(CNSNews.com) – Worsening conflict between the Yemeni government and secessionists in the south and east of the country could play into al-Qaeda’s hands, with potentially serious implications for the broader campaign against Islamic terrorism.
Despite deep ideological differences between them, the socialist-oriented secessionists and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) jihadists share a common enemy in the government in Sana’a. Ultimate victory for the former in their struggle for a separate state could arguably provide the latter with a strategically-located, largely lawless safe haven.
“The most important and obvious common thing between these two entities who wish to control over the south is their hostility to the Sana’a regime,” Yemeni political commentator Nasser Arrabyee wrote in the Yemen Observer Wednesday.
Arrabyee quoted a Sana’a-based terrorism specialist, Saeed Obaid al Jemhi, as saying that AQAP was exploiting the secessionist drive rather than allying itself with it.
Nonetheless, AQAP leaders have called on tribes in the south and east to rise up against the government.
Yemen’s significance in the global anti-Western jihad was underlined when AQAP claimed responsibility for an abortive attempt to bomb a U.S. passenger plane bound for Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.
National Counterterrorism Center director Michael Leiter told a security conference in Colorado this week that the U.S.-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, now in Yemen and associated with AQAP, had a “direct operational role” in Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempt to destroy the plane.
The U.S. government in January designated AQAP and its leader, Nasir al-Wahishi (Wahayshi), under an anti-terrorism executive order and has stepped up intelligence-sharing with and military aid to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government.
AQAP attacks have generally focused on Western targets in Yemen, but a daring June 19 raid on an intelligence headquarters and detention center in the southern port city of Aden bore the hallmarks of the Yemen-based al-Qaeda affiliate.
Although the group did not claim responsibility for the armed attack – which left seven security guards, three women and a child dead – the government named the suspected mastermind, who was captured the next day, as an AQAP operative. Dozens of al-Qaeda suspects were arrested in Aden.
Several detainees, described as AQAP members or supporters, escaped during the raid. (Al-Qaeda has succeeded on two previous occasions, in 2003 and 2006, to spring operatives, including al-Wahishi himself, from Yemeni prisons.)
But the attack also arguably benefited the secessionists, as the Aden offices of the Political Security Organization had reportedly been focused on the resurgent separatist campaign in the country’s south and eastern regions.
Yemen was historically divided between the north, formerly part of the Ottoman Empire, and the south-east, a British protectorate until 1967.
The Yemen Arab Republic in the north and communist-ruled South Yemen eventually united in 1990 to form the Republic of Yemen, only for a brief civil war to break out four years later when southern leaders declared secession. The conflict ended after government forces regained control of Aden in July 1994.
In recent years tensions returned in the south, where many view the central government as corrupt and not serving the interests of the entire country. A new separatist insurgency has been underway since the spring of 2009, characterized by large protest demonstrations, armed attacks and assassinations of government figures – most recently a senior intelligence officer shot dead in the south’s Abyan province on Thursday.
AQAP leader al-Wahishi has on occasion reached out to the secessionist movement – which comprises several, sometimes bickering, factions – issuing messages to “our people in the south” expressing support for their cause while suggesting the solution to their plight should be found in Islam.
Tareq al-Fadhli, the son of a British-era sultan in Abyan province and a veteran of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s, emerged last year as a leader in the secessionist campaign. Despite his mujahideen background, Al-Fadhli has sought to distance himself from al-Qaeda.
But some analysts believe that if the government mounts a big offensive against the secessionists, the movement may be more inclined to collaborate with AQAP.
“Speculation has begun that President Saleh may ultimately initiate a large-scale military offensive, similar to the one launched against the Houthis [an unrelated Shi’ite rebellion in the north] last year,” Ronan McGee wrote in a recent analysis in the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.
“Although southern leaders have so far rejected offers of support from AQAP leader Nasir al-Wahayshi, the two groups could conceivably join forces if the Saleh regime were to engage the southern movement militarily under the guise of a ‘counterterrorism’ initiative,” he said.
“Yemen’s future therefore hinges largely on whether or not Saleh decides to finally address the grievances of the south. If he instead opts for a massive military response to the movement, the potential for the country to become violently torn apart through civil war is alarmingly plausible.”
AQAP leader Al-Wahishi, who reportedly served as Osama bin Laden’s secretary prior to 2003, became head al-Qaeda operations in Yemen after a predecessor, Abu Ali al-Harithi, was killed by a missile fired from an unmanned U.S. drone in 2002.
Al-Wahishi was later captured, but he was one of 23 men was escaped from a prison in Sana’a in 2006. Others who escaped that day including several convicted al-Qaeda members, one of whom had been sentenced to death for the USS Cole bombing in Aden in 2000.