Yemen Attack Reveals Struggle Among Al-Qaeda’s Ranks

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 4 Issue: 22

Throughout the spring and early summer, a schism has emerged within the ranks of Al-Qaeda in Yemen, pitting younger, more radicalized members against the moderate old guard. These strategic differences materialized on July 2, when a suicide bomber attacked a convoy of Spanish tourists in the governorate of Marib, killing nine people. The new generation of militants, many of whom were radicalized in Iraq, is determined to carry out attacks in Yemen. This represents a sharp break from the old guard, who have advised their younger members to have patience and allow for negotiations with the Yemeni government to continue. The old guard is also concerned that any attacks within Yemen will lead to a government crackdown on its leadership, much like what happened in the aftermath of the USS Cole attack in 2000 and the September 11 attacks in 2001 (al-Ghad, July 4).

Since 2003, the Yemeni government and Al-Qaeda in Yemen have reached what could best be described as a tacit non-aggression pact. Through various programs and channels, Yemen has attempted to convince the militants not that their beliefs are incorrect, but rather that they would hurt their own cause and base of operations by acting violently within the borders of the state. For the new generation of al-Qaeda leaders, however, this is tantamount to a treasonous alliance with tyrants. On June 21, Al-Qaeda in Yemen posted an audio-message on an Islamist website that announced that it had selected Nasir al-Wuhayshi—one of the 23 men who escaped from a Yemeni prison in February 2006—to be its new leader. The message itself, however, seemed designed to convince the old guard that negotiations were a betrayal of their cause. The message was read by a man who identified himself as Abu Hurayra al-San’ani. He warned the old guard that jihad could not be paused in order to seek the release of prisoners. He insisted, “If they are killed, they end up as martyrs. Then, how can the jihad stop today for the sake of prisoners? Go back to your senses.” This statement seemed to confirm the new tactics, which were first dramatically displayed with the March 29 assassination of Ali Mahmud Qasaylah, the chief criminal investigator in the Marib governorate. This murder was supposedly in retaliation for Qasaylah’s role in the 2002 assassination of al-Qaeda leader Abu Ali al-Harithi (Terrorism Focus, May 22).

Six days after the audio statement, Al-Qaeda in Yemen released another statement through the independent weekly al-Shar’a. This time the message was directed at the Yemeni government. The statement made four demands on the government: release al-Qaeda members in prison; lift restrictions on travel to Iraq; stop cooperating with the enemies of Islam, particularly the United States and its allies; and announce a return to Sharia law (News Yemen, July 2). These two statements, directed at al-Qaeda’s old guard and the Yemeni government, clearly articulate the philosophy of Al-Qaeda in Yemen’s new generation of leaders.

In a press conference the day after the attack in Marib, President Ali Abdullah Saleh offered a 15 million Yemeni rial (roughly $75,500) reward for information leading to the capture of those responsible. He also said that early evidence suggested that the attack was the work of a non-Yemeni Arab (al-Hayat, July 4). Security operations during the following days resulted in several arrests in the governorates of Aden, Sanaa and Abyan (al-Hayat, July 5). The man who Yemen charged as the mastermind of the attack, however, was, as Saleh suggested, a foreigner. Ahmad Basaywani Duwaydar, a 50 year-old Egyptian with a Yemeni wife, was killed on July 5 in a shootout with Yemeni security forces in western Sanaa. Duwaydar, who previously lived in Egypt in 1990, had been convicted in absentia during the 1999 “Albania Returnees” trial (al-Hayat, July 7). Regardless of Duwaydar’s culpability for the July 2 attack, his death will likely have little bearing on the generational fissures that have erupted within Al-Qaeda in Yemen.

Overall, the attack on the Spanish tourists was a symbol not just of the resurgence of Al-Qaeda in Yemen, but also of the new power of younger, more dogmatic militants. Although the outcome of this internecine struggle for control is uncertain, it seems likely that Yemen’s tense spring will turn into a dangerous summer.