AQAP and Ansar al-Shariah
One of the things that I find most frustrating is reading articles or comments on AQAP by people who have never bothered to actually read what the organization itself puts out.
I mean, there is already so little information about the organization that it seems self-evident to me that researchers or analysts should take advantage of anything that AQAP puts out. If people who believed themselves competent to talk about AQAP adhered to this one little rule, I'm confident they would make many fewer mistakes than they currently do.
As it is, when people speak without being well-steeped in what the organization puts out, they tend to create an imaginary organization that tells us more about the person making the comment or writing the article than it does about AQAP.
There are many examples of this - most I feel bad about pointing out, and so I won't - but I can talk broadly about one instance without naming any names and so I will limit myself to that.
In late April the head of AQAP's shariah council, 'Adil al-'Abab, gave a fascinating interview. (I first listened to it on Aaron Zelin's great site Jihadology) Few people paid attention to it at the time, but the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence's Amany Soliman did a translation that has since gotten some attention.
I think 'Abab's interview is important given what is happening in Abyan, particularly in light of this report in the New York Times today that suggests that the US is "intensifying" strikes with drones and planes over and around Zanjubar.
The intensification, as Blake Hounshell pointed out on twitter, seems to be limited to a drone strike that targeted Anwar al-Awlaki and an airstrike last Friday, June 3, that killed someone the NY Times is identifying as "Abu Ali al-Harithi." Of course, longtime readers of Waq al-waq will remember that someone named Abu Ali al-Harithi was killed by the US in November 2002.
I don't really think AQAP has developed a team of zombies, so it is likely (what are the odds?) that somewhere along the line the kunya got mis-reported.
(I have serious reservations about the policy the US seems to be stumbling into here, but that is another post.)
This, I think, illustrates a broader point: and that is that almost no one knows what is going on in Zanjubar and Abyan.
This report in the LA Times suggests that a group calling itself Ansar al-Shariah is instrumental in the fighting.
And this brings us back to "Adil al-'Abab, because in late April he said this: "The name Ansar al-Shariah is what we use to introduce ourselves in areas where we work to tell people about our work and goals, and that we are on the path of Allah."
Now on one hand, this could be seen as a good thing, the AQ brand name has taken such hits in recent years that members are forced to use a different name to introduce themselves so they aren't saddled with the baggage of AQ's name. And only after they are comfortable do they reveal that they are AQ.
But 'Abab's comments as well as what is trickling out from Abyan suggests that AQ is certainly part of the show in Zanjubar, no matter if this was a ploy by Salih or not. And on that - one final note.
It is certainly true as many have said, including myself, that Salih has consistently overexaggerated the threat of AQAP in an effort to get money and military equipment from the west. But at the same time the opposition in Yemen - the JMP - has consistently downplayed the threat of AQAP, saying in effect that it only exists in the presidential palace.
Neither of these positions are particularly helpful. In the hands of both, AQAP has just become one more stick that each side uses to beat up on the other.
But outside of the rhetoric employed by both, AQAP continues to exist.
Political activism may get people invested in politics, and affect urgently needed change, but it comes at the expense of tolerance and healthy democratic norms.