- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Emile Simpson
Best Defense terrorism movie reviewer
Yemeni security forces recently fired on protesters in the southern Yemeni city of Aden, apparently wounding up to 30 of them. In the Hands of al Qaeda hydrates such headlines: In this gripping documentary film, released last year, Iraqi journalist Ghaith Abdul Ahad unpacks the complex dynamics of the conflict. At its core, this is a film about the fight between al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Yemeni Government — government versus insurgents — but this polarized dynamic is situated within broader kaleidoscopic elements: How many south Yemenis see the security forces as northern occupiers? Why do some tribes support AQAP and others fight them? This provides a nice illustration of the erosion of the boundary between the military and political domain in contemporary armed conflict.
The centerpiece of the film is Ghaith Abdul Ahad’s coverage of the AQAP heartland east of Aden, at the centre of the U.S. drone campaign in Yemen. For example, in Ja’ar we encounter a city of 100,000 fully controlled by AQAP. This is truly fascinating; the tension of the documentary at this point is palpable. Since Ja’ar was retaken by Yemeni forces in the summer of 2012, this film offers a rare glimpse into what ground-holding by the international jihadis of AQAP looked like: While we see an extreme form of sharia law practiced, so too is there an active print and internet media operation, and real efforts to gain local support by AQAP water and electricity projects.
AQAP’s carrot and stick approach during their overt, ground-holding phase does not seem so distant from COIN doctrine, albeit in a far more brutal form (an example of mirror imaging?). The film draws out the contrast with the no carrot, big stick, U.S. drone approach that appears to strike fear not just into AQAP, but also into the civilians who live under the drones’ gaze: Much of the local population’s political support is lost, but U.S. objectives against the AQAP leadership nonetheless appear to be met. Whether this represents campaign success more broadly presumably would depend on how one conceptualizes the conflict — are you fighting physical networks or an idea? Perhaps too the film illustrates in Yemen a U.S. move back to a more conventional understanding of military effect against an enemy, for better or worse. While the film is not about COIN or drones per se, and is indeed admirable in its objectivity, a viewing would no doubt form an excellent basis for discussion of the pros and cons of these approaches.
In the Hands of Al Qaeda (2012)
Executive Producer: Tracey ‘H’ Doran-Carter
Producer: Jamie Doran
Director: Safa Al Ahmad
Emile Simpson served in the British Army as an infantry officer in the Gurkhas from 2006 to 2012. He deployed to southern Afghanistan three times and is the author of War From the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics (Columbia, 2012).