"Prisoners who are in the jails of the oppressors because of their religion" and told them to "rejoice ... as your brothers are pounding the walls of injustice and demolishing the thrones of oppression... We have not forgotten you and will never forget you,” said Nasser al-Wahishi this August. Little could Yemenis have foreseen that those words would signal an unprecedented return in violence and insecurity across the country.
Over the past three months not one week has passed without the media having to report on the targeted killing of an intelligence or military officer, the targeting of a military position, the kidnapping of a foreign worker, or even the targeting of foreign diplomats. Over the past three months alone, Yemen has seen more bloodshed and terror-related violence than in the past two years.
The intensity and frequency of the attacks has security experts both abroad and at home in Yemen, ponder over the validity and relevance of Yemen’s national counter-terror strategy. Even with the full weight of the US military, Yemen coalition government still finds itself vulnerable to al-Qaeda’s attacks, having been unable to prevent the cancerous growth of its terror cells.
Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright scholar based in Yemen, now at Princeton University told PBS Newshour back in August that if al-Qaeda militants were only a few hundred-men strong back in December 2009, when the group carried it out its Christmas Day attack on a US airliner, he estimated their number to be closer today to several thousands.
“What we have seen over the past three-and-a-half years is that AQAP has gone from a group of about 200 to 300 people on Christmas Day 2009 to, according to the U.S. State Department, more than a few thousand fighters today.”
Johnsen has often warned that Yemen’ strategy against al-Qaeda essentially worked to strengthen the ranks of its militants rather than weaken their ability to carry out terror operations. While such warnings have often fallen on deaf ears, in favour of a heavier military footprint, officials in Sana’a have begun to see the rational reasoning standing behind Johnsen’s thinking.
Johnsen has long called for a different, more proactive approach to counter-terrorism, one which would involve clerics and tribal leaders as opposed to the blind targeting of civilian communities on the off-chance that terror militants might be passing through.
“The only people in a position to decisively disrupt, dismantle and defeat AQAP are the tribesmen and clerics in Yemen. It is men like Salim al-Jabir, a local preacher, who have the standing and stature to take the fight to al-Qaeda,” Johnsen wrote in Bloomberg this August.
One has only to take a look at Yemen’s mounting death toll to realise that so far the real winners of the war against terror, are actually the terrorists.
Over the span of a week, al-Qaeda has killed at least three high ranking officers, wounded dozens of soldiers in drive-by shootings and flash-attacks against military outposts in the southern provinces. In the past month alone terror militants have grown as bold as to target two military bases: one in Mukalla on September 30 and one in the southern restive of Abyan on October 18th.
More troubling yet, the killing of a German diplomat in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, on October 6th by suspected terror operatives brought home the reality of radicalism, dissipating many Yemenis’ false sense of security and belief that al-Qaeda belonged to the country’s restive tribal regions and not its buzzing capital.
Short from completely cordoning off its capital and deploying an unsustainable number of security personnel to the streets, Yemen coalition government has no real mean at its disposal t protect its people and its interests.
The central government’s inherent political shortcomings, its stumbling hold over the state institutions and its internal divisions have allowed al-Qaeda to grapple Yemen by the neck and hold it hostage.
To make matters worse, recent claims made by Tribune Washington Bureau established that contrary to their public statements foreign powers have been handing wads of cash to terror militants in exchange for their nationals’ release, thus jeopardizing any hope of a financial asphyxiation. Yemen has worked hard at drying up all terror militants finding sources in an attempt to diminish its pull and zone of influence.
“Over the last two years, AQAP, as Western officials refer to the group, has extorted $20 million in ransom money, according to an estimate by Alistair Burt, who until this month was the top British diplomatic official for the Middle East,” wrote the Tribune Washington Bureau.
Burt also warned at a diplomatic meeting in New York earlier this month, “If those payments continue, AQAP's attack capability in Yemen and against its friends and neighbours will only strengthen.”
Naser Abdel-Karim Wahishi said on the matter, “Kidnapping hostages is an easy spoil, which I may describe as a profitable trade and a precious treasure,” underscoring the profound irony and counter-productivity of Yemen’s anti-terror strategy.
So far Yemen has only managed to feed its now-sprawling monster, rather than cut off its head.