AQAP and the Jihadi Learning Curve
In his analysis of the newest issue of AQAP’s Inspire magazine, ICSR’s Shiraz Maher points out that although it includes a sectarian rant against Shiism, there is also a small and rather strange disclaimer about the Zaydi Shi’a:
…our war is with the Rafidha Shi’a sect which is alien to Yemen and was only imported from Iran, and not with the Zaydi Shi’a sect which is considered to be the closest sect of Shi’a to ahl as-Sunnah [Sunni Islam]
Each al-Qaeda offshoot has its own operating procedures and takes little to no strategic or tactical direction from the so-called al-Qaeda ‘core’, which is unlikely to share the same views about the Zaydis. Fierce anti-Shiite sectarianism is a staple part of al-Qaeda’s ideology, and this apparent concession to Zaydism represents a significant shift in strategic thought.
In October of last year, ICSR Associate Fellow, Ryan Evans, wrote for West Point’s CTC Sentinel about the strategic lessons that AQAP has learned from the experiences of its counterparts in Iraq. He noted that, unlike al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), AQAP ‘seeks to co-opt existing social and political structures and genuinely adopt the grievances and interests of Yemenis, particularly those in the tribal regions of the country.’ One of AQI’s primary failures was its unrelenting adherence to the jihadist ideology, even if it came (as it often did) at the expense of the local population. Little effort was made to win over locals and tribes, and this lead to its eventual downfall after the Sunni tribal ‘Awakening’. In Yemen on the Brink, Sarah Phillips also claims that AQAP is unlike previous incarnations of al-Qaeda in Iraq and Somalia, where its ‘internationalist tendencies and exclusive ideology conflicted with local norms’.
AQAP has already shown its willingness to (temporarily at least) overlook certain aspects of its global ideology for strategic purposes, adopting much of the local, tribal grievances and animosity toward the central Government in Sana’a. It has worked closely with tribes, whose purely local and national concerns no doubt clash with al-Qaeda’s worldview, and is, according to Greg Johnsen, ‘now more accepted as a legitimate organization’ by many average Yemenis.
AQAP’s determination to see the downfall of the Saleh government has even led to the group’s head, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, to publically give his his support to the rebels in Southern Yemen currently fighting the regime, despite the Southern secessionists’ nationalist nature and Marxist background (though it would not be accurate to refer to the Southern Movement as a whole as Marxist). His comments did, however, come with a jihadi disclaimer, reminding the rebels that the only way to achieve true victory is through the adoption of sharia. AQAP’s Ghalib Abdullah al-Zaidi also clarified his organisation’s ostensive maintenance of its ideology when he said, ‘If they [Southern Yemeni rebels] continue adopting socialist or communist ideas, we will not join them’. But even this is a far cry from the al-Qaeda of old, who would have had much more to say (and do) about suggestions of a nearby Communist insurgency than this.
It is in this context that Inspire’s sympathetic words about the Zaydis should be seen – AQAP is determined not the make the same mistakes as its comrades in other regions and, as Jenkins highlights, is becoming more ‘adept at integrating…in local political struggles’. She also warns, however, that AQAP has been careful not to explicitly reject any core aspects of the Salafi-jihadist ideology and this will likely lead to its downfall in the region. Eventually, local Yemeni tribal concerns will clash with al-Qaeda’s global aspirations and the relationships will sour, but this is in the long term. If AQAP stick to its strategy, the next few years may see a strengthening of tribal ties and therefore an increase in safe-havens for its operatives.