Yemen’s National Dialogue is scheduled to start on March 18, but despite government measures, the country’s overall security remains under threat. Political assassinations are on the rise, and armed struggle in the south is gaining momentum. Addressing these security issues is the only way to allow for the success of the National Dialogue.
The Southern Separatist Movement (Hirak) and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula remain behind most of the unrest; but neither is party to the dialogue, nor does either have any interest in preserving the country’s unity. The Yemeni government alleges that southern separatists receive financial support and “dangerous weapons” from Iran (which denies the allegations). Although the separatists say they want independence only through “peaceful” methods, armed clashes occur from time to time. Indeed, the south has seen increasing tension between separatists and the pro-unity Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen, which – in addition to being an integral part of the Islah party – wields vast influence in the south and has been a longtime opponent of separatists.
The separatist movement’s top leader, the exiled Ali Salem al-Beidh, described the Brotherhood as terrorists following an incident on Feb. 21 when the organization’s members killed at least 10 separatists. They had, with the help of security forces and the army, been preventing separatists from holding a rally in Aden that day – the same day (and place) that the Muslim Brotherhood was preparing to rally for national unity. In retaliation, angry separatists carried out acts of violence across the south, burning the Brotherhood’s offices, blocking roads, harassing and threatening northerners – describing them as “occupiers.” Separatists even set fire to one individual from the north – he nearly died – in Sayoun in Hadramaut on Feb. 23.
AQAP also features prominently in the conflict between the separatists and the Muslim Brotherhood. While the relationship between the Brotherhood and AQAP is subject to intense debate and speculation, both have an interest in a weak central government. Yet both the separatists and the Brotherhood are attempting to use Al-Qaeda against one another.
Following the Feb. 22 assassination of Aden journalist Wajdi al-Shabi – who had covered separatists’ activities since 2007 – Muslim Brotherhood-allied governor Waheed Rashid accused the slain journalist of being Al-Qaeda’s media person, which he claimed was the reason he was killed. Hours later, the central government said the dead body of the “citizen” Wajdi was found in his house and investigations were ongoing to find the killer – suggesting that the central government denied the journalist was a member of Al-Qaeda. The assassination came hours after the government surprisingly issued a statement saying that gunmen loyal to Beidh along with Al-Qaeda operatives were behind the violence and killing in Aden.
“Al-Qaeda is stronger and in better shape than before, because people respond to it more than they do the government – which has failed to do anything [to] change people’s life,” asserts Abdul-Razek al-Jamal, writer and researcher specialized in AQAP. AQAP is likely behind 74 assassinations of senior military and security officers across Yemen from 2012 through February 2013 – when a motorcycle-riding gunman killed a counterterrorism officer, Khaled Sewari, in Sanaa. In early March, AQAP published an enthusiastic poem by Abu Hajer Al-Hadhrami, an operative who had escaped from the prison of Mukalla in eastern Yemen in 2011, in which the group threatened to continue with this style of assassinations.
Despite this, President Abed Rabbou Mansour Hadi is falsely boasting a victory over Al-Qaeda and citing the “liberation” of towns and areas in the south – such as Zinjibar and Jaar – that Al-Qaeda had governed as a Taliban-style emirate for over a year.
Yet, Al-Qaeda has not been defeated in Yemen; it has only changed tactics. In fact, good indicators of the group’s strength are ongoing kidnappings and the group’s ability to hide hostages. AQAP currently holds four hostages: a Saudi diplomat, a Finnish couple and an Austrian man. On Feb. 27 a Swiss hostage that the group had held for about a year was released after the Qatari government paid a ransom of $5 million – tribal leaders close to the Brotherhood coordinated the release. According to sources familiar with the mediation effort, $2 million went to AQAP while $3 million went to tribal leaders.
When Hadi was elected president in February 2012, a number of tribesmen cooperated with him against Al-Qaeda, thinking that their situation would change for the better. However, a year later nothing has changed for them. “Hadi cares only for the U.S. and how to please it, ignoring the sovereignty and the feelings of Yemenis. He publicly says he loves drones – a sentence that never ever was said by ex-President Saleh,” said Jamal, who interviewed many Al-Qaeda leaders and stayed with them for months.
In a visit to the United States in 2012, Hadi expressed his admiration of the accuracy of drones that hit target areas and killed more than 100 militants since 2009, according to recent statements by Yemen intelligence chief Ali al-Ahmadi. Hadi has also failed to reach any agreement with Al-Qaeda through tribal leaders. In early March, Al-Qaeda issued a statement stressing that it expects no agreement with the government: “The reason was the disgraceful attitude of Sanaa government which is dragged behind American projects and American agents from [the] Gulf.” Around the same time, on March 4, at least 12 tribesmen were killed and 17 others injured when an Al-Qaeda suicide bomber targeted the anti-Al-Qaeda Popular Committee in the middle of the town of Lawdar on the border of Al-Baidha.
The coming National Dialogue’s chances of success are further lessened because of the unclear link between Al-Qaeda and the Brotherhood, who dominate Islah, the largest opposition party in Parliament. In February, U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein warned the dialogue will be a failure if a leader of the Islah party, preacher Abdul-Majeed al-Zindani participates, because he is deemed a terrorist by the United Nations and the U.S. Earlier Zindani had said that the United States must not interfere and that there would be no dialogue without the agreement of clerics.
“The Brotherhood is using Al-Qaeda as if it were their military wing to frighten America and the West so that they [the U.S. and the West] accept the Brotherhood as the best model of moderate Islam,” said Najeeb Ghallab, a prominent political analyst focusing on Yemen and the Gulf. “So, America and the West now wrongly believe that [they are forced] either to accept the Brotherhood or Al-Qaeda will be the other alternative.”
But Yemen’s constantly evolving political and security dynamics mean that there are few clear choices. For the National Dialogue to achieve anything, the context surrounding it must have greater stability.
Nasser Arrabyee is a Yemeni journalist based in Sanaa. He has reported for The New York Times, among others. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.