Middle East

Yemen: New al-Qaeda generation out of sight

Yemen soldiers holding rifles on range, August 2013.
Image caption The West regards Yemen's armed forces as playing a key anti-terrorism role

As Washington vacated its embassy in Sanaa earlier this month, it said it had intercepted a phone call between the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Nasser al Wuhayshi, the leader of its Yemeni branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

What followed was a stream of intelligence leaks and speculation.

For a brief spell amid the exodus of Western diplomatic staff the world's attention focused on Yemen.

Ruled for over three decades by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, it is now in transition following mass protests, the breakdown of the army and his removal from power in 2012.

The new president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, is struggling with many challenges: the delicate task of restructuring a factionalised army, a severe water shortage, widespread malnutrition and general lawlessness.

With all these crises, Yemen seems insecure to the core, but it is al-Qaeda that grabs most of the headlines.

As European embassies reopened, officials were still puzzling over what precisely prompted the alert.

The Yemeni foreign minister, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, insisted that the intelligence assessments were exaggerated.

"If you ask me personally I would say Syria is the most dangerous place in terms of al-Qaeda operations, and Iraq is the second, not Yemen."

But what about allegations that AQAP is now the most dangerous branch of al-Qaida?

"I wish the people who make these statements provide us with the intelligence information to convince me of these arguments."

I asked him why they didn't.

"I think you should ask this question to the intelligence agencies. The Americans and the British and others."

Under wraps

His admission that Yemen had been kept in the dark is hard to reconcile with the intimacy of security co-operation between Sanaa and Washington.

For about a decade, the United States has been launching drone strikes in southern Yemen with the approval of the Yemeni government.

The drone campaign has been wrapped in secrecy, with Washington refraining from public comment and Sanaa officially in denial for years.

Under former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the airstrikes were not acknowledged. Mr Saleh claimed that Yemeni aircraft were doing the actual bombing.

But diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks showed that Mr Saleh's policy was to deny the Americans were bombing his country in order to deflect domestic criticism.

Today, Sanaa acknowledges the strikes, but it's still hard to find anyone in Yemen who supports them.

Civilian deaths have caused outrage, and there's a deep distrust of the government's relations with Washington.

Image caption Farea al-Muslimi argues Yemen is not interested in dismantling al-Qaeda

Farea al-Muslimi is a journalist and activist who has visited towns and villages scarred by drone warfare and testified to the US Congress about the strikes.

He said if Yemeni authorities were interested in defeating al-Qaeda and securing its strongholds in southern Yemen, they would have done more to fight it themselves.

"In 2011 American-equipped elite counter-terrorism forces were shooting unarmed protesters. Meanwhile down south, they were nowhere in sight."

"As for the soldiers fighting al-Qaeda, I wouldn't trust them to guard a school," he added.

Army fractured

The breakdown of the army during the Yemeni uprising seems to have given groups affiliated with al-Qaeda even more space to operate.

In 2011, as Mr Saleh faced growing street protests calling for his ousting, his former ally General Ali Mohsen took the opportunity to defect, along with his First Armoured Brigade.

The Yemeni revolution descended into a war between General Mohsen's brigade and his tribal allies on one hand, and the Republican Guard commanded by Mr Saleh's son and other loyalist troops on the other.

Now as the new president tries to exert his control, both factions appear to have been weakened to varying degrees but a strong new core has yet to emerge.

"Before, Saleh and Ali Mohsen used to have control to some extent over the older generation of al-Qaeda," said Jamilla Rajaa, a former Yemeni diplomat who takes part in transitional national dialogue.

"They could manipulate what they were doing; they could understand, communicate, negotiate with them. But nobody is keeping in touch with the younger generation."

The militants were targeting high-ranking officers in the army for assassination, she said, but it was unclear what their motivations were.

"Are they acting now as mercenaries? I don't know. Are they acting out of ideology and faith? I don't know anymore."

More on this story