How did Yemen become the perfect home to al Qaeda training camps?

By Clive Jones
According to Yemeni intelligence, both Cherif Kouachi and Said Kouachi, 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). This has once more drawn attention to the militant organization’s territorial base: Yemen.

Both brothers are believed to have visited Yemen in 2011 and stayed for a few weeks. Yemeni officials say the brothers met Anwar al-Awlaki there, the radical U.S. preacher and suspected al Qaeda spokesperson, who was killed that year in a U.S. drone strike. Officials also confirmed that both Kouachi brothers received weapons training in an AQAP training camp in the desert of Marib, located in the south of Yemen.

Prior to the emergence of Islamic State, the United States believed AQAP 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 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 al-Awlaki, when the latter was in Yemen, before the attack.

There are many reasons why Yemen is linked to all these attacks.

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 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.