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The Scoop
March 14, 2012

Getting Yemeni tribal politics right

Robin Simcox

CNN has a new piece reporting on some of the latest security developments in Yemen. The article ends with a recent ominous quote from al-Qaeda’s Fahd al Quso, who is asked why the group have stopped attacks on western targets. His response is that ‘The war didn’t end between us and our enemies. Wait for what is coming.’ Such threats are why Yemen remains a key national security concern for western policy makers.

In order to manage this threat, tracking the dynamics within Yemeni tribal politics also should be of vital interest. Tribal politics are crucial in Yemen. With much of the country outside of central government control, the tribes offer a basic – though often corrupt – form of local government. Former President Saleh was reliant on tribal approval to maintain power. This approval that was often bought, with cash, influence, jobs and other state resources being used as bargaining chips. If not given similar patronage by Hadi, there is no reason to think that their ability to disrupt a weak central government will diminish.

It is especially important to minimise any tribal support for al-Qaeda. Its fighters have received shelter and space to operate, yet al-Qaeda has been largely unsuccessful in recruiting from tribal areas, with its ideology largely rejected in preference for a more malleable tribal law. As a 2011 Countering Terrorism Centre at West Point report showed, al-Qaeda has not tried to violently coerce this support. Mustafa Alani, director of security studies at the Gulf Research Center, told CNN that ‘The tribes are basically playing a game. They won’t allow al Qaeda to operate freely for long. It’s basically a way to get their demands [from the new regime]: money, projects and power.’

In this way, there is a comparison to have with certain Sunni tribes in Iraq, who allow al-Qaeda greater room to operate when they feel especially repressed by the Shia government in Baghdad, who are acting with greater impunity now that there is no US presence. It is no coincidence that we have seen a subsequent spike in bombings in Iraq. Gaining tribal support was also crucial in the Anbar Awakening, when tribal leaders came together to help America surge against al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007.

Therefore, understanding tribal dynamics in the likes of Yemen, Iraq and Pakistan is a vital strategic concern. Managing the need to bomb militants in tribal areas while retaining at least a modicum of tribal sympathy and not turning large sections towards jihadism is going to be some balancing act.

Any readers interested in the current situation in Yemen must also look at the fascinating photographs of Jaar, the al-Qaeda stronghold in the south, recently published in Foreign Policy (one of which is the featured image in this post). They can be seen in full here.

Robin Simcox

About Robin Simcox

Robin Simcox is a Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, where he specialises in al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda inspired terrorism. He is the co-author of both editions of 'Islamist Terrorism: The British Connections' and several other reports broadly focussed on national security, terrorism and al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda affiliated movements across the world. Simcox has written for the likes of the Wall Street Journal, New Republic, Guardian, Weekly Standard, Spectator, Huffington Post and Daily Telegraph and regularly appears across a broad variety of media outlets, including the BBC, Fox News, Sky News, Channel 4 and al-Jazeera. He has spoken on a variety of platforms, including the British Parliament, US Special Operations Command and the European Parliament.

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