Foreign Policy Essay

The Foreign Policy Essay: Is Yemen’s Government Complicit with Al-Qaeda?

By Sama'a Al-Hamdani
Sunday, May 11, 2014, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: Yemen is among the most vexing allies the United States has in the struggle against terrorism. Like Pakistan, the government in Sana’a is both a key partner and part of the problem. On the one hand, one of al-Qaeda’s most important affiliates is based in Yemen, and the Yemeni regime supports the U.S. drone program, among other counterterrorism measures. On the other hand, numerous reports persist of Yemeni government incompetence and even complicity with jihadist groups. Sama'a Al-Hamdani, a Yemen analyst who writes the blog Yemeniaty, examines this tension, assessing the problems Yemen faces in combating terrorism and offering her thoughts for how the government there should change its approach.


On April 10, 2013, Yemen’s president Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi announced the restructuring of Yemen’s military, which left the government weaker than ever. Several top military officials were replaced, others were moved to new and unfamiliar posts, and a struggle continues to play out behind the scenes between the Political Security Organization (PSO) and the National Security Bureau (NSB), the country’s two main intelligence agencies. The government is also divided by political and tribal loyalties.

In this environment, it is only natural that counterterrorism efforts would suffer. But is the Yemeni government doing its best to fight terrorism? Yemen has experienced assassinations, prison breaks, and terrorist attacks, all of which raise questions about the Hadi regime’s ability and willingness to fight terrorism.

Prison breaks are a constant problem in Yemen—so terrorists may be arrested, but they often end up free. One memorable prison escape occurred under the reign of Hadi’s predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in the capital, Sana’a, in 2006. Twenty-three prisoners escaped from the Political Security Prison, which is located in one of Sana’a’s most secure and prestigious neighborhoods. The detainees reportedly dug a tunnel from their cell to a nearby mosque using the most basic utensil: a spoon. Many Yemenis discussed on Facebook their belief that at least some government officials were complicit in the escape. Two theories were possible: either the prison guards neglected to regularly check their high security prisoners, or the guards knew exactly what the prisoners were up to and possibly assisted in their escape.

For several years after that, most prison breaks involved the escape of only one or two prisoners. However, since Yemen’s revolution in 2011, which saw the abdication of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, mass prison breaks have again been on the rise. In June 2011, 67 prisoners escaped from a prison in Al-Mukalla through a 45-meter underground passage they dug themselves. A few months later, 16 prisoners—13 of whom were members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)—escaped from a prison in Aden after digging a 39-meter tunnel. Digging massive tunnels large enough to allow numerous adult males to pass through safely should be difficult if not impossible for prisoners who are supposedly carefully monitored and restricted in their access to potential digging materials, particularly after the 2006 mass escape. Yet the shockingly high number of prisoners who have successfully escaped through such tunnels would seem to indicate otherwise. Something is clearly going wrong here—either the prison guards are almost comically inept, or (much more likely) the prison guards are complicit with AQAP. Just a few days ago, Reuters revealed that Sana’a Central Prison—and in turn the Ministry of Interior—received warnings about a possible prison break, two months before it actually happened. AQAP’s infiltration of Yemen’s security system may go all the way up to include high level officials.

But while some members of the security sector in Yemen are almost certainly in collusion with terrorists, others are frequently the targets of AQAP operations. Attacks carried out against the military and security services not only intimidate officers and prevent them from doing their jobs, they also suggest a certain level of infiltration by the militants. In a number of high-profile operations, the attackers dressed in military uniforms and bypassed security checkpoints and entrance searches. For instance, two years ago, a suicide bomber in the city of Sana’a killed 90 soldiers when he infiltrated a military parade, leading some to speculate that the attacker may have had a fake military identification card. Similar attacks have taken place against military exercises, police academies, and, most recently, military bases. In the past six months, a police college in Sana’a was attacked by a suicide bomber, killing 20 cadets; another 20 people were massacred in the governorate of Shabwah when two cars exploded at a military camp; and several military bases in Abyan were attacked and the army’s Second Division in Al-Mukalla was captured.

Three things are simultaneously happening in Yemen: first, military and security personnel are too frightened to stand up to the militants and would rather surrender and cooperate than die at the hands of AQAP; second, some security officials are being bribed to work for AQAP—or at least to look the other way while AQAP operates; and third, “spoilers” (people in society who believe that peace and stability “threatens their power, worldview, and interests, and use violence to undermine attempts to achieve it,” such as AQAP and others) are taking advantage of the post-revolution transitional chaos to destroy Yemen’s military and weaken the Yemeni security apparatus.

Unfortunately, the situation seems to be getting worse, not better, and the security vacuum continues to grow. Since 2011, the government’s response to terrorism has been contradictory at best. On April 29, 2014, the Ministry of Defense and NSB launched a battle on the ground against AQAP in the governorates of Abyan and Lahj. This is the third on-the-ground battle since 2012. The details of the battle remain imprecise: the deaths of AQAP operatives are reported but many of them remain unconfirmed. Support for U.S. drone operations has also been reinforced; however, on the ground, terrorism suspects are kept anonymous in many cases and the investigation and punishment process is unclear. As the Yemeni poet and writer Nabeel Subay eloquently put it, “The government made our skies available to drones, but our lands available to terrorists.”

The Yemeni government’s lack of accountability to and concern for its military and its people have enabled AQAP to manipulate the situation to their advantage. AQAP’s understanding of the military’s weaknesses is quite evident, and each attack seems more ambitious than the one before. On March 29, 2014, AQAP’s media center released a video celebrating the “safe return” of its members from the February 14 prison break. The prisoners boasted in the video that the necessary equipment for making the explosives was handed to them by unnamed individuals in the prison.

The video was also astonishing because it showcased the freedom of movement enjoyed by AQAP in Yemen and highlighted the growing number of AQAP associates and sympathizers. The head of AQAP, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, announced in the video that a Saudi national, Ibrahim al-Rabish, was now his right-hand man. AQAP appeared as a tight unit that had plenty of recent successes to celebrate. Though the video was obviously made for propaganda purposes and to boost efforts to recruit new members from the vast pool of unemployed youth in the country, the fact that the video was shot outdoors and the celebrations took place right out in the open strongly suggests that AQAP is protected by powerful individuals in Yemen.

Just days after the release of the video, attacks on military posts continued, including an attack on April 2, in which the base of the Fourth Division of the Yemeni army in Aden was targeted by a suicide bomber, killing several soldiers and civilians. After each AQAP victory, their confidence grows; this is reflected in the growing frequency and audacity of their operations. Based on these trends, AQAP will likely continue to target military and security officials throughout the country, and the size and intensity of their operations will increase.

Faced with this mushrooming security crisis, the Hadi government reacted by putting new leaders in key security posts. On March 7, a new interior minister, Major General Abdo al-Tareb, was appointed—only three years into his predecessor’s term in office. Ghalib al-Ghamish, who headed the PSO for almost three decades, was replaced by General Jalal al-Ruwaishan. After the Sana’a Central Prison break, President Hadi assigned 20 new officers in the armed forces. Unfortunately, these personnel changes may ultimately prove to be too little, too late.

President Hadi also gave the United States even more authority in fighting terrorism in Yemen. In September 2012, he publicly endorsed the use of drones in Yemen at a talk he gave at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. His cooperation with the United States is unprecedented, and his declaration of AQAP as “the enemies” made his regime and its allies the target of AQAP attacks. Since 2012, Hadi has managed to establish himself as one of many power players; however, the balance of power in the country is still not entirely in his favor. Hadi’s ability to implement decisions rests on the cooperation and consent of other power centers. Moreover, it will be very difficult to override AQAP’s infiltration of the security system.

Much more drastic measures by the Hadi government are necessary to confront and eradicate the terrorist threat in Yemen. President Hadi’s new military appointments are a good start, but the military is too weak for this strategy alone to do the job. The corruption and complicity that allows prison breaks to occur must be exposed and parties involved in supporting these crimes should be identified and prosecuted. The only way to win this war is through domestic confrontation that eliminates the roots of terrorism and discredits the terrorists’ ideology. The recent expansion of AQAP is a consequence of the virtual absence of the rule of law in a country that suffers from extreme poverty and great political and economic injustices. Realistic solutions should involve programs that develop the Yemeni infrastructure, reduce poverty, lower high unemployment rates—especially amongst the youth—and foster national reconciliation and cohesion. It is also essential that the authority of local government be strengthened. Finally, the Yemeni government should encourage the tolerance embedded in how Islam is traditionally practiced in Yemen and liberate religious education from the bonds of radicalization and extremism.


Sama'a Al-Hamdani writes the blog Yemeniaty, which covers a range of topics on Yemen, focusing specifically on women’s issues. She has published articles in Al-Monitor, The National (UAE), MENAsource (an Atlantic Council blog), Fikra Forum, Yemen Observer, Yemen Times, News Yemen, Yemen Today magazine, and several academic journals, and has served as a Yemen political panelist for think tanks as well as governmental and nongovernmental agencies from various parts of the world. She has a bachelor’s degree in religion and peace studies with a minor in women’s studies from the George Washington University and holds a certificate in video journalism from Al Arabiya news channel.