Sanaa Notebook: al-Qaeda and Electricity

On Tuesday, October 2 the lights in Sanaa went out.*  The power cut in the Yemeni capital wasn’t particularly surprising.  Yemen has been suffering rolling blackouts for years; a problem that only grew worse during the 2011 uprisings that forced the country’s long-serving president, Ali Abdullah Salih, to resign in exchange for an immunity deal.  Already, in the short time I had been in the country I had grown used to the metal thumping of private generators and, when I missed the small window of diesel-powered electricity, cold showers by candlelight. 

Usually the lights came back on within hours, but this time they stayed off.  The reason, as I discovered the next morning, was a complicated tangle of domestic and international politics and one of the major reasons the US is struggling to defeat al-Qaeda here. 

Early Tuesday morning a Yemeni court had handed down death sentences to a pair of al-Qaeda members, who had been convicted of murdering several Yemeni soldiers.  Like all of us, the two Yemenis are a mix of competing identities and allegiances.  Fighting for al-Qaeda is only part of who they are.  They have families, friends and, in this case, tribal connections.

Mubarak al-Shabwani, one of the convicted killers, is a member of the Al Shabwan tribe, which reacted to the news of his death sentence by attacking an electrical plant in their area, knocking it out of commission and plunging the Yemeni capital into darkness.  On Tuesday morning Shabwani had been punished as a terrorist, that evening he was defended as a tribesman.  This is the simple yet essential truth that the US has failed to grasp in Yemen.

Three years of US secret bombing raids and drone strikes have done little to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the terrorist branch based in Yemen.  Instead the group appears to be growing stronger and even more determined to strike at the US.   

When AQAP put a would-be suicide bomber on an airplane over the US on Christmas Day 2009, the organization numbered roughly 300 fighters.  Today, according to estimates by the US government, the terrorist group has more than tripled in size to well over 1,000 members.  The US strategy is not working.  The US is killing more people than ever before in Yemen, but AQAP continues to grow. 

That week, during yet another power cut in Sanaa, a Yemeni journalist with close ties to AQAP explained to me what was happening.  “The US is killing tribesmen,” he told me in the darkness as we waited for the candles to arrive.  “Each time they kill a tribesmen, they create more fighters for al-Qaeda.” 

These men, he said, do not start out as committed jihadis.  They are men who live by a code.  The US killed their families and friends; they have to attack the US.  Revenge is the motivation that drives them into al-Qaeda’s arms. 

For their part, US officials appear unconcerned with the second-order damage these missile strikes are doing on the ground.  “We hit who we are aiming at,” they say in public and private.  And if other people are hanging out with bad guys and get taken out along with them, well, that is too bad.  But this attitude, which makes sense in the US where membership in al-Qaeda is seen as the defining feature of a person’s life, loses much of its traction on the ground in Yemen where the war is being fought.

Recent attempts to deal with the growing threat from Yemen have only made the problem worse.  In December 2009, when the US started bombing in Yemen, it claimed only to be going after the top leaders of AQAP, who were actively plotting against the US.  But as the number of dead al-Qaeda leaders mounted with no corresponding drop in the threat level those targeting guidelines were abandoned, as the US widened the war and mounted what could be seen as a missile surge.  Using what it calls “patterns of life”  – a loose set of rules that allows the US to fire missiles without knowing the identities of the people it is firing at – the Obama administration has carried out more than 50 strikes so far this year, according to reporting in the local Yemeni press.

Doubling-down on this flawed strategy has, not surprisingly, failed to produce different results.  Today, AQAP has more recruits and a greater talent pool than it had on Christmas Day, 2009.   

As David Petraeus once said at the height of the Iraq war: “I like to go to bed every night with more friends and with fewer enemies.”  In Yemen, the US has this calculation backwards.  

This is the first in what will be an occasional series as I write up my notes from my recent trip to Yemen.

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