The struggle for security and against terrorism in Yemen: in whose interests?

People perceive that cash and support are available for military and security costs but not for development or humanitarian needs which affect the vast majority of the population on a daily basis. 

Helen Lackner
20 July 2012

When Yemen features in the news, it is usually due to the supposed activities in Yemen or outside of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP], the group said to be a follower of Osama Bin Laden’s similarly named organisation. The most prominent such events have been the 2010 ‘underpants bomber’ who was trained in Yemen, the 2011 ‘cartridge’ bombs which were sent from Yemen and -  most important for Yemenis - the occupation of a Southern Governorate [Abyan] by AQAP and its associate Ansar al Shari’a between May 2011 and June 2012, when they were ousted.

AQAP and Ansar al Shari’a[1]

While the first two of these events are of limited interest to the average Yemeni, the presence of AQAP is one of the many security issues which Yemenis have to face on a daily basis. Although AQAP had been present and active in many remote parts of the country [Shabwa, Mareb and Abyan Governorates] since the beginning of the century, this presence only became a direct serious threat to the population in the last year when they occupied all the major towns of Abyan as well as some in Shabwa. Although earlier their presence had made it difficult for development and aid agencies to operate, these occupations led to mass displacement of over 200,000 people who have taken refuge either with relatives in neighbouring governorates [eg al Baidha] or moved to Aden where they settled in schools and other facilities and became Internally Displaced Persons [IDPs] recognised as such by UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies. These groups were successfully ousted from their positions between May and mid-June 2012 after holding the area for a year.  

How come this supposedly major threat was largely eliminated in such a short time?  To answer this it is also important to understand why and how these groups were able to occupy towns in the first place. Collusion and support from some elements of the former regime were clearly partly responsible: in early 2011, at a time when the former ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh was under pressure to resign, he was determined to demonstrate to his US allies the truth of his claim that without him the country would descend into chaos and be taken over by AQAP. Suddenly, the main government troops in the coastal area of Abyan evacuated their bases, leaving weapons and ammunition behind and accessible. Unsurprisingly, AQAP  moved in and took over, installing a form of fundamentalist rule which is clearly not to the taste of the majority of the population, who showed their views of the new rulers by voting with their feet and leaving en masse.   

A year later, under a new regime determined to restore central government control over all of Yemen, and to prove to its US and other allies that it is actually serious in its efforts to put an end to the fundamentalist threat, AQAP was ousted from Abyan and most of Shabwa within a matter of weeks.  This was as clear an indication as any that their ability to ‘control’ the area for a year was due to inertia [at best] of the previous regime rather than either military strength or popular support. 

In addition to State armed forces and US airstrikes, a major contributor to the ousting of the fundamentalists came from the popular committees. Composed mainly of men from the local tribes, they were given some support by government in the form of ammunition for their weapons and stayed on the ground to fight the fundamentalists, most of whom are either from other parts of Yemen or foreigners. The role of the tribes is extremely important and disproves the rash and widespread assumption that tribes support fundamentalism[2]. While being very socially conservatively religious, Yemeni tribes people - the majority of the country’s population, estimated to number about 75% of the country’s population - are not supporters of fundamentalist political ideology. It is worth noting that the areas in Abyan where Ansar attempted to rule according to its ideology (Ja’ar and to a lesser extent Zinjibar) are areas where tribes are a minority and the majority of the population are from the lower status, cultivating but not landowning, social group.

While a major victory and indicator to all that this regime is different from its predecessor, this victory has not come without a price: 

- Over a hundred government soldiers were killed and wounded in the process [including by landmines], and its immediate aftermath saw the assassination in Aden of the military commander of the southern region, General Qatan, as well as the attack in early July on the Police Academy in Sana’a which killed about 9 people.  More such attacks are to be expected from individuals who have gone into hiding in the cities but have not given up their ideology or objectives. In addition they certainly still have some support in the military/security establishment.

-  Fighting on the ground was accompanied by at least 66 US air strikes and drone attacks in the first six months of 2012.[3] While these may have contributed to military success, they are also a major cause of anger for Yemenis throughout the country, but particularly among the rural population who are most aware of frequent drone flights. Given that the majority of these flights take place over the former PDRY, this is a further contributory factor to the southern population’s alienation from the regime.

-  Despite considerable talk, very little aid has yet materialised to repair the damage caused by the fighting whose towns have been practically reduced to rubble.  The collapse of buildings and of the physical and social infrastructure, as well as the presence of landmines throughout the area, are preventing the population from returning home and thus worsening their already abysmal living conditions and increasing anger and frustration. These are reducing people’s confidence in the new regime which does not have the funds to finance reconstruction and, at the same time, are ensuring that Yemenis lose what little trust they had in the international community’s assertions of concern and support for Yemen’s transition to a more democratic and prosperous state. 

The active involvement of the Group of 10 ambassadors, the UN Security Council and its special representative are viewed with mixed feelings by the majority of Yemenis: they welcomed international assistance and support to get rid of Ali Abdullah Saleh (and, gradually, many of his relatives and cronies). However, people note with dismay that cash is available for military intervention against the terrorists but is not forthcoming when it comes either to humanitarian aid (over 10 million Yemenis are currently food insecure, one million children are going hungry, the UN’s Consolidated Appeal Process for humanitarian needs for 2012 is funded at less than 50% of requirement), or for reconstruction or general development investment, let alone basic running costs for social and developmental institutions.  In short, people perceive that cash and support are available for military and security costs but not for development or humanitarian needs which affect the vast majority of the population on a daily basis.

Many consider that Yemen is now in a state equivalent to an international mandate, but that this has a primary security anti-terrorist focus, and ignores the issues, including security issues, which the majority of the poor population face on a daily basis.  The postponement of the ‘donor’ conference to September and the on-going assertions about the weakness of the country’s administration and absorptive capacity for aid are seen as excuses for not providing the aid which is so desperately needed. The role of the World Bank in leading development policies is also criticised by many who believe it and the IMF are responsible for the cuts in food and other subsidies, the introduction of so-called ‘cost recovery’ in health services and the reduction of the role of the state in the provision of social services. 

People’s security concerns

While AQAP is the major reason Yemen features in the western world’s media, as far as ordinary Yemenis are concerned, they are not the primary security concern. For the last two decades life for people in Yemen has been marked by inadequate policing and arbitrariness. People have suffered regular hijackings and theft of vehicles on the roads, robberies in their homes, theft of land as well as physical attacks with various weapons. Most incidents have been completely ignored by the security institutions, particularly those involving theft by powerful security and military individuals of land belonging to farmers or even well-known families. Appealing to the police for assistance in addressing crimes has routinely resulted in requests for payments supposedly to cover transport and other costs. Multiple comic and semi-comic anecdotes are witness to these practises.  

Since 2011 the level of insecurity and lawlessness has increased dramatically throughout the country, alongside the return of open carrying of arms.  Car thefts, robberies, land thefts etc… have multiplied, as well as attacks against people. As many security services staff also left their posts - some joined the revolutionaries or the counter revolutionaries, while others just stayed at home - this encouraged bandits and others to act with more or less certainty of impunity. Worsening poverty and need have been further incentives to resort to any means to survive, including crime. 

For ordinary Yemenis, constant insecurity means that they cannot set off on a trip to nearby towns, or leave home if living in towns without concern and fear.  They are liable to be confronted by bandits demanding their ‘money or their life’, or to return home and find it has been robbed.  In the past year there has been no authority or institution able or willing to address these concerns. 


In addition to the problems just mentioned, women have further fears. In a very strictly sex-segregated society, their movements have become increasingly restricted due to the risks involved in being outdoors as they are liable to attacks, verbal and physical. The lawlessness which involves the possible presence of unknown men in rural areas and urban neighbourhoods is a major risk for women who are liable to violent sanction if they are seen to interact with strangers. Worsening deprivation means that many women have to take these additional risks by seeking food and income outside the home to feed their children and themselves. 

While the uprisings of the last year have been a major contributor to the empowerment of women, this ‘occupy’ movement has also had some serious negative effects with respect to the safety and security of many participating women. While there have not been the type of collective rape incidents associated with Tahrir Square in Cairo, participating Yemeni women have also been threatened and beaten when anti-female forces have had the upper hand.  Not only have they come under attack from the former president’s baltagia tribal militias, but among the revolutionaries there have been ambiguous attitudes to women’s participation. When it served the various parties’ purposes, women have been encouraged, and when women had views differentiating them from the mainstream, they have been victimised, attacked physically and verbally[4]


So while the ‘donors’ are willing to give real and practical support in interventions against AQAP, when it comes to increasing security for the ordinary citizens and for women, the situation is different.  Although it is widely recognised that insecurity is closely related to poverty and deprivation, as well as to the disempowerment of women, solving these priority issues for the Yemeni people are currently spoken about, but none of the urgently needed action is being taken.  As Ramadan starts, Yemenis are to face another month of deprivation, poverty and hunger.  This is not a good sign for the transition.

[1] The term AQAP will be used here generically to describe the various related armed and aggressive fundamentalist groups attacking the regime and civilians; the actual relationship between AQAP and Ansar al Shari’a is unclear; while some claim it is the same organisation under different names, others believe them to be different organisations.

[2] Another example of this is the intervention of tribal leaders in the liberation of 73 soldiers captured by AQAP in Abyan in June.  After weeks of fruitless ‘negotiations’ with the government, the leaders of the tribes of the majority of the prisoners came to Ja’ar and informed AQAP that they would attack with all their forces unless the prisoners were released asap.  The release came within hours.

[3] Bureau of Investigative Journalism website: http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2012/05/08/yemen-reported-us-covert-action-2012/.  There have been over 103 such attacks since the beginning of the century and the monthly count in early 2012 was higher than in Afghanistan/Pakistan

[4]  For more analysis on these aspects see Strong Voices, Yemeni Women’s political participation from protest to transition, Saferworld, London, May 2012, pp 19

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