As Yemen intensifies its military campaign against Al Qaeda’s regional arm, it faces a serious obstacle: most Yemenis consider the group a myth, or a ploy by their president to squeeze the West for aid money and punish his domestic opponents.
Those cynical attitudes — rooted in Yemen’s history of manipulative politics — complicate any effort to track down the perpetrators of the recent plot to send explosives by courier to the United States. They also make it harder to win public support for the fight against jihadist violence, whatever label one attaches to it.
“What is Al Qaeda? The truth is there is no Al Qaeda,” said Lutfi Muhammad, a weary-looking unemployed 50-year-old walking through this city’s tumultuous Tahrir Square. Instead, he said, the violence is “because of the regime and the lack of stability and the internal struggles.”
That view, echoed across Yemen, is only partly a conspiracy theory. The Yemeni government has used jihadists as proxy soldiers in the past, and sometimes conflates the Qaeda threat and the unrelated political insurgencies it has fought in northern and southern Yemen in recent years. In a country where political and tribal violence is endemic, it is often impossible to tell who is killing whom, and why.
One thing is clear: Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has stepped up his commitment to fighting Al Qaeda in the past year, with far more military raids and airstrikes, including some carried out by the American military. His government has paid a price. On Saturday, a day after the discovery of the air freight bomb plot, Mr. Saleh said during a news conference that Al Qaeda had killed 70 police officers and soldiers in the past four weeks. That is a sharp increase over previous years, and some analysts have taken it as proof that Al Qaeda’s Yemen-based branch is growing.
But many Yemenis seem doubtful that Al Qaeda was guilty in all or even most of those killings, which took place in the same southern parts of the country where a secessionist movement has been growing for the past three years.
“We cannot differentiate between what is propaganda and what is real,” said Abdullah al-Faqih, a professor of political science at Sana University. “It’s impossible to tell who is killing who; you have tribal feuds, Al Qaeda and the Southern Movement, and the state is doing a lot of manipulation.”
In a sense, there are two narratives about Al Qaeda in Yemen. One of them, presented by both the Yemeni government and Al Qaeda’s Internet postings — and echoed in the West — portrays a black-and-white struggle between the groups. The other narrative is the view from the ground in Yemen: a confusing welter of attacks by armed groups with shifting loyalties, some fighting under political or religious banners, some merely looking for money.
The Yemeni authorities have long paid tribal leaders to fight domestic enemies, or even other tribes that were causing trouble for the government. That policy has helped foster a culture of blackmail: some tribal figures promote violence, whether through jihadists or mere criminals, and then offer to quell it in exchange for cash.
“Some of what looks like Al Qaeda is really terror as a business,” Mr. Faqih said.
Yemen’s tribes are often cast as the chief obstacle in the fight against Al Qaeda, sheltering the militants because of tribal hospitality or even ideological kinship. In fact, few tribal leaders have any sympathy for the group, and some tribes have forced Qaeda members to leave their areas in the past year.
In a statement released Tuesday, a group identifying itself as Al Qaeda members from the Awlaq tribe — one of Yemen’s largest — pleaded with their fellow tribesmen for support, noting that “we were deeply saddened to see the leaders, chiefs, and dignitaries of our community go personally to meet with the government envoy.”
Instead, Al Qaeda seems to thrive where tribal authority has eroded, or in the southern areas where hatred of the government is most intense. In many of the recent attacks, it is difficult to draw a line between Al Qaeda and angry, impoverished young men who have easy access to weapons.
This is particularly true of the secessionist movement in the south. “There are many unemployed young men and people with personal interests who rebelled against the state and against the movement itself,” said Saleh al-Hanashi, an adviser to the governor of Abyan, a southern province where the protest movement thrives and many of the recent killings have taken place. “They became these chaos-inciting groups. And these groups now in Abyan shoot at cars belonging to the state and do other destructive acts against the state.” This kind of vandalism is easily attributed to Al Qaeda, whether the group claims responsibility for it or not. The latest issue of the group’s English-language magazine, Inspire, features a banner headline on the front cover: “Photos From the Operations of Abyan.” Inside, there are gruesome pictures of burning Jeeps and dead Yemeni soldiers.
Many southerners view Mr. Saleh’s government as an occupying force, and while the secessionist movement’s leaders say they reject violence, some of its members may be willing to make common cause with jihadists. North and south Yemen, once separate countries, unified in 1990, then fought a bitter civil war four years later. Many in the south say they have been treated unequally ever since.
It is possible that the worsening carnage in southern Yemen, and Al Qaeda’s claims of responsibility for it, will eventually lead to a shift in perceptions and broader support for the government’s agenda. That is what happened in Saudi Arabia, where attitudes toward Al Qaeda were similar to those in Yemen until the group began carrying out bloody attacks in Saudi cities in 2003. Public opinion soon swung sharply against the jihadists, and by 2006 the Saudis had crushed the group.
That is far less likely in Yemen, with its terrible poverty and weak central government. For now, most Yemenis seem to dismiss reports of Al Qaeda killings as a “masrah,” or drama, staged by the government and its American backers. The suspicion runs so deep that any action by the Yemeni government seems to confirm it: counterterrorist raids are often described as punitive measures against domestic foes, and the failure to act decisively is derided as collusion.
“This latest episode with the packages is only making it worse,” said Mr. Faqih, the Sana University professor. “Many people think it was all about the elections in the U.S., or an excuse for American military intervention here.”