Yemen: A Mirror to the Future of the Arab Spring

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Yemen A Mirror to the Future of the Arab Spring  Illustration    אילוסטרציה

Ethnic, political, and religious rifts make Yemen one of the most complex arenas in the Middle East, even more so following the eruption of the Arab Spring, which in November 2011 ended the 33-year regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The disintegration of the delicate political balance Saleh created has brought Yemen to the brink of an abyss with competing elites, ethnic revolts, separatists, external intervention and fundamentalist terrorism threatening to divide the country while hindering the new regime’s attempts to build a new political order and establish stability. Currently, the future of Yemen is still unclear, but the developments and processes it is undergoing may provide us with insights about possible scenarios in other Middle Eastern countries in the post-“Arab Spring” era.

Yemen, the poorest of the Arab nations, is in many ways a microcosm in which the tensions, challenges and hopes typical of the entire Arab world are amassed. Competing elites, international intervention, ethnic violence, tribalism, Shiite-Sunni tensions, fundamentalism and terrorism are all part of Yemen’s intensive and chaotic reality, as it rapidly changes and develops. Yemen’s complex situation allows an in vivo examination of processes such as the transition of power, reconstruction of security forces, federalization, national reconciliation, and the fight against alQaeda affiliates, all of which we can expect to be replicated in Syria, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere.

Al-Qaeda and the Threat of Radical Islam

Since 2009, and with added momentum since the beginning of 2011, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its affiliate, the Ansar al-Shariah militias have become key players in the Yemeni arena, exerting strategic influence. The Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda consists mostly of Yemenis and Saudi Arabians who found refuge in Yemen, but is augmented by men who have participated in armed conflicts in Iraq and Syria, fighters from Afghanistan, and former Guantanamo detainees.

According to Washington, the organization is the most dangerous of al-Qaeda’s affiliates. In 2012, John Brennan, former counterterrorism advisor to President Obama and current Director of the CIA, said that AQAP is al-Qaeda’s most active cell and that this represented a very serious problem for Yemen. The organization’s extensive international activities include an attempt on the life of Muhammad Bin Naif, the Saudi Minister of the Interior, the attempt to detonate a US airliner in the skies of Detroit on Christmas 2009, the attack on the Japanese oil tanker in the Straits of Hormuz, and another attempt to blow up a US plane, thwarted by Saudi intelligence, in April 2012.

An analysis of AQAP’s behavioral pattern since the 2011 revolution shows that the organization possesses both strategic and tactical flexibility and is capable of effectively adapting itself to opportunities and pressures on the ground and rapidly adjusting to changes in the volatile Yemeni environment. Over the past two years, the organization’s ability to move efficiently and quickly along the axis from classical terrorist group to guerrilla and insurgency group seeking to hold and control territories and populations has been especially prominent. When the political crisis in early 2011 led to the Yemeni army’s focus on events in Sana’a and many military units streamed to the country’s capital, the organization quickly exploited the vacuum created in the country’s periphery and managed–through the use of violent raids, suicide attacks and assassinations–to seize control of several areas in the southern part of the country, including Shabwah, Abin and Zinjibar.

The organization’s power and audaciousness reached a peak in April 2012 when, in an attack described as the most sweeping in the organization’s history in Yemen, it captured a military base, its personnel and arms, including artillery, cannons, and tanks. Hundreds of Yemeni soldiers were killed in the attack that was only part of the organization’s attempt to seize control of the Lawdar District controlling access to other key locations such as Hadramaut, Bida and Aden.

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The developments in Yemen show that the combination of intensive mediation on the part of Arab elements, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab League and Arab nations, on the one hand, and pressure on the part of the superpowers and the international community on the other, could serve as a catalyst to setting a process of political arrangement in motion. However, external intervention can by no means serve as a guarantee for the success of such a process or the stabilization of a country and its political system. The experience and lessons learned from the intervention in Yemen may also generate insight relevant to the effect and limits of international intervention in Syria, though the international constellation around the Syrian arena is more complex since the involvement of players such as Russia and Iran creates a split in the international community.

Second, an analysis of the Yemeni political system since Saleh stepped down also provides insight about the challenges created by the redistribution of the loci of power among the various elites. Developments in Yemen indicate that a formal change in government is not enough to bring about stability because the influence of the old elite is tied to informal connections and loyalties that prevent real reforms and change. In addition, one can generate many insights from an analysis of the Yemeni national dialogue and the reorganization of the security services in terms of the reconstruction undergone by the nations that experienced the Arab Spring.

Third, an examination of the conduct of al-Qaeda in Yemen sheds light on the strategic changes taking place within the global jihad movements in the course of the Arab Spring. The main change we can point to is alQaeda’s shift in focus from classical terrorism to an attempt to establish a long-term hold on regions where the weakening of the regime has created a governmental vacuum. AQAP is a pioneer in this trend; it had even published an official document of recommendations to other al-Qaeda affiliates in which it suggest a comprehensive strategy for action for seizing control of a territory and holding onto it.

The Yemeni arena has much to teach us about the dangers posed by al-Qaeda and the effectiveness of counterterrorism strategies, such as comprehensive military attacks or assassination campaigns using drones. Nonetheless, the dynamics reviewed in this paper indicate that, even at its weakest, the state is still the most dominant and powerful element in its territory and that the radicalization in the attempts of subversive forces to damage its sovereignty can only be expected to be met with determined, forceful countermeasures.

Finally, Yemen – after the unification of the emirates – is the first Arab nation expected to take the federal route, a process that may be repeated in other countries as well, such as Syria, Libya and Iraq. Keeping an eye on the implementation and development of the federal process in Yemen may provide important insight on the effectiveness of this political configuration for creating governing stability and preventing widespread violence.

Written by: Sami Kronenfeld and Yoel Guzansky