In 2007, US President George W. Bush was confident that “we have a strategy to deal with al-Qaeda in Iraq”. While this strategy was criticized as a result of being unable to achieve the desired result in Iraq, it also completely ignored the rise of al-Qaeda in another corner of the Middle East: Yemen.
Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the primary targets of US intervention in those countries (along with the local Taliban) did in fact have their strength drastically reduced. As a result, al-Qaeda activities transitioned to Iraq, as well as Yemen, where it had been operating already for many years (this is also where the USS Cole bombing previously occurred). The move to Yemen took place from 2007 to 2010, during which time al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as the Yemeni affiliate is now known as, declared a formal Jihad against the West and was formally listed as a terrorist organization by the United States. The group’s real gains, however, would come out of the chaos of the Yemeni Civil War.
Although Yemen borders Saudi Arabia, a far more powerful Sunni state, it is home to the Shia Zaidi sect which makes up around 40% of the country’s population. Zaidis ruled the Kingdom of Yemen until 1962, when pan-Arabists overthrew him and created a republic. Monarchists fought the new government in a civil war, however, they were eventually defeated. Despite the change in government, Zaidis remained the majority until the 1990 Yemeni unification.
After this point, Sunnis replaced them as the religious majority and the Zaidis were marginalized. This prompted the creation of the Houthis, who sought to end to economic under-development, political marginalization and perceived discrimination in Zaidi areas. The Zaidis believe that they have a religious obligation to take up arms against unjust rulers. Because of this, in their quest to allow for more autonomy in Zaidi areas, they came into conflict with the Yemenite government. Eventually, this led to the creation of two separate Yemeni governments: the Hadi government, supported by Sunnis, Saudi Arabia, and the al-Islah Islamists, as well as Zaidi Supreme Political Council, supported by Iran and Ahrar al-Najran, a fabricated Saudi separatist group. This began the previously mention civil war.
A power vacuum ensued. Seeing a chance to gain real power, AQAP began taking over various cities across Yemen. Although these campaigns were initially unsuccessful, AQAP eventually created a power base around Tarim and Mukalla in Yemen’s largest governorate (Hadhramaut). As the group grew, it rebranded itself as Ansar al-Sharia, although it continues to use its old name.
Today, AQAP and Ansar al-Sharia are powerful forces in Yemen. Arguably, al-Qaeda is far more powerful than it ever was before the Yemeni Civil War, despite over fifteen years of fighting with some of the world’s most powerful countries (namely, the United States, but also regional powers in the Middle East). While still based primarily in Afghanistan and Iraq, al-Qaeda didn’t have a de facto Islamic state under its command. For the latest phase in the “War on Terror” its time to look to Yemen, not to Iraq or Afghanistan.
Originally published at thelakta.com.