The spread of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen is sometimes mistakenly blamed on tribes. The mainstream narrative claims that the extremist group is embedded in the country’s tribal and social fabric and that tribes offer AQAP safe haven and protection. Since the start of Yemen’s war in September 2014, the relationship between the group and the tribes has been explained in sectarian terms, with AQAP fighting alongside Sunni tribes against the Shia Houthis.
Bayda Governorate is one of the areas where AQAP’s activity in the region has increased since late 2014. The group has been engaged in the conflict against Ansar Allah, a Zaydi-Shia rebel group known more commonly as the Houthis, a development that has reinforced the perception that AQAP has built an alliance with local tribes. In reality, prior to the conflict in Yemen, the tribes had largely obstructed AQAP’s ability to expand and gain influence. It was not the sympathy of local tribes but the offensive in Bayda by the Houthis and forces loyal to the late Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh that created chaos, fueled grievances, violated tribal honor, and exacerbated conditions that allowed AQAP to gain strength.
AQAP and the Tribes: The Case of Tariq al-Dhahab
Misperceptions about tribal collaboration with AQAP can be traced back to January 2012, when Tariq al-Dhahab, the son of a prominent leader of the Qaifah tribe in Bayda, seized the historic castle and mosque of al-Amiriya in the center of Radaa city (around 140 kilometers or 90 miles south of the capital, Sanaa) with the help of dozens of AQAP militants. Tariq, who had lived in Sanaa all his life, sought the group’s help to reclaim his status in his clan, Al al-Dhahab. The reason was that Tariq’s elder brother Ali had denied him and six other brothers the land and wealth they had inherited from their father, the leader of the clan.
This incident is often presented as evidence of tribal support for AQAP. This belief was reinforced by the fact that Tariq’s sister married Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born cleric who acted as a spokesman for AQAP before he was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011. Some also say that AQAP was able to exploit the rivalries within the Al al-Dhahab clan in Bayda to penetrate the tribes. What is certain is that the collaboration between Tariq al-Dhahab and AQAP was not a result of ideological affinity. Indeed, most of Tariq’s followers did not even perform religious duties. Rather, he was able to attract supporters among the tribes because of his ability to resolve conflicts and difficult cases of revenge killings, an endemic problem in Radaa. AQAP saw a benefit in helping Tariq address such complicated tribal conflicts, in the hope that by doing so it would gain local support. This also motivated the group to provide services that the government and the tribes had not delivered to the local population. Indeed, AQAP sometimes even paid blood money to settle tribal disputes.
However, Tariq al-Dhahab, in allying himself with AQAP, did not reflect the preferences of his wider tribe. Indeed, it was the tribes that had successfully kept AQAP under control in Bayda and many parts of Yemen before then, recognizing the threat posed by the extremist group. Yet they also understood that getting rid of AQAP carried many risks for the already fragile order established and maintained by the tribes. That’s because AQAP members come mainly from local tribes and resorting to force could provoke tribal conflicts, a problem the tribes in Bayda and in other areas have been struggling to resolve. The tribes, therefore, have preferred to rely on negotiations and pressure when it comes to AQAP, as well as punishing their own members who give shelter to the group. Force is only used when all other means have been exhausted.
This is precisely what happened when Tariq al-Dhahab and the AQAP militants moved into Radaa. The tribes from the seven districts surrounding the city took action immediately to contain the situation. Armed tribesmen surrounded buildings controlled by AQAP. The tribes positioned their men at city entrances to block the arrival of AQAP reinforcements from Abyan Governorate. They also stationed armed men to guard government facilities and formed neighborhood watch committees. A mediation committee of tribal dignitaries was then set up to negotiate with Tariq, and it eventually persuaded him to withdraw from the city and return with the AQAP militants to his home village of al-Manasseh. Tariq’s tribe disowned him for bringing the militants into Radaa, which meant that he lost his right to protection and other privileges as a member of his tribe.
But even mediation does not always end well. Tariq’s half-brother Hizam, who had grown tired of seeing AQAP militants in al-Manasseh, confronted Tariq about their presence and eventually shot him dead. That same day, the militants avenged Tariq by killing Hizam. When the government sent a military force in February 2013 to force AQAP militants out of al-Manasseh, the tribes intervened to stop the campaign after shelling destroyed homes in the area. They were worried that their areas would face the same fate as Abyan in mid-2012, when efforts to push AQAP out had resulted in massive destruction and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians. Another mediation effort eventually forced AQAP leaders from Al al-Dhahab to leave al-Manasseh, and government officials announced that the village was free of al-Qaeda. Most of the AQAP militants relocated to Yakla, a remote and mountainous area on the border with Marib Governorate.
The Houthi Entry Into Bayda
In September 2014, the Houthis seized Sanaa with the support of military units loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh. A few weeks later, in October, the Houthis moved south to capture Bayda Governorate, which they managed to mostly control by March 2015. The Houthis branded their military campaign as a war against AQAP. The Peace and National Partnership Agreement the Yemeni government signed with the Houthis on September 21, 2014, affirmed that the government was committed to helping the citizens of Bayda fight against AQAP, giving the Houthis the political cover they needed to enter the governorate.
In reality, however, taking control of Bayda was militarily important to the Houthis because the governorate is located in the middle of Yemen and shares borders with eight other governorates. Control over Bayda would make it easier for the Houthis to cement the military gains they had made in the north of the country and move southward and eastward with more confidence.
The Houthis first entered Bayda through neighboring Dhamar Governorate, which they already controlled thanks to Saleh’s units. Tribal leaders in Bayda loyal to Saleh helped the Houthis negotiate with local tribes to ensure a smooth entry. While tribes across Bayda had prepared to stop the Houthis, they realized that the combined forces of Saleh and the Houthis were much stronger, so they opted to remain neutral. The political situation in Sanaa at the time was unclear, as the capital had just fallen into Houthi hands. The impression was that the Houthis’ expansion was merely a façade for Saleh’s return to power.
To gain access to Radaa, the second-largest city in Bayda, where government, military, and security facilities were located, the Houthis needed to pass through the territory of the Arsh tribe. The tribe reluctantly allowed the Houthis passage into Radaa and to Qaifa, located to its north, by the main highway that cuts through Arsh territory. In return, the Houthis were not to establish checkpoints or use the tribe’s territory to engage in any fighting. “We are not your enemies, but we want our home to remain dignified, to remain protected, to remain untouched,” the leader of the Arsh told the Houthis during negotiations.
As the Houthis gained greater control over Bayda and became more powerful than Saleh, they went back on most of the agreements they had concluded with the tribes. They began committing unprecedented abuses to force the tribes into submission. The Houthis abducted, arbitrarily arrested, and killed their opponents, including tribal leaders, or destroyed their homes, all of which constituted serious offenses according to tribal tradition. For example, in August 2016, the Houthis killed four tribal leaders in Bayda in cold blood. They also destroyed farms, levied heavy taxes, and imposed the use of their own ideological slogans in local mosques, provoking resentment among local tribes.1
Many of the tribes saw the Houthis’ actions as an attempt to undermine their power.2 In the village of Khubza, for example, tribal mediation between the Houthis and local tribes led to the expulsion of AQAP members from the village. Despite this, the Houthis attempted to capture Khubza by force, destroying many homes and displacing thousands of families. Similarly, in al-Zoub, the most-populated and highest-educated area in Qaifa, a local nongovernmental organization documented over 800 atrocities against local residents by the Houthis. The Houthis’ behavior prompted the tribes to fight back. Violence between the two sides flared up in several parts of Qaifa before spreading to other tribal areas in Bayda, where it is ongoing in at least six districts.
The Houthis’ entry into Bayda allowed AQAP to gain influence on the ground and return to al-Manasseh, from where they had been pushed out in early 2013. Nabil al-Dhahab—Tariq’s brother and a leader of Ansar al-Sharia, the Yemeni affiliate of AQAP, until he was killed by a U.S. drone strike in November 2014—attended a meeting in October 2014 in which tribes from several parts of Bayda and other governorates gathered in al-Manasseh to discuss the Houthi threat. AQAP militants became very active in the fight against the Houthis, and their ranks swelled. This showed that the tribes that had previously curtailed AQAP’s influence were no longer willing to do so, as they both shared a common enemy.
A member of the mediation committee that had convinced AQAP combatants to withdraw from Radaa in 2012 put it this way: “Before this war, the tribes didn’t want al-Qaeda and were able to keep it in check. Now angry tribesmen say al-Qaeda is welcome if it can help us fight the Houthis.”3 Indeed, according to local tribesmen in Bayda, AQAP has more experienced fighters and better combat skills than any other group, including the tribes. It also has more money and equipment, which has attracted some tribesmen frustrated with the lack of support from the Yemeni government in exile in Saudi Arabia, and from the Saudi government itself, in the battle against the Houthis.4 For example, in 2015, the government formed Brigade 117, made up of thousands of Bayda tribesmen, with the purpose of pushing the Houthis out of the governorate. However, the brigade has been stationed in nearby Marib Governorate to the tribes’ dismay and has so far not intervened in support against the Houthis.
More significantly, AQAP was able to expand its operations in Bayda because it exploited the historic grievances that have shaped the tribes’ attitude toward the Houthis. The Houthis are widely viewed in Bayda as an extension of the Zaydi imamate, a theocracy that ruled much of Yemen for hundreds of years, mostly by intimidating local tribes into submission, until it was overthrown in 1962.5 The imams claimed authority from being descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, commonly known as sayyids. The Bayda tribes believe the Houthis want to reinstate the imamate and eliminate the republican system.6 These perceptions are reinforced by the Houthis’ own public discourse that endorses the right of the Prophet Muhammad’s family, or Ahl al-Bayt, to rule. When the Houthis pushed into Bayda, to the tribes it seemed to be a return to the seventeenth century, when the imams mobilized northern tribes to forcibly add Bayda to their territories, as well as to the late 1920s, when northern tribes engaged in fierce clashes with local tribes. The Bayda tribes remember how their leaders were beheaded and how the forces of the imamate looted their crops and imposed heavy taxes. Many in Bayda also believe the Houthis have behaved brutally against local tribes because of the significant role they played in the imamate’s downfall in 1962.7
The Enemy We Know Against One Who Must Go
The tribes in Bayda regard the Houthis as a greater threat than AQAP. Unlike the Houthis, AQAP does not exercise power over the tribes or compel them to follow a particular ideology.8 The Houthis are outsiders who come principally from the northern tribes, while AQAP is made up mainly of local tribesmen who have not challenged the authority of the tribes in Bayda. The Houthis have insulted the tribes by labeling those who reject their presence in Bayda as “Dawaish,” a term derived from “Daesh” that describes groups following the ideology of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. AQAP, meanwhile, has always been careful not to antagonize the tribes, addressing them with respect. The Houthis have violated tribal honor while AQAP has helped defend it. For the tribes, AQAP is tomorrow’s problem but the Houthis are the existential threat they need to face right now.
AQAP might have gained more recruits in tribal areas during the past several years, though the extremist group is far from being embedded in the tribes and remains much weaker than them. The majority of tribesmen who joined AQAP are motivated far less by ideology than by anger and frustration at the marginalization their areas have long suffered, and continue to suffer, as well as by current Houthi efforts to subjugate them.9 While there is a level of coordination between local tribes fighting the Houthis and AQAP, they function in separate spaces. When the Houthis started clashing with tribes in Qaifa in October 2014, major tribal leaders from Bayda met and agreed to send hundreds of their men to help support the Qaifa tribes. However, most returned when they realized that AQAP was also fighting against the Houthis on the side of the Qaifa tribes.10 Shortly thereafter, AQAP militants moved to separate locations after demands by the tribes, who feared that the militants’ presence would undermine the legitimacy of their cause and taint them as AQAP members.11
That reaction was understandable, as there remain fundamental differences between the tribes and AQAP on the battlefield. In early 2015, AQAP militants executed captured Houthi fighters, an action that angered the tribes and led to clashes. According to customary tribal law, executing unarmed persons is an exceptionally heinous offense.12 Even in Yakla, AQAP is mainly stationed in the mountains away from the tribal population.13
Ultimately, the Bayda tribes and AQAP have conflicting objectives in Yemen’s war. The tribes’ final goal is to secure their land and expel the Houthis from their territory. They don’t have any interest in fighting the Houthis outside of Bayda. AQAP, however, wants to use guerrilla warfare to draw the Houthis into tribal areas so that they can ensnare them in a costly war of attrition, an objective that disturbs local tribes.14 For as long as the Bayda tribes are forced to defend their areas against the Houthis, they will become weaker, which means that their ability to limit the threat of AQAP will diminish over time.
Nadwa al-Dawsari is a nonresident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy and a Yemeni conflict researcher with over twelve years of field experience working with Yemeni tribes.
1 Author email exchange with tribal leader from Al-Zoub, Qaifah, February, 19, 2015; phone interview with a tribesman from the Humaiqan tribe, Bayda, January 16, 2017.
2 Author phone interview with a leader of the tribal forces fighting the Houthis, Bayda, May 20, 2017. The same view was held by others. This includes author phone interviews with another tribal leader fighting the Houthis, May 14, 2017; a second tribal leader, December 8, 2014; and a third tribal leader fighting the Houthis, May 5, 2017.
3 Author phone interview with tribal leader who mediated between AQAP and local tribes, June 18, 2016. The same views were expressed by several local leaders and tribesmen from Bayda interviewed by telephone between 2014 and 2017.
4 Author phone interview with a leader of the forces fighting the Houthis, May 20, 2017; and author phone interview with local civil society activist, May 7, 2017.
5 Author interviews with tribal leaders and tribesmen and observation of social media postings of tribesmen from Maareb, Shabwa, Al-Jawf, and Bayda, September 2014–May, 2017.
6 Interviews with an array of tribal leaders and tribesmen, and observation of social media postings of tribesmen from Maareb, Shabwa, Al-Jawf, and Bayda, September 2014–September 2017. For more see http://pomed.org/pomed-publications/breaking-cycle-of-failed-negotiations-yemen/.
7 This theme came up repeatedly in most phone interviews the author made with Bayda leaders and fighters of groups opposed to the Houthis and was dominant in social media posts by Bayda activists between October 2014 and November 2017.
8 Author phone interviews with tribal leaders, tribesmen, and resistance fighters from Bayda between October 2014 and May 2017
9 A number of telephone interviews substantiate this, including author phone interview with a tribal leader from Bayda, May 19, 2017; author phone interview with a military-tribal leader from Abyan, May 19, 2017; and author phone interviews with a tribal leader who mediated between AQAP and tribes in Qaifa in 2012, April 11, May 20, and October 10, 2017.
10 Author phone interview with a fighter opposed to the Houthis from Al-Sawadiyyah, Bayda, July 2, 2016. Author phone interview with a leader of the forces opposed to the Houthis from Bayda, May 31, 2017.
11 Author phone interview with a local journalist in Radaa, November 21, 2017 and January 2, 2018; author phone interview with a with tribal leader who mediated between AQAP and local tribes, January 2, 2018.
12 Author phone interview with a civil society leader from Bayda, May 7, 2017.
13Author phone interview with a local journalist from Bayda, November 16, 2017
14Author phone interview with a local civil society leader from Bayda, May 11, 2017.