Even al-Qaeda's Politics Are Local
Posted by Eric Martin
Gregory Johnsen, who is reliably informative on all-things-Yemen, takes issue with an NPR story on the al-Qaeda branch based in Yemen (AQAP). The thrust of the NPR piece is that AQAP has a particular anti-American tilt due to the fact that many of its senior leaders, or their siblings, have spent time imprisoned at the Guantanamo Bay facility.
After correcting the article's errors in terms of properly identifying AQAP's senior leaders (many of whom have no such Gitmo connection), Johnsen makes several very salient points regarding the objectives and outlook of the organization itself:
AQAP has done much more in the past year besides launching two attacks at the US.
Of course those two attacks have gained the organization a great deal of press in the west, but are they really the organization's raison d'etre?
The answer, at least in my opinion, is a strong no. AQAP does want to attack the west - US and Europe as well - but it is also very much focused on the local scene, and this is what makes them so dangerous. In their Arabic material, AQAP spends much, much more time attacking President Salih and the Saudi royal family than they do the US.
They have launched many more attacks against Saudi and Yemeni government than they have against the US - these just tend not to get the press in the US that they do in the Middle East. In fact, I would say (again based on my reading of AQAP's materials in Arabic) that the number one enemy of AQAP is Muhammad bin Nayyif, Saudi Arabia's Deputy Minister of the Interior and the kingdom's counterterrorism chief.
Now, AQAP would like nothing more than to provoke the US into an invasion of Yemen, but one of things that has characterized the organization since its resurrection back in 2006 and 2007 was that it never made any distinction between fighting the US - "the Zionist-Crusader alliance" in its catchy rhetoric - and fighting its local "agents." Everything the group has done since, fits into this framework that it laid out early on. Just because we weren't paying attention to it then doesn't mean it didn't exist.
To think that the organization is focused on the US to the exclusion of other, more local targets is to misread the organization in, I think, a very dangerous way. And, at least for me, ignores incredibly too much evidence. AQAP is about much, much more than simply attacking the west.
There are at least a few important takeaways from the above cited excerpts. For one, AQAP, like all other manifestations of al-Qaeda, has conducted more attacks on local targets than American targets. This is both a function of the ultimate driving force behind al-Qaeda (to usurp local regimes that it considers insufficiently pious and replace them with true Muslim rule), and a hindrance to its ability to appeal to a wider audience (for one, al-Qaeda has killed more Muslims than non-Muslims, and that doesn't play very well locally).
In that vein, Johnsen is right to highlight AQAP's focus on the Saudi Arabian and Yemeni regimes. In fact, when the Saudi branch of al-Qaeda was being dismantled by Saudi intelligence after a brief run in the early 2000's, its leaders fled to Yemen and merged with the local chapter there - so its anti-Saudi orientation runs deep.
AQAP - as with other al-Qaeda franchises - is still a threat to attack the United States, though, which it sees as the main power propping-up the local regimes that are the primary targets. However, the threat posed, and the underlying motives, should not be exaggerated or made "personal" - to quote the NPR piece.
Rather than viewing AQAP as hell-bent on our destruction at all costs, and overreacting by, again, applying heavy-handed military solutions to a problem that doesn't call for such an approach, or inserting ourselves further into what is primarily a local conflict, it would be wiser to treat AQAP as an ideal target for Containment 2.0.