Why Yemen is tearing itself apart

January 23, 2015
 Army soldier stands near a building destroyed during recent fighting between the army and al Qaeda-linked militants in southern Yemeni city of Zinjibar

Yemen is witnessing another bout of instability, as Shi’ite Houthi rebels seized the presidential palace on Tuesday in the capital Sanaa demanding power-sharing concessions from President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who is being held as a virtual prisoner in his residence. In the ensuing chaos, some worry about whether the volatile political situation could end up strengthening al Qaeda.

Prior to the emergence of Islamic State, the United States believed al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), based in Yemen, posed a greater threat to it than any other terrorist group.

The regional al Qaeda franchise was founded in 2009, after a merger between al Qaeda’s Yemeni and Saudi branches. The threat posed by AQAP was highlighted by the Jan. 7 attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine, in Paris. According to Yemeni intelligence, both Cherif Kouachi and Said Kouachi, the two brothers who carried out the attack, were trained in camps run by AQAP. This has once more drawn attention to the militant organization’s territorial base: Yemen.

The Nigerian-born Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, also known as the “underwear bomber,” was linked to AQAP. Major Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 people in his November 2009 attack at Fort Hood, was also linked to the group. He is said to have had a long correspondence with the radical preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, when the latter was in Yemen, before the attack.

There are many reasons why Yemen has become a haven for al Qaeda.

Yemen has been in a state of turmoil since the unification between north and south in 1990, and much of the latest unrest stems from sectarianism and endemic tribalism. As many as 35 to 45 percent of Yemenis belong to the Zaidi Shi’ite sect, which ruled the country for 1,000 years until 1962. The south of the country, however, is largely Sunni.

In 2004, a Shi’ite insurgency in Yemen saw the northern Zaidis, who belong to the Huthi tribe, seek to confront what they regarded as the growing power of Sunni Islam and, with it, the power of Saudi Arabia. The Huthi also claim that religious discrimination against the Shi’ite tribe is rampant, and is reflected in what they describe as the unequal distribution of state resources.

By contrast, the Yemeni government accused the insurgents of seeking to enforce Shi’ite religious law. The conflict ended in 2010, but the sectarian divisions have remained a dangerous fault line in the country, which AQAP is keen to exploit. The United States has consistently focused on neutralizing the group in Yemen. Without addressing sectarianism in Yemen, however, these efforts are bound to fail. The Shi’ite-Sunni conflict — believed by some to be a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran — along with tribal politics, will determine whether Yemen will remain a safe haven for groups like AQAP. Without solving this fundamental conflict, militants in Yemen will only continue to flourish.

Being the country’s most powerful neighbor, Saudi Arabia has been the traditional power broker in Yemeni politics since the civil war of the 1960s. It was the Saudis, for example, who engineered the removal of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a member of the Zaidi Shi’ite sect, in November 2011. Equally, during the Huthi rebellion, Saudi Air Force jets are alleged to have bombed Huthi targets in Sada province, close to the Saudi border. The 2004 Shi’ite insurgency was seen in Riyadh as a threat to the stability of Yemen itself and the security of the Saudi state with its own large Shi’ite minority.

Given the strategic position of Yemen, Saudi Arabia remains sensitive to any Iranian encroachment. Given the Huthi’s religious affinity with the Shi’ites of Iran, the Saudis have long suspected Tehran’s help as integral to power that the Huthi militants — said to number several thousand — now wield.

In a reflection of the sectarian and religious divisions across the wider Middle East, the Sunni AQAP declared a “holy war” against the Shi’ite Huthi in 2011. Clashes between Huthi militiamen and elements of AQAP have been reported in central and southern Yemen as the Huthi attempt to extend their reach.

It is this sectarian violence, rather than the singular challenge of AQAP in the south of the country, that will now shape the immediate future of Yemen.

The West would be well advised not to let concern over AQAP obscure the wider sectarian and religious challenges facing the country. The best way to stop Yemen from being a safe haven for militant groups is not drone strikes. The key is to restore effective governance in the country — it is the only strategy that will diminish the presence of AQAP work in the long-term.

PHOTO: An army soldier stands near a building destroyed during recent fighting between the army and al Qaeda-linked militants in the southern Yemeni city of Zinjibar June 21, 2012. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Obama said “al Qaeda is on the run” and “ISIS (ISIL) is a JV team”. Not too difficult to look back and see that there was little attention given by our US government to both groups.

Just ignore them and they will go away – but that did not happen and we are paying a huge price for the negligence. Even now, Obama says that these are merely “extremists” and cannot bring himself to call them Islamic terrorists.

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

I have a real difficulty in understanding, if we know there are terrorist training camps there, why are we not destroying them and all terrorists attending such camps?

Why are the nations of the world allowing camp attendees the privilege of re-entering their countries? Why are these terrorists not named enemies of the state once they have gone to these states and locked up for life?

Why must we wait for them to launch terrorist attacks in the countries they return to? Why are we only tracking them once they come back rather than seizing them at the points of entry and locking them up? If all the countries lack the laws to lock up terrorists returning from training out of country, why are we as a civilized society not passing laws to allow the permanent incarceration of anyone who travels to these terrorist training camps?

They are not travelling to these camps for Boy Scout Outings, they are travelling to these camps to train to commit warfare against their home or host countries (essentially treason), and should be treated as such.

Posted by Robert76 | Report as abusive

“the two brothers who carried out a devastating attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo last Wednesday, were trained in camps run by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)”

Yeah it takes a lot of “training” to walk into a building full of unarmed people and and shoot it up.

High schoolers do that in America. And they don’t need special camps in Yemen to figure out how to do it. Pretty simple stuff. This targeting of camps is a bogus waste of time. It’s a smoke screen to spend taxpayer money on drones.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

The reason they have terrorist is because it’s easy to brainwash people in a land that hates education and follows religion blindly. Just like the US that our leaders envision.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

I’m not sure this is Obamas fault. Bush had the same problem. Inept intelligence agencies. They need to Get Smart.

Posted by radiomankc | Report as abusive

I lived a year and a half in North Yemen back in the early 80s. Succinctly, the place is a bandit’s paradise. It’s mountainous, poor, and everyone goes armed, the jambiya having given way to the AK-47 along time ago. Socially, Yemenis identify themselves strictly in terms of the village they are born in, their family, and the tribe to which the family belongs. Social structures outside of this are pretty much abstractions. So…the upshot is this: Yemen is NOT a land where the central government works in the Western sense of the word. Decidedly, it’s not a place where government programs or any other forms of social engineering are liable to work as outlined on paper. As I said, it’s a bandit’s paradise, and Al Qaeda is not there for nothing.

Posted by SlidinDelta | Report as abusive

Religion breeds ignorance. That’s why nobody travels to Mississippi on purpose. Best to avoid such places.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Why Yemen is tearing itself apart:

Because everywhere Islam goes, they bring trouble and ignorance. Unless you consider kidnapping school girls and shooting them in the face…. good news?

It is possible to meet good bright muslims. In western countries where they can get a proper education. When is the last time you heard of a medical breakthrough coming from a university in a country run by muslim men?

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Reuters said all day that Bergdahl was up for desertion, now they say Army says no decision. Journalists suck.

Obama is done being President, he’s ready for the $400,000 a year for life.

Congress is owned by special interest: Big Business and organized racism forcing Whites to pay for lazy blacks and Mexicans.

Posted by puchurro | Report as abusive