Foreign Policy Essay

Governance is the Key to Defeating IS: Lessons Learned from Counterterrorism in Yemen

By Nadwa Dawsari
Sunday, February 14, 2016, 10:39 AM

Editor's Note: The Islamic State has metastasized beyond Iraq and Syria, establishing so-called “provinces” in many Muslim countries. This spread has alarmed U.S. officials, and Yemen – home of Al Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate – is of particular concern. Nadwa Al-Dawsari of the Project on Middle East Democracy argues that the failure of governance in Yemen has enabled the Islamic State and other groups to expand and that building governance at the local level is vital to reversing this trend.

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Almost a year and a half after the conflict in Yemen escalated dramatically, the country has descended rapidly into chaos. The conflict has resulted in thousands of deaths and made the already poor country one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. The deteriorating security situation has enabled the expansion of Al Qaeda and emergence of the so-called “Islamic State.” Yet, the emergence of radical groups in the country is only a symptom; the real problem is the deeply flawed arrangement in which a corrupt and extremely centralized government (when it was working, that is), controlled by elites, have systematically and with impunity hijacked state institutions. Moving forward, this model must change, and the core of governance and security reforms needs to empower local authorities.

Over the past year, the Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility for at least 25 attacks in Yemen, including two suicide attacks targeting mosques in Sana’a that killed 130 people in March 2015, car bombs against a Yemeni government compound that killed 22 UAE and Yemeni soldiers in Aden, and another car bomb that took the life of the former Aden governor and six of his guards in early December. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) controls the southeastern port city of Mukalla and is expanding westwards towards Aden, the current base for Yemen’s government.

The expansion of the Houthis, a Zaydi-Shi’a rebel group, and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh into historically-marginalized, predominantly Sunni-Shafi areas created conditions ripe for extremist recruitment. Houthis call those opposed to them as Dawa’ish (a derogatory term used by Arabs to describe IS supporters), while extremists tap into historical grievances by painting the conflict as a Shi’a war against Sunni Muslims to mobilize fighters. On the other hand, the Saudi-led coalition, which is focused on defeating Houthi and Saleh’s forces, made very little, if any, effort to target militant groups. With seemingly no strategy, the coalition’s aerial bombardments claimed the lives of thousands of innocent civilians and destroyed key infrastructure, contributing tremendously to the security vacuum in the country.

Yet, the emergence of radical groups in the country is only a symptom; the real problem is the deeply flawed arrangement in which a corrupt and extremely centralized government (when it was working, that is), controlled by elites, have systematically and with impunity hijacked state institutions.

Though IS has certainly flourished amidst this chaotic backdrop, IS presence in Yemen is a direct result of the government’s failure to establish security and governance, particularly in the south, where most IS attacks have occurred. Local authorities in areas conquered by Saudi-backed forces are trying hard to maintain order, but they haven’t received much support from Hadi’s government in Riyadh. In a recent interview, the new governor of Aden said that his government lacked the finances and capacity of Al Qaeda and IS: he is outspent and outmanned. According to the governor, extremist groups are actively recruiting members and “training large numbers of people every day.” He mentioned the desperate need for targeted training in counterterrorism and support to build the capacity of local security forces to face militant groups. The governor of Shabwa also warned that he doesn’t have enough resources to prevent a potential Al Qaeda takeover of Abyan and Shabwa. Recently, military leaders in Hadramout warned that the large, oil-rich governorate is at high risk of falling under the control of IS, stating that the group has established a training camp in North Hadramout. On January 25, Al Qaeda took control of Alhootah, a main city in Lahj Governorate, just one day after the governor threatened to resign due to the government’s “total disregard” for the province’s needs.

Though there seems to be an abundance of foreign troops and trained local resistance forces, very little is being done to promote governance, particularly security-governance. Hadi’s government has failed to integrate local resistance groups into the armed forces, and there are now fears that they might fragment and turn on each other. In 2011, the Popular Committees of Abyan managed to push Ansar al-Sharia out and were able to maintain a reasonable level of security and order in the governorate. It was a success story that many observers applauded and locals appreciated. However, because the government failed to incorporate the Committees into its security forces, the Committees fractured and were unable to withstand the increasing threat of Al Qaeda. By December 2015, Al Qaeda regained control of the main cities in Abyan.

Yemen’s increasing extremism problem is a consequence of the endemic monopoly over power and resources by national-level elite and the continued marginalization of local authorities – a system that was designed and maintained to protect the interests of those elites at the expense of the rest of the country.  Over the last several decades, the West has reinforced this dysfunctional model of governance and rule of law. The United States, and the West in general, tend to work with central governments in fighting extremism, rather than local authorities. By focusing almost exclusively on counterterrorism, ignoring poor governance, and turning a blind eye to corruption, the United States allowed former president Ali Abdullah Saleh to subjugate and exploit the south and east, which resulted in widespread disenchantment with Saleh and his supporters. Saleh used Western support for fighting Al Qaeda to solidify his power, marginalize his opponents, and milk money from the West to maintain and expand his patronage network. The largely unconditional support to Saleh in countering AQAP pushed the most disenfranchised in Yemen turned to radical groups.

Though there seems to be an abundance of foreign troops and trained local resistance forces, very little is being done to promote governance, particularly security-governance.

Today, the West seems to be repeating the same mistake in its continued support for President Abdurabuh Mansoor Hadi and in its backing of the ongoing U.N. peace process. After supporting a deeply flawed transition deal in 2011, in which former President Saleh was granted full immunity, the international community continued to support President Hadi, despite accusations of corruption and failure to implement needed reforms. Beginning in 2014, the West has backed a U.N. peace process that again focuses on national-level actors, who are a big part of the problem, and leaves out local leaders who can potentially be a big part of the solution. Last December, the U.N. hosted a second round of negotiations between the Houthi/Saleh alliance and representatives from Hadi’s government in Switzerland. The talks collapsed because it only involved national actors who were clearly not committed to ceasefire, much less to peace. While the negotiations were taking place, offensives intensified by both sides at different fronts. Local actors can be effective partners in conflicts as complex as the one in Yemen. Though a prisoner swap that was part of the recent peace talks in Switzerland ultimately fell through, tribal and political leaders in the south successfully mediated a prisoner swap, exchanging 226 southern prisoners with 340 Houthis.

The problem of Islamic State and extremism in Yemen should be addressed from a governance perspective, rather than a security-centric one. The traditional approach of relying solely on national actors – often viewed by locals as illegitimate and corrupt – to fight terrorism is ineffective and, in many instances, counterproductive. More must be done to empower local authorities and strengthen governance in order to undermine extremist groups and build sustainable security.