U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein meets with Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi
Shortly before last weekend, Yemeni activists and reported the first preview of two videos produced by al-Qaeda in the Peninsula's (AQAP) media arm, The shorter of these videos, released just before Christmas, has taken center stage by announcing a bounty program for killing U.S. combat personnel in Yemen, which range from Marines guarding the U.S. embassy in Sana'a to CIA operatives treading through southern Yemen. Contracting new hits on top of AQAP's ongoing assassination campaign would kickstart a nimble strategy, tapping a murky economic pool to track U.S. personnel in the field.
AQAP is essentially hoping that America's unpopularity in the country will pay dividends over time. The group's biggest bet of all: three pounds of gold for U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein.
Having tumbled through the wire for days, this news already generated a stir in Washington before Sunday's reports from The Associated Press and Reuters. Whether AQAP or a third party added the clip onto its main video remains a subject of debate - and all possibilities must be considered from an intelligence standpoint - but the cage has been opened regardless. The Obama administration doesn't have the luxury of taking a wait-and-see approach after Benghazi's "massive security failure," and must treat a hypothetical threat as reality. Accordingly, the American majority can't be expected to understand more than the direct implications of another al-Qaeda death-threat on a U.S. ambassador.
Most Americans are unlikely to realize that Gerald Feierstein is no Chris Stevens, and the U.S. mainstream media won't help them by adding context. Simply put, Feierstien is one of the least welcomed Americans in a country that usually welcomes Americans, contrary to popular opinion. Feierstein failed to redeem himself to the revolutionaries after staying close to Ali Abdullah Saleh, at first suffering more from proximity. Over time, though, Feierstein remained closer to Saleh's regime in a presumed effort to coax him out of office, a policy truly intended to maintain U.S. influence through Yemen's revolution. The ambassador assumed the grunt work of getting everyone's signature on the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) power-sharing deal, a U.S.-Saudi initiative that locked the revolutionaries out of power in favor of Yemen's opposition and Saleh's own party.
He's considered more imperial viceroy than diplomat.
Feierstein fell into particularly hot water during Yemen's first Life March in December 2011, initially telling protesters not to approach the presidential palace. Describing the march as a "provocative act," combined with the brutal crackdown that followed, created the impression that he had cooperated with Saleh's regime. Unaccountability has been the constant of Feierstein's stay in Sana'a. Now he "advises" Saleh's former vice president, Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi, and continues to grant limited access to the revolutionaries, who enjoy a token ear rather than a real audience.
Never does Feierstein use the word "revolution," preferring to diffuse a "political crisis" instead.
“Almost from the start of his tenure in Yemen," warns the Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution of Change (CCYRC), "Ambassador Feierstein has never been very cordial with his personal (we certainly would hope that they are not viewed as official US views, accepted by your Administration) disappointing declarations on Yemen and the Yemeni people, and Feierstein's mostly defensive stances with the tyrannical Saleh regime.”
For all of these reasons and many more, a small group of protesters rallied after Stevens's murder to demand his own death. These individuals counted themselves amongst Yemen's political extreme but were not affiliated with AQAP, and represent a very real hostility directs towards the Ambassador. His staunchest opponents are peaceful, democratic-minded Yemenis. While few will support Feierstein's open murder, even fewer will miss him when he's reassigned.
The Obama administration's public actions suggest that they have no idea how unpopular he is, but their inner admissions must present a stark contrast. The signs are impossible to avoid noticing in private.
AQAP's pseudo-threat brings nothing good to Yemen, only new fear to overreact towards and new distractions to subvert more urgent priorities. Real or not, a public threat could permanently tighten the U.S. Embassy's security and eventually demand more personnel at a refurbished Sheraton Hotel, now home to the State Department. This situation is lose-lose for Yemenis: put up with Feierstein's continual presence and the extra security he may bring, or risk his violent elimination by an AQAP-contracted assassin. Both outcomes lead to further militarization and obstruct Yemen's democratic evolution.