Al-Qaeda in Radaa, Yemen – global security challenge or local succession dispute?

In January 2012 Al-Qaeda seized control of Radaa, Yemen. Internationally the event was viewed as a territorial advance by Al-Qaeda, however the situation was much more complicated. Viewing the conflict from a different perspective has important consequences for what policy and action are appropriate.

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By Erwin van Veen

In January 2012 Al-Qaeda seized control of Radaa, a town that is strategically located on the highway connecting Yemen’s capital with the country’s southern governorates. It hoisted its black flag, released a number of prisoners and held the town for about two weeks. International media reported the episode respectively as an ‘Islamist advance’ (BBC), an ‘Al-Qaeda take-over’ (CNN) and a ‘territory gain’ (BBC). Such framing reinforces the narrative of the global fight against terrorism as it suggests the event was a territorial advance towards the creation of another Taliban-style emirate in which a radically conservative interpretation of Islamic doctrine prevails. It also quickly leads to a vindication of existing policy responses, such as targeted strikes.

Yet, not all is what it seems in this particular case. In fact, a closer look suggests that Radaa’s occupation looks a lot more like a tribal succession issue that turned violent with the help of tribal and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) elements, than a brazen territorial advance by AQAP alone. Unsurprisingly, seeing the event in a different light has significant consequences for what policy and action are appropriate. The alternative story is this:

Radaa is located in Yemen’s Al-Bayda’s governorate, a poor and remote area that features a number of tribes including Kaifa and Murad. When Sheikh Ahmed Naser Al-Dahab of the Kaifa tribe died, he had six sons with his first wife and five with his second wife. For reasons unknown to the author, the tribe passed over Tareq Al-Dahab – an elder son of Sheikh Ahmed Naser’s first wife – in favour of Majed Ali Al-Dahab, a younger son of his second wife, who became sheikh instead. Reportedly, this not only humiliated Tareq Al-Dahab socially, but also left him without inheritance and hence income. These events took place around 2007.

Sometime later Tareq Al-Dahab became the brother-in-law of Anwar Al-Awliki (a prominent AQAP leader, imam and US/Yemeni citizen who was later killed, in 2011). He was instrumental in recruiting Tareq and two of his brothers, Qaid and Nabil into AQAP. Their succession grievance and desire for revenge presumably played a significant role in their recruitment, which was further facilitated by the newly created blood ties. Ultimately, they mobilised between a few hundred and a thousand tribal and AQAP fighters to occupy Radaa, with the reported aims of putting pressure on the Kaifa tribe in respect of who should lead it and pulling off another AQAP public relations coup (the year before AQAP temporarily took control of five cities in southern Yemen). Personal, tribal and terrorist motives were inextricably intertwined in their intervention.

Once fighting erupted between government forces and AQAP/tribal fighters, a number of sheikhs from the area initiated a mediation effort according to local custom in an attempt to prevent extensive damage to their land, livelihoods and people. However, the moment they had managed to calm the situation down, the Yemeni army launched an unsuccessful surprise attack on Radaa. This not only destroyed the credibility of the mediation effort, but it also made it look like the sheikhs involved had double-crossed AQAP. They had to flee the area in consequence while the fighting continued.

Not much later, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Qarda’e of the Murad tribe renewed the mediation effort. As the Kaifa and Murad tribes are closely related by family ties, there was sufficient common ground for him to work from. He calculated that fear of the revenge killings that would inevitably follow killing him – being a prominent member of the more powerful Murad tribe – would keep him safe from intentional harm at the hands of Kaifa tribe members, even in view of the fate of the previous mediation effort. However, to avoid a similar series of events, he conferred first with both the governor and the regional military commander to enlist their support.

An initial probe suggested that the Kaifa/AQAP leaders in charge of the occupying forces were at least willing to listen to him. Ironically, the continuous circling of drones over the area nearly doomed the incipient mediation effort as Kaifa/AQAP leaders interpreted their presence as a sign of bad faith. The issue was resolved by having them decide the place for the meeting and leading the mediators there blindfolded and without advance notice. Talks could start.

Exploratory conversations showed that a number of the Kaifa leaders that joined Tareq-Al-Dhahab’s uprising were receptive to Sheikh Ahmed Al-Qarda’e invitation to become ‘good citizens again’ and to submit reasonable demands based on their tribal rights that could be negotiated with the government according to custom. Once it became clear that the affair could be framed and resolved as a matter of tribal grievances – instead of a terrorist issue – President Saleh reportedly agreed to a formal mediation process.

The key provisions of the deal that was ultimately struck stipulated that both military and AQAP forces leave the area, that the Kaifa tribe would benefit from a number of governmental developmental projects and damage payments, and that drone surveillance over the area would cease. Not much later, Tareq-Al-Dhahab was killed by his half-brother Hizam Al-Dhabab on the grounds that he had brought shame on his tribe by allying with AQAP and commencing a violent conflict without just cause. Allegedly, fear of further military targeting of the Kaifa tribe also played a role. As a result of these events, the area quietened down and a modicum of order was restored.

Several elements of this series of events are worthy of note, but in particular the framing of the issue and the associated response options. Seeing the episode as a territorial advance of an international terrorist group makes it look sensible to intervene with military force, step up drone strikes and increase support to governments in the frontline of fighting terrorism (Nigeria, Mali and Somalia offer examples complementary to Yemen). However, understanding the episode as a tribal succession issue suggests instead that mediation according to local custom is likely to be a much more effective way to resolve the matter. While this is not perfect, it has the best chance of minimising bloodshed and destruction, as well as halting terrorist advances.

The deeper implication for counter-terrorism policy in Yemen is that framing which reinforces dominant narratives such as ‘AQAP is in league with (some of) Yemen’s tribes and this must be countered by force’, is likely to aggravate the very issue it seeks to reduce. Continued drone strikes and use of military (governmental) force in traditional and relatively autonomous areas would almost certainly have alienated the tribes involved, radicalised the population, swollen the ranks of AQAP and triggered further violence (broader risks are discussed here).

In general, AQ affiliates excel at utilising local grievances by weaving them into their narrative of oppression and injustice that they subsequently use to recruit and justify acts of violence. This clearly happened in Radaa. However, what also happened, and in fact seems to offer the more persuasive explanation, is that local grievances function as active agents that enter into alliances of convenience – in this case with AQAP. It was invited in by elements of the Kaifa tribe for instrumental rather than ideological reasons. In such a context, using external force instead of existing local dispute resolution mechanisms may actually unintentionally strengthen AQAP’s narrative of Western interference and local oppression – especially if additional grievances are created in the process of its application.

Reducing the threat of terrorism does require short-term security measures to protect innocent people from lethal harm. Yet, only a fine-grained reading of the local situation and its innate possibilities for peacemaking can generate the response that will help diminish the need for such measures in the long-run.

Erwin van Veen is a senior research fellow at Clingendael’s Conflict Research Unit. You can follow him on @ErwinVeen.

This article is in part based on a recent interview of the author with Sheikh Ahmed Al-Qarda’e and is part of a broader project, “From the struggle for citizenship to the fragmentation of justice: Yemen from 1990 to 2013”. Any errors are the author’s. 

This article was originally published by Insight on Conflict and is available by clicking here.

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