Yemen’s biggest but least reckoned threat

While Saudis and Houthis fight to the death, terrorism is the one gaining the upper hand
With the world focused on other Middle Eastern areas and other Middle Eastern tragedies, Yemen is finding itself abandoned to a civil war that over the last 6 months has been tearing the country apart.
After the Houthis occupied Sanaa and forced President Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia (where he remained until recently) the country has abruptly become the battlefield of one of the most cruel and most complex civil wars that the region has known, and us forgetting about it doesn’t make it less brutal. Just less likely to reach an end.
Thus far, in fact, despite shocking figures released by the UN on the human tragedy Yemenis are now suffering, there is no sign that the war will come to end any time soon, as all the attempts to reach an agreement through diplomatic dialogue have inexorably failed for the lack of points of contact between Houthis and Saudi-backed Sunnis.

And though, a common interest between the two sides of Yemen’s war does exist: defeating that common enemy that thanks to war is now on the rise. Jihadist terrorism.

Yemen’s war, in fact, with the flee of a President not reckoned as legitimate by everyone (as a President should) and with the lack of an alternative unity government capable of giving representation to all the country’s religious groups (as governments should), has inevitably created a power and security vacuum. And terrorist groups in all times and places have always proved able (or at least willing) to take advantage of this kind of vacuum. We have seen it in Colombia with the FARC’s rise, in Afghanistan after the war between the Soviets and local mujahideens, in Syria when the civil war broke out in 2011, and more recently in Iraq last year. And we could now see it in Yemen too, if the international community doesn’t give the country (and its people) the attention it deserves and – above all – if the parties directly involved make of any effort of dialogue a lost cause.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is no new actor in Yemen. It has always tried to use the country and its internal tensions as a preferred base to plan and conduct attacks and as a starting point to maximize its power and influence in neighboring Gulf countries.
However, not even in its brightest days could the group hope to get as far as it has now come thanks to the outbreak of the civil war. In fact, exploiting the vacuum the flee of President Hadi created, and taking advantage from its enemies killing each other while carefully avoiding direct involvement in the war, the group has known an increase in capabilities, profile and power, and is now obtaining a success that few other Al Qaeda-linked groups can boast.
How did this happen? Not only has the group conducted attacks in the country’s most important cities to boost its credibility within a global jihadist movement that is now less Al Qaeda-centered than it used to, but it has also been able to get an actual control over swaths of Yemen – with the best example of that being the southern city of Mukalla. Here in fact – far from establishing a counterproductive regime of terror aimed at subjugating the local population – the group has revealed its threatening modern pragmatism by allying with local Sunni tribes. With them AQAP built the Hadromouth National Council (HNC) that, providing services and guaranteeing security to the population, is now deeply integrated in the local dynamics and joins a considerable support from the people of the area. A sequence of events, this one, that worryingly reminds of the strategy embraced in Syria by the Al Qaeda-linked Jabat al Nusra, and that made it possible for the group to get support from disillusioned Sunnis.
Perhaps more threatening than the territorial control, in fact, is the support AQAP is gaining from locals. With Houthis and Saudis fighting against the each other on Yemeni soil and from Yemeni skies, and destroying what remains of a country that violence has never spared, to the eyes of many Yemenis AQAP is now appearing as the only actor capable of concretely guaranteeing a minimum level of security and subsistence to a population that has lost everything. Above all trust in politics and trust in a Yemeni government that has abandoned them.

Yemen’s problems, though, are not limited to the al-Zawahiri-linked group. As if AQAP’s advancing was not already enough, a new threat is now on the rise: that of ISIS and its affiliated groups/individuals.
Taking advantage – just like AQAP – of an authority-lacking country, the group and its supporters are expanding their activities in Yemen, and though still far from catching up with AQAP (especially in terms of territorial control), it is to be noted (and feared) that the group is proving its dangerousness in two main respects.
Firstly, ISIS is challenging AQAP’s previously undisputed status as Yemen’s most active terrorist group – something that increases the prestige of ISIS in the jihadist universe and creates the risk of having an increase in the number of ‘wanna-be-jihadists ‘ who choose to join the Caliphate and its affiliated cells wherever they are present and operative.
Secondly, the group is proving its ability (the same that led Iraq to collapse and that exasperated sectarianism in Syria) in getting support by part of the population – mainly youngsters who interpret the attacks on Shia sites conducted by ISIS as a proof of the group’s determination to protect Sunni Islam in a concrete and assertive way.
Moreover, ISIS’s new presence in Yemen is threatening not only for the destabilization it directly creates through attacks, or for the support it is getting from disillusioned youngsters. It is even more threatening because it is opening a front within jihadist terrorism, a front between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State that reminds of that in Syria at the end of 2013, when ISIS and Jabat al Nusra fell apart after and began fighting against each other (with tragic consequences for the Syrian civilian population).
The threat of such a competition between AQAP and ISIS is that if the former sees itself challenged by the latter, it will try to maintain its status, profile and support base by widening its range of operation and – if necessary – by trying to strengthen its legitimacy through a higher toll of attacks against Shias. In fact, though for the time being it is unlikely that the Islamic State will overtake AQAP as the predominant jihadist group in Yemen, if AQAP is to prevent the Islamic State from making further gains it cannot but maintain its momentum with a strong narrative of victory. Something that Yemen and the Yemenis will be the ones paying the price of.

The rise of terrorism in Yemen is clearly no good news for the country nor for its population, but it could turn into an effective starting point of dialogue. In fact, none of those who are directly involved in the civil conflict – Houthis, Yemeni Sunnis, Saudi-led Coalition of GCC countries – can gain anything if talks are obstructed and Yemen falls to terrorism.
Houthis and Yemeni Sunnis, in refusing to work towards a coalition government, aren’t but playing the jihadists’ game as they are leaving them free hand in the country. By continuing on this path, thus, they would have to deal with a strengthened internal enemy competing for power, and it would become even more difficult (read impossible) to reach an agreement and put in Sana’a a government accepted by everyone.
On their part, GCC countries (and in particular Saudi Arabia, that shares with Yemen an important border) in refusing diplomatic dialogue and in closing the door to any possibility of compromise, risk continuing to favor the strengthening of a terrorist group whose power and influence could be easily projected from Yemen to neighboring countries.

If the two sides of the conflict realized how the real threat for Yemen’s future, for the Houthis’ survival and for the Saudis’ security is represented by the rise of AQAP and ISIS, they could start their dialogue from the necessity to oppose the common enemy. They could make of this common point of interest the starting point of peace negotiations aimed at the creation of a government that represents all Yemenis – thus cancelling the roots of AQAP’s and ISIS’s legitimacy and the reasons of their support.
It is now time to realize that it is in everyone’s interest to rely on political cooperation to fill the vacuum created by the war, and that this has to be done before it is too late, before terrorism leaves no room to peace, and before the definite collapse of Yemen that is now on the horizon reaches its shores.

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Why Al Qaeda is a bigger threat than ISIS – Distinction between Group and Ideology (part 2)

How the categories of “group” and “ideology” can help to compare the main points of strength and the main weaknesses of bin Laden’s group with al-Baghdadi’s. In this second part, a focus on ISIS to understand how its recent staggering success doesn’t mean the group is invincible

When al-Baghdadi became leader of what is now known as ISIS it was 2010, and the group he found himself at the head of was on the verge of decline; so much so that foreign analysts were no longer considering it in their studies, and aspiring mujahideens were no longer considering it as a group to possibly join. Without going deep into the though interesting strategies that al-Baghdadi adopted to make the group surge again, it is to be underlined that all ISIS has been doing since 2010 is the product of a specific ideology, that retrieved and improved the one that had been formulated by former leaders.

If Al Qaeda’s ideology was – as said – a global, abstract and universalistic one, ISIS’s ideology has since the beginning been the opposite. Though both ideologies take the moves from the concept of jihad meant as just, armed struggle to be conducted against the infidels, they are then built differently around it. For al-Baghdadi’s group the jihad against the kafir is not a global one, with no space and borders, but a localized one, to be conducted on a specific territory and against a specific enemy. If Al Qaeda, in fact, used to conduct its attacks against the “far enemy”, ISIS has always had a more delimited (and also more rational) approach aimed at conducting jihad against the “near enemy” – namely the governments of Syria and Iraq.

To explain why and how such an ideology took form, another parallel with Al Qaeda is necessary. Bin Laden’s ideology was the result of an exasperate lack of territoriality; while al-Baghdadi’s ideology is exactly the product of a definite territoriality. Even before gaining control of what is now the area of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, in fact, ISIS has always been present and active in a specific territory only; and this element made it necessary for the group to take into account that specific reality, that specific context with all its dynamics, and to adapt its message to it. The shift to self-declared State has just made this territoriality more steady and therefore difficult to cancel, but is actually nothing new for a group that has always shown a high awareness of its operative environment.

Such a definite ideology couldn’t but give rise to a precise political project, and it did.

ISIS’s aim has since the time of al-Zarqawi (when the group was known as AQI) been the establishment of an Islamic State in Iraq. With al-Baghdadi, the objective has been adapted to the new situation emerged in Iraq (where Sunnis were ever more excluded from power) and Syria (where in 2011 the civil war broke out), and the project thus became the creation of an Islamic State in the Sunni area across these two states. From this stronghold it would then be expanded until the borders of what once was the Umayyad Caliphate. A political project, therefore, that is both anachronistic, because of the rhetoric of restoring the power of the ancient Islamic Caliphate, and modern, because of the way in which the Islamic State, its organization and its rule are conceived.

This situation has both advantages and disadvantages .

Being ISIS’s ideology so deeply connected to what was and is the Iraqi and Syrian environment, it is not possible for it to spread such as Al Qaeda’s message and ideas did. If Al Qaeda’s ideology was so abstract and global that it could be easily adopted by other jihadist groups whatever their area of belonging, with ISIS we have the opposite situation: its ideology is too specific to be transferred to groups acting in a different context and interacting with different actors and enemies. If a group takes on ISIS’s ideology, it can’t but take on its specific political project too – the recreation of the ancient Caliphate – and can’t but build its actions around that precise objective.

This difficulty for ISIS’s ideology to spread, creates the most relevant difference between ISIS and Al Qaeda: ISIS has an ideology but is not an ideology (something that on the contrary Al Qaeda became after 2001). ISIS is a group in the strictest sense of the term and therefore has a detailed, coherent and centralized organization; a relevant capacity to control all the group’s actions, that are in fact conducted coherently with the group’s ideology and project. There are no sub-groups under its umbrella but only loyal fighters, so that the problems of coordination and control that the Jihadist Nebula has created to the Al Qaeda core group are unknown to ISIS.

This element is fundamental in granting to the group capacity of action (that same capacity Al Qaeda has been losing since 2001); and this image of an active, successful jihad is what leads such a high number of fighters to join its ranks. Recruitment comes thus to mark another difference between bin Laden’s group (now al-Zawahiri’s), that has seen decreasing the number of wannabe jihadists joining it, and al-Baghdadi’s group, that never ceases to attract jihadists from all over the world. Moreover, as opposed to Al Qaeda, ISIS recruits fighters not through fatwas but rather through videos and messages that present the group’s achievements and the group’s political project, of which wannabe fighters are invited to take part. This high capacity of recruitment, possible through the proposal of a concrete objective that Al Qaeda was never able to formulate and that gives aspiring mujahideens the sense of being sacrificing everything for something real, adds to ISIS’s strength.

And though, ISIS’s recent success shouldn’t lead us to think that it is immune from vulnerabilities. If being a group proper gives ISIS capacity of action, control, and rule, as well as power of attraction, it also makes it less resilient than Al Qaeda is. Being a group means being a concrete, delimited, specific entity; that means an entity against which fighting is possible and comparatively easier than fighting against ideas and views. If ISIS is a definite actor, that we can describe and localize, then to be destroyed is not an ideology but the group and what it has achieved. The elimination of the Caliphate (unlike the elimination of Al Qaeda’s Afghan safe haven) would bring about the elimination of ISIS, in the moment in which ISIS as group, the Caliphate it built, and the ideology it elaborated are all part of a same, single reality. Being ISIS a group with an ideology and not an ideology in itself, if that group is cancelled its delimited and specific ideology –being nontransferable – would lose the reality on which it depends and would simply die with it.

The fight against ISIS is not easy at all, but it has more possibilities of success than the fight against Al Qaeda. If the latter – we said – is weak as group but resilient as ideology, then ISIS is exactly the opposite; and this goes to our advantage because it means that in front of us we have an enemy we can fight.

Determination and disposal to do that actively are part of another story.

Why Al Qaeda is a bigger threat than ISIS – Distinction between Group and Ideology (part 1)

How the categories of “group” and “ideology” can help to compare the main points of strength and the main weaknesses of bin Laden’s group with al-Baghdadi’s. In this first part, a focus on Al Qaeda to understand why it is still the most serious, long-term terrorist challenge we have to face

It was the end of the 1980s under the fire of the Afghan-Soviet war, when in a mountainous region across the Af-Pak border Al Qaeda came to life. Born out of the schism between bin Laden and the Palestinian Azzam, who had been working together for years organizing the flow of Arab men and money to the Afghan mujahideens, Al Qaeda was since its first days characterized by an ideology that no other jihadist group had ever formulated. While the already existing groups – such as those in Egypt, Palestine, Afghanistan – were aimed at fighting against a specific enemy – such as the Egyptian government, Israel, the Soviets – Al Qaeda embraced a universalistic ideology.

To explain how this ideology took form and prospered, it is to be underlined the fact that Al Qaeda never had a specific territory to fight from: after the end of the Soviet-Afghan war it had no reasons to stay in Afghanistan (nor did the Afghan mujahideens want Arabs to get too deeply involved in their post-war businesses); in the early 1990s the group was expelled from Saudi Arabia because of though frictions emerged between bin Laden and the Saud family; in 1996 it lost its safe haven in Sudan after al-Turabi ceded to international pressure; in 2001 it lost its safe haven in Afghanistan after the defeat of the Taliban; nowadays it is divided into more groups that make up the Jihadist Nebula and it is scattered throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and South East Asia.

This lack of territoriality would have been irreconcilable with a an ideology aimed at fighting a specific enemy in a specific area (like is, for instance, the case of Hamas) and this is why Al Qaeda adopted and maintained a universalistic ideology based on a broad, abstract concept of jihad against the infidels and the apostates worldwide. If it is true that since 1996 (when bin Laden launched his famous fatwa) the United States has come to represent the main enemy, it is also true that it wasn’t the only one (Saudi Arabia and Egypt have also been preferred targets because deemed apostates) and that the jihad pursued by bin Laden was a global one, to be fought in more places against more kinds of targets.

Such an abstract, universalistic ideology couldn’t have given rise to a concrete political project, and it didn’t. Not once did bin Laden, or his deputy al-Zawahiri, say what was to happen after the jihad was won, what would actually be done after the defeat of the United States and its allies. Bin Laden wanted, for instance, to oust the Saud family in the name of the creation of a state based on sharia (something that, moreover, Saudi Arabia already was and is) but never made a plan on how such an ideal state would be organized and would be run.

Al Qaeda never made its political project clear simply because it didn’t have one; and this situation, with time, has brought about both advantages and disadvantages for the group.

The most important and significant advantage is that the lack of a political project allowed Al Qaeda to survive, even when after 2001 it seemed that the group was doomed to disappear. The group’s ideology, in fact, being so broad, abstract and comprehensive, easily spread among jihadist groups in the Middle East, in Northern and Central Africa and South East Asia, because it was possible for them to adopt it without committing to a specific project in a specific area(something that with other groups’ ideologies, such as Hamas’, is not possible). They embraced Al Qaeda’s global ideology and adapted it to their particular, local needs.

This phenomenon (known as Jihadist Nebula) has implied that now Al Qaeda is not only a group but an ideology in itself: when we think of Al Qaeda today, not only do we think of the original group now leaded by al-Zawahiri and located in the Af-Pak region; we rather think of a specific ideology based on a global jihad, on a view of the world founded on the distinction between Muslim devotees and infidels, on a fight against the kafir that is without time and space.

And though, sacrificing part of its group nature to transform itself into an ideology brought with it vulnerabilities too. In fact, becoming less an organization as such and more a way of thinking and seeing the world, Al Qaeda (meant as bin Laden’s original group) saw reduced its capacity to control in a centralized way the actions conducted in the name of its own ideology. All the groups that now make up the Al Qaeda universe act independently – as they have a connection with Al Qaeda that is ideologically strong but strategically and operatively low – and this lack of cohesion and coordination can’t but be a weakness. In fact, more groups conducting non-coordinated, independent actions, means that the large scale attacks that made Al Qaeda (in)famous in the ‘90s are now impossible and that the group’s capacity of action is now largely reduced.

This element inevitably led to the perception that Al Qaeda’s operations are now limited, in decline and no longer able to reach the success the group achieved in the period 1996-2001; and this perception has as consequence the fact that the number of people joining the Al Qaeda group (mostly made up of fighters who got close to bin Laden before 2001 or immediately after that date) drops every year more, as they can’t see what they would be fighting for. After OEF the Al Qaeda group looks like one that predicates without acting, that calls for jihad but can’t fully undertake it. Al-Zawahiri’s fatwas, which contain religious sermons rather than proofs of successful actions, have by now lost much of their appeal, as they don’t give wannabe martyrs a clear cause to die for; and this drop in recruitment adds to the group’s vulnerabilities.

Al Qaeda’s threat is thus represented by the fact that it is weak as group but resilient as ideology.

The group’s recent difficulties in retrieving its past capacities shouldn’t lead us to underestimate its strength, but rather make us realize that we are no longer dealing with a definite organization, as we were until 2001, but with an ideology, and that our strategies have to adapt to this new reality. Defeating an abstract enemy such as ideas and views, in fact, is much more difficult than defeating a concrete enemy such as groups. For counterterrorism the fight against Al Qaeda is an extremely tough one because bombs, drones, and rifles can’t nothing against ideas. As history teaches us, only the proposal of alternative, credible ideologies can defeat the existing ones; and this is how we should think now of our approach to Al Qaeda.