Following up on its reporting, The Wall Street Journal has verified the reality that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is exploiting al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki to remain in power. An obvious strategy has now been cast into a brighter spotlight, however this strategy and its consequences flow both ways. Crooked from the start, what began as an excuse to justify renewed drone strikes in Yemen has reinforced Washington’s willingness to salvage Saleh’s regime.
U.S. officials were unusually candid about the strike: "The US drone attack in Yemen was an attempt to kill Anwar Awlaki, an American-born militant suspected of involvement in multiple terrorist plots against the United States, but he eluded the missiles.”
The Wall Street Journal adds, “The Yemen strike sends a clear message that despite turmoil in the Middle East and the success of the bin Laden operation, the U.S. is resolved to ratchet up a campaign against Mr. Awlaki and other members of his group.”
Conversely, Saleh is sending his own message that only he can be trusted to combat al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This is a false message, however, as at least half of his Republican Guard - “elite” U.S.-trained counter-terrorism units - have withdrawn from AQAP’s fight to protect his regime in Sana’a. Cables leaked by Wikileaks also reveal Washington’s doubts in Saleh’s effectiveness, as well as concerns that his regime was nearing collapse. Saleh’s strategy, then, remains unchanged from feeding Washington just enough to stay alive.
The Wall Street Journal explains, “Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been more forthcoming with information on Mr. Awlaki since the president has faced major protests in his country, a U.S. official said. Mr. Saleh has sought to use that information in an effort to gain more U.S. support, the official added. The White House has backed an Arab proposal that would ease Mr. Saleh from office.”
Specifically, a Yemeni security official claimed that Saleh’s government gave U.S. military authorities “vital details” on al-Awlaki’s location. This reaction is logical but flawed; the government has reason to take credit even if it didn't participate. At first the government did claim the kill until local eyewitnesses countered their story, and the next best option is claiming the intelligence. Regardless, “the timing of the Awlaki attack appears to be a calculated move by the Yemeni president to prove his counter-terrorism credentials to international allies like America and Saudi Arabia.”
A key component is also missing from The Wall Street Journal’s account: Saleh was keen to protect al-Awlaki from a possible drone strike before Yemen’s revolution shut the country down. Government officials such as Foreign Minister Abu Baker Al-Qirbi insisted that al-Awlaki, who holds U.S.-Yemeni citizenship, must be tried in Yemen court instead of executed by a U.S. operation. His father, himself a Yemeni politician, has repeatedly condemned an assassination attempt, while his tribe has vowed to declare war on Saleh in the event of al-Awlaki’s termination.
In fact his father, Nasser, has just spoken out against Thursday’s strike: "There are three drones which hover above my village 24 hours a day… it's the Americans, I'm sure of it. They've killed Bin Laden and now they're after my son... They [the western media] have claimed he's going to be the next leader of al-Qaida, but it's nonsense. Anwar is not a leader, he's just a man with strong views and a big mouth.”
Nasser’s fatherly bias doesn’t match up to his son’s actions, although he’s correct in labeling the “next leader of al-Qaeda” talk as non-sense. That still leaves room from al-Awlaki to become a regional star, and for a time he appears to have enjoyed Saleh’s protection. Like Islamabad’s possible relationship with Osama bin Laden, al-Awlaki serves as Saleh’s “golden goose” and thus couldn’t be eliminated. With his back to the wall and under the belief that the rest of AQAP’s leadership will keep him afloat, Saleh is now cashing in on al-Awlaki’s value.
The plan is still working for the moment. Yemen’s revolution has multiplied concerns among U.S counter-terrorism officials, who fear that Saleh’s “increasingly weak position” is giving AQAP “a free hand to plot fresh attacks against the West.” Although keeping him in power furthers this strategic dilemma, Washington has yet to decisively move against Saleh, instead allowing him to stall through the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) without consequence. Saleh has even tried to alter the GCC’s document that would have him sign as president rather than his expressed intent, signing as the chairman of his ruling General People’s Congress (GPC).
These developments remain in limbo. After reports alleged that the GCC’s proposal had been changed to fit Saleh’s demands, GCC general-secretary Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani denied that changes had been made. Muhammad Qahtan, spokesman for Yemen’s oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), added, “we take the proposal which President Saleh refused to sign and which remains unchanged.”
It sounds as though two proposals still exist, one in Saleh’s mind and the other in the JMP’s. This divergence portends to another breakdown.
As the GCC continues its push to seal a favorable “power transfer” with Saleh, America and Riyadh are clearly resigned to sticking with Yemen’s embattled president. No other explanation is valid given Saleh’s vocal ambition to remain in power. In theory Washington could be keeping him around until al-Awlaki can be eliminated, but this won’t severely impact AQAP’s operations, which thrive on political and economic instability. Most importantly, Saleh’s rhetoric and actions consistently demonstrate that he possesses no thoughts of resigning.
As for al-Awlaki himself, martyrdom presents an automatic obstacle for both Saleh and Washington. al-Awlaki has literally accepted martyrdom by drone in numerous issues of Inspire and, as previously mentioned, his tribe has threatened open war in the event of his death. Thursday’s strike irritated local tribal leaders already angry at Saleh’s regime. There’s also a growing fear that, with Afghanistan “out of the picture,” Yemen could become the final battleground between America and al-Qaeda.
This would be disastrous if so, as the U.S. will find itself disadvantaged in every sphere outside the military. Escalating operations in Yemen while allowing Saleh to remain in power would fulfill bin Laden’s wildest dreams.
The possibility of Yemen hosting a “final battle” isn’t true considering al-Qaeda’s other sanctuaries, but it does reveal Yemenis’ psychological condition - they fear U.S. policy and its stubborn support for Saleh. Religious leaders have straddled the line between honoring bin Laden and disassociating from his tactics, and urge protesters to focus on Yemen instead of becoming distracted by al-Qaeda. Although the opposition is largely opposed to al-Qaeda’s ideology, its leaders expect Saleh to exploit any glorification of bin Laden, which would be passed on to Washington as evidence of the revolution’s “extremist threat.”
U.S. officials reject this dichotomy as “false,” however it has fully manifested in Yemen.
"We call on the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to stop any initiatives that result in alienating the Yemeni people," the Youth Revolution - a coalition of activist groups - announced in a statement on Saturday. "We call on the United States, European Union and the permanent UN Security Council members to assume their moral responsibility and stop meddling directed against the will of the Yemeni people to ensure freedom and democracy."