As both government and opposition forces in Yemen vie for the allegiance of the nation’s powerful tribal groupings, the Salafi-Jihadi movement is now also trying to rally tribal fighters to the side of Islamist militants who have taken advantage of the political chaos to step up their armed activities.
In early June, a website belonging to Jordanian jihadi ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi released a booklet entitled Al-Qaba’il al-Yammanyah bayn al-Nusrat al-Islamiyah w’al-Nakhwa al-Arabiya (The Yemeni Tribes between Islamic Advocacy and Arab Magnanimity), written by Abu Bakr bin Abdul Aziz al-Athri (Minbar al-Tawhid w’al-Jihad: http://www.tawhed.ws/).
Obviously, publishing the booklet at this time is a response to developments in Yemen as tribal pressures and armed clashes continue with Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh still being treated in a Saudi hospital for serious injuries incurred in a June 3 assassination attempt (see Terrorism Monitor, June 9). Popular protests demanding the permanent departure of President Saleh from office have left al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) feeling threatened by a democratic youth movement that is presenting a political alternative to Saleh’s regime.
Al-Athri also seems to be countering reports that claimed the governments of Yemen and Saudi Arabia are paying tribes in Yemen to confront AQAP.  Since AQAP first based its operations in Yemen, al-Athri maintains that the “infidels” have tried to undermine the “righteous” by “tempting” the tribes with material incentives to act against AQAP.
Appealing to the local tribes and creating alliances with them was one of the major factors behind AQAP’s resilience in Yemen since 2009, following the merger between Saudi members of al-Qaeda and their Yemeni counterparts. For instance, American-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaqi, whose assassination American President Barak Obama authorized in 2010, remains hidden and safe because of the protection provided to him by his tribe.
AQAP thus realizes the importance of the tribal factor in Yemeni politics and society. Al-Athri says Yemen’s tribesmen are of three types, based on their response to government efforts to win their support:
• Some tribesmen, acting on dignity, have rejected the overtures of the government.
• Some have hesitated in declaring their allegiance, “stepping forward and stepping back.”
• Others have fallen “into the abyss and fought against the [jihadists], aiming for a transient life of the world.”
In his booklet, al-Athri aims to send messages to the second and third groups, those who are hesitant and those who are fighting against AQAP. Al-Athri bases his appeal not only on the call to religion, but also on Arab nationalism, a rarity in jihadi literature: “This is a shout in the dark night to those [who have not joined jihad]: Where is Islamic advocacy? Where is faith brotherhood? And if you left religion… where is Arab magnanimity?”
In order to encourage jihad in Yemen, al-Athri gives examples of both “Islamic advocacy” and “Arab magnanimity” as motivating factors:
• In the category of “Islamic advocacy,” al-Athri cites the example of the Ansar (advocates), the Madinan tribes of al-Aous and al-Khazraj that hosted the Prophet Muhammad after his migration from Mecca.
• In the category of “Arab magnanimity,” al-Athri gives examples drawn from a time rarely mentioned in Salafist works – the pre-Islamic period in the Arabian Peninsula: “Arabs before the Prophet was sent had good ethics and clear qualities… including helping [others], advocacy, sacrifice and altruism.”
Al-Athri is sending a message to the tribes, urging them to support AQAP while threatening them with retaliation from the movement if they do not: “So everyone look at himself, and choose his trench and his grave; from where he will be raised [after death], from the trenches of the righteous, or from the hotels of infidels! [Everyone] be aware of being fooled by apostates’ guarantees, and traitors’ gifts; the sword of Shari’a is long, and the soldiers of Shaykh Abu Basir [i.e. AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi] are not few!”
According to a recent comprehensive study on the political role of the tribes in Yemen, people’s adherence to the tribal system is inversely proportional to the state’s ability to ensure law, security, justice and equality. Because of the state’s failure in providing these elements, the majority of Yemenis continue to look positively at the continued existence of the tribal system, with figures favoring the system as large as 77% in Hadramawt, 75% in Imran and 74.5% in Sana’a. 
AQAP deputy commander Sa’id al-Shihri (a.k.a. Abu Sufyan al-Azdi) recorded an audiotape about the situation of the Sunni tribes in Yemen on January 28, particularly those in the regions of Sa’ada and al-Jawf, where Shiites from the Houthi tribes are dominant. Al- Shihri alleged that “under command from the American Secretary of State” the Yemeni government halted its operations against the Houthi rebels and left the Sunni tribes behind “to suffer bitterness, whether assassinations or forced displacement by the Houthis.” Al-Shihri encouraged Sunnis in Yemen to stockpile arms to defend themselves: “By Allah, buy weapons, prepare yourselves and be equipped before it is too late. And if these cooperative governments stand between you and your mujahideen sons, then you must buy weapons even if that costs you highly…and your duty is to support Allah, raised and glorified.” 
Furthermore, on April 22, jihadist websites released a Pal Talk interview with AQAP’s “Shari’a advisor” Adel al-Abbab (a.k.a. Abu al-Zubayr al-Abbab), in which the advisor announced AQAP had formed a group called the “Movement of al-Shari’a Supporters” to attract local people and tribesmen to Shari’a rule in the areas under the control of al-Qaeda. He stated that the influence of AQAP in various areas of Yemen is increasing because the movement is turning Shari’a rule “into popular action instead of keeping it as an elite one.” AQAP provides public services and solves people’s problems, according to al-Abbab.
This “popular action” is intended to benefit from the contradictions between state and tribes. Al-Athri’s booklet can be understood as a theoretical effort by a global jihadist ideologue to assist AQAP in winning the battle for Yemen. The stature of al-Athri as a jihadi scholar is increasing, and he appears to be a leading successor of al-Maqdisi as a jihadist ideologue. His appeal to the tribes of Yemen indicates that AQAP’s attempt to win these groups over is a top priority for the entire Salafi-Jihadist movement.
1. Middle East Online, December 9, 2010: http://www.middle-east-online.com/?id=101448; Islam Online, February 10, 2010: http://www.islamonline.net/i3/ContentServer?pagename=IslamOnline/i3LayoutA&c=OldArticle&cid=1265700441527.
2. Adel al-Sharjabi, M. al-Mukhlafi, A. al-Bana, A. al-Haimi, & al-Salahi, Al-Qasir w al-Diwan: al-Daor al-Sjiyasi ll Qabilah fi al-Yaman (Palace and the Divan: The Political Role of Tribes in Yemen), Observatory for Human Rights with the International Development Research Center, Sana’a, 2010, pp. 43-44.
3. For a full English translation of his recording, see: http://www.flashpoint-intel.com/images/documents/pdf/1210/flashpoint_aqapsufianalazdi0211.pdf.