The Perfect Storm: Yemen, Shadow Networks and Jihad’s New Vanguard

Terrorism, like a lethal disease, is prone to adaptation and evolution to survive any remedy devised to combat the threat. There in lies the predicament, what becomes of the host when the disease is too virulent to be remedied by modern medicine? The host, in the absence of some kind of mitigation, would usually die. Whilst society is unlikely to crumble as a result of the acts of a minority of individuals, society is still left with a costly burden in the human and economics losses sustained as a result of terrorism.

Advancing the disease analogy, it can be deducted that acting preemptively before the threat is serious, can in some instances, save the host from potentially lethal infection. Vaccinations are the prime example of where foresight, is preferable to hindsight, and usually with positive results. Much is the same in a global counter-terrorism strategy, identification of a future threat, and working to mitigate the seriousness of that threat, is a preferable strategy.

It is because of this notion of foresight that a global society must brand the situation that is developing in Yemen as the most substantial threat to international peace and security in the next decade.  Yemen is the perfect storm so far as society should be concerned, and if not, it should be.  The country lacks stability, whilst aiming to combat insurgency and the reemergence of Al Qaeda in the region. This is in addition to the concerning geopolitical factors that must be considered when assessing Yemen’s strategic relevance.

Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East, and has recently experienced a population boom and rising unemployment. The country was one of the few at the epicenter of the 2011 Arab Spring. Longstanding President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who took power in Northern Yemen in 1978 and united Yemen in 1990, was deposed after thirty years in power.  Saleh stepped aside following his wounding in an attempted assassination, only to return to the country some months ago. His return, along with the deep schisms in not only Yemen’s government, but in Yemeni society, paints a bleak and unstable political picture.  This picture is only complicated by the circumstances detailed in the reminder of this article, and justifies the need for recognition of the necessity of a new approach in Yemen, and the urgency with which that approach must be implemented.

Financial crisis

Oil accounts for approximately 70% of gross domestic product, however, Yemen’s reserves are not expected to last beyond 2020.  Further, it has been suggested that 40% of Yemen’s live on less than two dollars ($2) a day.  The Saleh regime maintained a culture of embezzlement, tipped as one of the most corrupt governments in the world.

The corruption, financial uncertainty surround oil, and a retraction or reduction in foreign aid from the United States signify that financial crisis may hit Yemen in the next eight or ten years.  This crisis, along with the deep seated politically uncertainty post-revolution has led to Yemen dropping from 15th to 8th in Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace’s ‘Index of Failed or Failing States’ in the just over a year. Leaving only countries like Afghanistan or Somalia as worse examples.


Yemen has been torn apart by three different insurgencies in recent times. The Shi’a sect Houti Rebels to the north have been reported to be receiving support from Iran, the Houti have taken control of vast amounts of territory. A succession movement to the South was a significant threat to the Saleh regime prior to the Arab Spring, only to dissipate during the worst of the revolution. However, the threat that remains in the south of Yemen is a familiar to threats of other unstable Islamic nations, it is an Islamist insurgency seeking overthrow of all existing political structure and implementation of strict Sharia law.

The insurgent organisation Ansar al-Sharia, which translates to ‘Partisans of Islamic Law’, is similar to the Taliban and Al-Shabaab in many respects. Their tactics are practically identical, combining both conventional forms of guerilla warfare as well as terrorist attacks on Yemeni government officials in the civil and security services, all for the purpose of establishing a Sharia state. However, there is one key distinction in the case of Ansar al-Sharia, which is political legitimacy. The human rights abuses and brutality of the Taliban’s Afghanistan or Shabaab’s Somalia are well documented. No such abuse has transpired in the protectorate Ansar al-Sharia has established. There, Ansar al-Sharia has provided essential services where the central government has failed to do so thereby creative a positive association between Ansar al-Sharia, Sharia law and the necessities of life. This is the aim of the organisation as was stated by Abu Zubayr Adel al-Abab, Sharia official for the group as well as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, when the insurgency began in 2011.

Additionally Ansar al-Sharia’s offer of salaries to not only new recruits, but also the tribes that provide them, is a lucrative one to those struggling financially. It is also appealing to tribal leaders, whose influence depends on the popular support of the tribe’s members. This is a form of tribal engagement, through diplomacy rather than coercion, that has made Ansar al-Sharia more effective that the Taliban and al-Shebaab in gaining tribal support.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)

The threat of the original Al Qaeda organisation, now led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, has severely diminished. AQAP as it is commonly known is the Arab delegation of the global jihadi network, which draws membership from Yemenis, Saudis and Somalis. AQAP has taken up the mantle of being the rallying point for global jihad, demonstrating a capacity to strike in Yemen as well as internationally. This is in addition to operating an effective insurgency in the south through the guise of Ansar al-Sharia.

AQAP is a much more effective recruitment organisation than the original Al Qaeda. The United States Military Academy at West Point is particularly concerned at the organisations ability to recruit westerners. Through its magazine Inspire, AQAP targets disenfranchised western Muslims to great effect. Additionally, the ability of AQAP cleric Anwar al-Awlaki to utilise the Internet and its mediums like twitter have contributed to the effectiveness of this western focused recruitment strategy.

Through this strategy AQAP has been to orchestrate attacks within western security structures, evading conventional counter-terrorism protections. The shooting at Fort Hood in the United States is one such example where AQAP successfully engineered an attack inside a western state’s borders. Further, despite the deaths of Awlaki and Samir Kahn, Inspire’s editor, this recruitment ability has been dinted but not diminished to any significant degree.

AQAP’s divergence into insurgency, whilst maintaining a function as a terrorist organisation is a different tactic to Shebaab, and the original Al Qaeda in conjunction with the Taliban. AQAP has combined superior recruitment initiatives, both in propaganda intended for the West and through local initiatives to sustain a more amenable political narrative in comparison to Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda. A narrative, given Yemen’s troubled political and financial situation, that could offer a credible alternative to the remnants of the Saleh regime as a form of governance.  In the case of AQAP, insurgency and Terrorist organisation are one in the same, and Ansar al-Sharia is rebranding the hardline violent ideology of Al Qaeda, into a more persuasive popular front capable of winning support of a majority of Yemen’s population.

The failure of Counter-Terrorism efforts

Humanitarian and military aid to the Yemeni government from the USA, primary backer of the regime in Sana’a, has been either suspended or in some cases significantly reduced. The effective of which, has been two fold. First, decreased humanitarian aid has exacerbated the effects of Yemen’s ailing economy. Which in turn, leads to a disruption in essential services in rural areas of the country. This often creates deal circumstances for AQAP and Ansar al-Sharia to draw political support from a disenfranchised population.

Second, the dearth in military funding limits the effectiveness of Yemen’s Security Services. Without an effective military or police force, capable of repelling advances made by the various insurgencies, further instability can be utilised by AQAP. Whilst there may be legitimate reasons for ceasing or diluting financial aid to Yemen, the failure to adequately address the consequences of this notion further destabilises the Yemeni government and plays to the strategic objectives of AQAP.

A US military presence is practically impossible given the high anti-US sentiments that exist in Yemen.  Hence the use of Drones in a wider policy of targeted killing.  There is some debate as to the effectiveness given the risk of civilian casualties. Further, there is some dispute as to whether their use alienates the Yemeni population. Taking a conservative view of the issue, and subscribing to Christopher Swifts persuasive Drone Blowback Fallacy, it can be observed that the issue with drones is not their use necessarily, but their American origin, further highlighting the anti-US sentiment that permeates Yemeni society.

Concluding Remarks

Returning to the disease analogy, society can take one of two views. First, the time for vaccination has passed. Al Qaeda has reestablished itself in another impregnable fortress and removing the threat requires engaging in another costly war in the Middle East. Or second, which is the infinitely more persuasive view, which is that now is the time for vaccination.

Rather than focusing an overtly large amount of attention on the extinguished threat of the central Al Qaeda, this preemptive approach focuses on disassembling AQ central’s most successful byproduct and eventual successor.  This would require rebutting the political narrative AQAP has established, and making genuine attempts to oversee the return of stability to Yemen whilst factoring in the wishes for democracy of the Yemeni population. However, as been outlined, the undercurrents and gathering forces in Yemen justify action in the very immediate future to avert the oncoming perfect storm. It seems apt to state, so far as Yemen is concerned, the need for foresight and a dose of preemptive medicine is paramount.


Gordon (Connor) McBain is an undergraduate Law and International Relations student and Bond University.