SANA'A, Yemen (Jan. 14) – As the Yemeni government steps up its fight against al-Qaida, its task is complicated by the militant group's longstanding, familial and often intimate relationship with Yemeni tribes.
"You cannot have a conversation about al-Qaida in Yemen without having a conversation about the tribes. It's a natural alliance," said Abdulelah Hider Shaea, a journalist with sources in al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. "Both tribes and al-Qaida are socially and morally conservative, both like to acquire weapons and both are at odds with the formal authority."
Ahmed al-Aswadi, director of the Islamic Center in San'a, said the close relationship between militants and tribal members in Yemen was established in the late 1980s, when Yemeni jihadists returned home from the U.S.-funded war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. These young, radicalized men were "welcomed as heroes," he said, and many later married women from the families of prominent government leaders and tribal sheiks.
"People were very proud to have them in their family," al-Aswadi said.
Edmund J. Hull, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, calls it the "mujahedeen fraternity" – a powerful network of former jihadist fighters, linked to cousins, sisters and uncles by marriage and family. Many members of the Yemeni parliament are tribal sheiks, and many ex-jihadists occupy positions within Yemeni security and military forces.
"Yemeni politics is a tangle of alliances," said parliamentary member Mohammed al-Qobati, of the Yemeni Socialist Party. "If you pull one string, you get 10 more."
These relationships can confound the government's attempt to root out al-Qaida members in Yemen's tribal-dominated countryside. In the past month, government forces have launched several attacks against the Arhab, a well-connected tribe with homelands just north of San'a. They killed several tribal members while trying to capture alleged al-Qaida militants such as Mohammed Ali Haniq, a former jihadi in Afghanistan who is the brother of an Arhab tribal sheik and member of parliament. As the death toll mounts, so do tensions between the tribe and the government.
"Both the U.S. and Yemen should be extremely careful about whom they target in Yemen, as going after the wrong people risks turning a two-sided conflict between the government and al-Qaida into a much more murky and multifaceted conflict that could potentially involve a number of tribes in what would become a war that could never be won," Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University, wrote on his blog.
According to tribal custom, any killing that tribal leaders deem "illegitimate" would be grounds for a claim by the tribe against the government. "There are certain tribal norms and customs that should be taken into account," said Sheikh Abdullah al-Qadi of Khawlan, a region in northwest Yemen. "If a man comes to the sheik to seek protection and it is granted, then the tribe has an obligation to protect him. But if that man has committed a crime, the rules change. It is complicated.
"If the government comes to a tribe and kills innocent people or children, this is totally rejected. It is rejected by all Yemeni people, let alone tribesman. There would definitely be opposition," he said. "This is the kind of event that will create more al-Qaida, not less."
In some cases, though, the tribes are more pragmatic about their loyalties. As Hull, the former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, pointed out in a recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, when Abu Ali al-Harithi, the then leader of Al-Qaida in Yemen, was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2002, his tribe claimed no grievance against the government. One of his tribesman reportedly said at his funeral that "he had chosen his path, and it had led to his death."
The government has also sometimes pursued the more pragmatic strategy of asking permission from tribal sheiks to go after al-Qaida members in their territory.
But even these negotiations sometimes go terribly wrong, as was demonstrated in July when Yemeni security forces traveled to Marib, in the eastern desert, to ask permission from local tribal sheiks to attack alleged al-Qaida operatives living in their land. The government troops accidentally bombed the wrong house, tribal members retaliated, both soldiers and tribesmen were killed, and seven soldiers were captured. A video of the battle was later widely circulated on jihadist Web sites as al-Qaida propaganda.
Al-Aswadi, the director of the Islamic Center and a member of the president's appointed council, said the government's relationship to tribes is not as simple as "if you attack them, they will retaliate." He said that many of the tribes had an allegiance to the government, and the president, that might supersede any perceived injustice.
Other analysts and politicians say the relationship between al-Qaida and the tribes is overstated. "People don't just join al-Qaida. They grow to support it because they hate the government more than they hate al-Qaida," said Shaea, the journalist with ties to al-Qaida in Yemen. He said that tribal members who support al-Qaida do not necessarily believe in al-Qaida's ideology.
"If the government was able to amend its bad policies and provide for them, they would not support al-Qaida," he said.
The government's fight, as complicated as it is, continues. On Wednesday, Yemeni government forces attacked the house of a suspected al-Qaida leader in Shabwa, a southern province. A firefight ensued and nine soldiers were killed or wounded. On Thursday morning, the government issued a statement warning citizens – tribal members, too – against hiding or protecting al-Qaida militants.