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Desperation or new life?

"Desperation or new life?" Continued...

Conversely, we believe that an important reason for the resurgence of the al-Qaida franchise in Yemen has been the leadership of al-Wuhayshi. As we have noted in the past, Yemen is a much easier environment for militants to operate in than either Egypt or Libya. There are many Salafists employed in the Yemeni security and intelligence apparatus who at the very least are sympathetic to the jihadist cause. These men are holdovers from the Yemeni civil war, when Saleh formed an alliance with Salafists and recruited jihadists to fight Marxist forces in South Yemen. This alliance continues today, with Saleh deriving significant political support from radical Islamists. Many of the state's key institutions (including the military) employ Salafists, making any major crackdown on militant Islamists in the country politically difficult. This sentiment among the security forces also helps explain the many jihadists who have escaped from Yemeni prisons-such as al-Wuhayshi.

Yemen has also long been at the crossroads of a number of jihadist theaters, including Afghanistan/Pakistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the Levant, Egypt and Somalia. Yemen also is a country with a thriving arms market, a desert warrior tradition and a tribal culture that often bridles against government authority and that makes it difficult for the government to assert control over large swaths of the country. Yemeni tribesmen also tend to be religiously conservative and susceptible to the influence of jihadist theology.

In spite of this favorable environment, the Yemeni al-Qaida franchise has largely floundered since 9/11. Much of this is due to U.S. and Yemeni efforts to decapitate the group, such as the strike by a U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle on then-leader of al-Qaida in Yemen, Abu Ali al-Harithi, in late 2002 and the subsequent arrest of his replacement, Mohammed Hamdi al-Ahdal, in late 2003. The combination of these operations in such a short period helped cripple al-Qaida in Yemen's operational capability.

As Stratfor noted in spring 2008, however, al-Qaida militants in Yemen have become more active and more effective under the leadership of al-Wuhayshi, an ethnic Yemeni who spent time in Afghanistan as a lieutenant under bin Laden. After his time with bin Laden, Iranian authorities arrested al-Wuhayshi, later returning him to Yemen in 2003 via an Iranian-Yemeni extradition deal. He subsequently escaped from a high-security prison outside the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, in February 2006 along with Jamal al-Badawi (the leader of the cell that carried out the suicide bombing of the USS Cole).

Al-Wuhayshi's established ties with al-Qaida prime and bin Laden in particular not only provide him legitimacy in the eyes of other jihadists, in more practical terms, they may have provided him the opportunity to learn the tradecraft necessary to successfully lead a militant group and conduct operations. His close ties to influential veterans of al-Qaida in Yemen like al-Badawi also may have helped him infuse new energy into the struggle in Yemen in 2008.

While the group had been on a rising trajectory in 2008, things had been eerily quiet in Yemen since the Sept. 17, 2008, attack against the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa and the resulting campaign against the group. The recent flurry of statements has broken the quiet, followed by a Warden Message on Jan. 26 warning of a possible threat against the compound of the U.S. Embassy in Yemen and a firefight at a security checkpoint near the embassy hours later.

At this point, it appears the shooting incident may not be related to the threat warning and may instead have been the result of jumpy nerves. Reports suggest the police may have fired at a speeding car before the occupants, who were armed tribesmen, fired back. Although there have been efforts to crack down on the carrying of weapons in Sanaa, virtually every Yemeni male owns an AK-variant assault rifle of some sort; like the ceremonial jambiya dagger, such a rifle is considered a must-have accessory in most parts of the country. Not surprisingly, incidents involving gunfire are not uncommon in Yemen.

Either way, we will continue to keep a close eye on Yemen and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. As we have seen in the past, press statements are not necessarily indicative of future jihadist performance. It will be important to watch developments in Yemen for signs that will help determine whether this recent merger and announcement is a sign of desperation by a declining group, or whether the addition of fresh blood from Saudi Arabia will help breathe new life into al-Wuhayshi's operations and provide his group the means to make good on its threats.
Republished with permission of stratfor.com.

Fred Burton and Scott Stewart, Stratfor.com
Fred Burton and Scott Stewart, Stratfor.com

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