The Obama administration may think it’s winning the fight against Al Qaeda and building democracy in Yemen. But that’s not the way it looks on the ground.
SANAA, Yemen — Mubarak Ali Mubarak, 32, was driving along the coastal road above the Arabian Sea when a police officer stopped him at a checkpoint near the port of Al Mukalla and told him to turn around immediately.
"When I asked him why," recalls Mubarak, a local travel agent, "he said that Ansar al Sharia is coming this way and about to strike inside the city.”
Ansar al Sharia is the local named used for the organization Washington calls Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). On Wednesday, as President Barack Obama addressed the American public, announcing a quasi-war against the new threat of the so-called Islamic State (aka ISIS aka ISIL) in Iraq and Syria, he held up Yemen as a model of the strategy.
"This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort … using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground,” said Obama. "This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”
Here on the ground, as Mubarak Ali Mubarak discovered, it’s much harder to use the word "success.” On the evening of August 14 Mubarak turned his car around as ordered. Two hours later explosions rocked downtown Al Mukalla as militants and government forces skirmished in the biggest city in the Yemeni region of Hadramaut which, not coincidentally, is the ancestral home of the Bin Laden family.
The "Yemen model” was first put into effect before the uprisings of 2011, known as the Arab Spring, added whole new layers of chaos to the entire region and left the Sanaa government paralyzed. Once that happened, in order to counter Al Qaeda's growing threat and avert a civil war the Obama administration backed a transition roadmap brokered by Yemen’s oil rich neighbors on the Arabia Peninsula. The deal dictated redistribution of power among competing political parties, but at its core was the replacement of longtime president, the wily Ali Abdullah Saleh, with his deputy Abdu Rabbu Mansoor Hadi, who was known as a more willing partner in the war on terrorists.
Compared to the disaster in Syria and the complications of Egypt, the relative ease of the transition in Yemen inspired glowing rhetoric from Obama. "We do have a committed partner in President Hadi and his government," Obama said back in June in early remarks about the crisis in Iraq. "And we have been able to help to develop their capacities without putting large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground, at the same time as we’ve got enough CT, or counterterrorism, capabilities that we’re able to go after folks that might try to hit our embassy or might be trying to export terrorism into Europe or the United States."
"CT” includes drones with Hellfire missiles, but there’s more to it than that. U.S. aid to Yemen during transition has totaled over $600 million that U.S. officials say aims at a broader approach to the elimination of the Al Qaeda threat. President Hadi may come across as a committed partner -- he has even publicly praised the drones, claiming they have "pinpoint accuracy with a zero margin of error” -- but his government’s commitment to fight the militants is questionable.
According to Yemeni intelligence memos obtained by The Daily Beast, Obama’s Yemen model has been helpless to prevent recent waves of Al Qaeda attacks despite being notified of their specifics days and weeks before.
The National Security Bureau (NSB), a U.S.-established and financed intelligence gathering agency that works closely with the Americans to track down Al Qaeda, issued classified memos on July 21 reporting that Al Qaeda was planning to carry out attacks in three strategic provinces, including the capital. The memo, citing a heightened security threat, said that the attacks were scheduled for July 25, 2014.
If Al Qaeda thought it would meet resistance, said one of the several related memos, the attacks would be postponed until one of the first days of August and would target Lahij, the capital of a strategic southern province that hosts a major military base. The intelligence, directed to the ministry of interior and other related security agencies, said that Al Qaeda was planning to bomb all government there and then declare Lahij an Islamic emirate. All security apparatuses were advised to remain fully prepared for the planned attacks.
Al-Qaeda overran Lahij on August 11 unchallenged, bombed the buildings specified in the memos, then left. This followed on attacks in the eastern parts of Hadramaut, where Al Qaeda briefly overran the Al Qatn district, destroyed almost all security buildings and robbed a bank. Al Qaeda also hijacked a public bus in Seiyun that carried 14 unarmed soldiers heading home on leave. In the style of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the group severed the heads of the soldiers one by one and posted footage of the killing on YouTube.
For the past couple of months, government reinforcements have been pouring into Seiyun, where the troops of the 1st Military Zone are headquartered. They are said to be preparing an offensive against Al Qaeda, even as the government claims it has total control over the region.
In fact, fighting continues in Hadramaut as well as the other southern provinces of Lahij, Abyan and Shabwa. In most cases, it’s the militants who have initiated the combat. No accurate number for government casualties is available, but it’s believed to be high, and the militants appear to be exploiting divisions in the demoralized army.
The southern provinces have never been well integrated into the rest of the Yemen. Indeed, North Yemen and South Yemen were separate countries from 1967 to 1990 and fought a civil war in 1994. Al Qaeda exploits the continued separatist sentiment, which has been aggravated by the security crackdown and political marginalization.
All of this is playing out against a backdrop of ferocious political rivalries and discord in the capital of Sanaa. The "Yemen model” in 2011 managed to bring fighting between competing powers to an end and promised to address longtime grievances. It also engaged two marginalized groups, the Shia Houthi and some of the disgruntled movements in the south. There were inclusive talks known as the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), brainstorming sessions to develop ideas for a new constitution. But the Hadi government's failure to address longstanding issues, has brought the Islamist-led government and the Hadi presidency to the brink of collapse.
Thousands have been demonstrating in the streets of the capital, calling on Hadi to oust allegedly corrupt members of the government. Thousands more members of powerful tribes are now positioned at the entrances to Sanaa, encircling the city. Protesters have raised three demands: reinstating fuel subsides that government cancelled in July, forming a new inclusive government "capable of addressing longstanding issues” and implementing the NDC proposals. Hadi had partly reinstated the subsidies by 25 percent, but protesters demanded all be reinstated. Talks are deadlocked and the government has cracked down violently on the demonstrators.
The protest was called by Abdulmalik al-Houthi, the leader of the Houthi group, a Shia movement known for its anti-American sentiment. After several wars with the central government over the years and a rare intervention by Saudi Arabia in the last round, which ended in 2010, the movement emerged well armed and with growing influence. It is often alleged to have ties to Iran. But it has garnered support beyond the country’s Shia population and claims to speak for an oppressed, marginalized majority. As such, it presents a serious political threat to Al-Islah, the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is also affiliated with certain tribal factions.
(Nobody said Middle Eastern politics is simple, which is one of the facts the Obama administration has to keep in mind, whatever "model” it adopts. In Yemen as anywhere else, all politics is local, and as in Iraq or Syria, local politics more often than not is tribal.)
"In general, the Houthis are completely independent of the regime in Sanaa, yet they do not want to secede. They represent an independent power source that cannot be bought or coopted like others in the Yemeni political system,” says Charles Schmitz, a Yemen expert and professor at Towson University in Maryland. "For the north they are very significant because they are rapidly changing the local balance of power and even challenging to some extent the tribal system.”
"The Houthi media blames everything on the Americans and the Houthis are very anti-American-government,” says Schmitz. "But I think their anti-Americanism is really anti-imperialism and pro-sovereignty. The Houthis present themselves as authentically Yemeni and they see the regime in Sanaa as American puppets because of the close relationship between Hadi and the Americans."
Thus far Washington has reacted coolly toward the Houthis. Its main concern is that they not become another Hezbollah. But "this is mostly American fantasy,” says Schmitz, who suggests the Houthi could, in fact, become useful allies. "The Houthi are against Al Qaeda. … The Houthi establish good command and control and they have a responsible leadership. The American government is concerned that the Houthis might upset the government in Sanaa, but thus far the Houthis have played the game of the National Dialogue very well.”
On September 6, Obama's Assistant for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Lisa Monaco visited Sanaa and, according to a White House statement, condemned the Houthis for their "provocative and destabilizing incitement” while she "emphasized that the United States will stand firmly behind the Yemeni government in confronting challenges to progress in the peaceful transition process." Three days later, on September 9, the Yemeni government launched a deadly crackdown on the protesters, some of it captured on video, killing seven and injuring dozens. Since then, skirmishing has continued between the government and the protesters, and Hadi has mounted counter-rallies to "protect national gains,” as the slogan goes.
In the meantime, Hadi’s government has been cracking down on the press. His elite American-trained forces overran the Al Yemen al Youm TV station in June when it was broadcasting protests over an acute fuel shortage and electricity blackout. The troops looted equipment and generally trashed the place. Hadi dubbed the news coverage a "coup aimed to undermine success of the transition.”
Foreign journalists who have run stories that counter government propaganda have either been deported or banned from returning to Yemen. Adam Baron, who reported for McClatchy and the Christian Science Monitor, was deported in May without any government explanation. He had for years "used his singular access to show the gritty realities of the country’s counterterrorism struggle, from profiling casualties of US drone strikes to revealing the U.S. interception of Al Qaeda’s internal communications,” wrote his McClatchy colleague Hannah Allam.
The Yemen model appears to have limited value fighting extremists, and even less establishing democracy.