The Key to Reining in Awlaki
As violence grips many parts of Yemen, including the capital, the poorest Arab country is sliding closer to the brink of civil war. There are reports that Al Qaeda has already exploited the escalating fighting to spread its tentacles particularly in the restive south.
Anwar al-Awlaki has few followers in Yemen and the wider Arab world. He is not even the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (known as AQAP). The Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda is led by Nasser al-Wahishi, a former private secretary to Bin Laden and a disciplined and experienced operative, and Qassim al-Raymi, a military commander of Al Qaeda.
Killing him, in addition to the moral and legal questions involved, would not substantially disrupt Al Qaeda. In fact, it would transform the fugitive preacher into a martyr and would likely further poison Yemeni public opinion against the U.S.
A more effective measure would be to shut down Awlaki’s propaganda shop by convincing the tribe that gives him shelter, the Awalik in southern Yemen, to turn him over to the Yemeni authorities. Although the current turmoil in Yemen works in favor of Awlaki and Al Qaeda, there is no ideological affinity between them and the tribes. The anti-Saleh opposition — a broad spectrum of nationalist voices — must be empowered to negotiate directly with the tribes and reach an understanding against providing shelter to Awlaki and Al Qaeda. Although complicated and messy, long-term measures that can turn Yemenis against Awlaki and his associates — as opposed to counterterrorism measures such as armed attacks — are the most promising strategies.
However, waiting on President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen to wage an all-out war against Al Qaeda and bring Awlaki to justice is naïve. Saleh is fighting for his political survival and has become the major obstacle to stabilizing the failing country. For Saleh, Awlaki’s presence is a good bargaining card with the West.
The tribes hold the key to deactivating the Qaeda minefield in Yemen. Any strategy or post-Saleh government that does not fully involve them will most likely fail in reining in Awlaki. In the meantime, unless Saleh steps down as the public demands, Yemen will explode — a godsend for Awlaki and Al Qaeda that will allow them to entrench themselves deeper in the country’s fault lines.
Although U.S. officials pay lip service to the benefits of socioeconomic and political development in Yemen, they act as if confronting Al Qaeda requires mainly counterterrorism measures such as drone strikes. Although dangerous, Al Qaeda is one of Yemen’s least critical challenges.
In June 2010, the White House announced it was tripling its humanitarian assistance to Yemen, to $42.5 million — a paltry sum given that the U.S. may provide as much as $250 million in increased counterterrorism assistance. Over-reliance on unilateral counterterrorism will not only worsen America’s security dilemma in Yemen and supply Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula with recruitment tools, but will also alienate Muslim opinion and open the door to a wider circle of opposing forces.
Last January, nearly 200 prominent clerics in Yemen signed a statement pledging to lead a jihad against any foreign forces that occupied their country, sending a clear message that the U.S. should not expand military and intelligence cooperation with the Saleh regime. Of all Arabs, Yemenis currently voice the strongest anti-American sentiment.
Any policy that neglects the local context and social conditions in Yemen will only reconfirm Al Qaeda’s one-size-fits-all narrative that paints every battle, everywhere, as an extension of the transnational jihad against the West.
Fawaz Gerges is a fellow at ISPU and a Professor of Middle Eastern Politics and International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
This article was originally published in the New York Times.