Yemen: Tribal Politics Rules Them All


October 20, 2010: The government is going after known al Qaeda bases in Abyan province, despite the risk of stirring up tribal resistance down there. But the government troops move carefully, often operating more for show than for effect. This annoys American advisers a great deal, even though the 50 U.S. Special Forces NCOs and officers there understand the importance of tribal politics in Yemen. For the government, tribal politics is essential, because Yemen exists basically because of a series of deals and compromises with the major tribes. If enough tribal leaders become unhappy with the government, the government ceases to exist. Even the oil revenue is dependent on tribal free will, as angry tribesmen can interrupt shipment of the oil (via pipeline) to the coast and thence overseas. But even neighboring Saudi Arabia is urging Yemen to go after al Qaeda more energetically, despite the risks of tribal uprisings. The Saudis also have tribal problems, but with more than ten times as much oil as Yemen, and more adroit leadership (in the form of the al Saud family), the risk of tribal rebellion is much lower up north. But leaving al Qaeda alone in Yemen allows the terrorist organization to grow, and move back into Saudi Arabia, which is what has been happening.

Al Qaeda has attracted some young tribesmen, but most of these guys are in it because joining the terrorists provides an excuse to shoot at soldiers and act all badass. This sort of thing can also get you killed, but that's part of the attraction. The tribal leaders have largely remained pro-government or neutral. The government has to avoid doing any damage (killing the wrong people) that would upset tribal leaders, while it seeks out the al Qaeda members with blood on their hands. Al Qaeda has openly declared war on the government, which contains lots of tribal leaders. This is a typical al Qaeda mistake, and one of the reasons the terrorists have not been able to get the conservative tribes to rise up in rebellion. Two weeks after al Qaeda declared war on the government, and called for the tribes to join a 12,000 man "Army of Abyan," there has been only sporadic clashes, and no rush by tribesmen to join any army.  The government wants to keep it that way, so slow and steady is their "war on al Qaeda."

The increased al Qaeda threat has caused Britain to close its embassy, while France and Australia warned its citizens to stay out of Yemen. In the last week, al Qaeda assassins of killed two government officials, while a third attack failed.

In the last year, oil exploration has revealed far more oil reserves (11.9 billion barrels) that were known at year ago (3.3 billion barrels). This increase in national wealth gives many tribal leaders an incentive to keep the peace. The central government exists, in part, to distribute the oil revenue to the tribes. Rebellious tribes don't get paid.

October 19, 2010: The air force made two attacks in Abyan province, at targets believed to contain concentrations (dozens) of al Qaeda gunmen.

October 17, 2010: In Abyan, several clashes resulted in 11 dead terrorists and seven wounded soldiers.

October 16, 2010:  In Abyan, Al Qaeda gunmen ambushed an army convoy and killed three soldiers.

October 15, 2010:  In the south, an attempt to assassinate a government security official failed. The victim was lightly wounded. In the capital, police arrested a wanted al Qaeda officials responsible for the terrorist groups finances. The government also offered cash rewards (of $100,000 each) for information leading to the capture of eight senior al Qaeda leaders.  The government al Qaeda wanted list now has over 150 names on it.





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