In his Friday sermon on January 15, the well-known Yemeni Islamist and U.S. designated terrorism supporter Shaykh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani called for jihad to defend Yemen in the event of a foreign military intervention. Al-Zindani noted that some American media reports said the “Yemeni regime is about to collapse and U.S. forces and Marines should intervene to protect oil sources in Yemen.” Al-Zindani considered such media reports (which he did not cite specifically) a declaration of war by the United States. Al-Zindani announced, “As soon as the enemy comes down into our land and comes to colonize us, jihad is obligatory according to our religion… This ruling is from Allah; no one can abolish it; neither king, president, commander, scholar, not anyone” (al-Jazeera TV, January 15; Ennahar Online, January 15).
Al-Zindani’s remarks came a day before the shaykh and 149 other Yemeni clerics issued a fatwa in the name of the “Association of Scholars of the Yemen” declaring that jihad is “fard ayn” (a compulsory duty) in the event of military intervention in the country, and thus rejecting any military cooperation with Washington, the use of Yemeni territory for foreign military bases, and Yemen’s commitment to any security or military agreements that are contrary to Islamic Shari’a (Al-Bawaba, January 14; Asharq al-Awsat, January 14). In what appears to be a reference to strikes on foreign nationals by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the fatwa also condemns the killing of innocent people, whether Yemenis or foreigners who work or live legally in the country. Furthermore, the fatwa strongly condemns the “bloodshed” in Abyan province, Shabwa province and the city of Arhab (Lahij province).  These last three tribal southern areas of Yemen recently witnessed several missile attacks against al-Qaeda members.
Regardless of the probability of a U.S. military invasion of Yemen, the increasing importance of Yemen is obvious from the security perspective of the United States, particularly after the foiled Christmas Day suicide attack on a Detroit-bound passenger plane, which was “prepared” in Yemen. Yemen has also emerged as a safe haven for Salafi-Jihadi militants. The growing importance of Yemen’s national security comes as the U.S. administration of President Barack Obama expresses reluctance to open another front in the “war on terror”, just as the occupation of Iraq is drawing down, and a new focus is being put on military operations in Afghanistan. U.S. president Barack Obama announced through People Magazine on January 10 that he had no intention of sending U.S. troops into Yemen.
However, the reaction to the Detroit incident shows that a shift in U.S. policy remains possible; until then, the United States will give a greater role to the U.S. military base in Djibouti in the fight against al-Qaeda in Yemen and Somalia. In November, 2002 the leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen, Sinan Qa’id al-Harthi (a.k.a. Abu Ali al-Harthi) was killed by a U.S. Predator drone launched from Djibouti (Asharq al-Awsat, January 19, 2003).
However, such a role might also be in the interest of al-Qaeda and affiliated Salafi-Jihadi groups. In contrast to the U.S. strategic vision, the Salafi-Jihadis and al-Qaeda hope to lure U.S troops to the region as al-Qaeda’s new strategy is based on the creation of multiple safe havens instead of a single safe haven. The policy is designed to attrite the U.S. on multiple fronts, with Yemen lying in the center of these safe havens (see Terrorism Monitor, September 10, 2009).
The entry of the clerics in Yemen to the growing crisis, regardless of whether they are linked to al-Qaeda or not, indicates the development of an environment that is sympathetic to the growing presence of al-Qaeda. Among the factors that helped al-Qaeda to find a foothold in Yemen is their integration with the tribal structure in southern Yemen. A review of the names of those affiliated with al-Qaeda in Yemen show that a respectable number of them are from the southern tribes. The Salafi-Jihadis failed in Iraq and Chechnya, for instance, because they lost the support of their local host communities. According to the Yemeni government, al-Qaeda was in the process of appointing a parallel system of al-Qaeda “provincial governors” (much as the Taliban have done in Afghanistan) before recent air strikes on al-Qaeda leaders disrupted the process (Asharq al-Awsat, January 14).
Al-Qaeda’s tribal alliances and the ideological convergence with local forces in Yemen are playing to the interests of al-Qaeda. This trend may be reinforced by changing security conditions as well as Yemen’s unique political and socio-economic factors. Al-Qaeda considers Yemen important because, among other factors, it can serve as a base to launch attacks on neighboring Gulf States. Across the strategic Bab al-Mandaab strait there is also proximity to other Salafi-Jihadi groups such as al-Shabaab in Somalia. All of these factors show that the presence of al-Qaeda in Yemen has regional and international implications and there is every prospect that the conflict between al-Qaeda and the United States will escalate there.
1. See the full Arabic text of the fatwa at https://sa7t-ye.net/vb/showthread.php?t=15418