Playing a Double Game in the Fight Against AQAP
In Yemen, the world’s most dangerous jihadi group is both the government’s enemy and its ally of convenience.
ADEN, Yemen — One morning in early October, Faisal Salem’s 28-year-old son took his father’s car and left the family home to drive two friends to work. The elder Salem, a security official in this southern port city, had received death threats from mysterious callers in previous years, and five months earlier, masked men whom he assumed belonged to al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen had attempted to gun him down outside a grocery store. Despite his worries, he still allowed his son these morning drives.
After picking up one of his friends at a gas station, Salem’s son wound the car through a roundabout and turned onto Aden’s sea road. To his left, dormant volcanic mountains framed the mouth of the shimmering bay. To his right, the remains of the Arabian Sea dried into mud flats stalked by flamingos.
As they neared the end of the sea road, a bomb planted beneath the car exploded up through the driver’s seat. The car swerved and jumped the median, slamming into a lamppost. In the passenger seat, Salem’s friend clutched his ears, momentarily deaf and blind, two of his ribs broken. Bystanders pulled him out. When he glanced back, Salem’s son appeared unconscious. The explosion had ripped into his lower back, killing him immediately.
The next day, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) mistakenly claimed that they had assassinated the elder Salem, whose name, like others in this article, has been changed to protect his safety. Authorities have not arrested anyone for the bombing, and Salem does not believe they will. Like many Yemenis, he suspects that AQAP and powerful elements in the government have long been closer than either would like to admit.
“They are like ghosts,” he says of the jihadi group.
AQAP’s claim of responsibility for the recent attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, which left 10 civilians and two police officers dead, has forced the world to grapple again with al Qaeda’s presence in Yemen. Despite more than a decade of U.S. counterterrorism efforts targeting AQAP and its predecessors, which have cost hundreds of millions of dollars, the group remains both a local and transnational threat. Even if its claim to have planned and funded the Paris attack is proven false, AQAP appears to have maintained an ability to motivate and inspire extremists abroad.
In recent years, U.S. officials have said they are focused on killing or capturing a small cadre of AQAP fighters in the hope of “mitigating” the threat of an attack on the United States or its allies while steering clear of Yemen’s messy internal wars. This has fostered a perception that AQAP is strictly hierarchical — made up of “a couple of dozen” key figures, in then-counterterrorism director John Brennan’s 2011 description — and can be contained with periodic drone strikes. In September 2014, President Barack Obama declared the country a counterterrorism success story and a model for other conflicts.
But recent events and Yemenis themselves tell a different story — one in which consecutive U.S. administrations have failed to properly understand this al Qaeda affiliate, and as a consequence have been unsuccessful at containing the deadly threat it poses.
An unreliable ally
The first challenge the United States has faced is its reliance on the Yemeni government, which has not always been as committed to fighting AQAP as its public statements suggest. In November, the United Nations Security Council committee tasked with overseeing sanctions in Yemen imposed an asset freeze and travel ban on former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, alleging that he had been trying to undermine the country’s post-Arab Spring transition. The committee said that its panel of experts had received allegations that Saleh himself had been using AQAP “to conduct assassinations and attacks against military installations in order to weaken President [Abed Rabbo Mansour] Hadi and create discontent within the army and broader Yemeni population.” Two weeks later, the committee deleted the reference to AQAP, saying simply that Saleh “supports violent actions of some Yemenis by providing them funds and political support” — language more closely in line with wording used by the U.S. Treasury Department to describe its sanctions on Saleh, which were also announced in November.
Still, it was a damning accusation against the man whose government had received a massive influx of U.S. money and training after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to help him defeat al Qaeda, turning his country’s ungoverned hinterland into a front line in the war on terror.
Since 2006, when the Defense Department created a specific account to fund foreign militaries’ counterterrorism efforts, Yemen has been the largest beneficiary of Washington’s largess. The government in Sanaa has taken in roughly $401 million from the fund, in addition to the nearly $164 million the country has received since 2001 from the State Department’s Foreign Military Financing budget.
The United States trained Yemeni counterterrorism forces, led by a nephew of Saleh’s, and provided military hardware including helicopters, armored vehicles, surveillance equipment, and night-vision goggles. The United States has also conducted dozens of drone strikes on suspected targets — a program that became one of President Barack Obama’s most vexing national security controversies after he made the politically contentious decision to target and kill an American citizen, alleged AQAP planner Anwar al-Awlaki. All these efforts were in the service of defeating the same group that may have been Saleh’s pawns in a political power game.
U.S. officials say they long understood that Saleh was a fickle partner against AQAP, and that he and his loyalists in the security services had at times kept former jihadi fighters on their payroll and misused U.S. counterterrorism aid to fight their own domestic enemies. They also maintain that, when it mattered, he sincerely fought against AQAP members who threatened the United States. But there is scant evidence that Hadi, who took office in February 2012, is playing a similar double game.
Today, parts of Yemen are torn apart by battles between AQAP and the Houthis, a Shiite political movement whose militia recently took control of the capital, Sanaa. The Houthis have fought sporadic but fierce battles with Yemen’s military and seem keen on forcing a new government and constitution. On Tuesday, Jan. 20, Houthi rebels seized the presidential palace in Yemen, a move that the government called a coup. Their rise has fueled AQAP and provoked destabilizing sectarianism in the countryside.
The turmoil has left average Yemenis with a broken economy and a barely functional government. Yemen’s dismal condition — and the threat still posed by AQAP — suggests that in a fight dubbed a success by the Obama administration, the United States looked the other way in a flawed chase for national security.
The frenemy of our enemy
The alliance between some of Yemen’s most powerful officials and the jihadis the United States paid them to defeat began in the early 1990s, when Yemenis who had gone abroad to fight Soviet forces in Afghanistan began to return, deeply affected by their experience with jihad and seasoned by battlefield combat.
Saleh sought to make use of these self-described mujahideen, or holy warriors, in his own civil war. The Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan shortly before the 1990 unification of Marxist South Yemen and the northern Yemen Arab Republic, where Saleh had been president since 1978. In an effort to weaken the communists who threatened his power, Saleh encouraged the mujahideen to settle in the south and set up Salafi learning institutions with support from Saudi Arabia, which also had an interest in stamping out Arab communists. Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden announced his support for the plan, writes Yemen scholar Gregory Johnsen in his book The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia.
Inside a run-down Aden apartment in 2011, one of these returned fighters, a man named Faris, described how the government and former mujahideen cooperated.
“The government wanted to assure its [Western] allies,” Faris said, by way of explaining why Saleh used his connections to reach out to former mujahideen and other extremists. “The government would call [the former fighters] and say, ‘What do you want? A job?’” he said.
In 1993, Saleh’s government imprisoned Faris — along with at least two Afghan war veterans — for participating in the bombing of two hotels in Aden the previous year. FBI investigators said that the other men, Tariq al-Fadhli and Jamal al-Nahdi, had played key roles in the attacks, which targeted U.S. Marines but killed at least one Austrian tourist and a hotel employee. The State Department believed that bin Laden had sent money to some of the perpetrators, according to the 9/11 Commission report. Many researchers consider it al Qaeda’s first attack on Western interests.
But in 1994, the authorities released Fadhli, Faris, and Nahdi from jail to fight alongside Saleh’s forces in the civil war that broke out that year between north and south Yemen. Fadhli would later be appointed to the largely symbolic upper house of parliament, while Nahdi would later join the permanent committee of Saleh’s ruling party.
The official often in charge of overseeing the ex-mujahideen was Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Faris said, a relative of Saleh’s from the president’s home village who was at the time a powerful army general. New York Times reporter John Burns wrote in 2000 that Yemeni officials and Western intelligence reports claimed Ahmar handled a $20 million grant from bin Laden to resettle the Afghan war veterans in Yemen.
Such links between members of Saleh’s government and the former mujahideen lingered, said former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Edmund Hull.
“The FBI and the CIA were always very suspicious of these ties and were also concerned about officials within the Yemeni government who would have sympathy or obligations or personal relationships [with al Qaeda],” he said in a recent phone interview.
Faris said little about his personal ideology, but he wore his beard in a Salafi style and never looked directly at a female reporter during an interview in his austere living room. He described how he had worked as a personal bodyguard for Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, a deeply conservative sheikh who in 1993 had founded Iman University, a religious school in the capital with a reputation for jihadi indoctrination. Awlaki took classes and lectured at the university, and John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban volunteer captured in 2001, studied there as well. In 2004, the U.S. Treasury Department labeled Zindani a “specially designated global terrorist,” accusing him of being a spiritual leader to bin Laden and helping to buy arms for al Qaeda.
Zindani was also a close acquaintance of Saleh, said Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, a political analyst and opposition activist, and Yemen’s government allowed him to run the university until the Houthis ransacked it in late September when they stormed into the capital.
In the late 1990s, Faris said, he traveled twice to Sanaa, where the director of Yemen’s Political Security Organization (PSO), Ghalib al-Qamish, gave him around $2,300 to abstain from attacks against Western interests. One such meeting occurred at the headquarters of the PSO, then Yemen’s top domestic intelligence organization, and the other at Qamish’s private residence.
“They used to send wire transfers to lower-level guys,” Faris said of the hundreds of other suspected extremists he claimed the government started paying after an attack against foreigners in Aden in 1998. The PSO provided them with fake positions at unimportant ministries and paid them once a month using Al Kuraimi, a local money transfer company.
“The members of al Qaeda who refused to be paid, they are the people who Saleh told America to kill,” Faris said.
Though Faris’s claims at the time could not be independently verified, when questioned on the specific details of his journeys to Sanaa to be paid by the PSO, he answered without hesitation, and Qamish’s close ties with fundamentalists were no secret in Yemen’s capital. Senior U.S. officials also voiced concerns to Foreign Policy about jihadi sympathizers within the PSO.
Faris went on to allege that Saleh not only paid potential militants to abstain from violence, he tried to harness them for his own purposes. When a new southern separatist movement began in earnest in 2007, Faris said, the president called upon roughly 100 of these bankrolled mujahideen, among others, and brought them to Sanaa to prepare them to fight. Everyone who showed up at the meeting received $500. He added that Saleh knew some of the men were affiliated with al Qaeda.
A Yemeni official who also worked in Saleh’s administration said in January that the recruitment of ex-mujahideen and other fundamentalists was an intelligence-gathering tactic. “Any Yemeni official can confirm to you that there were lots of former mujahideen on the payroll of the PSO as informants,” he said.
Though Saleh succeeded in co-opting men like Faris, other Afghan war veterans kept radical Islamist ideology alive in southern Yemen, tying their parochial demands — including Saleh’s removal and better provision of basic services — to jihadi ambitions to expel Westerners from Yemen. In 1998, an al Qaeda operative who was also a veteran of the Afghan jihad sought and received funding from bin Laden to strike U.S. forces directly. The resulting attack on the USS Cole while it was refueling in the port of Aden in 2000 killed 17 U.S. sailors.
In response, Saleh established a dialogue program with suspected extremists that allowed them to walk free if they graduated — a process that required them to swear allegiance to the Yemeni government. Within a decade, all the defendants convicted of participating in the attack would either escape from jail or be released by the government — including the alleged mastermind, Jamal al-Badawi, whose 2006 escape alongside 22 others from the PSO’s main prison in Sanaa led U.S. officials to suspect Qamish himself, Newsweek reported.
Barbara Bodine, who served as U.S. ambassador to Yemen from late 1997 until two weeks before the 9/11 attacks, said that Saleh’s government had at times held uncomfortable relations with extremists, but she doubted that the former president had ever embraced AQAP.
“Ali Abdullah and AQAP were always a bit of a murky question,” she said. “I do think there were people in the security services who were former mujahideen, who absolutely supported mujahideen going to Afghanistan and fighting. Did they work with people who were a little further along than we may have been comfortable with? Probably. But people who were full-blown [AQAP] militants? No.”
In private, U.S. diplomats have been far more blunt.
“Saleh is known for negotiating with his domestic opponents, including al-Qaeda,” a WikiLeaks cable from January 2010 stated. “For years, he has negotiated with, exploited, bribed and cajoled Islamic extremists in Yemen for his own political gain.”
Strategy or not, the government’s accommodation allowed fundamentalists to function with relative freedom. By 2011, Faris was lamenting what al Qaeda in Yemen had become, suggesting that the new generation might be harder to control then their forebears.
“During my time [the 1980s and 1990s], no one would go blow himself up without thinking. These guys don’t care about killing Muslims. It’s even their policy,” he complained. “[They] just do whatever they want.”
The Ides of Spring
The Arab Spring and subsequent breakdown of Saleh’s government in 2011 provided a ripe opportunity for this new generation to try their hand at governing, revealing a movement both more diffuse than the Beltway stereotype of hard-core reclusive extremists and more appealing among some Yemenis than U.S. policymakers might expect.
In the spring of 2011, as the army and police either defected following deadly government-sponsored attacks on protesters or limited their efforts to defending Sanaa from pro-protester militias, fighters under the aegis of AQAP swept across several towns in southern Yemen. They seized the main population centers in the governorate of Abyan, including Jaar, a town of more than 30,000 people, and Zinjibar, the provincial capital, roughly an hour’s drive east of Aden. The time it took for the government to respond would leave many in the capital — Yemenis and foreign officials alike — skeptical about Saleh’s resolve to defeat AQAP.
“It was believed that Saleh was not doing all he could to go after AQAP, seeing them as a useful incentive to attract more Western security support for his regime,” a senior Western diplomat who served in Sanaa in 2011 said recently.
That skepticism predated the Arab Spring. A January 2010 Senate Foreign Relations Committee report stated bluntly that the United States and Saleh had “different priorities”: While Washington wanted Saleh to fight AQAP, Saleh’s top concern was the ongoing Houthi insurgency. Born in the 1990s as a Zaidi Shiite revival movement called the “Believing Youth,” partly aimed at countering the growth of strict, Saudi Arabia-influenced Wahhabi Sunnism, the Houthis took up arms in the northern Saada governorate after a government crackdown in 2004. Half a dozen rounds of conflict persisted until the 2011 uprising, and the movement is today stronger than ever before.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee report expressed concern that Yemeni forces had used U.S.-supplied night-vision goggles, meant for the fight against AQAP, in raids against the Houthis the previous year, and it stated that the U.S. Embassy had put a hold on the supply of “propellant activated devices” — rockets — to the Yemeni Air Force out of concern that they were using them against the Houthis as well.
“The U.S. knew that [Saleh] was lying to them, but they couldn’t do anything about it, so therefore they kept going pretending [that Saleh was fighting al Qaeda],” said Iryani, the analyst and opposition activist. “So I would say that Saleh took them for a ride.”
In 2011, the government’s slow response to AQAP’s advance in the south would allow Jaar to become one of the jihadis’ few experiments in government — revealing in the process a movement more diverse and adaptable than the stereotypes about the group would suggest.
The fighters — including foreigners from Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, residents of Jaar recalled — occupied the town’s main courthouse, police station, mosque, and hospital, and moved into the community with their families.
Opportunistic local recruits filled out the ranks. Some of the young men who joined were already religiously observant and open to the message brought by AQAP’s proselytizers; others simply had no jobs and few other options.
In an acknowledgment of the toxicity of al Qaeda’s brand among many in the Middle East, AQAP began referring to this broader and oftentimes more popular, service-providing movement as Ansar al-Sharia (“Partisans of Islamic Law”). The fighters calling themselves Ansar al-Sharia, the Yemeni government official said, were more like “roving bandits” — a younger generation that only occasionally took orders from the more “well-structured” AQAP.
AQAP provided money to the new Ansar al-Sharia volunteers, who in turn provided water, electricity, and food to areas abandoned by the government during the revolutionary upheaval. At the same time, they governed the town with a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law, raised their version of the al Qaeda standard — a black flag bearing the Muslim testament of faith — and painted buildings with their new name for the area: the Islamic Emirate of Waqar. They killed alleged spies in public executions.
Meanwhile in the capital, the government was paralyzed by the upheaval of the Arab Spring. Saleh swore to the international community and the Yemeni public that he would sign away his powers as president according to an internationally brokered transition agreement, only to backpedal at the last minute. Amid this negotiating process, ministries hardly functioned and public services ceased to exist. In November 2011, after relentless international pressure, Saleh finally signed the agreement, and his deputy Hadi was ushered into power the following February.
The rise of the popular committees
It was only months later, in 2012, that a U.S.-backed campaign by Yemeni armed forces pushed out the jihadis. The offensive left behind the de facto rule of “popular committees,” an ad hoc movement of tribes and hangers-on who had been the first to take up arms against the AQAP-inspired militants. Alliances in this struggle were often blurred and ephemeral: Many members of the popular committees, which still hold power in much of Abyan, had joined up with AQAP’s side first before defecting.
Nasser, an unemployed 25-year-old from Bateis, a village north of Jaar, joined other members of his tribe to fight the jihadis. His group chose its own leader and planned its own strategy, but often took orders — or “requests,” he said — from Abyan’s governor. Sometimes, Nasser and his comrades found themselves fighting men just like them.
“Most of them are members of tribes who joined al Qaeda,” he said. “They join because they’re poor or hungry, or al Qaeda brainwashes them and they join. Some of them believe that this is a true jihad. But it’s not a true jihad.”
Since many of the newly anointed jihadis were local men from well-known tribes, they were also at pains to preserve their reputations, and they closely adhered to local norms.
Mohamed, a 39-year-old farmer from a village near Jaar, recalled how jihadis captured him and others at a checkpoint outside the governorate capital of Zinjibar in March 2012. The fighters blindfolded them, took them to Jaar, held them inside a school for two weeks, and beat some of them. They interrogated Mohamed and asked him why he was working as an informant for “Jews and Americans.” While he was held, his brothers and other relatives approached Jelal bil Eid, a senior AQAP figure in southern Yemen who now helps lead some of AQAP’s most lethal operations in the south, including the August 2014 killings of 15 off-duty soldiers captured from a civilian bus.
Mohamed is a member of a large tribe whose name is known throughout Yemen, and bil Eid belonged to the related Marqeishi tribe. His family members met with bil Eid to negotiate, going through a tribal process to win Mohamed’s freedom. Soon, his captors released him and returned his belongings, eventually doing the same for other prisoners, he said. Some of the captives even joined the jihadis.
What little has been written about bil Eid suggests a banal path to jihad that seems typical of many Yemenis who joined up with AQAP. According to some press accounts, he is the son of a former military officer and the youngest of seven well-educated brothers who, as a young man, had an unremarkable stint as a goalkeeper for a local soccer club in Abyan. “He was sitting around unemployed before al Qaeda,” Mohamed said.
Ahmed, a 52-year-old government employee, said AQAP paid large compensations when they killed civilians. In early 2011, Ahmed and five other men were riding in the back of a pickup truck traveling from Jaar to Zinjibar, having just collected Jaar residents’ electricity payments, when two men on motorcycles overtook the truck and opened fire with AK-47s. They killed four of the passengers, including a guard who tried to return fire, and tried to steal the money, though they failed to find it, Ahmed recalled. Ahmed was shot in both legs, but he and another man managed to survive.
Later, AQAP published an announcement in a Jaar newspaper claiming responsibility and promising to pay compensation for all who died, even the security guard who fired back. They distributed checks to the families of the four dead men. Each was made out for 12 million rials, or $56,000, and could be cashed at a bank in Aden, Ahmed said.
Paying out compensation dovetailed with the group’s effort — both through word of mouth and its media arm, “The Echo of Battles” — to portray its members as “pillars of selflessness and piety” and “indistinguishable from millions of ordinary Yemenis unhappy with Sanaa and hostile toward the West,” as one 2011 West Point study put it.
“In seeking to preserve its legitimacy, [AQAP] has positioned itself not as an organization distinct from, but rather a reflection of the local population and the global community of subjugated Muslims,” wrote author Gabriel Koehler-Derrick.
The drifters and directors
In 2012, after Saleh relinquished the presidency and the military campaign drove most of the jihadis out of Abyan, most of the young men who had joined up with AQAP the previous year drifted away. Several Jaar residents recalled how the same people who had once identified themselves as AQAP members began show up on the popular committees.
Jaber, an unemployed 24-year-old who had been shot in the crossfire during a gunfight between jihadis and a group of men who had fallen out with them, said that was common.
“Some al Qaeda people were imprisoned and released and came back to the straight line,” he said. “People without blood on their hands will be allowed to come back.”
One of those allowed back was Jamal al-Nahdi, one of the three Afghan war veterans implicated in the 1992 Aden bombings, according to Hamza al-Khibr, a human rights lawyer in southern Yemen who has represented alleged jihadis for a decade. Nahdi is now a colonel in the security services, Khibr said. In May 2014, Nahdi told BuzzFeed that he had been appointed the assistant to the director of security in the southern coastal city of Mukalla the previous summer.
While the Yemeni government uses carrots to win some jihadis’ allegiance, it is also not averse to using sticks. The government has frequently used extralegal measures to deal with those accused of membership in AQAP, Khibr said, and there are thousands of such suspects currently being held without charge. The authorities often arrest them without warrants, torture them, and hold them in military camps and at other bases for months without trial, he said. For some, this is part of their path toward being brought into the government’s fold.
“There is no detailed information on the recruitment of accused terrorists, but they are used as informants and not always in the interest of the government or the political system, but sometimes for the interest of [political] leaders,” Khibr said.
Like Salem, the Aden security official whose son died in the October bombing, many Yemenis accept the authorities’ double-dealing and self-interest as commonplace.
“Politicians use [AQAP] as a weapon to finish agendas,” Salem said.
Such collusion makes him pessimistic that justice will ever be done for the killing of his son. He doubts that the killers would be convicted even if they were arrested.
“If I knew any of their identities, and they killed my son, I would follow up,” he said.
Select interviews in this article are excerpted from Don’t Be Afraid of the Bullets: An Accidental War Correspondent in Yemen, by Laura Kasinof.