August 17, 2011

Can Obama Ignore Anti-AQAP Protests?

The Pentagon dictates policy in a growing collection of fragile states and Yemen's position on the Arabian Peninsula makes it a strategic jewel.

It’s a contest that no revolutionary wants to enter: most ignored. Although Western backing hasn’t generated decisive victory for Libyans or Syrians, these revolutionaries would presumably pass on swapping with their Bahraini and Yemeni peers. The dual-core of Saudi Arabia’s counterrevolution exemplifies America’s double-standard towards manipulable regimes, and Yemenis understand this much about Washington’s relationship with the murderous Ali Abdullah Saleh. However their realization doesn’t fully alleviate the pains of international isolation, especially after largely peaceful demonstrations defied Western notions of extremism.

Yemenis have been left to wonder what could possibly attract international support if not six months of bloodshed. Soon the question will shift to how long the Obama administration can ignore demonstrations against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Ideally President Barack Obama and his national security team would have no need to ignore Yemenis, but within the ugly world of geopolitics, the White House has too many reasons to shun their revolution. Rooted in training and funding for Saleh’s personal security forces, Washington pumped low-level economic aid into his corrupt regime in a vain effort to balance one-sided militarism. Crowning three decades of misrule, widespread economic shortages and misappropriated counter-terrorism units finally pushed Yemenis into revolution mode, disrupting Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and the CIA’s escalation in their country.

Labeled an inconvenience, revolution against Saleh was immediately flagged as “against U.S. interests” and green-lit for a controlled transition. This policy fuels a negative cycle whereby anti-American sentiment is exploited to justify unilateral or “joint” military operations: drone strikes, a network of Special Forces and CIA “trainers,” and a flotilla parked off Yemen’s southern coast. Last month, during one of several admissions that support for Saleh’s regime is ongoing, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “It's obviously a dangerous and uncertain situation, but we continue to work with elements there to try to develop counterterrorism."

In searching for measures to preserve semi-obedient “elements,” the Obama administration went beyond orchestrating a favorable power transfer through the Saudi-backed Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which would leave a shell of the current regime in power. Mimicking daily power outages in Yemen, one of Saleh’s many stall tactics, the administration cut the lights on Yemen’s revolution. Only after March 18th’s sniper massacre in Sana’a, when at least 50 protesters were gunned down by Saleh’s security units, did Obama condemn Yemen’s sweeping violence. 92 days have elapsed since he mentioned Yemen - a single line in his “Moment of Opportunity” - and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last grazed over the revolution in early June.

The administration in general remains silent on vicious human rights abuses committed by U.S.-trained security forces, now considered war crimes by Yemenis. At one point in Taiz’s Change Square, the Republican Guard’s gasoline-filled water cannons rolled over tents and torched protesters in their sleep. Neither the White House nor State Department has issued a reaction to any transitional council, months of bombardment against anti-government tribes or a government-induced humanitarian crisis. Meanwhile Panetta has accordingly filled the White House and State Department’s vacuum, keen to protect the Pentagon’s investments by hyping AQAP and ignoring Ali Saleh.

Tasking U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein with the daily grunt work of mingling with Saleh’s regime, counter-terrorism chief John Brennan has assumed the role of Obama’s leading diplomat. Brennan is supposedly close to both Saleh and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a toxic mix to Yemenis.

Washington’s response to their revolution (and the refusal to break with Riyadh) has infuriated some protesters, confused many more and given rise to the belief that no Western support is forthcoming. Although many rightfully declare that a revolution can only be achieved by the people, revolutions historically receive external assistance. Yemenis also deserve U.S. support after their mistreatment; unlike Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Washington played a direct role in empowering Saleh’s regime. This complicity has rendered U.S. cooperation and UN sanctions a fool’s hope, except Yemenis haven’t given up trying to attract President Obama’s support.

They just needed time to organize and probe the depths of Western misconceptions.

Last week in Taiz, one of several revolutionary epicenters, a group of activists hosted a symposium entitled, “Our Revolution Against Terrorism.” The first of many planned events against AQAP, the gathering rebuked perceptions of unchecked extremism and pledged to combat terrorism after Saleh’s regime falls into the dustbin of history. A “rejection of al-Qaeda and terrorism” march is tentatively planned and more demonstrations will follow if all goes according to schedule.

“Saleh is willing to do anything to stay in power,” explains Dr. Abdulkani Alguneid, a leading Taiz activist who gave a seminar on Saleh’s relationship with AQAP and Saudi Arabia. “He sold Yemen’s image as an al-Qaeda sanctuary, to the wealthiest oil country and to a superpower. Yemen’s revolution is all about civil society and civil state. Both Saleh and al-Qaeda have no place in such a habitat.”

The process admittedly struggled to come online due to a vast divergence in Yemeni and American mindsets. Many peaceful Yemenis don’t think twice in associating AQAP with Saleh, whereas Americans generally consider Yemen as a backwards breeding land for terrorists. Although the country has become a hotbed of anti-Americanism and some fighters made the journey to Afghanistan or Iraq, Yemen's revolutionaries want nothing to do with terrorism. Believing it was planted in their country, they point to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s failed Christmas bombing in 2009 - to a Nigerian finally attracting the U.S. public’s attention - and to the Saudi legion that formed AQAP’s old guard, many released from Guantánamo Bay.

Then comes Saleh’s systematic methods of enabling AQAP: crippling Yemen’s economy and alienating tribes within AQAP’s area of operations (including cleric Anwar al-Awlaki), exploiting al-Qaeda’s name to quell the secessionist-oriented Southern Movement, funding his own “jihadists.” al-Awlaki “is not part of our fabric,” says Alguneid, though he acknowledges that Saleh’s corrupt system drove the cleric to action. Yemen’s besieged tyrant has a vested interest in keeping AQAP alive and continues to play his double-game with Washington, going so far as to cede territory and weapons in the south. Saleh’s regime then leaks a steady flow of intel on AQAP to keep himself useful, resulting in unpopular U.S. air-strikes.

By propping up a despot and killing rows of civilians, America has contributed to AQAP’s growth by validating al-Qaeda’s political ideology.

AQAP does exist and so do its plans to strike outside of Yemen. However its influence, strength and source have all been misrepresented by Western governments and media. The end result is that an anti-AQAP campaign became a footnote to the revolutionaries, who periodically reaffirm their commitment against terrorism with the sinking expectation of being ignored. Even as they organize to disprove foreign impressions, the White House fired a blatant shot of propaganda by warning of a non-imminent ricin attack. This Goldilocks threat - not too hot, not too cold - is tailored to smother the revolution through the GCC’s initiative. Yet as stalemate with Saleh and his arms drags on, Yemenis are planning to increasingly fold anti-AQ themes into their political narrative.

“Yemenis are most tolerant when it comes to other people's faith,” Alguneid argues, adding that they prayed after the assassination of John F. Kennedy and accommodated American tourists in the 1970s. “Yemen’s heritage, culture, precedents and soft Islam are so rich that we can't be tempted easily by new comers to tell us what we should or should not do.”

AQAP’s limited influence still doesn’t negate the risks assumed by Yemen’s protesters. If the group decides to save the remainder of its popularity and avoid targeting demonstrations, Saleh’s regime could exploit the tension with its own plots. Supporting Yemen’s revolutionaries is more vital than ever - to their interests and to U.S. interests. Ultimately the real terror threat stems from Saleh and aborting Yemen’s revolution through the GCC, which Saleh has no intention of signing. An opposite course towards democracy provides the best opportunity to counter AQAP’s ideology and territorial growth.

If Washington still doesn’t hear a mass of Yemenis chanting against al-Qaeda, the revolutionaries will have no choice except to believe that America truly wants AQAP to stay.


  1. "Although many rightfully declare that a revolution can only be achieved by the people, revolutions historically receive external assistance."

    Many western theories on revolution cite external assistance as a precondition to success. However, in many revolutions it has been absent. For example, The French Revolution, The Russian, The Iranian, and The Cuban, all had no outside help with the exception of a very limited number of foreign politically motivated volunteers (in the Cuban and Russian cases).

    Particularly notable was the "allied" intervention in the Russian Civil War. The White Army received massive financial and military assistance, including:
    50,000 Czechoslovaks (along the Trans-Siberian railway)
    28,000 Japanese, later increased to 70,000 (in the Vladivostok region and north)
    24,000 Greeks (in the Crimea)
    40,000 British (in the Arkhangelsk and Vladivostok regions)
    13,000 Americans (in the Arkhangelsk and Vladivostok regions)
    12,000 French and French colonial (mostly in the Arkhangelsk and Odessa regions)
    12,000 Poles (mostly on Siberia)
    4,000 Canadians (in the Arkhangelsk and Vladivostok regions)
    4,000 Serbs (in the Arkhangelsk region)
    4,000 Romanians (in the Arkhangelsk region)
    2,500 Italians (in the Arkhangelsk region and Siberia)
    2,000 Chinese (in the Vladivostok region)
    150 Australians (mostly in the Arkhangelsk regions)

    The importance of foreign assistance may be overstated. To the credit of Octopus Mountain, external assistance was not cited as a sine qua non of revolution (as is often done). However, the above cited passage did seem a bit of a generalization.

  2. The French, Russian and Iranian revolutions were some of the first revolutions we considered before making such a statement. Thank you for understanding that we do not suggest a blanket theory. There is also a difference between revolution and insurgency, which tend to receive more external aid.

    I would speculate as to whether more modernized states require less assistance. Hundreds of revolutions have occurred and we have by no means studies them all.