Tariq al-Dahab, an al-Qaeda leader and briefly the emir of the Yemeni town of Radah, was murdered earlier this month by his half-brother. This was more than a family dispute. Hizam, the half-brother, was pressured by local authorities to take care of the al-Qaeda menace in their midst. Predictably, this led to spasm of revenge—and ultimately, to Hizam’s death. And while this story is brutal and tragic and seemingly anachronistic, its details help to pave a path to U.S. policy toward al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and, more importantly, toward Yemen as a whole.
To say Yemen is “in transition” would be understatement: it discounts the country’s many ongoing transitions. The most obvious one is the apparent end of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s decade-spanning reign—“apparent” because one never knows exactly what Saleh has planned, and he may yet manage to stage another (often literally) death-defying escape. But with the official election this week of Field Marshal Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, the former vice president and Yemen’s acting president since November (not to mention the only person on the ballot), this important transition has already happened.
U.S. policy has focused on this presidential election and the transition of power after Saleh. The United States helped to guarantee the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) agreement in November whereby Saleh stepped down in return for legal immunity. It has also been quick to recognize Hadi as the successor and has spoken with the general about legitimizing his rule with clear signals of a push for reforms. But although it is important for the US to capitalize on this moment, it is far from a guarantee of stability. This is just one of the many revolutions inside Yemen.
No matter who is at the reins in Sanaa, power will be limited: the center region has lost the north and the south. In the north, the Huthis used the rebellion’s chaos to consolidate power, acting (for the moment) as an autonomous region. The south is an uneasy amalgamation of liberal secessionists and Islamic militants, not operating in coordination with one another. And though al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) does not encompass all the Islamic militants, it is still the most prominent. Thus, while America does indeed need to pay attention to revolts of the Arab Spring archetype, it also has to realize that their outcome will not change the nature of AQAP, Hirak (the Southern Separatist Movement, which has demanded secession from the central republic since 2007), or the Huthi rebellion.
The United States cannot expect, nor try to impose, a central government that controls its map-marked territory. Yemen’s territory has never been brought under central control and Saleh’s attempts to do so in the 20 years since unification have fully collapsed. America has been often slow to recognize that, in Yemen, the title of president does not necessarily guarantee power, and that legislating laws is a different thing than seeing them recognized. One only need look to the USS Cole incident for an example: the U.S. demanded that the perpetrators of the bombing be arrested. But even if Saleh had desired to do so, he ultimately had to make sure that he did not trample on tribal prerogatives. The writ of Sanaa was extremely limited.
While these divisions are not permanent, in the short term there is no chance for a reconciled state. The same Saleh-type system will be in place, and neither of the rebellions will be quick to seek reunion. Too much blood has been shed, and it cannot be erased merely by the departure of Saleh. There is, however, a good chance for a cease-fire without reconciliation. The Huthis, who are more formed and possess a more centralized leadership than the relatively inchoate Hirak, can cut a deal with the central government, but after years of war, neither can be expected to jump back into the fold.
Contrary to some views, admitting that the modern Western state is not a feasible model for Yemen is not a patronizing idea. The political system of decentralization and negotiation in Yemen existed for a millennium before the Treaty of Westphalia; it didn’t need modern trappings. More importantly, the United States should realize that the limit of central government—and the reality that the next president will be unable to centralize authority— is not absolutely negative. In contrast to what many fear will be a Somalia-like scenario, Yemen will not be lawless. Instead, it will be ruled by decentralized negotiation between tribal and regional leaders.
The US must encourage autonomy for the south and in Huthi areas, but without severing communication between these groups and Sanaa: a separation, not a divorce. In order for this to happen, the US has to find the real powerbrokers in the tribes and autonomous regions—they are the ones with more sway over the actions of the people, and they rule in areas where the central government has no reach.
And that leads to the United State’s most immediate priority in Yemen: the destruction of AQAP, the most dangerous franchise in al-Qaeda’s sprawling business. As many have argued, the AQAP should not be the top priority and the single-minded focus on them at the expense of other issues is counter-productive. Luckily, the way to go after AQAP dovetails with the way to help Yemen overall.
In the example at the top of the article, regional leaders orchestrated the murder of an al-Qaeda leader. US policy need not be so violent, but it should recognize that power lies in the hands of the tribes. These are the people to whom we should be reaching out. Al-Qaeda has done so, by marrying its members into the tribes—enabling them to take over cities, build an army, and hide from drones. There have been numerous instances where Saleh’s army had to back off from going after AQAP members, despite pressure from the US, in order to avoid war with the tribes. Tribes provide AQAP shelter not necessarily from ideological alignment, but because al-Qaeda plays by the local rules and knows how to gain access. They have things to offer to the tribes. We do as well.
Al-Qaeda can offer water, food, medicine, but not in the amounts the U.S. can provide. That is the key to defeating them and to helping Yemen. Right now, the biggest problems the country faces are not transnational terrorists. They aren’t even necessarily the crippling political problems; the major long-term issues are drought, famine, rampant poverty, and an increasingly young and desperate population. But aid is not the only answer, and this is where direct contact with the tribes comes in. Distribution of aid should not be through Sanaa, but through regional leaders, cutting away the layers of distribution and potential theft. This allows for more trust between the parties, and undercuts AQAP. USAID already has some experience working outside of Sanaa, since it targets "vulnerable" subgroups in specific regions, such as al-Jawf, which involve more local distribution. If America shies from working through the corruption of the central government and instead works with the real power brokers, it can have two-fold success: it can actually help the Yemeni people, preventing the country from imploding—and vitally weaken al-Qaeda. This is a tactic that requires subtlety and flexibility—as well as the willingness to work outside the comfortable zone of familiar actors and reassuring titles—but it is the only policy that has any real chance of success.
Brian O’Neill is an independent analyst based in Chicago who has analyzed Yemen and the broader counterterrorism context for numerous publications and broadcasts.