August 30, 2011

Intense Battle for Yemen’s Information Field

Amid reports that Yemeni forces have retaken Dufas, an area west of Zinjibar and scene to intense fighting with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), all sides of the conflict have released some form of propaganda. Dozens, if not hundreds, of casualties have stacked up from continual ambushes, artillery and air-strikes, with each side claiming to get the best of the other. As observed over the past week, casualties estimates of AQAP are beginning to exceed its initial force estimate of 300-500 fighters.

A source at the Ministry of Interior now tells the Yemeni Observer that over 300 militants have been killed since Abyan’s conflict erupted in May. A combination of government exaggeration and AQAP’s successful recruiting may provide an accurate explanation.

Naturally this source neglects to mention that many Yemenis, including several military commanders, suspect that Ali Abdullah Saleh has played both sides of AQAP’s war. The group's presence allowed Yemen’s embattled president of 33 years to suppress the northern Houthi sect and the secessionist Southern Movement without consequence from the international community. U.S. military support and training for Saleh’s security forces, the Republican Guard and Central Security Organization, has swelled since December 2009, when AQAP sent Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to explode a plane over Detroit.

After Yemen’s revolution hit, Saleh left Abyan to his remaining regular units and deployed his personal forces to suppress protesters in Sana'a and Taiz. Although several U.S. officials fabricated that training was halted in May - once complicity in Saleh's crackdown was no longer plausibly deniable - military operations show no indication of stopping, according to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. UN sanctions against Saleh's regime have been successfully deflected. Trapped (perhaps willingly) in Saleh’s double-games, Washington has went along for the ride under cover of “exploiting Yemen’s power vacuum.” U.S. warplanes now target AQAP forces who, four months earlier, found an open city in Zinjibar and a stockpile of government arms.

Saleh adamantly believes that “victory” in the south will preserve his power base.

Publicly oblivious but surely aware of this scheme, the White House has put a friendly spin on America’s nebulous war against al-Qaeda. Today Press Secretary Jay Carney was questioned on a New York Times report detailing guidelines for 9/11’s 10th year anniversary. Asked whether the White House has anything new beyond “the Arab Spring is the future and al Qaeda is the past,” Carney replies that, “things that were true yesterday are true tomorrow. I mean, what we have seen happen in this past decade is the utter rejection of the ideology of al Qaeda by the very region of the world that was supposed to be its foundation and where it was supposed to get the most support.”

“We obviously find that encouraging,” he adds, “even as we remain absolutely vigilant in protecting the American homeland, protecting the American people, and taking the fight to al Qaeda and its affiliates.”

The NYT predicts such statements to occur regularly for the next two weeks. “A chief goal of our communications is to present a positive, forward-looking narrative,” says one pointer. Apparently some military and intelligence officials are upset that President Barack Obama won’t tie together 9/11 and the “War on Terror,” even though his major address will likely focus precisely on their connection.

Do they really want him to talk about Yemen though?

It’s true that the vast majority of Yemenis have rejected al-Qaeda’s ideology, with local protests in Abyan and national demonstrations in Sana’a and Taiz. Some protesters believe that AQAP is completely made up, many more believe that Saleh himself encouraged the group’s growth by alienating the populace and local tribes in the south. Except Yemenis oppose al-Qaeda in spite of America, not because of a policy that validates al-Qaeda’s ideology, and U.S. involvement justifies jihad to the few that join AQAP. Seven months of peaceful revolution have been marred by fighting between the government and tribal militias, yet most protesters still renounce violence and believe that peaceful revolution will prevail.

So far no further accounts of AQAP chief Nasser Al-Wuhayshi have surfaced. Reported KIA on Sunday by government forces in Zinjibar, the Yemeni Observer did report how Al-Wuhayshi escaped from the area on July 21th. This information was already known and appears incidentally related to rumors of his death, but it includes an explicit statement that, after factoring out the propaganda, matches Yemen’s reality more closely than U.S. rhetoric.

“Our people have gone beyond the political parties that want to take the victory of the Umma for their interest to please the Americans and Crusading West,” says Al-Wuhayshi. “The parties represent the minority, and they are loyal to the Crusaders. As for the American Crusader enemy, they stood incapacitated towards the situation in Yemen, except by doing some intelligence work and air bombing with unmanned planes, with acceptance from the government and the opposition, and with silence from other institutions towards this intervention and penetration of airspace.”

“It is worth noting that the regime has deliberately established new areas for armed conflict in several locations in Yemen, in Abyan, Ta'ez, Arhab and Sana'a and continues to bellow out cries for a civil war,” adds Yemen’s Coordinating Council for the Youth Revolution of Change (CCYRC), which absolutely rejects al-Qaeda’s ideology.

Yemenis have noticed a total concentration towards AQAP as Saleh stirs the rumors of his return, positive that the developments are connected. The reported death of Al-Wuhayshi, while still a possibility, appears to be a fabricated “coincidence.” Now Yemeni Defense Minister Mohammed Nasser Ahmed has “survived an assassination attempt” after supposedly hitting a land-mine in Zibjibar, diverting all attention south even as the government denies these reports.

“In this regards,” he declared on Monday, “we have assigned a committee from the General People's Congress to communicate with the leading figures of the Joint Meeting Parties, the GCC foreign ministers, and the ambassadors of the United States and the European Union to set an implementation mechanism for the GCC initiative and sign it without any delays.”

Saleh’s typical double-speak - only his pen delays the GCC’s unpopular initiative - then gravitates south: “Terrorism is the reason behind the destruction of services, economic, and developmental facilities, and destabilizing life across Yemeni cities and governorates. Furthermore, it is preventing the execution of investment projects in Yemen. The persistence of criminal acts here and there aggravated damages on national economy, which increased unemployment, inflation, and poverty.”

Accusing his "enemies" of "envy," Saleh slanders the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) - his only domestic partner in the GCC’s initiative - by interchanging AQAP’s terrorism with the JMP’s “criminal acts.”

Despite the umbrella group’s low popularity, few Yemenis will blame their poverty or their country’s instability anyone except Saleh. Unfortunately the Obama administration has yet to comment on any of these developments. No statements have been issued on Saleh’s impending return, except the infrequent “order” that he sign the GCC’s proposal. Attacks on peaceful protesters and anti-government tribesmen go unnoticed. As Washington attempts to extract its assets, “the president’s son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, who leads the elite Republican Guards military unit... is stocking up on heavy weaponry, like tanks, which can be seen in the capital.”

This leaves America as the loser of Yemen’s information battle. While the administration has successfully silenced Yemen’s revolutionaries in the U.S. media, a key objective in preserving Saleh’s regime, all contact has been severed with the people. Both Saleh and AQAP have capitalized on this strategic error.

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