Nadwa al-Dawsari is a nonresident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), as well as a researcher and conflict management practitioner with more than seventeen years of field experience in Yemen. She specializes in tribes and informal governance in the country. Since 2008, Dawsari’s field research has focused on security and justice, governance, and political transition. Her recent work examines community-level perspectives on the current conflict in Yemen. Her writings have been published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the United States Institute of Peace, the Atlantic Council, the Middle East Institute, Oxfam, Lawfare, the Center for Civilians in Conflict, and POMED. She recently wrote an article for Carnegie titled Our Common Enemy: Ambiguous Ties Between al-Qaeda and Yemen’s Tribes,” on the relations between tribes and Al-Qa‘eda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Bayda governorate, as well as an in-depth report for POMED on AQAP and tribes in Yemen before and during the current war, titled Foe Not Friend: Yemen’s Tribes and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. It is to discuss her Carnegie article that Diwan interviewed Dawsari in mid-February. 

Michael Young: You recently wrote an article for Carnegie titled “Our Common Enemy: Ambiguous Ties Between al-Qaeda and Yemen’s Tribes.” What was your main argument in the article?

Nadwa al-Dawsari: My main argument was that tribes are not in bed with Al-Qa‘eda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as is often perceived. On the contrary, tribes have played a critical role in preventing AQAP from establishing a strong presence in the country and I gave an example from Bayda governorate. I argue that tribes still see AQAP as a threat but have come to tolerate the presence of the terrorist group during the war because they—the tribes and AQAP—have a common enemy in the Houthis. The essence of my argument is that for as long as the tribes are forced to push the Houthis outside their areas, they will not be able to keep AQAP at bay as they did before the war.

MY: How extensive is AQAP’s integration into tribal culture, so that it’s difficult to isolate the group from tribal society?

ND: The common narrative among Yemen analysts is that tribes are armed, violent, lawless, and anti-state. This perception has often led people to believe that tribes offer a welcoming environment to AQAP. This perception is also quite common among urban Yemeni elites who look down on tribes and see them as “uncivilized.” In reality, tribes are far from lawless and they are governed by customary law, a very sophisticated and well-developed system that helped them deal with conflict and maintain order over the centuries until today.

Just because the tribes are armed, it doesn’t mean they are violent. Yemeni tribes have arms, but they also have rules and customs that regulate the use of arms so that they don’t cause harm to tribal communities. Today, a tribal area such as Ma’rib, which has historically had an abundance of arms and a limited state presence, is relatively stable and safe, compared to Ta‘iz and Aden that had little arms before the war and are now devastated by violence and internal conflicts. The difference is that tribes have rules to govern the use of arms. Urban areas don’t.

Also, tribes resolve conflicts through mediation and peaceful conflict-resolution mechanisms. They rarely resort to violence and only do so when faced with a direct threat to their existence or when they want to defend their territories. What AQAP stands for—the ideology, the violence, the desire to undermine the state’s presence—goes against the essence of tribal culture and customary law.

MY: AQAP is viewed as a more effective fighting force than the tribes. How has the group fared in fighting against the Houthis?

ND: AQAP operates in small numbers. When it combatants fight the Houthis, they mainly use guerrilla tactics. They “win” by killing as many Houthis as they can. All they want to do is kill. As for the tribes, all they want to do is push the Houthis outside their areas. They have no interest in fighting the Houthis outside their tribal territories or to kill, except to defend their land.

MY: Do you believe that once the fighting in Yemen begins to wane, the tribes will seek to contain AQAP?

ND: Yes, I believe they will, because they still see AQAP as a serious threat to them. But that also depends on how much longer this war goes on. The war that Houthis waged against local tribes is weakening these tribes and is allowing AQAP to recruit tribesmen, unchallenged by the tribes that are now distracted by the fight to defend their home against the Houthis. Over time, and if the fighting continues, the ability of the tribes to fight AQAP and to maintain order and control of their areas will diminish.

MY: How would you judge the role of the United States in trying to contain AQAP in Yemen? Has it been effective, or has it made matters worse?

ND: I think if U.S. counterterrorism operations were effective we wouldn’t have sees AQAP still present in Yemen today. The U.S. has relied on short-term security operations in Yemen, rather than focusing on the underlying causes that allowed AQAP to expand. The drones have indeed killed most AQAP leaders in the country, but the group is hardly defeated. The U.S. provided military support to the late Ali Abdullah Saleh to fight AQAP. But Saleh was not serious about fighting the group and instead used it to undermine his political opponents and maintain a steady flow of counterterrorism assistance from the West. This, in turn, made him a stronger dictator, which fueled the grievances that AQAP tapped into to spread and gain influence in the country.

MY: Finally, what is the worst-case scenario with regard to AQAP in the context of the Yemeni conflict? What keeps you up at nights?

ND: My greatest worry is the collapse of the tribes, which will happen eventually so long as they are forced to fight to defend their homes. In the absence of the state, the tribes have maintained security and order and resolved most local conflicts, even during the current war. The tribes are what have kept AQAP and other extremist groups in check. If they were to collapse, we would be left with a vacuum and AQAP would be able to establish control over large swaths of territory, unchallenged.