and jihad is told in fine detail, though at times I wondered if the author assumed too much about his readers’ knowledge of Yemen.  The complex array of family names and tribal affiliations can confuse even those with a familiarity of the country, and I can’t imagine trying to untangle the web without previous study.  I found myself wanting not only the list of key players found at the end of the book, but an organizational diagram showing their relationships to one another as well.  Those who have studied Yemen will notice how Johnsen subtly slips in references to overused phrases about the embattled country, such as Saleh’s description of governing as “dancing on the heads of snakes,” the high number of guns per capita, and bin Laden’s “ancestral home” in Hadramawt.

Other reviews have rightly pointed out that Johnsen is a masterful writer.  Johnsen’s fondness for literature, which he frequently mentions on Twitter, has clearly influenced his ability to tell a good story.  Indeed, at times it seems like you are reading a novel, particularly in Johnsen’s descriptions of some of the major players and regions.  Barbara Bodine is not merely a former ambassador to Yemen, for example; she’s a “trim, no-nonsense career diplomat from Missouri” whose “unveiled, angular good looks came as a shock to many in the conservative country” (pp. 59-60).  I doubt Yemenis would appreciate as much Johnsen’s colorful descriptions of some areas of their country, including his portrayal of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, looking “more like a garbage dump” than Mohammad’s “paradise of earthly paradises.”

The only problem with this seamless narrative is that when the reader has a question or a quibble about some aspect of the text, it’s difficult to know from where the information came.  There are no footnotes in the book, except for an occasional explanatory aside.  I did find, to my surprise, that there are endnote references; there’s no indication of that fact in the body of the text.  Because these notes are based on phrases from the book rather than in-text notations, narrowing down sources for particular statements is not as easy as in, say, J.M. Berger’s book Jihad Joe, which I recently reviewed.

Most of the time, this lack of notated source material is not a significant issue.  For example, most accounts that I have seen of Abdullah Azzam’s assassination included sly references to Osama bin Laden’s potential implication in the bombing.  In Johnsen’s telling, bin Laden was surprised by Azzam’s death (p. 17).  At times when reading, I simply wanted to know more about the story, such as when Johnsen recounts conversations between al-Qaeda operatives in prison.  In others, it seemed like it would have been worthwhile to more clearly substantiate assertions, such as alleged mistreatment of prisoners in Guantanamo.  When there’s a question, it’s nice to be able to quickly and easily source a contention.

The chapter I was most looking forward to reading was chapter 10, the story of Yemen’s de-radicalization program.  (This was also the subject of my master’s dissertation.)  True to form, Johnsen brought new insights to the story, though to quote John Horgan in reference to a chapter in Berger’s book, Johnsen’s telling was tantalizingly short.  I found myself most drawn in by the story of AQAP proper’s formative years, first in prisons and then immediately out of them.  Fresh details of al-Wuhayshi’s relationship to bin Laden and the detainees’ machinations to resurrect al Qaeda in Yemen both fleshed out my understanding of the organization and reinforced its pedigree.  I was reminded again of how young so many of the important players are.  Perhaps most important was Johnsen’s focus on Osama bin Laden’s emphasis on centralization of decision and decentralization of execution.  AQAP has finessed this approach to create a dangerous and compartmentalized threat in Yemen.  Bin Laden’s leadership philosophy may be too often overlooked both by those who asserted that bin Laden was completely removed from the game prior to his death and those who argued for (one time) total control by al Qaeda Central.

As other reviewers have pointed out, the books is a bit like a train taking off, carefully picking its way through the story at the beginning and hurtling at breakneck speed by the end.  The problem with political science, my undergraduate history advisor told me, is that by the time you have figured out what is going on, the situation has changed.  Johnsen faces a similar problem in trying to recount the most recent developments in Yemen.  The final pages on AQAP and Ansar al-Shariah, while all pertinent, felt at times like a mad rush to assemble all the relevant material in an ever-evolving situation and to capture it in print before things changed once again.  (And, perhaps, before the manuscript’s deadline arrived.)  Partially because I did not realize there were any endnotes padding out the last pages of the book, I was taken by surprise by the rather abrupt end.

Lest I seem uncharitable, Johnsen surely faced a difficult task compiling the necessary information in an appropriate timeframe.  Particularly as a non-Arabic speaker, I am indebted to him for his comprehensive history of the subject.  This book is certainly a must-read on Yemen and AQAP, and I expect to read it more than once.  Somewhat like Victoria Clark’s book Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes, the first reading set the framework for understanding, and subsequent readings will fill out extra or overlooked detail.  Both in quality of writing and depth of detail, Johnsen’s book is better than Clark’s, falling somewhere on the scale of complexity between Clark and Paul Dresch’s A History of Modern Yemen.  Much to Bruce Hoffman’s dismay, Johnsen’s PhD thesis is on the 1962-1970 Yemeni civil war, so I doubt we will see a scholarly work or popular book equal to The Last Refuge any time in the near future.

July 25, 2012
Profiles of AQAP’s leadership

In case you missed it, Gregory Johnsen has a nice piece out in the CTC sentinel profiling four of the top leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula:

  • Nasir al-Wahayshi
  • Said al-Shihri
  • Qasim al-Raymi
  • Ibrahim Asiri  

Concise and to the point, Johnsen’s article complements some of the backgrounders out there on AQAP, such as the Council on Foreign Relations’ or the National Counterterrorism Center’s.  AEI’s Critical Threats Project put out a good profile about a year ago that covered a lot of the same ground as Johnsen (as well as a lot more on Yemen), but this new piece is both more detailed and more up-to-date.

Two quick thoughts from Johsen’s piece:

  • While de-radicalization certainly has value, Said al-Shihri should be a constant reminder that it’s not guaranteed to work.  As Johnsen writes:

Once back in the kingdom [of Saudi Arabia], al-Shihri was required to take part in a rehabilitation program run by the Ministry of the Interior. Less than a year later, in September 2008, Saudi officials decided he no longer posed a threat and he was released. The 35-year-old al-Shihri was offered a wife and a job, but he declined.

Within weeks of his release, al-Shihri organized and led several former Guantanamo Bay detainees over the border to Yemen to rejoin al-Qa`ida.

I think we can draw lessons for future programs from the successes and failures of both Yemen’s and Saudi Arabia’s attempts at de-radicalization.  We have to remember, though, that it’s no magic bullet.

  • We have to know who we’re fighting against if we’re going to win.  It’s always a little surprising to me how often people misconstrue the leadership of AQAP.   Nasir al-Wahayshi is the leader, and has been since the merger.  I don’t doubt that our diplomats, military leaders, and intelligence professionals know this fact.  It would be nice if our media picked up on it, though.  (For those of us who aren’t Arabic speakers, it would also be helpful if we could pick just one way to transliterate his name.  However, given the debate over Qaeda/Qaida and Usama/Osama, I’m not counting on it.) 

April 10, 2012
Fixing Yemen’s Prisons

In the face of increased Islamist militant activity in Yemen, analysts are looking for root causes of radicalization, with a mind to countering it. At least one of these causes appears to be Yemeni jails. “The more AQAP bios I read the more I see a single common denominator,” prominent Yemen watcher Gregory Johnsen wrote on Twitter on March 22, “time in a prison in Yemen.”

For the leadership of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), this is undoubtedly true. After all, al-Qaeda reasserted itself as a force in Yemen after many who became the core leadership of AQAP escaped from prison in 2006. These escapees included Nasser al-Wahayshi, the emir of AQAP; Qasim al-Raymi, AQAP’s military commander; Hizam Mujali; and Mohammad Said al-Umdah, among others.

Other members, like deputy emir Said al-Shihri, Uthman al-Ghamdi, and spiritual advisor Ibrahim Suleiman al-Rubaish, are former detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Fahd al-Quso, a plotter in the USS Cole attack, spent time Yemeni prison, as did Anwar al-Awlaki, perhaps AQAP’s most famous alleged member. In fact, it was during Awlaki’s stay in Yemeni prison that he became “harder,” according to those who knew him, fueled by Sayyid Qutb’s writings and anger over American involvement over his imprisonment without charges.

Of course, this listing doesn’t even address the scores of foot soldiers whose profiles are relayed through AQAP’s “martyrs’ biographies,” the testimonies of the fallen. Many of these lesser-known figures have also spent time in Yemeni jails, and have even been recruited there.

Does imprisonment in Yemeni jails lead to radicalization, then? Or perhaps a better question is, will reforming Yemen’s prisons decrease radicalization?

The answers to these questions are perhaps not quite as clear as they may seem. After all, it’s obvious that Yemeni imprisonment was not the only radicalizing factor in these men’s lives. Wahayshi is a former personal assistant to bin Laden, and both Shihri and Rubaish went through Saudi Arabia’s de-radicalization program, itself an adaptation of Yemen’s efforts from 2002-2005 under Hamoud al-Hitar.

However, given the state of Yemen’s prisons, reform could only do good. Many of Yemen’s current and former prisoners have quite legitimate grievances about the way they’ve been treated.

As tens of thousands of jihadists have been imprisoned over the years, analysts have lamented the ease with which prisons have become factories of radicalization rather than offering real rehabilitation. Yemen’s prisons in particular have a bad reputation of corruption and mistreatment.

When the imams were in power in Yemen, Victoria Clark notes, one could pay to have a person arrested, or pay more to have him released – and this trend has not entirely dissipated in the years since the imamate fell from power in 1962. Particularly troubling is the trend toward government agencies in Yemen, such as the Political Security Office or the National Security Bureau, running their own “private” prisons. “Privation and torture are a well-documented feature of jails run without supervision” by such groups, Clark writes. Local sheikhs sometimes run their own jails as well.

Coupled with frequent jail breaks (there were two fairly extensive escapes in 2011, not to mention the major getaways in 2003 and 2006), kidnapping of prisoners’ family members, suppression by Yemen’s security services, and all-too-common imprisonment without charge, it should not be surprising if the Yemeni populace distrusts the prison system while Yemeni prisoners are angry and prone to radicalization.

Nor is this an issue just now coming to light. A 2008 survey by USAID of Yemeni youth found that Yemeni prisons are “violence academies” where imprisoned youth are exposed to hardened criminals and jihadists, as well as torture and brutalization. “They enter jails normal people with some confusions and prejudices, because of torture they come out four times terrorists than they were before,” stated one survey participant, while another claimed, “Prisons and juvenile centers are supposed to rehabilitate the youth. What happens is the opposite. They get abused and they come out of jail even more aggressive and more violent.”

Ansar al-Shariah and AQAP continue to gain ground in southern Yemen based partially upon their pragmatic approach to providing services the common Yemeni populace misses out on; in addition to providing electricity and teachers to areas lacking both (along with their interpretation of shariah law), it is not uncommon for these Islamist militants to demand the release of jihadist prisoners in areas they enter. Even if detainees did not fully agree with al-Qaeda’s ideology before, release at AQAP’s hand might be enough to sway their minds.

How, then, can an embattled government under the reign of new president Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi deal with the issue of prison radicalization in Yemen? If time in Yemeni prison is such a common factor among AQAP members, getting a handle on radicalization among Yemeni prisoners might be a key step in countering AQAP’s recruitment efforts.

Without doubt, this is a multi-faceted question with no simple answers. Radicalization is not an easy topic, and countering it requires much more than getting prisoners to sign a piece of paper saying they won’t carry out terrorist acts – a lesson Yemen had to learn the hard way from Hamoud al-Hitar’s Committee for Religious Dialogue. However, a combination of increased centralization along with improved mediation efforts might lay the foundation for an improved Yemeni prison system.

Increased centralization might not seem like an obvious direction to take the prison system when Yemen’s central government appears to have a tenuous grip on power after the year-long process of removing former president Ali Abdullah Saleh from office. The rampant problem of corruption in Yemen is only exacerbated by the virtual autonomy various leaders have over their own “sheikdoms,” whatever those may be. For example, the PSO could not intimidate so many prisoners if it were not left so much to its own devices.

By placing the prison system under one central authority – preferably staffed by leaders who are not from the entrenched system of Saleh’s sycophants – false imprisonment could be reduced, if not eliminated. The purpose would not be to gain power so much as it would be to seek justice, releasing those wrongly detained and preventing further torture and abuse. How better for Hadi to gain the respect of his citizens than to reverse the injustices of the past?

Additionally, radicalization in prisons could be reduced simply by finding ways to keep people out of prisons. One way to do so is to more fully embrace the notion of tribal mediation for smaller crimes and disagreements. Though tribalism is more a northern phenomenon in Yemen, the concept of mediation is not inextricably linked to tribal leaders. Expanding the concept to include many whose misdemeanors are minor could allow for greater flexibility in restitutive action, rather than punitive (and potentially radicalizing) imprisonment.

Moreover, these two approaches have the potential to balance one another out politically. For Hadi, greater centralization would allow the regime to combat charges of corruption, while incorporating mediation could help encourage much-needed tribal support for the government. For the tribes, mediation would help off-set worries about a power grab via centralized prison administration, while also giving them a voice in the debate about justice.

There’s no guarantee that this approach would work, much as there’s no guarantee that any of the reforms underway in Yemen will work. At the least, though, it’s a step in the right direction.

February 22, 2012
Very Quick Thoughts on Yemen’s Election

Yemen held its election yesterday, and Hadi - the only candidate for president - was elected.  There’s been several articles written about this already, and I am sure more to come as people try to figure out just what the election means for Yemen.  For the moment, though, I want to comment very briefly on one aspect of the election: its impact on the tribes and existing power structure in Yemen.

In a New York Times article by Laura Kasinof, “Yemen’s Election Ensures Leader’s Exit,” former Prime Minister Abdel-Karim al-Iryani says:

“The political stage is wide open to create a new political system,” Mr. Iryani said. “That new political system cannot be the same as it was before. There is a consensus that the dominance of the military and tribal sheiks that has controlled the stage is now no longer acceptable.”

(Kasinof has more in a pre-election article here.)

Danya Greenfield made a similar point in a Foreign Policy piece, “Yemen’s election might matter.”  Greenfield argues in part:

… the United States should actively engage its military and intelligence counterparts to ensure that security sector restructuring occurs beyond a superficial level and does not leave the same old power brokers in place that compete for fiefdoms within the country.

It’s very easy to call for the removal of corruption and cronyism.  Electing a different president may help, but I have a hard time seeing this as too much of a transition from the past, considering Saleh’s deal was inked behind closed doors, served greatly to his advantage, and included so few participants.  As Greenfield puts it,

… the deal was agreed upon by the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a coalition of Yemeni opposition parties, but did not include other important groups with legitimate grievances, such as the southern secessionists, the Houthi rebels in the north, and the non-aligned youth activists.

I don’t see a single election - with a single candidate, nonetheless - serving to restructure Yemen’s historical centers of power, which has long been the tribes and sheiks.  Political parties and even military leadership often build upon or spring from tribal leadership.

In fact, there may be great danger in over-emphasizing Hadi’s ability to change the way Yemen does business.  For starters, Saleh endorsed Hadi after making him VP in 1994, which doesn’t exactly make him look like an outsider.  Additionally, Hadi has been seen as a weak leader, and many of the other contenders for power in Yemen believe they can control him.

Gregory Johnsen puts this more succinctly in his brief profile of of the soon-to-be president

Hadi emerged as the consensus compromise candidate for two main reasons: 1. He was already the vice president and 2. he wasn’t thought strong enough to challenge any of Yemen’s entrenched powers.

(Johnsen has more on the election here.)

And UN correspondent Casey Coombs summed it up in a tweet:

Many seem 2 have faith in Hadi 2 reform military. But there’s a reason he was consensus candidate: he has no base, no militia, no army.

As I tweeted yesterday regarding Greenfield’s piece, essentially the argument is if Saleh leaves power (and doesn’t just play from the sidelines, say, through his family) and if Yemen’s entire socio-political structure changes to place less emphasis on the tribes, sheiks, and military, then the election matters.  These are very, very big ifs.  And they’ve left several people doubting, including Fernando Carvajal, who argues in his piece for the Fair Observer:

Hadi must still deal with President Saleh’s legacy, family and loyalists who remain uncertain about their future in the regime. The election is only the start of mounting challenges and without a powerbase, the new president will remain under the influence of the old regime and in a weak position in relation to the overconfident opposition. Furthermore, removing protesters from Change and Freedom Squares will require more than eloquent speeches and intimidating thugs.

Reform and re-structure may happen.  Hadi may emerge as a strong leader; no one thought Saleh was going to be around as long as he’s been.  I wouldn’t bet money on it, though.

January 28, 2012
Is Ansar al-Shariah Becoming Yemen’s Taliban?

I should probably note here that the more I worked on writing this, the more muddled it became in my mind.  Thus, the following is less of an argument and more of an attempt to get even some kind of clear thinking on the subject.  Moreover, much of what follows is conjecture based on little primary research or evidence.

Recent events in Yemen have caused some of the observers of the country to take pause as they try to determine just what, exactly, is happening there.  First, there’s the whole shell game of where President Saleh is at the moment - Mohammed Albasha (@Yemen411) has basically spent the last couple of weeks tweeting to refute rumors about where Saleh is not.

Second, violent groups of Islamists under the banner of AQAP and Ansar al-Shariah have increasingly taken over territory in Yemen, and have allegedly set their sights on Sana’a itself.  However, it hasn’t merely been a case of shock-and-awe, small-scale imperialism.  Rather, Ansar al-Shariah has touted the more pragmatic side of what they’ve been doing.  As Aaron Zelin points out in a couple of tweets, a recent newsletter by AS (as I’ll refer to them) describes their work in freeing prisoners, bringing electricity to Abyan, and bringing security to the newly-renamed town of Waqar.

Gregory Johnsen (who is finally back to blogging in long form, even if in a temporary home) has elaborated some on the latter point, while also adding info on the relationship between AS and AQAP.  In a post titled “The AQAP - Ansar al-Shariah Link,” Johnsen observes:

This video shows Tariq al-Dhahab, the Ansar al-Shariah leader and Anwar al-Awlaki’s brother-in-law, receiving the bay’a or oath of allegiance on behalf of Nasir al-Wihayshi (the AQAP commander) and Ayman al-Zawahiri (the head of AQ).

In another post, “What’s in a Name,” Johnsen points out that AS is trying to make a strong statement:

But today Ansar al-Shariah released issue 7 of its newsletter - dated December - in which it announced that it has changed the name of Ja’ar to Waqar.  Yep, that’s right, Ansar al-Shariah is changing the names of cities in Yemen, a very obvious way of saying the old is gone and the new is here.

According to the newsletter, this is the first city to come under the rule of Ansar al-Shariah, and it appears as though the group is doing what it can to implement its own laws in the city, and that includes establishing a police force.


This is just one more piece of evidence that suggests Ansar al-Shariah is following the Taliban model and attempting to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of Yemen’s government in Abyan.  Ansar al-Shariah has put down roots and it is going to take a lot more energy and effort than Yemen can currently produce to get them out.  Ansar al-Shariah isn’t going away anytime soon.

The idea of AS becoming Yemen’s Taliban intrigues me.  I’ve compared AQAP’s methods of ingratiating itself to the Yemeni people to the example of Hamas, but Johnsen’s Taliban comparison might be a stronger case.

First, let’s contemplate the differences between Hamas and the Taliban.  Aaron Zelin recently posted about Thomas Hegghammer’s analysis of Islamic groups, which uses the groups’ preferences as a means of categorization.  In this context, Zelin’s post is most useful for the chart reproduced from Hegghammer’s piece, which places several groups in their category of rationale, as well as their sub-categories of violent or non-violent forms. 

(The original of the chart is available on pg. 259 here; because I do not have Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement, the volume from which Hegghammer’s essay comes, I’ve had to make do with a proof copy from Hegghammer’s website.  Hegghammer quotes with page numbers are from this proof.)

While the Taliban is not listed on Hegghammer’s chart, we can see that there is a clear difference between Hamas, which has a nation-oriented rationale, and al-Qaeda and AQAP, which has an ummah-oriented rationale.  It is an illustration of what Hegghammer calls “arguably the most significant political rift in the world of militant Islamism since the mid-1990s, namely the question of whether to focus the struggle on the near or the far enemy” (pg. 256).

Zelin helpfully supplies Hegghammer’s categories of rationale, including the following:

Nation-oriented: Defined by a desire to establish sovereignty on a specific territory perceived as occupied or dominated by non-Muslims.

Umma-oriented: Distinguished by a desire to protect the Islamic nation as a whole from external (non-Muslim) threats.

In other words, Hegghammer argues, the groups have different reasons for being; their rationales “represent the most important reasons for which Islamists act" (pg. 258).  Hamas is focused on a "particular territory" while al-Qaeda is concerned with the "far enemy."  The Taliban, on the other hand, overlaps both categories; as Hegghammer states elsewhere, the Taliban "combines nationalist and global jihadi rhetoric and attacks Western targets locally," an example of what Hegghammer calls "The Ideological Hybridization of Jihadi Groups.”

So what does all this mean for Ansar al-Shariah?  For one, we must acknowledge that Hamas is more comfortable with democracy than is the Taliban.  If AS really is following the Taliban model - as it seems to be, to some extent - a Hamas-style election to power seems less likely than just taking over territory.  This isn’t to say that AS would not draw from Hamas’ example of, say, supplying the people’s needs; rather, it is to suggest that the more purely theocratic Taliban approach is more in keeping with Ansar al-Sharia’s tactics.

Second, I think we can state fairly clearly that AS does not seek merely to create an Islamic state in one small area.  While AQAP and AS have strong regional elements to both their rhetoric and action, an Islamic Yemen created in Ansar al-Shariah’s image will not satisfy the end goals, which certainly have ummah-oriented rationales.

However, AQAP and AS will not have the host-guest relationship that the Taliban had with al-Qaeda central.  AQAP and Ansar al-Shariah are perhaps more like Sinn Fein and the IRA: two sides of the same coin yet united in purpose.

One jihadist researcher described the adoption of the Ansar al-Shariah name as a “tactical and psychological shift” away from the al-Qaeda brand, while maintaining the same goals.  Another cited in the same piece claimed that “changing the name to Ansar al-Sharia gives it some autonomy to commence operations to build a state under an official cover and take control of a ready infrastructure including weapons.”

It may be, then, that AS and AQAP are two pincers working together to establish control of areas in Yemen as a springboard for controlling territories elsewhere, unified under the cause of the ummah.  It may mean, too, that AQAP and AS together have three approaches to their cause: to attack the far enemy, as they have tried against the US; to attack the near enemy, as they have against Yemeni and Saudi targets, as well as Westerners in Yemen; and to establish emirates under Taliban-like control.  Each element could operate quasi-independently while seeking the same purpose.

(The split between far and near enemies as joint parts of AQAP’s strategy is not too far off of Hegghammer’s argument in “The case for chasing al-Awlaki,” though I think it’s hard to state too much definitively about AQAP.)

To my mind, there is further a danger of Balkanization in Yemen, wherein different parts of the country could fall under different control.  While Johnsen warns against taking Ansar al-Shariah’s gains to mean the whole country of Yemen could fall under their control, he also states that “there is a real danger of drifting apart.”  Houthis in the north and secessionists in the south already put pressure on the central government, which is essentially in shambles right now.  It’s the perfect time, really, for AS to establish its own territorial control and build up a base from there. 

(Interestingly enough, Boko Haram - another Islamist group allegedly linked to both AQ central and AQAP, and which calls itself “the Nigerian Taliban” - seems to be taking exactly this approach, to the extent of calling the area it controls “Afghanistan,” according to a report to the House committee on Homeland Security.)

All told, I think it’s too early to tell whether Ansar al-Shariah will become Yemen’s Taliban.  There is probably some danger in trying to draw too many analogies or too strong a comparison between groups that are uniquely situated in their causes and circumstances.  Moreover, as Hegghammer points out, hybridization of ideologies means “ambiguous or heterogeneous enemy hierarchies are becoming a prevalent feature of contemporary militant Islamism. As a consequence, it is becoming more and more difficult to determine what exactly jihadists are fighting for.”  Ultimately, perhaps the most important thing we can realize is that there’s so much we don’t know, and that we must stay focused and engaged to accomplish any real good.

October 29, 2011
The Ingratiating AQAP

Gregory Johnsen’s recent post “Jihadis talking in Yemen" inspired a brief exchange between the two of us on Twitter.  When I suggested that AQAP’s attempt to build a popular support base in Yemen was more frightening than its recent attacks, such as the parcel bombs of last year, Johnsen sagely noted that both strategies are dangerous.  As I responded at the time, it seems like AQAP may be making some attempt to transition into … something different.  I suggested insurgency or a real political party, but I’m not sure that’s it entirely.  I do think AQAP is learning lessons from other groups’ past mistakes, such as the way al-Qaeda in Iraq lost so much support by essentially going on a killing spree against anyone who did not fully agree with it  - a point I’m not sure was entirely clear in my other tweet.

All that being said, I suppose I should preface what follows by saying it is speculation based on scant evidence.  I am not so much arguing that it is happening as saying it could happen, though I think there is some indication that it may be happening.

I’ve been arguing for a while now that AQAP is intentionally ingratiating itself to the Yemeni populace.  In a post last June, I mentioned two New York Times articles on Yemen’s crisis and the “militants” operating in southern Yemen.  Quoting from my previous post:

Southern Yemen, an area already hostile to the predominantly Northern Yemeni army, partially thanks to Saleh’s actions, is perhaps the area most prone [to] control by Islamists.  But it’s not just because of Saleh’s actions, past or present; part of it has to do with what the Islamists themselves are currently doing, and how they are seen by the people in the area.  AQAP has already made it a practice to reach out to the populace, ingratiating itself to the people.  These militants in southern Yemen - who may or may not be AQ - are following the same path:

Although the refugees were all deeply upset by the violence that had forced them from their homes, most seemed more frightened by the Yemeni military than the gunmen. Several refugees said the gunmen used loudspeakers to warn residents to leave their homes, especially in areas where the military was shelling heavily. The army, they said, showed no such concern for civilians.

Some residents said they had initially been frightened by the gunmen, many of whom wore their hair long like northern tribesmen. But they added that the fighters treated them more respectfully than the local security and police officials, who are widely viewed as occupiers, or worse.

“These Al Qaeda people didn’t steal our houses, they protected them,” said Ali Muhammad Hassan, a 31-year-old government clerk. “If they saw people carrying furniture or other things, looters, they would tell them to return it.”

Mr. Hassan and others also said the militants seemed highly disciplined and had put local Yemenis in charge rather than northerners or foreign jihadists, in an apparent bid for grass-roots support.

“They seemed to have a clear military plan,” he said. “They moved in cells; they were highly organized.”

Granted, telling you when to leave before destroying your village or asking looters to put your stolen goods back is not the same thing as providing teachers or even weapons, as I have written about before.

[The article quoted in the previous post above is Robert Worth’s Chaos in Yemen Creates Opening for Islamist Gangs.]

Johnsen’s recent post, which briefly analyzes a short newsletter put out by Ansar al-Shariah (which may or may not be the militants mentioned above, who may or may not be part of AQAP - but probably are on both accounts), points to an intentional message of reaching out to the people of Yemen:

The organization is both talking and apparently moving towards providing social services.  The newsletter mentions providing food stuffs to citizens during Ramadan, which meshes with Abab’s talk of the sewer problems back in the spring.  AQAP has also, in my analysis, been moving towards being more sensitive to local concerns in recent years, particularly by providing teachers to isolated villages in 2009.  This is more of the same.

Robert Worth wrote about the teacher issue in his 2010 article “Is Yemen the Next Afghanistan?"  When USS Cole-linked al-Qaeda leader Fahd al-Quso showed up in Rafadh, the tribal leaders there sheltered him for two reasons, Worth says: because he looked like a victim of the government, and because he provided teachers.

But the tribesmen of Rafadh continued to shelter Quso and his men and not just because of their shared hatred of the government. Quso had offered to supply teachers for the village school. Local families knew he was with Al Qaeda but welcomed the news for a simple reason: there were no teachers in the school at all. “The people were saying, ‘We would rather have our kids get an Al Qaeda education than be illiterate,’ ” Jifri told me. After hearing about Quso’s offer, Jifri went to officials in Sana and delivered a blunt message: “Right now you have one Al Qaeda guy in Rafadh, tomorrow you will have 700.”

Initially, Jifri said, the government refused to provide teachers, saying any town that was willing to accept help from Al Qaeda was beneath contempt. Finally, they relented.

"The government agreed to send 6 teachers," Jifri told me. "Fahd brought 16."

Now, I suppose it should be pointed out that the new CTC report on AQAP and tribes in Yemen suggests that Yemeni tribes do not support or shelter AQAP, as has been suggested; the report footnotes Worth’s article as part of the narrative of “remote regions, [in which] the group was able to rapidly expand its influence among Yemen’s poorly integrated tribes, using a combination of marriage, coercion, bribery and public services (p14).”  This narrative, the author suggests, is at the very least incomplete (though I have not yet read the full report, and cannot give a good accounting of the report’s counter-narrative.)

That being said, support for ideological reasons is perhaps harder to attain than support for pragmatic ones.  As Christopher Boucek pointed out in a recent Q & A session - and as he’s been pointing out for months now - Yemen’s biggest challenges are things like the economy and broken infrastructure.  While the US and other Western countries focus solely on counter-terrorism, and while the Yemeni government fights to keep Saleh in power, AQAP has an opportunity to provide real answers to real problems, if it chooses to do so.

And there are several good reasons for why AQAP should try to ingratiate itself to the Yemeni people, not merely the fact that massive protests against Saleh and the Yemeni government give it room to do so.  I’d like to briefly talk about 3 of those reasons:

  1. Damage to the al-Qaeda brand
  2. Support for Islamism
  3. Success of prior examples

First, the idea that the al-Qaeda brand has been tarnished.  Aaron Zelin wrote about this back in August, in a blog post titled “What’s in a Name: The Death of the al-Qa’ida Brand?"  Feeling out the relationship of Ansar al-Shariah to AQAP, Zelin notes:

Ansar al-Shari’ah may be a subsidiary of AQAP used for recruitment and foot soldiers in Yemen’s incipient civil war. It is telling that AQAP may be recruiting individuals using a different name.

We have also recently learned that Usama bin Laden may have been looking to change the name of al-Qa’ida central. According to press reports based on leaked information from the raid that killed bin Laden, al-Qai’da’s central leadership in Pakistan was debating a couple of options for its name. This was spurred in part by the Western habit of referring to the group as al-Qa’ida, rather than its official name of Tandhim Qa’idat al-Jihad (The Base Organization of Jihad). The leadership felt that the West’s habit of omitting the word “jihad” robbed them of some of their religious legitimacy. Unfortunately for al-Qa’ida, the two alternative names on the table were a mouthful – Ta’ifat at-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad (Sect of Monotheism and Jihad) and Jama’at ’I‘adat al-Khilafah al-Rashidiyyah (Restoration Group of the Rashidun Caliphate). Ultimately, they decided to stick with Tandhim Qa’idat al-Jihad.

Putting it quite succinctly, Zelin writes, “All told, the al-Qa’ida brand is not favorable anymore – even for its senior leadership.  It’s a big problem if AQAP is able to recruit more individuals by rejecting the brand and taking on a name with more religious significance.”

Now, one response to a tarnished brand is to change the name entirely; consider Blackwater’s change to Xe Services, or Coke’s transition from New Coke to Coca-Cola Classic.  Another is to try to refurbish the image.  I think AQAP is trying to do both.

If, under the auspices of Ansar al-Shariah and a wink-and-a-nod, AQAP is able to cast itself as the protector of the people - whether physically from Western and corrupt Saleh-an forces, or more indirectly through social services - AQAP will set the stage for accomplishing far-reaching goals in Yemen.  In fact, I think it could be argued that such a strategy is a continuation of bin Laden’s use of shelters and charities to fund, train, and equip the mujahadin in Afghanistan.  Doing so would also put a new, more positive spin on the al-Qaeda name.

Secondly, the support of Islamism in Yemen (and throughout the Middle East).  Though there are certainly questions as to Islamists’ roles in parliamentary government systems - see Will McCants’ brief post on the subject over at Jihadica, for example - there is little doubt that for Yemen and other Muslim countries, Islamism is a powerful force.  While definitions of proper Islam abound, as do ideas of what constitutes Islamism, the Islamic foundation of Yemen’s constitution provides a basis of any entity claiming Islamic roots to make an argument that it knows best how to implement the law under shariah. (For when I speak of Islamism or Islamists, I keep in mind Jillian Schwedler’s definition of “a shared commitment to the implementation of Islamic Law [shari’ah] in all spheres,” whatever their “tactics, strategies, or even specific objectives.”  See her book Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen for more.)

Just as the government of Yemen argued that it was a legitimate Islamic establishment when Hamoud al-Hitar was trying to dialogue jihadists out of terrorism in Yemen, Islamist parties in Yemen and elsewhere have long asserted that they should be supported because they know how to lead a Muslim people properly.  The very name Ansar al-Shariah is an obvious attempt to take advantage of those sentiments, and actually backing the name up with genuinely useful actions has the potential to shift local perception, at least, to viewing al-Qaeda as a real support for the Yemeni people.

Which brings us to the third point, building on the success of other groups.  While I’m certainly no authority on Hamas, AQAP could learn much from Hamas’ successes.  See, for example, the Council on Foreign Relations’ backgrounder on Hamas, which both asks and answers questions:

Is Hamas only a terrorist group?

No. In addition to its military wing, the so-called Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigade, Hamas devotes much of its estimated $70 million annual budget to an extensive social services network. Indeed, the extensive social and political work done by Hamas—and its reputation among Palestinians as averse to corruption—partly explain its defeat of the Fatah old guard in the 2006 legislative vote. Hamas funds schools, orphanages, mosques, healthcare clinics, soup kitchens, and sports leagues. “Approximately 90 percent of its work is in social, welfare, cultural, and educational activities,” writes the Israeli scholar Reuven Paz. The Palestinian Authority often fails to provide such services, and Hamas’ efforts in this area—as well as a reputation for honesty, in contrast to the many Fatah officials accused of corruption—help to explain the broad popularity it summoned to defeat Fatah in the PA’s recent elections.

If AQAP could achieve a status similar to Hamas’ it would have a much greater chance of success than it does currently.  While such success would also leave it prone to the political dissatisfaction of its constituents that Hamas currently faces, and while it would still be classified as a terrorist organization (as Hamas is), the genuine backing of the people would force the US to change the way it operated in relation to AQAP.  A full-blown insurgency would likely necessitate either military intervention or complete withdrawal - neither one of which would be good options for the US.  In the long term, it would do a lot in al-Qaeda’s favor, though.

As I said at the outset, this post is mostly speculative.  Whether all of this will happen, or whether it even could, is still up in the air.  A recent piece for the Huffington Post quoted Fawaz Gerges as saying AQAP “does not possess the material, human means or endurance to sustain a transnational campaign, nor does it have the assets or resources to build viable alliances with Yemeni tribes and a social welfare infrastructure.”  And yet, al-Qaeda as a whole and AQAP in particular has proven itself to be imaginative, resourceful, and evolving.  Thus, I stand by the assertion I made in the conclusion of my June post referenced before: that while I don’t know the best solutions for Yemen, I do know that nothing good can come of giving al-Qaeda the upper hand in the battle of ideas over who will provide greater safety and security to the common Yemeni citizen.

October 11, 2011
Eliminating Terrorist Leadership

As I read Stratfor’s assessment of the "fallout" from Awlaki’s death, along with Gregory Johnsen’s latest post explaining why, coming from the perspective of a Yemen scholar*, he doesn’t think Anwar al-Awlaki’s killing will be that useful for either the US or Yemen, I’ve been thinking about the impact of eliminating terrorist leadership.  No doubt, this is partially spurred on as well by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker’s book Counterstrike, which I am in the midst of reading, as a key theme of that book is the over-emphasis by the Bush administration on the capture-or-kill strategy as the only method of quashing al-Qaeda.

Throughout all this, I am reminded of Audrey Kurth Cronin’s chapter “How terrorist campaigns end” in Horgan and Bjorgo’s Leaving Terrorism Behind.  (Cronin now has a book out on the subject, appropriately titled How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns.)

Cronin argues that there are “at least seven broad explanations or critical elements in the decline and ending of terrorist groups in the modern era,” which include:

  1. The capture or killing of the leader
  2. Failure to transition to the next generation
  3. Achievement of the group’s aims
  4. Transition to a legitimate political process
  5. Undermining of popular support
  6. Repression
  7. Transitioning from terrorism to other forms of violence

A handy table in the chapter provides examples of each, while acknowledging that the categories may overlap.  Interestingly enough, the ones in the capture/kill column tend to not be the groups one immediately conjures up when thinking about terrorism: Shining Path, Real IRA, and Aum Shinrikyo.  No, the bigger ones tend to fall into other categories, like the Provisional IRA and the PLO in the transition to a legitimate political process, or Abu Sayyaf’s transition toward criminality.

While noting that the capture or killing of a leader produces mixed results based on a wide number of factors, Cronin also points out that “the event normally provides critical insight into the depth and nature of the group’s popular support and usually represents a turning point.”  Later, Cronin argues that for counter-terrorism, killing a leader “can sometimes backfire, resulting in increased publicity for the group’s cause and perhaps the creation of a martyr who attracts new members to the organization (or even subsequent organizations),” while also eliminating the possibility of essentially shaming the leader and the group through public arrest and trial.

There’s several things to think about as this pertains to al-Qaeda and Awlaki, but here’s a few rough thoughts:

  1. Unlike what could happen with the Taliban, I don’t see the US allowing al-Qaeda to transition to a legitimate political organization (and it’s sure going to try its hardest to prevent al-Qaeda from achieving its goals).  The focus is going to remain the capture-or-kill strategy, with the war-of-ideas backup that is going to push for undermining popular support, while hoping al-Qaeda can’t make the jump to the next generation.  (I’ll take “al-Qaeda is irrelevant because of the Arab Spring” for 400, Alex.)
  2. AQAP could transition to another form of violence, just as al-Qaeda in Iraq largely transitioned to insurgency.  I don’t really see that happening, but it could; I’m not sure if would have that much of an effect on US policies towards AQAP or Yemen.
  3. Just as killing a leader offers crucial insight into a group’s popular support, so killing a leader offers crucial insight into his effect on the organization.  While AQAP’s English-language propaganda is likely to take a hit, I think we are going to see through AQAP’s continuing operations just how tangential Awlaki was to the overall movement.  To put it another way, Johnsen is right in pointing out that Nasir al-Wihayshi - the leader of AQAP, and bin Laden’s former secretary - didn’t need Awlaki to make him want to attack the US, and he didn’t need Awlaki’s “terrorist expertise” to make the attacks happen.
  4. While killing Awlaki could backfire - it will undoubtedly make him a martyr - on the whole it’s probably better for the US that he’s gone, even if he’s not that important overall.  It’s true that, as I said before, his death might provide his words a new platform.  It’s also true that he would have been of greater intelligence value if he could have been taken alive, and probably greater propaganda value as well.  He’s no longer able to directly influence potential terrorists through personal communication, though, and he was certainly a threat to the US.

On the whole, it’s important to remember that Awlaki is but one page in the story.  As Cronin writes:

Understanding how terrorist campaigns meet their demise is important not only so as to recognize classic patterns of ending when they appear, but also to formulate and adapt intelligent policies that push them towards the end.  Policies that fail to understand the lifespans of groups, that treat them as if they were immortal, are destined to prolong the dynamics of terrorist campaigns.

In a sense, we made Awlaki “immortal” (or at least infamous) to such a degree that we needed to then eliminate him.  Moving on past his death is probably the best way to make the most of it.


* Johnsen makes an important distinction in his post about the differences between “legal scholars, al-Qaeda watchers, and observers of Yemen.”  Their views are going to be different, a fact that is too often skimmed over, both in the media and by this blog.

September 25, 2011
This Week in Yemen Articles - 9/25

Well, mostly this week, at least.  And mostly about Yemen.

As President Saleh returned to Yemen, quite unexpectedly (in the timing) by just about everyone’s calculations, it was interesting to juxtapose reality against the prognoses of several article writers as I read their pieces days after publication.  Sadly, though, their dire warnings were often only made worse by Saleh’s return, as Yemen pushed ever closer to the brink.  Though, as J.M. Berger pointed out, that particular phrase might be losing its meaning for Yemen.

Speaking of Berger, he had a piece in the Atlantic on Anwar al-Awlaki’s connections to the 9/11 hijackers.  While there wasn’t a ton of new information in here for anyone who has studied al-Awlaki much, at least that I noticed, it was a good synopsis of al-Awlaki’s dubious connections and, perhaps, the need for further criminal investigation into his past and present activities.  [Edit: On second thought, the many things I have been reading about al-Awlaki lately have made me think I haven’t always taken him seriously enough.  That being said, he’s still not the second coming of bin Laden.]

As I’ve mentioned before, al-Awlaki can prove a bit of a distraction for Westerners looking at Yemen, drawing their eyes away from bigger happenings.  To a degree, this was a point brought home in a number of pieces this week.  Marc Lynch, for example, had a piece in Foreign Policy on “The costs of ignoring Yemen,” in which he wrote:

Few in the West see many major interests in Yemen beyond the narrow, exclusive — and in today’s context nearly indefensible — focus on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The endless reports of horrors from Syria, and before that Libya, have numbed people to what must seem just one more episode in an endless litany of atrocities. 

But all of this would be a mistake. For half a year now there has been a chance for Yemenis themselves to bring about genuine, positive change and break the dominance of a repressive and corrupt regime. The new round of violence makes achieving that change more urgent — and, if the U.S., the UN, the GCC and others could only be brought to notice, finally possible. Yemen matters. Yemenis matter. Ignoring them has allowed a hurting political stalemate and a worsening humanitarian crisis. A non-policy of inattention to Yemen has only increased the risk of collapse into a real civil war, which would pose infinitely worse policy choices. Don’t wait for that.

Now, while agreeing with Lynch that that US policies have been misguided and that there’s too much of a focus on AQAP, Gregory Johnsen pointed out that the US has not completely ignored Yemen.  In a post describing Yemen’s Balkanization (my term, not his), one reminding us of the dangers of building American bases in Arabia, and one comparing the relationship between the US and Yemen to that between Charlie Brown and Lucy, Johnsen makes in pretty clear that US has just gotten it wrong on Yemen over and over.  Which is not to say that we haven’t been trying - we’ve just missed the mark.  (Johnsen has also made it clear that he’s back to blogging, sometimes pumping out multiple posts a day.)

A similar sentiment prompted Joshua Foust to question the difference in response between Yemen and Libya.  In a piece for the Atlantic called “Yemen and the Libya Precedent,” Foust sums up his point by asking, “What makes Yemen different?”  After laying out a number of justifications for the Libyan intervention that Yemen meets or exceeds, Foust states “From almost every angle, I cannot see why those who demanded the world intervene to prevent an atrocity from happening in Libya are not doing the same on behalf of Yemen.”  In a striking conclusion, he adds “Libya let the cat out of the bag. We sent that message that if you scream loud enough, we will step in. And now, when we choose not to, we risk looking like hypocrites.”

Now, there are a few complicating issues at play.  One that (partially) pertains is the slow shift to understanding terrorism as separate from state sponsorship, a topic Thanassis Cambanis wrote about in the Atlantic.  To that end, in some ways, the Libyan intervention was more reminiscent of the 1980s than 2011.

Another is the trouble with discerning who to trust and who to deal with. Abdul-Ghani Al-Iryani touches on this topic in his Foreign Policy piece called “Yemen’s counterrevolutionary power-play,” as do Hussein Agha and Robert Malley to a broader degree in their lengthy but intriguing New Yorker article, titled “The Arab Counterrevolution.”  (“February 11 was the culmination of the Arab revolution,” Agha and Malley write, when Mubarak stepped down and Egypt and Tunisia accomplished their goals.  “On February 12, the counterrevolution began.”)  These last two pieces, in short, argue that the Arab Spring was something unusual that we didn’t see coming; the counterrevolution in parts of the Middle East was a probably foreseeable product that further complicated an already confused situation.

For Yemen, this chaos was only compounded by President Saleh’s return from Saudi Arabia.  There’s been plenty of ink spent on this topic in the past week, so I’ll just link to the latest one I’ve read, by former CIA officer Bruce Riedel.  Writing for the Daily Beast, Riedel argues that, as the piece is called, “President Saleh’s Return Puts Yemen on Brink of Civil War.”  As Riedel point out, there’s essentially only room to lose amongst those fighting for power, while those on the periphery are the one’s coming out ahead:

Saleh and his kids are like all autocrats: they don’t want to give up power. They can see what happens to Arab dictators and their sons when they quit—exile, imprisonment or death. The rebels, both generals and democrats, know what will happen if Saleh prevails—exile, imprisonment or death. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and other dissident groups like the Shia Houthi rebels are the winners for now. There is less and less state authority in their strongholds.

(As an aside, “AQAP’s bombmakers” are apparently “the best al Qaeda has ever produced,” despite the fact that the Detroit bombing attempt, the parcel bombs, and the several attempts on Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism leadership have all failed at their putative goals.)

As Berger points out, Yemen has been on the brink of destruction for some time.  Things get ever worse, and we keep wondering what the tipping point will be.  Cheesy though it may be, a line from Riedel’s piece perhaps sums it up best: “the Arab world’s poorest country […] is running out of everything: oil, water, arable land, and hope.”

September 19, 2011
Johnsen on Analysis and Yemen

As I try to process the cacophony of news coming out of Yemen, I thought I would share this tidbit from Gregory Johnsen’s latest post.  Amid stories about unfinished business in Yemen, the cost of ignoring Yemen, comparisons between Libya and Yemen, and others, Johnsen offers some clear insights about what that analysis means for the US and for Yemen:

[M]ost of the analysts whose names one reads in the newspapers or sees on television are merry-go-round commentators, speaking on Libya one week, dissecting Syria the next, and then explaining Yemen when something goes boom in Sanaa.

The newspapers have ignored Yemen - this is what newspapers do.  It is tough to write - let alone get people to read - a story about the inner-workings and behind-the-scenes political calculations of diverse and opaque groupings in Yemen.  Particularly when few have an intimate knowledge of the primary players.

And because the news media, as should be expected, largely ignored Yemen when there were bloodier crises to cover in Libya and Syria and as a result so did the merry-go round experts in DC and Europe.

But the US did not.

No, he says, the US did not; we’ve just made a bunch of bad choices, and missed a bunch of opportunities over the past months.  “[F]ew have an intimate knowledge of the primary players,” he says, and the ones we do seem to know become more and more entrenched.  Ultimately, though, knowing the primary players seems to be worth less and less, as everyone tries to get a grasp on something.  Johnsen writes later:

So what we have in Yemen, is a steadily shrinking center (the traditional state) that the Hashid elites are fighting over on the backs of the protesters, while on the periphery groups that feel they haven’t gotten a fair shake in decades, now believe the time is right for them to push forward and try to take as much as they can hold.

This, needless to say, is a disaster and one that is likely to get worse before it gets better.

This all reminds me of a quote from Victoria Clark’s book, in which Egyptian commander Field Marshal al-Amer remarked about “those five wasted years in Yemen”:

We did not bother to study the local, Arab and international implications or the political and military questions involved.  After years of experience we realised that it was a war between tribes and that we entered it without knowing the nature of their land, their tradition and their ideas. (p. 100)

Sounds like not much has changed since the 1960s.

September 7, 2011
Johnsen on the (lack of a) Yemeni Military Response to AQAP

Gregory Johnsen’s back to blogging, and his latest post included this gem on why the Yemeni military is reluctant to engage AQAP:

Why lose men, munitions and machines fighting AQAP, at a time when you need to be conserving all three for a civil war you are worried is just over the horizon?

Better to lose a province or two, goes the thinking, than the entire state.

Why indeed.  Something we should probably be thinking about more.

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