Breaking Yemen Apart: Al-Qaeda Exploits Social Divisions to Further its Agenda

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 19

Since its emergence in January 2009, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has become much more ambitious in carrying out international terrorist operations. The group’s ambition quickly grew beyond its stated desire to overthrow the Yemeni regime, reaching first into Saudi Arabia and then into the United States with an attempted airline bombing last December.

The group’s online magazine, Sada al-Malahim, articulated this shift in August 2009, apparently perceiving its battle against the Yemeni regime as largely won. “We concentrate on Saudi Arabia because the government of [Yemeni President] Ali Abdullah Saleh is on the verge of collapse.” That month an AQAP operative attempted to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Interior Minister, Prince Muhammad bin Nayif (see Terrorism Monitor, September 17, 2009). While the attempt was unsuccessful, it demonstrated the group’s willingness to undertake brazen attacks outside of Yemen and advertised itself as a new vanguard group for al-Qaeda internationally. Since the attempted bombing of a U.S. passenger jet on Christmas Day, 2009, a number of significant planned operations have been linked to Yemen, including a thwarted attack on Saudi oil facilities and, seemingly, an elaborate plan involving a British Airways employee who was passing inside airline security information to AQAP leaders in Yemen (al-Arabiya, March 24; Daily Mail, March 12). As the Yemeni state becomes more dysfunctional, AQAP is attempting to wedge the cracks wider and position itself as a legitimate political actor against a regime that is widely seen as corrupt. As it simultaneously becomes more aggressive internationally, it is welcoming foreign recruits with Western passports to join its fight against the West (AP, March 17; Al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 9).

While Yemen’s problems extend far beyond those involving al-Qaeda, AQAP’s traction is symptomatic of the wider fragmentation within the country’s political and economic system. The level of decay apparent in the economy is providing a window for AQAP in the short/mid-term, although it faces a number of likely obstacles in the longer term. [1] In the short/mid term, AQAP has been provided with a combustible mix of economic decline, widespread perceptions of injustice, wayward foreign recruits to militant teachings of Islam and, perhaps most concerning, a steady rise in communally framed violence in parts of the south.

Economic Decline Threatens Political Stability

To understand the interconnectedness of these issues, a brief explanation of Yemen’s political economy is in order. Like many oil-based economies, the Yemeni political system is based on patronage relations and functions according to the regime’s ability to maintain a wide network of elites who are reliant upon the largesse from the center. The less money the regime has to distribute through its networks, the less influence it has with stakeholders around the country. In a nation with few functional formal institutions, it is this informal “influence” that keeps the center connected to the periphery and thus keeps the country running. The regime now has less money to distribute through its networks—around three-quarters of the government’s operating budget comes from oil revenues but these reserves are rapidly depleting. Oil revenue dropped by around 40% last year, further crippling the government’s already anemic budget. The influence of the regime is therefore waning.

Yemen has always been a poor country and its people are certainly resilient, but something significant has shifted in recent years. The gravitational center of this shift is the highly visible disparity of income between those included in the regime’s networks and those excluded from them. Perceptions of injustice are now rife—something that AQAP has proven adept at articulating in its propaganda. For example, an article in the August 2009 issue of Sada al-Malahim argued that, “The inhabitants of [the oil rich areas, Marib, Shabwa and Hadramaut] are paying for their own oppression” with the oil wealth misappropriated by their government. This was an important shift in the way that oil is usually discussed in al-Qaeda propaganda; the argument was not about the West greedily obtaining oil at any cost, but rather about local communities not receiving what was rightfully theirs because the government is corrupt and unjust. This deep sense of injustice is helping to create to an environment in which violence may make more sense against a perceived threat than it did just a few years ago. However, what is most striking in Yemen today is that legitimate grievances, including those from southerners against the northern-based regime, appear to be metastasizing into communally framed animosities to the extent that vigilantism is on the rise. It should be noted that the Yemeni government also established its own vigilante militias in the south, purportedly in defense of unity (The National [Abu Dhabi], July 6, 2009).

A Rapid Security Shift in the South

The unfolding of these events has been disturbingly rapid. Just two years ago it was possible for a foreigner to travel relatively freely throughout most of the former south; now Yemenis report fearing vigilante gangs, particularly in Shabwa, Dhala’e, Lahj, and Abyan. In July 2009, for example, four members of a family in the southern governorate of Lahj were kidnapped by their neighbor, who accused them of being spies for the northern regime. The father, one of his sons and his brother-in-law were executed while the other son escaped (Yemen Observer, July 18, 2009).

If these murders had occurred in isolation, it would not necessarily be indicative of a broader trend, but crimes of this nature have since been on the rise. Shortly after the murders, a northerner was found dead hanging from a tree in the south and a northern contractor was kidnapped and tortured in Hadramaut. He was only freed when he promised to leave the south. In the southern governorate of al-Dhala’e, where anti-regime sentiments are particularly high, stores belonging to northerners are regularly burned down and threats are made against northerners who refuse to leave the area and return to the north. This type of violence carries the very clear potential of providing a spark for much wider unrest.

An editorial in the Yemen Post last year illustrated the degree to which these sorts of attacks have increased:

"The country’s discouraging situation does not mean that southern mobility followers [i.e. the southern secessionists] have the right to attack a northerner just because he is one. It does not mean that any car passing by a southern governorate with a car plate showing that he is a northerner should be attacked and have rocks smashed through its windows. This is what southern mobility followers have been doing over the last month as they killed a number of people just because they did not agree with their way of thinking or because he was a northerner. [2]"

One northern Yemeni reported traveling in a shared taxi throughout the south in March 2009, during which time he was told that because he was from the north he was putting the entire car at risk. The driver informed him that people are establishing makeshift checkpoints, searching cars for northerners and that some have even been killed on this basis. He described driving through towns where locals told him they have been operating under a self-imposed curfew for the past two months because crime has become so pervasive in the hours of darkness. [3] While this may be a further indication that identity politics are taking hold in a new way, it is possible that anti-northern animosity is also sometimes being used as a cover for simple banditry. However, this caveat does not belie the fact that this is remarkably new and almost certainly related to the same political decay that AQAP is attempting to manipulate.

Changing Perceptions of North and South

These animosities are not a re-emergence of old cross-border tensions that unification attempted to paper over. The pre-unification border between north and south Yemen was a product of Ottoman and British colonial intervention, not communal feelings of “otherness” between Yemenis on either side of the border. The sporadic conflict between the former northern and southern states prior to unification in 1990 was based on divisions that were largely between the competing elites in each state, not communal identities relating to either state. When unification was announced in 1989, both northern and southern Yemenis welcomed the decision and both regimes correctly perceived unification as a way of enhancing their popular legitimacy. One obvious illustration of this is the fact that the opening sentence of South Yemen’s 1970 constitution began: “Believing in the unity of the Yemen, and the unity of the destiny of the Yemeni people in the territory…” [4] The feelings of cultural and historical unity were strong on both sides of the border, as was the belief that the main obstacle to Yemen’s ascendance in the Arab world was the fact that its people – the Yemenis – remained artificially divided.


The threads keeping the Yemeni state together are under increasing stress. While AQAP is not a natural alternative contender to power, its willingness to prey on the social trauma caused by injustice and exclusion gives it certain advantages in the prevailing climate. The potency of AQAP rests on its ability to offer only slightly more to communities in crisis than what the government is offering. If the regime is not willing to negotiate a more inclusive political settlement with its citizens, there is little likelihood that the country’s situation will improve in the foreseeable future. It is in the regime’s own self-interest to respond to the threat that it faces by becoming less extractive and more inclusive, and it is on this point that external pressure might be usefully applied.



1. This argument that the more AQAP asserts itself politically, the more likely it is to come into conflict with local communities, is expanded upon in: Sarah Phillips, “What Comes Next in Yemen: Al-Qaeda, the Tribes, and State-Building,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Carnegie Paper Number 107, March 2010.

2. It is important to note, however, that the attackers are not necessarily attached to the southern movement as the author implies. See Yemen Post, July 26, 2009.

3. Correspondence with the author, March 2010.

4. Cited in Michael Hudson, Arab Politics: The Search for Legitimacy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977), p. 357.