The Debate that Wasn't
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.
In Yemen, al-Qaeda often makes mistakes that open the group up to criticism. Most of the time this chance goes begging as the Yemeni government, popular clerics and tribal shaykhs neglect to speak out in any sustained fashion against the terrorist group.
I think this is a mistake. My record, I believe, is fairly clear: no single weapon – drones, Special Forces or public discourse – can defeat al-Qaeda on its own. All of these have a place. It is the over-reliance on the military aspect that I believe is misguided.
In the past – following the 2008 suicide attack in Sayyun, the release of Shaykh Muhammad al-Muayyad in 2009 and so on – I have watched in frustration as the Yemeni and US govrnments missed what I felt were excellent opportunities to take back some of the field of public discourse that both had ceded to al-Qaeda.
AQAP’s theology and shifting justifications are shallow and weak, but unchallenged they have an air of authenticity because no one is willing to stand up and expose them for the mishmash of mistaken exegesis and muddled thought that they are.
At the moment there is yet another opportunity for the Yemeni government to attack AQAP’s public messaging (anyone who follows AQAP’s propaganda knows just how sensitive the group is to public perception and I believe this sensitivity is due in large part to what AQAP senses as a vulnerability.)
Early in the spring Saudi’s deputy consul in Aden was kidnapped – whether by AQAP or by enterprising criminal elements is unclear, but what is clear is that he is currently in AQAP’s custody. As a result Saudi has closed its consulates in Sanaa and Aden and an estimated 80,000 umrah seekers have been denied visas to Saudi Arabia.
This, I believe, presents the Yemeni government with an opportunity for a media blitz attacking AQAP and asking why an organization that claims to protect Muslims is carrying out actions that prevent Yemenis from going on umrah. With Ramadan approaching this is only going to become more of an issue. The time to start is now.
This is a debate that needs to be had if for no other reason than AQAP should not remain uncontested in the public sphere.
Obviously such debates won’t on their own defeat AQAP or dry up the ranks of recruits – no single action will do that. There aren’t silver bullets in this war. There are only small steps that over time can have a lasting impact.
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