Government forces and Al Qaeda rebels are engaged in a bloody fight for the hearts and minds of Yemenis. It is a battle of will that many say is likely to lead to a drawn-out conflict and stalemate with tit-for-tat killings.
More than 50 Al Qaeda fighters were killed in April and reports by Yemen’s news agency suggest that hundreds have been killed after the April 29 government campaign targeting the rebels. On the other side, members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is the Yemeni off-shoot of Al Qaeda, have gone after soldiers, bombed a police station, tried to bomb the presidential palace and tried to assassinate the defence minister, who escaped unharmed. Although such news has competed for Arabs’ and the world’s attention in light of the civil war in Syria, developments in Egypt, the mayhem Libya, and the agony of Tunisia, the crisis in the south-west tip of the Arabian Peninsula has been brewing for far too long. The Yemeni government is trying to survive a bloody conflict that is inextricably linked to tribalism, ethnicity, separatism — especially in the south of the country. Besides, there are the Al Houthis in the north and, of course, the AQAP.
AQAP is seen as one of the deadliest groups not only by the government but also by the Americans, who continue to fight it globally as a terrorist organisation that has spread from Afghanistan to Iraq to the Arabian Peninsula and established itself in Yemen. It is part of a global movement with tentacles at one time in Sudan, Somalia, Mauritania and even in Europe and the US. This is the reason the US found itself on the side of the Yemeni government, trying to put an end to Al Qaeda bases in different parts of the country under the banner of fighting terrorism. Despite the government blows to AQAP, it proved to be far more formidable, especially after the so-called Arab Spring.
Its forces took advantage of the weakness of the government in the south of the country and started taking control of different provinces and cities through its fighters, whose ranks were swelled with Arabs who had previously fought in Afghanistan. These included Saudis who had fled Afghanistan after 9/11, following which, the US launched a war against the Taliban. Members of Al Qaeda, especially those who had escaped imprisonment in Guantanamo, slowly assembled in Yemen to wage a global campaign. This is the background to the present conflict between the government and Al Qaeda, which is reliably thought to be around 1,000 strong.
It is difficult to say which party was adding to the tension, for they all came together. Prior to the shootings, government forces, with the help of American personnel using drones, were repeatedly targetting Al Qaeda operatives. However, there was also the killing of a Frenchman and the attempted assassination of a German diplomat, the storming of the Sana’a Central Prison in February and the kidnapping of a Dutch couple last year. Such developments clearly contributed to the worsening security situation and heightened tension between government troops and Al Qaeda, not least because of the continuing drone strikes.
Since 2009, at least 79 drone attacks have been carried out in Yemen, leaving about 500 people dead and creating resentment. These attacks often result in civilian casualties. This view is supported by international organisations such as Human Rights Watch, which recorded a drone attack on December 12, 2013, that hit a wedding party, killing 12 people and injuring at least 15 others, including the bride.
While the use of drones is being criticised by many, including European politicians and the United Nations, who say such collateral damage is not acceptable, they are being virtually ignored by the government of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the US, which has vowed to continue what they see as their crusade against Al Qaeda terrorism. If, however, the use of drone attacks increases and government forces step up their operations on the ground, it is difficult to see how Yemeni civilians will continue to keep quiet. They brought down Ali Abdullah Saleh in November 2011, after a 33-year rule.
The bet now is if things get worse, the present government and army could be in for a very rough ride. And this time, it will not be just from the AQAP, but also from the population at large.
By Marwan Asmar
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