THE LEVANT EXCLUSIVE – Written by Catherine Shakdam – Officials in Sana’a have confirmed to The Levant this Wednesday that al Qaeda Yemen aka AQAP has been dangerously looking to emulate ISIL’s exploits – Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – in both Syria and Iraq, as it seeks to increase its foothold in the impoverished nation.
The poorest and most populous country in the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen has been a terror haven for well over a decade as its tribal make-up and weak state institutions have allowed terror militants to grow in strength. Because AQAP has been so successful in playing Yemen’s socio-political and religious set up to its advantage, the group has actually managed to weave itself within Yemen social and political fabric, making it difficult at times to know when the terror faction begins and political party ends.
Both on the fringe and within the state nucleus, AQAP has been a beast the Yemeni government has so far been unable to slay.
But if the state and Al Qaeda came to some unspoken understanding, whereby terror militants understood that however weaken and destitute Sana’a central government would not tolerate for the group to attempt to establish itself as a viable institution, not without severe military repercussions, the arrival onto the scene of ISIL ignited an ambition within Al Qaeda leadership which has upset this fragile status quo.
If AQAP was willing to play time in Yemen, slowly working its way up the political ladder by engaging in shadow games, securing tribal allegiances and alliances; ISIL’s brilliant success in northern Iraq made the faction want for more than just scraps of lands. Now that ISIL has declared its caliphate in Iraq, Al Qaeda ambitions too to replicate such a coup.
While Al Qaeda and ISIL have stood at odds with one another following a protracted power struggle in Syria in between 2013 and 2014, when both groups’ leaderships came to clash over whose authority carried more legitimacy and weight, ISIL’ success seem to have prompted a change of heart. Not any longer critical of ISIL and its militants’ extreme methods, Al Qaeda has hailed the group’s advances and hinted to a possible cooperation.
This Wednesday a top AQAP leader praised ISIL for defeating Iraq’s armed forces in northern Iraq.
“I congratulate all the Mujahideen on all battlefronts and all Muslims on the victories that our brothers in Iraq have achieved against the puppets of the [Iranians],” Ibrahim Al-Rubaish, the main ideologue of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), said in a video posted online.
“Who does not rejoice in the victory of the Sunni Muslims and the defeat of the gangs of [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, which had tormented the Sunnis?” he added.
He went on stressing, “The Sunnis of Iraq have realized that co-existence in Iraq is not possible … and that fighting the rejectionists [Shiites] is a legally binding duty …The same situation is being repeated in Yemen and the Gulf. Will Sunnis learn the lesson of Iraq and take the initiative?”
The idea that AQAP could look to shift its focus toward religious cleansing has had officials and observers in the region extremely worried.
With over 40% of the population belonging to Shia Islam, sectarian tensions in Yemen would quite literally create a social fracture from which the nation might not ever recover. Looking back at the atrocities which were committed in both Iraq and Syria in the name of Islamic radicals’ religious cleansing goal, one can only shudder at the idea such campaign will be launched in this poorest nation of the Arabian Peninsula.
Looking at recent developments in Yemen, it has become rather evident that AQAP has chosen to aims its attacks at Yemen’ Shia whenever possible. Earlier this week, the terror group kidnapped 14 troops in the southern province of Hadramaut. All were viciously killed, their throat slit by Al Qaeda militants. The state confirmed that all 14 men were Zaidi Muslims (branch of Shia Islam).
Yemeni analyst Saeed Obaid told Reuters last week that AQAP leader Nasser al-Wuhaishi was not likely to pledge allegiance to Baghdadi, but added that “he may find cooperation with ISIL, at least in secret, useful.”
Regardless of how such rapprochement will translate, the very idea of such terror cooperation had Yemenis feeling rather anxious.