Al-Qaeda's tribal roots

An article for the Jamestown Foundation's Terrorism Monitor takes a brief but interesting look at the social roots of al-Qaeda in Yemen.

The author, Murad Batal al-shishani, says al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (as the Yemen-based network is known) is dominated by Yemenis (56%) with Saudis accounting for 37% and others 7%. 

Its Yemeni majority are drawn almost equally from northern and southern tribes. AQAP "finds a ready audience among tribal people, whether in the south or the north," Shishani notes.

"A focus on tribes in Yemen has been a main reason behind al-Qaeda’s success in finding a safe haven there," he continues, saying that AQAP's area of influence extends across half Yemen's territory – "an area known for its tribal affiliations rather than its affiliation to the state and an area where there are few state institutions and where tribal laws dominate". 

The article concludes by saying that "traditional tribal relations, injustice, and local grievances are the best allies of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula".

This indicates that Yemen's al-Qaeda problem is basically a symptom of the wider "Yemen problem" and it ought to suggest long-term strategies for dealing with both through state-building and developing a political system that is more responsive to people's needs. 

None of this is likely to happen under the current regime. As Gregory Johnsen observed in his recent testimony to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

"Al-Qaeda is the most representative organisation in Yemen. It transcends class, tribe and regional identity in a way that no other organisation or political party does. Nasir al-Wahayshi [the leader of AQAP] and others within the organisation have proven particularly talented at creating a narrative of events that is designed to appeal to a local audience."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 March 2010.