Echoes of Iraq: Yemen’s War Against al-Qaeda Takes a Familiar Turn

Casey L. Coombs / Sana’a | August 10, 2012  

Tribal militias have joined the campaign against the local franchise of the radical movement. It may have helped oust Al-Qaeda from a few cities but it may not guarantee peace in the long run.

Even amid the escalating suicide bomb campaign across Yemen, the attack on a wake in Jaar in southern Yemen’s Abyan province was particularly grisly and premeditated, designed to inflict maximum damage. It took place on Aug. 4, at around 11 p.m., as some 150 neighbors and relatives gathered outside the home of local tribal Sheikh Abdulatif Sayed following the funeral of his close relative. While they were grieving, a young al-Qaeda recruit from Jaar infiltrated the crowd, resting on a cooler he had brought with him. Then, according to several survivors, he detonated his suicide vest and that blast ignited the cooler, which was packed with more explosives and metal ball bearings. Shrapnel killed some 50 guests, including the sheikh’s two brothers.

However, the intended target, Sheikh Sayed, survived. Al-Qaeda had particularly wanted to assassinate him. Sayed had defected from the terrorist organization three months earlier to head a growing force of anti-Qaeda tribal militias, also known as Popular Committees, sweeping the region.

If the tribal uprising against al-Qaeda sounds familiar, then you are hearing echoes of Iraq. Aysh Awas, director of Security and Strategic Studies at Sheba, a think tank in Sana’a, told TIME that Ansar al-Shari’a — the political front of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) — is doing in Yemen what Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) did following the U.S. invasion in 2003: wage suicide bomb-led jihad to derail the country’s nascent Washington-supported democracy and replace it with an Islamic state based on shari’a law. And just as anti-Qaeda, U.S.-backed tribal sheikhs in Iraq banned together to secure their territory from AQI, Popular Committees are popping up across Yemen to combat the local franchise of the movement founded by the late Osama bin Laden. “In light of the recent attacks, it seems that anything is likely to happen and the situation in Yemen may be turning into the Iraqi model,” Awas says.

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Unresolved Tensions in Yemen

A new al-Qaeda affiliate threatens Yemen’s post-revolutionary political transition.

By Casey L Coombs for ISN Security Watch

“Yemen’s transition is taking place against a backdrop of serious security concerns, an unprecedented humanitarian crisis and many unresolved conflicts,” United Nations special envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, stated before the 15-nation Security Council (UNSC) on May 29 in New York.

“Al-Qaeda in particular continues to pose a major threat,” he warned, referring to the unprecedented expansion of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its local insurgent arm, Ansar al-Shari’a, along the Gulf of Aden in Abyan governorate.

In response to the threat, Yemen’s new President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi deployed six military brigades in mid-May to retake Abyan, which abuts the country’s largest seaport Aden. One of the president’s top advisors called the 10,000-strong troop surge, which has received the support of American military advisors and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), a “full-scale war.”

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