How to Defeat al Qaeda? Meet Development Goals

How to Defeat al Qaeda? Meet Development Goals

When it comes to missions abroad, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the regional al Qaeda franchise headquartered in Yemen, has the distinction of being almost devastatingly successful.

The poorly understood organisation almost assassinated the deputy Saudi interior minister last August, almost destroyed a United Airlines flight over Detroit last December, and almost assassinated the British ambassador to Yemen in May.

While the group’s international forays may have yet to bear fruit, the same cannot be said of its record in Yemen. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has killed 37 out of the 40 local security officials that it has targeted over the past three years, according to Al-Masdar Online news website.

Despite its mixed record, AQAP has not lost its regional and global aspirations. For that reason, bilateral – particularly US – counter-terrorism aid is pouring into Yemen. Yet technology can only ever be a partial solution. The answer to the threat of AQAP lies in an integrated response that balances development, diplomacy and defence.

As the ongoing campaign in Afghanistan demonstrates, such a comprehensive strategy can only be successful if implemented in co-ordination and co-operation with a partner government that its citizens deem legitimate.

Analyses of al Qaeda’s emergence, activities and aspirations in the Arabian Peninsula tend to repeat the fact that Osama bin Laden is of Yemeni origin and has a Yemeni wife. More nuanced reports cite the al Qaeda strategist Abu Musab al Suri advocating Yemen as a safe haven and fertile ground for jihad.

Yet the reasons for the rise of AQAP are perhaps a little less exalted. Yemen is beset by mutually reinforcing social and national fault lines. In the past 50 years the country has experienced theocratic governance in the form of an Imamate, colonialism, communism, pan-Arabism and most recently, a unified democratic republic.

Besides frequent changes in the way the country is governed, there are other reasons for Yemen’s lack of stability. Chronic shortages of water and other resources, rapidly depleting foreign exchange reserves, spiralling unemployment, a youth bulge and a depressed economy exist alongside a religiously conservative, largely tribal society buffeted by secessionist claims in the south and an insurgency in the north.

In the face of these challenges, the government of Yemen, for its part, does not regard AQAP as an existential threat. With its cadres numbering in the hundreds and its attacks having resulted in less than 50 fatalities to date, given the range of other challenges facing the government, this lack of urgency is perhaps understandable.

Imagine, however, if all of AQAP’s endeavours to date had been successful – if, for example, the organisation had struck the “near enemy” by assassinating a member of the House of Saud and the “far enemy” epitomised by a US airliner and the British ambassador.

These military strikes failed not because of counterterrorist measures but because of bad luck and lack of operational experience. That situation could well change as AQAP learns from its mistakes. To effectively counter the group, it is imperative to understand how it recruits.

It is the precarious situation of youth that is creating a pool of potential recruits into violent jihad. The predicament of youths is caused by deficient religious and state education; the weakening of traditional, tribal and societal ties; a crisis in governance and questions over the government’s legitimacy; and the lack of meaningful employment opportunities for young people.

The way to shrink this expanding reservoir of recruits consists only in part in building the capacity of security forces, intelligence co-operation and enhanced surveillance by unmanned drones. It must also include non-coercive steps designed to consolidate the social contract between the governed and those who govern and focus as much on preventing terrorism as reacting to it.

In order to reduce the appeal of AQAP, the government and its international supporters need access to rural communities and local leaders. In order to ascertain what local people want, we need to ask them, and then be responsive to their needs. In the contest of legitimacy between the government of Yemen and AQAP, the side that has an impact on young people’s lives will win. A “Friends of Yemen” international donor process that ignores local realities emboldens al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda’s message is appealing; it paints a grievance narrative that resonates with many Yemenis. Nevertheless, young men joining the southern secessionist movement, the northern Houthi insurgency or al Qaeda are all symptoms of the same systemic problems. The limitations of al Qaeda’s success to date suggest that its prescription of violent jihad does not resonate widely – at least not yet.

The confrontation with AQAP is not an ideological debate or a clash of civilisations; it is about human development. While intelligence-gathering, law enforcement and the tools of national defence and international diplomacy must form part of the response to the threat, it is local development that will provide the most effective, sustainable response.

Alistair Harris is director of the research consultancy Pursue Ltd and the author of Exploiting Grievances: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Courtesy of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace