The Year of the Motorbike Assassination
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.
Waq al-waq formally announces 2010 as the year of the motorbike assassination in Yemen. Seriously, this is getting ridiculous. Today, a security official in Hadramawt (Sayyun, for those wanting details) escaped being gunned down by men on a motorcycle. Riyadh al-Khatabi, the director of security, was seriously wounded according to this report in Mareb Press.
The motorbike jihadis have become such a menace in Yemen that a few weeks ago the government banned them in Zanjibar out of fear of similar attacks. I don't have my full notes handy, but the number of security officials who have been assassinated by men on motorcycles is - if memory serves - nearly 3/4 of the assassinations.
In 2007 and 2008, al-Qaeda preferred ambushes and bombs. I'm thinking of Qasaylah in Marib - killed in an ambush by Ali Doha, who featured in Qasim al-Raymi's latest tape - and Ka'lan in Marib a year later. Now there is this less technically skilled approach, but one that is reaping more dead officers. The trickle of assassinations has become a stream.
As always the why is the most intriguing. Is this just a result of more al-Qaeda recruits? Is this a symptom that the organization isn't that tightly controlled from above, as some have argued, and guys are just riding around shooting people?
Certainly, as I argued the other day, one should come to the conclusion that the level of clashes and conflict between AQAP and the Yemeni military are higher than any previous point in history. There are then, as I see it, two ways this can go.
Scenario A is: al-Qaeda will be successful in intimidating officers and the rank-and-file into not pursuing them or coming over to their side. But I think this has more to do with how coherent and persuasive al-Qaeda makes its theological and political arguments - the physical intimidation is just the nudge to move soldiers and officials the last three feet - and how much bungling and unintentional assistance the US is guilty of providing in Yemen.
Scenario B is: the move will backfire, and branches of the Yemeni military (some of which we saw in the Huthi wars) will infuse tribal concepts of tha'r into the esprit de corps. This was also probably an issue with the death of Fawaz al-Rabi'a back in October 2006.
I think it is much too early to tell, but I'm curious as to the reaction of the other security officials on the list of 55 in Abyan after Ghazi al-Samawi's assassination recently. The remaining men could well be a test case for how this al-Qaeda strategy plays out. (There is much more to say here about the military and its importance and the intriguing nature of this al-Qaeda strategy, but I'm tired, so I'm off.)
One final note: I haven't seen much in the western press about the soccer tournament coming up next month in Abyan and Aden, probably because there are no western individuals involved and anything that doesn't involve westerners can't possibly be of importance to the west - Ahmad Shah Massoud's assassination taught us that.
Still, security will be high, and I know Yemen and the rest of the Gulf is worried about an attack.
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