Yemen's unrest could embolden al-Qaeda - or sideline it amid democratic hopes

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 20, 2011

SANAA, YEMEN - The populist uprising in Yemen and the heavy-handed response of the government and its loyalists have deepened instability that al-Qaeda's branch here could exploit to stage more attacks against the United States, U.S. officials say.

But the unrest could also prove problematic for the terrorist group: Yemen's protesters are demanding democratic freedoms, not the Islamic caliphate al-Qaeda seeks to create in this Middle Eastern nation and elsewhere.

Such calls for democracy would make it harder for al-Qaeda to claim it has popular sentiments on its side and would also give the disaffected a peaceful way to air their grievances without fear of persecution.

"If we change the system, if we have a real government, I am sure we won't have al-Qaeda or terrorism anymore," said Mohsin Bin Farid, secretary general of the opposition party, League of the Sons of Yemen.

Across the Arab world, U.S.-backed autocrats who have played vital roles in combating terrorism are under siege by populist revolts, raising concerns that changes in leadership could disrupt efforts by the United States and its allies to prevent al-Qaeda's growth.

But there are also indications that al-Qaeda itself is concerned about the potential downside of the democratic freedoms being unleashed by protests across the region. Populations repressed by U.S.-backed regimes have long provided a pipeline for radicalization, recruitment and financing for al-Qaeda and other militant groups.

On Friday, the terrorism network's deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, said in a taped message to the Egyptian people that their nation's rule had long "deviated from Islam" and warned that democracy "can only be nonreligious."

And last week, the most recent issue of Sada al-Malahim, an online magazine published by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, called for the Tunisian people to implement "God's law" and said that democracy was the way to hell, according to a translation posted on Waq-al-Waq, a blog written by Gregory Johnsen, an expert on Yemen based at Princeton University.

"There is something momentous unfolding in the region and al-Qaeda is not an actor in it. They feel left out," said Marina Ottaway, head of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Even the Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamist organizations, are calling for democracy . . . It's a problem for al-Qaeda that these protest movements are predominantly secular."

After Pakistan and Afghanistan, nowhere is the future of al-Qaeda of more concern for the United States than in Yemen. Of all the embattled Arab leaders, Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled for more than 32 years, is one of Washington's most vital partners in fighting terrorism. Last year, the United States gave Yemen $300 million in military and development aid to fight al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the network's most ambitious affiliate.

The group, often referred to by its acronym, AQAP, has thrived in Yemen's mountainous terrain, operating under the cloak of sympathetic tribes and feeding off the nation's instability.

In southern Yemen, its main stronghold, AQAP has exploited deep-rooted resentment against Saleh and his government to gain recruits and support. Despite U.S. funding, the government has been stretched thin in its fight against al-Qaeda, dealing with multiple emergencies, including a northern rebellion, a secessionist movement in the south and immense poverty.


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