The Tribes of Yemen: An Asset or Impediment to Stability? Part Two

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 3

Since responsibility for the “underwear bomber” and “toner bombs” was claimed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the focus on the growth of al-Qaeda-linked organizations in Yemen has intensified. The two failed attacks have led to substantial increases in U.S. military aid to Yemen and to the increased covert involvement of the United States in Yemen.  

Covert attacks by the United States, whose involvement was largely confirmed by diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, were never all that covert among Yemenis. After the December 2009 attacks, U.S. involvement was widely suspected and discussed by Yemenis in both Sana’a and Aden. The policies of increased military aid and covert missile attacks on suspected al-Qaeda targets are replete with risks. In the wake of the December 2009 cruise missile strike on targets in Abyan Governorate and the Arhab District of Sana’a Governorate, video and photographs of dead women and children alleged to have been killed in the attacks were widely circulated on the internet and in Yemeni newspapers. AQAP made liberal use of the images in its efforts to recruit Yemenis to its cause. After the May 2010 attack that killed Shaykh Shabwani of the Abidah tribe, AQAP called on members of both the Shabwani clan and the wider Abidah tribe to revolt against the government (Yemen Post, June 19, 2010). Both the December attacks and the May 2010 attack in Ma’rib Governorate that killed Shabwani took place in what can be deemed tribal areas where AQAP’s influence is supposedly the strongest and increasing. These “tribal” areas, namely Shabwa, Abyan, and Ma’rib, are some of Yemen’s most underdeveloped, despite, in the case of Ma’rib and Shabwa, being home to much of the country’s oil wealth. The state has never had a strong presence in any of these areas. The large but thinly populated governorates are in many ways ideal operating areas for organizations like AQAP. However, to operate in these areas, at least on any measurable scale, AQAP must have the approval of some of the tribes who reside in the areas.

AQAP – A New Tribal Patron?

An important question to ask is, “What does AQAP have to offer the tribes?” Many of the goals of AQAP and the larger al-Qaeda organization (global jihad, re-establishment of the caliphate, imposition of Shari’a) are largely incongruous or irrelevant to many of the tribes and tribesmen that they might attempt to recruit. Global jihad and a new caliphate have little practical meaning for most of the inhabitants of regions like Shabwa, Abyan and Ma’rib, who are often far more concerned with issues like feeding their families, healthcare and schooling. While more general concepts like jihad do resonate with the tribes, the imposition of Shari’a, a key part of al-Qaeda’s political and religious platform, is something that has been opposed by most of the tribes, who prefer their own tribal law. At various points in Yemen’s history zealous imams have tried to impose Shari’a on the tribes with little success and much rebellion. The tribes’ subordination to the Islamic political authority suggested by the recreation of the caliphate runs counter to the tribes’ long history of self-government and political autonomy. Additionally, many of Yemen’s northern based tribes are Zaidi, a conservative Shi’a sect, and are therefore regarded as heretics by Salafists.  

While much of al-Qaeda’s platform may not directly appeal to many of the tribes or tribesmen, its example of “resistance” to the Yemeni regime and the United States engenders sympathy within the tribes and other segments of the wider Yemeni populace. The authors of AQAP’s online magazine, Sada al-Malahim, have demonstrated their understanding of tribal customs by appealing to tribal understandings of honor, justice and autonomy in order to motivate the tribes to offer its operatives shelter. The attacks by both the Yemeni armed forces and the United States give some credence to the appeals, especially when civilian tribesmen are killed in military operations. In many cases the attacks on tribal territory, especially when conducted by outside powers like the United States, are seen as violations of tribal territory and honor. The 2002 U.S. drone attack on al-Qaeda operative Abu Ali al-Harithi in Ma’rib actually aided al-Qaeda’s operations in the area by making it a point of honor for many of the clans to harbor al-Qaeda operatives.

It is unlikely that AQAP will ever establish itself as a power over or even equal to the tribes in Yemen’s tribal areas. The organization’s goals do not align with those of most of the tribes and AQAP will suffer the same problems of legitimacy that the state faces. However, it is likely that some of the tribes and clans will use AQAP and its operatives as a kind of bargaining chip with the Salih regime to extract aid and largess. AQAP will also benefit from a focus by the Yemeni government and its backers on military operations that excludes development efforts.            

The Competition for Tribal Loyalty

The Salih regime’s transition from the long established oil funded patronage system to more combative and authoritarian methods of asserting state authority are unlikely to be successful. Throughout its history, Yemen’s tribes have zealously guarded and fought to preserve their autonomy. As the Salih regime takes a harder line towards tribes that oppose it, it risks further destabilizing the country and the tribal framework which, in many parts of the country, remains the only source of order. In October, the Salih regime announced that as part of its efforts to combat AQAP it would begin offering arms to tribes who agreed to fight al-Qaeda (al-Arabiya, October 25, 2010). Yemen’s main opposition group, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), issued a statement decrying the policy and warning it was tantamount to inciting inter-tribal war (Yemen Observer, October 27, 2010). Yemen is already the second most heavily armed country in the world after the United States, so more weapons are unlikely to contribute to security. The policy is another sign that the “soft” patronage system that once bought loyalty for the regime is being replaced with one that aims to create imbalances that the regime can use to its advantage.

The US’s efforts to combat an emergent AQAP and to bolster the Salih regime with military aid and “scalpel” strikes on suspected AQAP targets also increase instability in the country by further delegitimizing the Salih regime in the eyes of much of the Yemeni public and by buttressing the anti-western rhetoric of groups like AQAP and the Houthis. U.S. efforts in the country are also likely to be hampered by faulty intelligence, an inability to accurately access intelligence received, and a regime whose first priority is its survival. There is a real danger that the military aid provided by the United States for counter-terror operations will be diverted to fights against other groups that oppose the regime. [1] This material, some of it obviously American-made, like the Humvees being provided to the Yemeni Army, could potentially turn groups against the United States that, in some cases, might ally themselves with some U.S. interests, and even encourage more sympathy with groups like AQAP.


The current military aid and counterterrorism efforts will do little if anything to stabilize Yemen, which faces a host of grave environmental and economic challenges. Most of these challenges, from water shortages to a rapidly increasing population, are not easily dealt with and all require long-term strategies and solutions. The tribal nature of Yemeni society has existed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years and will remain long after the Salih regime has ended. This tribal structure is both an asset and an impediment to stability. It is an asset in that it often produces a functioning governmental structure that is responsive to local needs. The myriad tribes, their customs, laws and government have endured and in some cases offer viable and desirable alternatives to a regime that is beset with corruption and cronyism.  However, it must also be noted that feuds between and within tribes are common and blood-feuds remain a scourge in parts of Yemen. The intertribal feuds, which will likely increase as the Salih regime’s patronage network breaks down, are one of the primary impediments to stability in Yemen. From practical and ideological perspectives, AQAP has little to offer to Yemen’s tribes and it is unlikely that the organization would be able to act as any kind of unifying force. However, if real development is not pursued, groups like AQAP will continue to find shelter and recruits among Yemen’s overwhelmingly impoverished residents. It is clear that AQAP understands the importance of Yemen’s tribes and that it is attempting to incorporate this understanding into its own efforts to recruit and expand in Yemen.


1. See, "Following the Money in Yemen and Lebanon: Maximizing the Effectiveness of U.S. Security Assistance and International Financial Institution Lending," Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate (January 5, 2010).