The Attack that Never Happened
Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen, is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. Johnsen has written for a variety of publications on Yemen including, among others, Foreign Policy, The American Interest, The Independent, The Boston Globe, and The National. He is the co-founder of Waq al-Waq: Islam and Insurgency in Yemen Blog. In 2009, he was a member of the USAID's conflict assessment team for Yemen.
We all know that Yemen has serious problems that are not limited to just AQAP. But there have also been a few bright spots in recent months.
Topping the list was the Gulf Cup - a two week soccer tournament in Aden and Abyan in the south of Yemen.
Leading up to the tournament there was a great deal of speculation about the wisdom of holding an international soccer tournament in a country that was such a "hotbed of terrorism." It seemed almost tailor-made for an AQAP attack. What better way to embarrass President Salih and further rip Yemen apart then to carry out an attack when Yemen was in the spotlight - at least regionally.
President Salih dispatched 30,000 troops to the south and promised everything would go smoothly. And it did. Despite the predictions of some, the anticipated AQAP attack never took place.
It is instructive to ask ourselves why. It is not for a lack of suicide bombers or munitions, during the time the Gulf Cup was going on, AQAP carried out two suicide attacks in the far north of the country. But instead of targeting Yemen's foreign visitors, they were directed against Yemen's Zaydi, particularly the Huthi rebels (who have been involved in a civil war with the Yemeni government in the north since 2004). I told you there were more problems than AQAP.
Incidentally, these two suicide attacks have frightened nearly everyone in the north. No one seems to have a good grasp on what is happening and the fighting is still ongoing. Today, a tribal shaykh - Saddam Husayn Rukan - from the Khawlan bin 'Amar tribe, which is not affiliated with either of Yemen's two major confederation was killed. (Arabic link) And there are still tensions in al-Jawf between the Huthis and local tribes (Ar) over all the checkpoints the Huthis erected in the aftermath of the suicide attacks. Missing in these discussions, of course, is the Yemeni government.
But we are still left with the question: why didn't AQAP attack the Gulf Cup?
The answer is an important one. While we in the west are worried that AQAP is planning to poison our buffets, we forget that the group actually has a constituency and that continued, mindless violence is not in its best interest. There are point to AQAP's attacks, just as there is a point to what it does not attack.
Killing Muslim civilians at popular soccer matches is not the way for AQAP to win support in Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula and they know it. That is why the group was so quick to distance itself from two bombs that went off in October in Aden. The group claimed it was only after the west and its "agents" in the region. AQAP only goes after "legitimate targets. (See my full analysis here). And Muslim civilians are definitely not legitimate.
Notice the discrepancy between AQAP's public statements and the silence from the US over the civilian deaths in its air strikes in Yemen over the past year?
That is how a country creates more enemies than it can possibly kill. When it comes down to a contest between AQAP and the US for hearts and minds in Yemen, AQAP is winning and winning by a wide margin.
These wins aren't going to be recognizable in weeks or months, but they will be apparent in the coming years.
While AQAP may look like a bunch of mindless terrorists to us in the west, running around attacking anything and everything. They are actually much more disciplined, which in turn makes them a much more dangerous enemy.
Not only do they have a more polished and better articulated public message than the US when it comes to what they attack and what they don't attack, but they are also putting teachers in areas of the country that have been abandoned by everyone else.
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