September 11, 2011

The Shadow of 9/11: Zinjibar’s Fog of War

After months of fierce fighting in southern Yemen, a large portion of Zinjibar has finally been “liberated” by government security forces. According to Yemeni military officials, upwards of 2,000 troops are participating in the offensive to retake the local capital of Abyan governorate, which had “fallen” to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) on May 27th. Incoming units from the 31st, 119th and 201st Brigades have secured the Military Intelligence Agency’s local facility and “rescued” Yemen’s 25th Mechanized Brigade, “freeing” it from AQAP’s three-month “siege.”

"The heroes of the security and armed forces and the loyal tribesmen have managed to kick out Al-Qaeda gangs from Zinjibar," declared Saleh Hussein al-Zoary, Abyan’s governor.

The 25th Mechanized Brigade is considered heroic to many Yemeni revolutionaries - because it is the only unit that supposedly refused Ali Abdullah Saleh’s orders to withdraw in May. Mainstream media in Western and Arab states generally ignore this speculation, preferring to focus on al-Qaeda’s potential opening in Yemen rather than an eight-month revolution. Many organizations simply embed this caveat somewhere in the middle or end of their reporting, disproportionate coverage for what could be the core of southern Yemen’s story. An expanding body of evidence indicates a premeditated plot to manipulate AQAP’s “chaos.”

Just about everyone opposing Saleh’s 33-year rule has warned Washington of his legendary duplicity. In 2010 WikiLeaks confirmed what the Shia Houthi sect and southern Secessionist Movement had tried to tell the world: Saleh’s U.S.-trained Republican Guard and Central Security Organization were targeting them, not AQAP. The father of Anwar al-Awlaki, AQAP’s leading cleric and a savvy propagandist, cautioned that Saleh had alienated local tribes in the south, nudging them towards AQAP’s influence. Yemenis began to suspect AQAP as Saleh’s “bogeyman” in the West before U.S. operations escalated in 2009, and he also stands accused of funding his own “jihadists” as battlefield pawns.
The Saudis refer to Saleh as "the devil that they know."

With AQAP serving as his trump card against international pressure, Yemen's strongman threatened a takeover throughout the first months of revolution. Eager to harness the instability, AQAP did declare an Islamic emirate in Abyan in late March, ignorant of but ready to capitalize on Saleh’s double-game. A tangible pattern began to unfold in April when AQAP units forced a military company to withdraw from Jaar (roughly 15 miles north of Zinjibar), allowing the group to seize the town’s ammunition dump. Reinforcements weren’t available because Saleh had concentrated his “counter-terrorism” units in Yemen’s urban centers, where endless rows of protesters were marching towards his downfall.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned several weeks later, "We have had a lot of counterterrorism cooperation from President Saleh and Yemeni security services. So, if that government collapses or is replaced by one that is dramatically more weak, then I think we'll face some additional challenges out of Yemen.”

Emboldened by how much Washington still needed him, Saleh “reneged” on a generous initiative from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), orchestrated by U.S. and Saudi officials. He then began feeding fresh information on al-Awlaki, leading to a highly publicized “near-miss” on May 6th. U.S. air operations dramatically intensified throughout the month, killing dozens of militants and an undisclosed number of civilians. In a related development, Saleh once more rejected the GCC’s initiative and provoked a battle with the leader of his own Hashid tribe, Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar. This manufactured conflict was immediately marketed to the West as “potential civil war.”

Shocked but not surprised, local residents in Zinjibar watched their government administrators and security forces retreat with little resistance against AQAP and the affiliated
Ansar al Sharia. Saleh’s dream - and Yemen’s nightmare - had come true. One of his brother-in-laws, the defected General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, belatedly observed in July, "Just after Saleh spoke of al-Qaeda seizing control of provinces, the regime handed over Abyan to terrorist gunmen.”

Less than a week after Zinjibar’s "takeover," Saleh transferred to Riyadh to recuperate from a June 3rd assassination attempt inside his presidential mosque. His absence fueled a perfect storm in the south; so long as Saleh remained out of the country, his inner circle needed to ensure that AQAP remained an imminent threat. How else could 500 militants defeat multiple armored brigades covered by air support? Isolated for months and ignored by southern command, modest reinforcements sent to relieve the 25th Mechanized Brigade were carved up by ambushes. The unit fended for itself at its base near Hosn Shaddad neighborhood, on Zinjibar’s outskirts, until pro and anti-government tribesmen entered the battle against AQAP. Reinforcements were eventually deployed on July 17th.

In between combat with the group, Yemeni air-strikes “mistakenly” targeted anti-government tribesmen involved in the counter-attack.

Brigadier General Mohammed al-Sawmali, commander of the 25th, refuses to question his own ranks when attempting to explain Zinjbar's circumstances. He does, however, know where AQAP got its latest weapons. Asked about the militants’ firepower in a late July interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, the general responded that, “it is not a surprise. You can thank our colleagues in the Public Security, Police, and Central Security forces who pulled out of the [Abyan] governorate and left all their military equipment and munitions behind as a gift for these Al Qaeda elements. They left behind significant equipment and munitions, that these Al Qaeda elements continue to use, attacking us with our own weapons!”

Amid reports that the Defense Ministry ordered his unit to withdraw, and that his refusal led to isolation, the General maintains public neutrality towards Yemen’s revolution. He denied rumors that Saleh personally ordered him to retreat, concluding that “only God knows” what happened in Abyan. Except al-Sawmali reserved his strongest condemnation for the “shameful” Central Security, a U.S.-trained “counter-terrorism” unit commanded by Saleh’s nephew, Yayha. This unit has devoted itself to suppressing Yemen’s revolutionaries in conjunction with Saleh’s Republican Guard, another U.S.-trained “counter-terrorism” unit led by his son Ahmed.

The White House’s counter-terrorism chief recently added evidence to Saleh’s duplicity while attempting to highlight his cooperation. Speaking through a series of media events to mark 9/11, John Brennan testified that the administration implored Saleh’s regime to send reinforcements to Zinjibar, and was forced to airdrop supplies when the government refused. Some of these drops ended up in AQAP territory, perhaps a shift in the wind but a fitting piece to Yemen’s double-game. Although Brennan conceded that Saleh’s “elite” forces remain absent from the front-line against AQAP, he now insists that cooperation with Saleh’s regime is “better than it’s been in years.”

Three birds were killed with one bullet: by suppressing urban demonstrations and targeting anti-government tribesmen in Sana, Saleh simultaneously fomented instability in the south and cemented U.S. support.

While administration officials claim to pressure Saleh’s regime in private, this flawed diplomacy has failed for two reasons. Not only is Saleh deaf to U.S. input (unless it favors his interests), Yemen’s revolutionaries feel abandoned by America and international community. This position enables U.S. military operations at the expense of securing the Yemeni people’s support, contradicting the administration's adamant defense of universal rights. Fear of an angry opposition and being caught red-handed then encourages the White House to keep its present arrangement.

Rather than make any policy corrections, the administration is stepping even deeper into Saleh’s endgame. The events in Abyan were already transiting through a cloud of suspicion. Now, on the eve of 9/11, Saleh “defeats” AQAP in a “major city,” just as the administration pitches its new Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF). Pledging his cooperation, Saleh gifted the White House a new “victory” in the battle against AQAP. Meanwhile Yemen’s revolution recedes even further from America’s public conscience. These events are precisely coordinated between the White House and Saleh, who made sure to thank the United States for "the bilateral efforts in fighting the terrorism threatening the region and the world."

U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein would reciprocate the appreciation, “congratulating” Vice President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi for overseeing Abyan’s campaign. The administration is quick to hype Hadi since he serves as the vessel of the GCC’s power transfer - and because he’s still willing to play Saleh’s double-game. Yemen’s Vice President declared that “this victory coincides with the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attack,” flipping Zinjibar into a sign of joint cooperation.

Controlled chaos isn’t so controllable as to choose the date and time. Having pushed their way back into Zinjibar over the past month, Yemeni troops couldn’t dictate the exact date they would retake the city. Yet the sly Saleh clearly initiated his own campaign with 9/11's backdrop in mind, just as the U.S. media launched “9/11 month” in mid-August. The last eight months have already been choreographed and Saturday’s announcements fit snugly together. Given that AQAP remains active in Abyan and Zinjibar residents report ongoing fighting, Yemeni officials planned to congratulate themselves regardless of their progress.

The murky battle for Zinjibar exemplifies the worst of U.S. policy in Yemen. Saleh continues to deflect the White House’s weak political pressure through AQAP, while the Pentagon capitalizes on Yemen’s “security vacuum” to expand its overall presence. For a brief period administration officials insisted that counter-terrorism operations “don’t rely solely on one individual,” except Saleh remains in power months later. The Obama administration has yet to sever relations with a despised strongman, one who antagonizes, displaces and murders “his” people to keep himself in power.

Zinjibar’s end result is more dangerous than any specific development: Saleh and Washington remain as close as they did before the revolution started.

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