The Coming Islamic State of Yemen
by RYAN MAURO
May 15, 2012
Don't be overjoyed by the penetration of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group's branch in Yemen, by Saudi, British and American intelligence. Osama Bin Laden picked Yemen as the best "launching point" for creating an Islamic state with good reason. In Yemen, Al-Qaeda is advancing, the Islamists dominate the political scene, southern secessionists remain determined and the Iranian-backed Houthis in the north are armed and ready to fight.
The man in Yemen everyone is talking about is Ibrahim al-Asiri, AQAP's 30-year old bombmaker who is passing along his skills every day. He developed the first underwear bomb that nearly destroyed an airliner over Detroit, as well as the bombs hidden in ink cartridges that were to blow up UPS planes. He also created the latest upgraded underwear bomb that had no metal, making it very difficult to detect.
Asiri is being showcased as proof that the U.S. invasion of Iraq radicalized Muslims into becoming terrorists. Bruce Riedel writes that he was studying at a Saudi university and was so outraged by the invasion that he decided to join Al-Qaeda in Iraq and was arrested at the border. The implication is broader: That Al-Qaeda and other terrorists are motivated by anger over U.S. meddling.
Here's the real story. According to Asiri's sister, he and his brother were radicalized shortly after his brother died in a car accident in 2000. "It was after that that they started swapping video tapes and cassettes on the Mujahedeen in Chechnya and Afghanistan, and they became at times distant," she says. His brother made friends who he began going to "preaching camps" with.
In 2009, Asiri designed his first underwear bomb and gave it to his brother, who died when he detonated it in an attempt to kill Saudi Prince Nayef. Seth Jones, a former senior advisor to the U.S. Special Operations Command, says Asiri hates "American ideology," "Western values" and "what the U.S. culture has brought to the world." He is a typical Islamist jihadist who believes that Allah commands his followers to fight the enemies of Islam, a belief that would have led him to Al-Qaeda even if the U.S. hadn't invaded Iraq.
We cannot take comfort in the successful thwarting of Al-Asiri's latest bomb plot. One senior official described the spy that intercepted the explosive as "gold dust...such assets are few and far between."
AQAP's strength is growing. It has grown from 200-300 fighters in late 2010 to over 1,000. It has taken over Shabwa and Abyan Provinces, declaring them "Islamic Emirates." Puritanical Sharia Law is being implemented, with public lashings for drinking alcohol taking place and women punished for not covering their faces. A woman who used natural herbs to heal patients was beheaded as a "sorceress," with her head placed in front of the house of another healer. AQAP has even set up Sharia courts, a police department and social services to provide water and electricity.
It is also a capable fighting force. Shortly after U.S. drone strikes killed its operations chief, a Yemeni military base in Abyan Province was raided. Twenty-two soldiers were killed and 25 were taken captive. In March, one battle cost the lives of 78 Yemeni soldiers and 25 terrorists. The group is also effective at recruiting Americans. Anwar al-Awlaki, its former leader who was killed in a drone strike, was an American imam. Samir Khan, the editor of its English-language online magazine until he was also killed by a drone, came from North Carolina. A Senate report in 2010 warned that up to three dozen former inmates in American prisons had converted to Islam and gone to Yemen, described as "blond-haired, blue eyed-types" by one official.
Today, the most powerful political force is the Muslim Brotherhood's Yemeni affiliate, Islah. The party has a strong Salafist component. One of its senior leaders, Sheikh Abdel-Majeed al-Zindani, is the most influential preacher in the country and his assets have been frozen by the U.S. for his involvement with Al-Qaeda. He openly calls for establishing an Islamic state and in March, his son declared that Yemenis should wage jihad on the U.S. and target the American ambassador to Yemen. The Emir of Qatar is reportedly financing Islah with about $80 million per month.
The north is the scene of bloody battles between Salafists and the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels. The Iranians heavily arm, train and politically back the Houthis. In July 2004, some of them even flew the flag of Hezbollah. A documentary produced by Ahmadinejad's office states that the Iranian regime views the Houthi rebellion as a holy war foretold in Islamic prophecy. In 2009, an unofficial proxy war was waged in Yemen with the Iranians fully-backing the Houthis and the Saudis fully-backing the Yemeni government.
The Houthis claim that Saudi Arabia is planning to attack them along the border and demands that Yemen stop permitting "U.S. violations" of the country's sovereignty. The Iranian press asserts that 1,300 Somali militants came to Saudi Arabia in April for training to fight the Houthis. This may be a falsehood, but talk of war by the Houthis should be taken seriously. The weakness of the Yemeni government presents the Houthis with a golden opportunity to establish an autonomous, pro-Iranian enclave.
Finally, there is a secessionist movement in the south named Harak that jihadists can take advantage of. Al-Qaeda endorsed its cause in 2009. The group wants to restore the independence of South Yemen that was lost in 1990. There are different opinions within Hirak over how to achieve this, with some wanting official independence and others finding an autonomous state acceptable. One Harak militant named Jemajem tells the story of how Iran has reached out to them, flying its officials to Tehran and offering to train them, pay salaries and invest in infrastructure, including a new hospital. Some Harak members wear attire styled after Hezbollah. He says that his group rejected Iran's offer of help because Iran wanted to use the Houthis to deliver the supplies.
Jemajem said that Al-Qaeda is also gaining traction among Harak members because of its success, even if many aren't Islamists. "I told our leaders that when the jihadis take Aden, I won't send my men to die fighting them," he said. He further explained, "If young men lose hope in our cause they will be looking for an alternative. And our hopeless young men are joining al-Qaida."
The Islamists are in the driver's seat in Yemen.
This article was sponsored by the Institute on Religion and Democracy.
Ryan Mauro is Family Security Matters' national security analyst. He is a fellow with RadicalIslam.org, the founder of WorldThreats.com and a frequent national security analyst for Fox News Channel. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.