Washington, DC — Over the last few years I’ve traveled to several crisis zones in an effort to understand al-Qaeda’s relationship with local militants. As a graduate student I spend several weeks in Afghanistan examining the relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Research later led me to the North Caucasus, where I studied the regionalization of the Chechen rebellion, as well as to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, where I studied the tensions between al-Qaeda and Hamas. And this past summer, I traveled a 1200 kilometers through Central Asia to study how the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan interacts with its counterparts in neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan. From the highlands of Dagestan to the deserts of Oman, its been quite a journey. Tomorrow I embark on another one.
Last Thursday the Yemeni Foreign Ministry issued me a journalist’s visa to conduct research for my forthcoming book. The visa arrived just days before the massive suicide bombing in Sana’a on May 21st, which killed more than 90 Yemeni soldiers. It also follows a year of political turmoil brought by the Arab Spring and compounded by the advance of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (“AQAP”) in the southern provinces. With the Yemeni government suspending tourist visas, and with no basis for claiming that I was conducting in “business” in Yemen, it seemed as though there would never be an opportunity to go. Now I’m scrambling to arrange meetings with tribal leaders from the provinces where AQAP and Ansar al-Shari’ah, its local counterpart, have taken control.
My research in Yemen will focus on the relationship between these two militant groups. I’m particularly interested in understanding the degree to which AQAP’s globalized salafi-jihadi ideology resonates within Ansar al-Shari’ah’s ranks. Equally important, I want to understand the objectives each of these organizations espouses. If Ansar al-Shari’ah is nothing more than an AQAP front, as some analysts suggest, then there shouldn’t be much daylight between the two movements in these areas. But if Ansar al-Shari’ah has its own local agenda, or if its operations are driven primarily by tribal or national objectives, then there’s a reasonable possibility that the movement is an al-Qaeda ally rather than a subordinate front. Stated differently, Ansar al-Shari’ah could be fighting with AQAP, rather than for it. And if that’s the case, then it could have significant implications for U.S. support for the Yemeni armed forces.
Another crucial question is the degree of traction AQAP and Ansar al-Shari’ah have within Yemen’s tribal society. As I’ve observed in the past, AQAP’s leadership is acutely aware of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s failures in Iraq. Rather than coercing and controlling tribal leaders, the two movements have instead sought to co-opt indigenous support through propaganda, public works, the creation of shari’ah courts, and other measures aimed at winning local hearts and minds. They’ve even taken a moderate position on chewing qat and other allegedly un-Islamic practices–all with the goal of expanding their territorial reach and political relevance. My goal will be to find out whether this approach is working and, if so, where, why, and how.
Other issues also merit consideration. One colleague has asked me to evaluate the strength and resolve of Yemen’s armed forces, particularly after last week’s suicide bombing. Another has asked whether southern tribes and other political groups are in fact siding with the Yemeni government against AQAP and, if so, how their interests and motives might change over time. Then there is the broader question of how AQAP relates to al-Shaba’ab in neighboring Somali, as well as to al-Qaeda’s stated desire to renew attacks on the U.S. homeland. Factor in endemic Somali piracy and the threat of a Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen’s Shi’a north, and there are plenty of big questions that require substantive answers.
I will be in Yemen from late May into early June, travelling around the county as circumstances and the security situation permit. Once again, I hope you will following my postings and my journey.