The key to accomplishing anything in Yemen is navigating its labyrinthine tribal system. For years, a tribal patronage network helped bolster Saleh’s regime. Many tribes have had a neutral view of AQAP or have seen it as a minor nuisance; some have fought against Al Qaeda forces, while others have given them safe haven or shelter. The stance of many tribes toward Al Qaeda has depended on how they believe AQAP can forward their agenda.
But US policy has enraged tribal leaders who could potentially keep AQAP in check and has, over the past three years of regular bombings, taken away the motivation for many leaders to do so. Several southern leaders angrily told me stories of US and Yemeni attacks in their areas that killed civilians and livestock and destroyed or damaged scores of homes. If anything, the US airstrikes and support for Saleh-family-run counterterrorism units has increased tribal sympathy for Al Qaeda. “Why should we fight them? Why?” asks Sheik Ali Abdullah Abdulsalam, a southern tribal sheik from Shebwa who adopted the nom du guerre Mullah Zabara, he says, out of admiration for Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. “If my government built schools, hospitals and roads and met basic needs, I would be loyal to my government and protect it. So far, we don’t have basic services such as electricity, water pumps. Why should we fight Al Qaeda?” He says that AQAP controls large swaths of Shebwa, conceding that the group does “provide security and prevent looting. If your car is stolen, they will get it back for you.” In areas “controlled by the government, there is looting and robbery. You can see the difference.” Zabara adds, “If we don’t pay more attention, Al Qaeda could seize and control more areas.”
Zabara is quick to clarify that he believes AQAP is a terrorist group bent on attacking the United States, but that is hardly his central concern. “The US sees Al Qaeda as terrorism, and we consider the drones terrorism,” he says. “The drones are flying day and night, frightening women and children, disturbing sleeping people. This is terrorism.” Zabara says several US strikes in his region have killed scores of civilians and that his community is littered with unexploded cluster bombs, which have detonated, killing children. He and other tribal leaders asked the Yemeni and US governments for assistance in removing them, he says. “We did not get any response, so we use our guns to explode them.” He also says the US government should pay money to the families of civilians killed in the missile strikes of the past three years. “We demand compensation from the US for killing Yemeni citizens, just like the Lockerbie case,” he declares. “The world is one village. The US received compensation from Libya for the Lockerbie bombing, but the Yemenis have not.”
I meet Mullah Zabara and his men at the airport in Aden, in southern Yemen, along the coast where the USS Cole was bombed in October 2000, killing seventeen US sailors. Zabara is dressed in black tribal clothes, complete with a jambiya (dagger) at his stomach. For a modern twist, he is also packing a Beretta on his hip. Zabara is a striking figure, with leathery skin and a large scar that forms a crescent moon along his right eye. “I don’t know this American,” he says to my Yemeni colleague. “So if anything happens to me as a result of this meeting—if I get kidnapped—we’ll just kill you later.” Everyone laughs nervously. We chat for a while on a corniche on the coast before he drives us around the city for a tour. About twenty minutes into the tour, he pulls over on the side of the road and buys a six-pack of Heineken from a shanty store, tosses one to me, cracks open a can for himself and speeds off. It is 11 am.
“Once I got stopped by AQAP guys at one of their checkpoints, and they saw I had a bottle of Johnnie Walker,” he recalls as he guzzles his second Heineken in ten minutes and lights a cigarette. “They asked me, ‘Why do you have that?’ I told them, ‘to drink it.’” He laughs heartily. “I told them to bother another guy and drove off.” The message of the story is clear: the Al Qaeda guys don’t want trouble with tribal leaders. “I am not afraid of Al Qaeda; I go to their sites and meet them. We are all known tribesmen, and they have to meet us to solve their disputes.” Plus, he adds: “I have 30,000 fighters in my own tribe. Al Qaeda can’t attack me.”
Zabara has served as a mediator with AQAP for the Yemeni government and was instrumental in securing the release in November of three French aid workers held hostage by the militant group for six months. He said he intervened after an AQAP agent called him. “A person phoned me and told me that they would kill the French in revenge for the death of al-Awlaki,” Zabara recalls. “I traveled to where they were and told them, ‘If you kill the French, we will fight you using our daggers.’” Eventually, Zabara—along with an undisclosed sum of money—was able to persuade AQAP to release the hostages. He whips out his cellphone and shows me several pictures he took of the hostages as they were being freed.
Zabara was also asked by the Yemeni minister of defense to mediate with the militants in Zinjibar on several occasions, including to retrieve bodies of soldiers killed in areas held by Ansar al Sharia. “I have nothing against Al Qaeda or the government,” he says. “I started the mediation in order to stop bloodshed and to achieve peace.” In Zinjibar, his efforts were unsuccessful. He tells me that while mediating, he has met AQAP operatives from the United States, France, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
I ask him if he ever meets with top AQAP leaders. “Fahd al Quso is from my tribe,” he replies with a smile, referring to one of the most wanted suspects from the Cole bombing. He also says he met Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the alleged “underwear bomber” charged with attempting to blow up a passenger flight over Detroit in December 2009. “I saw [Said] al-Shihri and [Nasir] al-Wuhayshi five days ago in Shebwa,” he casually adds, referring to the two senior AQAP leaders, both of them US-designated terrorists. “We were walking, and they said, ‘Peace be upon you.’ I replied, ‘Peace be upon you too.’ We have nothing against them. In the past, it was unthinkable to run into them. They were hiding in the mountains and caves, but now they are walking in the streets and going to restaurants.” Why is that? I ask. “The regime, the ministers and officials are squandering the money allocated to fight Al Qaeda, while Al Qaeda expands,” he says. The United States “funds the Political Security and the National Security [forces], which spend money traveling here and there, in Sanaa or in the US, with their family. All the tribes get is airstrikes against us.” He adds that counterterrorism “has become like an investment” for the US-backed units. “If they fight seriously, the funds will stop. They prolonged the conflict with Al Qaeda to receive more funds” from the United States.
That, in a nutshell, is how many Yemenis see the US role in their country. The United States “should have never made counterterrorism a source of profit for the regime, because that increased terrorism,” asserts Iryani. “Their agenda was to keep terrorism alive, because it was their cash cow.” The US bombings, he said, were “a bad mistake. Military action often backfires by killing civilians, by the violation of sovereignty. That offends a lot of Yemenis.” For the United States, the most serious question that lingers over Yemen after Ali Abdullah Saleh is: Did US counterterrorism policy strengthen the very threat it sought to eliminate? “It was a major fiasco,” Iryani says of the past decade of US counterterrorism policy in Yemen. “I think if we had been left alone, we would have less terrorists in Yemen than we do now.”
Copyright © 2012 The Nation