Washington's War in Yemen Backfires
Soldiers with the 25th Mechanized Brigade near the front lines in Zinjibar Yemen. Image credit: Richard Rowley, Big Noise Films
Gen. Mohammed al-Sumali sits in the passenger seat of his armored Toyota Land Cruiser as it whizzes down the deserted highway connecting the Yemeni port city of Aden to Abyan province, where Islamist militants have overrun the provincial capital of Zinjibar. Sumali, a heavy-set man with glasses and a mustache, is the commander of the 25th Mechanized Brigade of the Yemeni armed forces and the man charged with cleansing Zinjibar of the militants. Sumali’s task carries international significance: retaking Zinjibar is seen by many as a final test of the flailing regime of Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the unpopular ruler who has deftly exploited the US government’s perception of him as an ally in the fight against terrorism to maintain his grip on power.
The only real traffic on this road consists of refugees fleeing the fighting and heading toward Aden, and military reinforcements moving toward Zinjibar. Sumali did not want to drive out to the front lines on this day and tried to dissuade the journalists in his office. “You know there could be mortars fired at you,” he tells us. Twice, the militants in Zinjibar tried to assassinate the general in that very vehicle. There is a bullet hole in the front windshield, just above his head, and another in his side window, the spider web cracks from the bullets’ impact clearly visible. When we agree not to hold him or his men responsible for what might happen to us, he relents, and we pile in and take off.
As we ride along the coast of the Arabian Sea, past stacks of abandoned mortar tubes, Russian T-72 tanks dug into sand berms and the occasional wandering camel, General Sumali gives his account of what happened on May 27, 2011. On that day, several hundred militants laid siege to Zinjibar, thirty miles northeast of the important southern city of Aden, killing several soldiers, driving out local officials and taking control within two days. Sumali attributes the takeover to an “intelligence breakdown,” explaining, “We were surprised in late May with the flow of a large number of terrorist militants into Zinjibar.” He adds that the militants “raided and attacked some security sites. They were able to seize these institutions. We were surprised when the governor, his deputies and other local officials fled to Aden.” As the Yemeni military began fighting the militants, General Sumali tells me, men from Yemen’s Central Security Forces fled, abandoning heavy weaponry as they retreated. The CSF, whose counterterrorism unit is armed, trained and funded by the United States, is commanded by President Saleh’s nephew Yahya. (A media outlet associated with the militants reported that they seized “heavy artillery pieces, modern antiaircraft weapons, a number of tanks and armored transports in addition to large quantities of different kinds of ammunition.”)
Sumali says that as his forces attempted to repel the attack on Zinjibar in early June, they were attacked by the militants using the artillery seized from the CSF units. “Many of my men were killed,” he says. The Islamist fighters also conducted a series of bold raids on the base of the 25th Mechanized on the southern outskirts of Zinjibar. In all, more than 230 Yemeni soldiers have been killed in battles with the militants since last May. “These guys are incredibly brave,” the general concedes, speaking of the militants. “If I had an army full of men with that bravery, I could conquer the world.”
* * *
According to critics of the crumbling Saleh regime, Sumali’s account is charitable at best about the role played by the Yemeni security forces in Zinjibar. They allege that Saleh’s forces allowed the city to fall. The fighting there began as Saleh faced mounting calls both inside and outside Yemen for his resignation; several of his key allies had defected to the growing opposition movement. After thirty-three years of outwitting his opponents, they say, Saleh saw that the end was near. “Saleh himself actually handed over Zinjibar to these militants,” asserts Abdul Ghani al Iryani, a well-connected political analyst. “He ordered his police force to evacuate the city and turn it over to the militants because he wanted to send a signal to the world that, without me, Yemen will fall into the hands of the terrorists.” That theory, while unproven, is not baseless. Since the mujahedeen war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s and continuing after 9/11, Saleh has famously milked the threat of Al Qaeda and other militants to leverage counterterrorism funding and weapons from the United States and Saudi Arabia, to bolster his power within the country and to neutralize opponents.
A Yemeni government official, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak publicly about military issues, admitted that troops from the US-trained and -supported Republican Guard did not respond when the militants entered the town. Those forces are commanded by Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali. Neither did those forces loyal to one of the most powerful military figures in the country, Gen. Ali Mohsen, commander of the 1st Armored Division, move in. Two months before Zinjibar was seized, Mohsen had defected from the Saleh regime and was supporting his overthrow.
Moreover, just who exactly these militants were who overtook Zinjibar is a matter of some dispute. According to the Yemeni government, they were operatives of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group Washington has identified as the single most dangerous terrorist threat facing the United States. But the militants who took the city did not claim to be from AQAP. Instead, they announced themselves as a new group, Ansar al Sharia, or Supporters of Sharia. Senior Yemeni officials told me that Ansar al Sharia is simply a front for Al Qaeda. They point out that the first known public reference to the group was made a month before the attack on Zinjibar by AQAP’s top cleric, Adil al-Abab. “The name Ansar al Sharia 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,” he said, adding that the new name was intended to put the focus on the message of the group so as to avoid being bogged down with the baggage of the Al Qaeda brand. Whether Ansar al Sharia had more independent origins or it’s merely a product of AQAP’s crude rebranding campaign, as Abab claims, the group’s significance would soon extend well beyond Al Qaeda’s historically limited spheres of influence in Yemen while simultaneously popularizing some of AQAP’s core tenets.
* * *
As we make our way with General Sumali down the abandoned highway, we pass the May 22 “Unity” Stadium, which was meticulously refurbished for the November 2010 Gulf 20 soccer tournament. It was meant to serve as a symbol that Yemen was safe for tourists. Indeed, thousands flocked to the country—many from neighboring Saudi Arabia and East Africa—to cheer for their teams. Luxury hotels were built for the occasion, and foreign dignitaries, including a few heads of state, came to Yemen for the opening ceremonies, which were presided over by President Saleh. A campaign involving “moderate” clerics from other Arab nations was simultaneously launched, called “the Battle of Hearts and Minds Against Al Qaeda.”
Six months later, the new hotels were vacant, and the stadium had become an emblem of instability. During the fighting over Zinjibar, the militants seized the stadium and Sumali’s forces had to shell it to force them back. As we drive past it, the damage is clear in the charred ruins of the upper rafters.
We pass the first front line on the outskirts of Zinjibar, “Tiger 1,” and drive a half-mile to “Tiger 2.” Sumali reluctantly agrees to let us get out. “We will only stay for two minutes,” he says. “It’s dangerous here.” The general is soon besieged by his men. They look thin and haggard, many with long beards and tattered uniforms or no uniforms at all. Some of them plead with Sumali to write them notes authorizing additional combat pay. One of the soldiers tells him, “I was with you when you were ambushed. I helped fight off the attack.” Sumali scribbles on a piece of paper and hands it to the soldier. The scene continues until Sumali gets back into the Toyota. As we drive away, he speaks from his armored vehicle through a loudspeaker at his men. “Keep fighting. Do not give up!”
Sumali tells me he cannot “confirm or deny” that Ansar al Sharia is actually AQAP. “What is important for me, as a soldier, is that they have taken up arms against us. Anyone who is attacking our institutions and military camps and killing our soldiers, we will fight them regardless of if they are Al Qaeda affiliates or Ansar al Sharia,” he says. “We don’t care what they call themselves. And I can’t confirm whether Ansar al Sharia is affiliated with Al Qaeda or if they are an independent group.”
The capture of Zinjibar came at a time when the Saleh regime was disintegrating and its attention was focused squarely on confronting the mounting campaign to bring down his government. “Ongoing instability in Yemen provides [AQAP] with greater freedom to plan and conduct operations,” the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, alleged to the Senate Intelligence Committee on January 31. “AQAP has exploited the political unrest to adopt a more aggressive strategy in southern Yemen, and it continues to threaten US and Western diplomatic interests.” Clapper concluded bluntly, “AQAP remains the [Al Qaeda] node most likely to attempt transnational attack.”
There is no question that AQAP took advantage of the moment, shrewdly recognizing that its message of a Sharia-based system of law and order would be welcomed by many in Abyan who viewed the Saleh regime as a US puppet. The US missile strikes, the civilian casualties, an almost total lack of government services and a deepening poverty all contributed. “As these groups of militants took over the city, then AQAP came in and also tribes from areas that have been attacked in the past by the Yemeni government and by the US government,” says Iryani, the political analyst. “They came because they have a feud against the regime and against the US. There is a nucleus of AQAP, but the vast majority are people who are aggrieved by attacks on their homes that forced them to go out and fight.” According to statistics published by the US Agency for International Development, “insecurity displaced more than 40,000 Zinjibaris in 2011.”
* * *
Unlike the militant movement Al Shabab in Somalia, AQAP has never taken control of significant swaths of territory in Yemen. But Ansar al Sharia pledged to do just that, declaring an Islamic Emirate in Abyan. Once Ansar al Sharia and its allies solidified their grip on Zinjibar, they implemented an agenda aimed at winning hearts and minds. “Ansar al Sharia has been much more proactive in attempting to provide services in areas in Yemen where the government has virtually disappeared,” says Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at Princeton University. “It has claimed that it is following the Taliban model in attempting to provide services and Islamic government where the central government in Yemen has left a vacuum.”
Ansar al Sharia repaired roads, restored electricity, distributed food and began security patrols inside the city and its surroundings. It also established Sharia courts where disputes could be resolved. “Al Qaeda and Ansar al Sharia brought security to the people in areas that were famous for insecurity, famous for thefts, for roadblocks,” says Abdul Rezzaq al Jamal, an independent Yemeni journalist who regularly interviews Al Qaeda leaders and has spent extensive time in Zinjibar. “The people I met in Zinjibar were grateful to Al Qaeda and Ansar al Sharia for maintaining security.” While the militants in Abyan may be bringing law and order, this is, at times, enforced with horrifying tactics such as limb amputations against accused thieves and public floggings of suspected drug users. In one incident in the Ansar al Sharia–held town of Jaar, residents said they were summoned to a gruesome event where militants used a sword to chop off the hands of two young men accused of stealing electric cables. The amputated limbs were then paraded around the town as a warning to would-be thieves. One of the young men, a 15-year-old, reportedly died soon after from massive blood loss. On February 12, Ansar al Sharia in Jaar publicly beheaded two men it alleged had provided information to the United States to conduct drone strikes. A third man was executed in Shebwa.
In mid-January, Ansar al Sharia overran parts of another town, Radaa, 100 miles southeast of Sanaa, resulting in a fresh round of government shelling and street battles between government forces and Ansar al Sharia and AQAP. “The threat of Al Qaeda is now real and can’t be underestimated, especially now that they have found supporters and a safe haven from which to operate,” says Sumali.
The taking of Zinjibar could be an indication that AQAP is effectively exploiting the growing power vacuum in Yemen. But what could be more dangerous is that support for AQAP’s agenda is indigenously spreading and merging with the mounting rage of powerful tribes at US counterterrorism policy and Washington’s years of support for the Saleh regime.
By late 2011, the United States had largely withdrawn its military assets from Yemen, including Special Operations forces, leaving much of the coordination for Yemen ops to the US forces stationed in the East African nation of Djibouti, where the United States has a large military base. The US-backed Yemeni Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) and Republican Guard forces no longer operated under the tutelage and direction of their US sponsors. CTU commanders told me in January that they don’t even have ammunition for their US-supplied M4 assault rifles. As battles raged at the premier front line in Abyan in late December/early January, Yahya Saleh, the US-backed head of the CTU, was nowhere to be found in Yemen. When I visited a CTU training base outside Sanaa, his men claimed not to know where he was. Senior Yemeni officials also said they had no idea where he was—other than that he was out of the country. They said they did not know when he would return. Eventually, in mid-January, Yahya posted pictures of himself online, hanging out in Havana with the family of Che Guevara.
Rather than fighting AQAP, these US-backed units—created and funded with the explicit intent to be used only for counterterrorism operations—redeployed to Sanaa to protect the collapsing regime from its own people. The US-supported units exist “mostly for the defense of the regime,” says Iryani. “In the fighting in Abyan, the counterterrorism forces have not been deployed in any effective way. They are still here in the palace [in Sanaa], protecting the palace. That’s how it is.” President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, acknowledged late last year that the “political tumult” has caused the US-trained units “to be focused on their positioning for internal political purposes as opposed to doing all they can against AQAP.”
The Obama administration was very slow to agitate for Saleh’s departure from power, in large part because of counterterrorism concerns. On January 28, Saleh arrived in New York, ostensibly for medical treatment, eliciting charges from his opponents that the United States was protecting him from the wrath of his people. For years, Saleh allowed the United States to regularly strike against AQAP in Yemen, and US Special Operations forces built up the specialized units, run by Saleh’s family members, that were widely seen as US surrogates. Saleh’s government actively conspired with US officials to cover up the US role in Yemen, at times publicly taking credit for US bombings. Even as demonstrations grew against the Saleh regime, US officials praised his government’s cooperation. “I can say today the counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen is better than it’s been during my whole tenure,” Brennan declared in September.
But US counterterrorism policy is extremely unpopular in Yemen. Whether a new government would continue the same type of counterterrorism relationship Saleh had with Washington is very much in question. In a series of interviews, Mohammed Qahtan and other leaders of the main opposition group, the Islah Party, sharply criticized US airstrikes in Yemen and the targeted killing of terrorism suspects, saying that they should have been put on trial in Yemen. Qahtan, the leader of Islah’s Muslim Brotherhood faction, charged that under Saleh, “The Yemeni government behaved in the war on terror as a contractor for the US,” adding that if Islah and its allies take control of the country, “we will not be contractors for the US, implementing what they want according to the money we receive. Our slogan is, ‘We are partners, not contractors.’”
The past several months have opened a window onto the emerging US counterterrorism approach post-Saleh. When the political crisis began to deepen in Yemen late last year, the Obama administration decided to pull out most of the US military personnel in Yemen, including those training Yemen’s counterterrorism forces. “They have left because of the security situation,” Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, Saleh’s foreign minister, told me at his office in Sanaa. “Certainly, I think if they do not return and the counterterrorism units are not provided with the necessary ammunition and equipment, it will have an impact” on counterterrorism operations. Now the United States is doubling down on its use of air power and drones, which are swiftly becoming the primary focus of Washington’s counterterrorism operations.
By last summer, the Obama administration had begun construction on a secret air base on the Arabian peninsula, closer than its base in Djibouti, that could serve as a launching pad for expanded drone strikes in Yemen. The September drone strike that killed US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was reportedly launched from that new base, which analysts suspect is either in Saudi Arabia or Oman, both of which border Yemen. While the United States is largely absent on the ground now in Yemen, it continues coordination with Yemeni intelligence on counterterrorism operations. In late January the United States carried out a series of airstrikes in Abyan, and, according to Sumali, US forces conducted at least two other strikes around Zinjibar that “targeted Al Qaeda leaders who are on the US terrorist black list,” though he adds, “I did not coordinate directly in these attacks.” According to Sumali, US helicopters have—on several occasions—flown in supplies for the 25th Mechanized. The Americans have also provided real-time intelligence, obtained by drones, to Yemeni forces in Abyan. “It has been an active partnership. The Americans help primarily with logistics and intelligence,” Sumali says. “Then we pound the positions with artillery or airstrikes.”
* * *
For years, the elite Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA had teams deployed inside Yemen that supported Yemeni forces and conducted unilateral operations, consisting mostly of cruise missile and drone attacks. Some of the unilateral strikes have killed their intended targets, such as the CIA attack on Awlaki. But others have killed civilians—at times, a lot of civilians. And many of these have been in Abyan and its neighboring province of Shebwa, both of which have recently seen a substantial rise of AQAP activity. President Obama’s first known authorization of a missile strike on Yemen, on December 17, 2009, killed more than forty Bedouins, many of them women and children, in the remote village of al Majala in Abyan. Another US strike, in May 2010, killed an important tribal leader and the deputy governor of Marib province, Jabir Shabwani, sparking mass anger at the United States and Saleh’s government. “I think these airstrikes were based on false intelligence from the regime, because that is the nature of the contractor,” Qahtan charges. “The contractor wants to create more work in return for earning more money.”
The October drone strike that killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, a US citizen, and his teenage cousin shocked and enraged Yemenis of all political stripes. “I firmly believe that the [military] operations implemented by the US performed a great service for Al Qaeda, because those operations gave Al Qaeda unprecedented local sympathy,” says Jamal, the Yemeni journalist. The strikes “have recruited thousands.” Yemeni tribesmen, he says, share one common goal with Al Qaeda, “which is revenge against the Americans, because those who were killed are the sons of the tribesmen, and the tribesmen never, ever give up on revenge.” Even senior officials of the Saleh regime recognize the damage the strikes have caused. “People certainly resent these [US] interventions,” Qirbi, the foreign minister and a close Saleh ally, concedes.
Such resentments mingle easily with the political and religious message of Al Qaeda and with the growing radicalization of the religious landscape, particularly in impoverished areas neglected by the Yemeni government, like Abyan. “Of course, when people are in that kind of circumstance then they need to hold on to some kind of ideological banner, so they start talking about the Caliphate and all that stuff,” says Iryani. At large rallies held by opponents of Saleh’s regime in Sanaa, prominent conservative imams deliver stinging sermons denouncing the United States and Israel. The United States may see AQAP as a membership organization with a finite number of members who can be taken out through a drone- and Tomahawk missile–fueled war of attrition, but there are varying shades of support and involvement among broader segments of Yemeni society. While there are certainly some foreign operatives in AQAP, the majority of those described as “militants” are Yemenis who belong to powerful tribes. “In recent months, Ansar al Sharia appears to have attracted a number of new members,” says Johnsen, the Yemen scholar at Princeton. “The group has essentially attempted to flatten itself out in Yemen in order to appeal to as many people as possible, which means that it takes the popular parts of AQAP’s platform, while downplaying the more controversial sections.”
While General Sumali talks of the need to “cleanse” Abyan of the “terrorists,” it is hardly that simple. The US bombs and the Yemeni military shelling of Zinjibar have increased support for Ansar al Sharia, allowing it to fulfill its claim that it is a defender of the people in the face of an onslaught backed by America. The attacks also serve as hard evidence that, as Awlaki and the leaders of AQAP alleged, the United States intends to target Yemen as it has Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. “I wish to send a message to my brothers and the honorable people of Abyan,” declared Abu Hamza al Murqoshi, the emir of Ansar al Sharia, in a videotaped “Message to Abyan” posted in late January. “The entire world has united against us with this treacherous government, which has demolished your homes and destroyed the infrastructure. You have joined the fight against this state and its allies, the Americans.”
* * *
The key to accomplishing anything in Yemen is navigating its labyrinthine tribal system. For years, a tribal patronage network helped bolster Saleh’s regime. Many tribes have had a neutral view of AQAP or have seen it as a minor nuisance; some have fought against Al Qaeda forces, while others have given them safe haven or shelter. The stance of many tribes toward Al Qaeda has depended on how they believe AQAP can forward their agenda.
But US policy has enraged tribal leaders who could potentially keep AQAP in check and has, over the past three years of regular bombings, taken away the motivation for many leaders to do so. Several southern leaders angrily told me stories of US and Yemeni attacks in their areas that killed civilians and livestock and destroyed or damaged scores of homes. If anything, the US airstrikes and support for Saleh-family-run counterterrorism units has increased tribal sympathy for Al Qaeda. “Why should we fight them? Why?” asks Sheik Ali Abdullah Abdulsalam, a southern tribal sheik from Shebwa who adopted the nom du guerre Mullah Zabara, he says, out of admiration for Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. “If my government built schools, hospitals and roads and met basic needs, I would be loyal to my government and protect it. So far, we don’t have basic services such as electricity, water pumps. Why should we fight Al Qaeda?” He says that AQAP controls large swaths of Shebwa, conceding that the group does “provide security and prevent looting. If your car is stolen, they will get it back for you.” In areas “controlled by the government, there is looting and robbery. You can see the difference.” Zabara adds, “If we don’t pay more attention, Al Qaeda could seize and control more areas.”
Zabara is quick to clarify that he believes AQAP is a terrorist group bent on attacking the United States, but that is hardly his central concern. “The US sees Al Qaeda as terrorism, and we consider the drones terrorism,” he says. “The drones are flying day and night, frightening women and children, disturbing sleeping people. This is terrorism.” Zabara says several US strikes in his region have killed scores of civilians and that his community is littered with unexploded cluster bombs, which have detonated, killing children. He and other tribal leaders asked the Yemeni and US governments for assistance in removing them, he says. “We did not get any response, so we use our guns to explode them.” He also says the US government should pay money to the families of civilians killed in the missile strikes of the past three years. “We demand compensation from the US for killing Yemeni citizens, just like the Lockerbie case,” he declares. “The world is one village. The US received compensation from Libya for the Lockerbie bombing, but the Yemenis have not.”
I meet Mullah Zabara and his men at the airport in Aden, in southern Yemen, along the coast where the USS Cole was bombed in October 2000, killing seventeen US sailors. Zabara is dressed in black tribal clothes, complete with a jambiya (dagger) at his stomach. For a modern twist, he is also packing a Beretta on his hip. Zabara is a striking figure, with leathery skin and a large scar that forms a crescent moon along his right eye. “I don’t know this American,” he says to my Yemeni colleague. “So if anything happens to me as a result of this meeting—if I get kidnapped—we’ll just kill you later.” Everyone laughs nervously. We chat for a while on a corniche on the coast before he drives us around the city for a tour. About twenty minutes into the tour, he pulls over on the side of the road and buys a six-pack of Heineken from a shanty store, tosses one to me, cracks open a can for himself and speeds off. It is 11 am.
“Once I got stopped by AQAP guys at one of their checkpoints, and they saw I had a bottle of Johnnie Walker,” he recalls as he guzzles his second Heineken in ten minutes and lights a cigarette. “They asked me, ‘Why do you have that?’ I told them, ‘to drink it.’” He laughs heartily. “I told them to bother another guy and drove off.” The message of the story is clear: the Al Qaeda guys don’t want trouble with tribal leaders. “I am not afraid of Al Qaeda; I go to their sites and meet them. We are all known tribesmen, and they have to meet us to solve their disputes.” Plus, he adds: “I have 30,000 fighters in my own tribe. Al Qaeda can’t attack me.”
Zabara has served as a mediator with AQAP for the Yemeni government and was instrumental in securing the release in November of three French aid workers held hostage by the militant group for six months. He said he intervened after an AQAP agent called him. “A person phoned me and told me that they would kill the French in revenge for the death of al-Awlaki,” Zabara recalls. “I traveled to where they were and told them, ‘If you kill the French, we will fight you using our daggers.’” Eventually, Zabara—along with an undisclosed sum of money—was able to persuade AQAP to release the hostages. He whips out his cellphone and shows me several pictures he took of the hostages as they were being freed.
Zabara was also asked by the Yemeni minister of defense to mediate with the militants in Zinjibar on several occasions, including to retrieve bodies of soldiers killed in areas held by Ansar al Sharia. “I have nothing against Al Qaeda or the government,” he says. “I started the mediation in order to stop bloodshed and to achieve peace.” In Zinjibar, his efforts were unsuccessful. He tells me that while mediating, he has met AQAP operatives from the United States, France, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
I ask him if he ever meets with top AQAP leaders. “Fahd al Quso is from my tribe,” he replies with a smile, referring to one of the most wanted suspects from the Cole bombing. He also says he met Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the alleged “underwear bomber” charged with attempting to blow up a passenger flight over Detroit in December 2009. “I saw [Said] al-Shihri and [Nasir] al-Wuhayshi five days ago in Shebwa,” he casually adds, referring to the two senior AQAP leaders, both of them US-designated terrorists. “We were walking, and they said, ‘Peace be upon you.’ I replied, ‘Peace be upon you too.’ We have nothing against them. In the past, it was unthinkable to run into them. They were hiding in the mountains and caves, but now they are walking in the streets and going to restaurants.” Why is that? I ask. “The regime, the ministers and officials are squandering the money allocated to fight Al Qaeda, while Al Qaeda expands,” he says. The United States “funds the Political Security and the National Security [forces], which spend money traveling here and there, in Sanaa or in the US, with their family. All the tribes get is airstrikes against us.” He adds that counterterrorism “has become like an investment” for the US-backed units. “If they fight seriously, the funds will stop. They prolonged the conflict with Al Qaeda to receive more funds” from the United States.
* * *
That, in a nutshell, is how many Yemenis see the US role in their country. The United States “should have never made counterterrorism a source of profit for the regime, because that increased terrorism,” asserts Iryani. “Their agenda was to keep terrorism alive, because it was their cash cow.” The US bombings, he said, were “a bad mistake. Military action often backfires by killing civilians, by the violation of sovereignty. That offends a lot of Yemenis.” For the United States, the most serious question that lingers over Yemen after Ali Abdullah Saleh is: Did US counterterrorism policy strengthen the very threat it sought to eliminate? “It was a major fiasco,” Iryani says of the past decade of US counterterrorism policy in Yemen. “I think if we had been left alone, we would have less terrorists in Yemen than we do now.”