Is Your AQAP Cleric wearing a hat?

Last week, Hareth al-Nathari, a prominent AQAP cleric, made what I believe is his first video appearance on behalf of the group. The tone of his calls to arms were far more restrained than the images of angry, screaming jihadis that the idea of a statement by a leading Al Qaeda figure probably calm to mind, but they were certainly gripping enough. Nevertheless, most Yemenis I showed the video to seemed almost disinterested in what he was saying. Instead, they were distracted by what he was wearing.

Unlike his comrade Ibrahim al-Rubaish, who appeared bearded in a thobe and gutra in a video released the same day, Nathari appeared clean shaven, wearing a uniquely Yemeni form of dress. Such clothes come with a special meaning, one that dates back to the days before the fall of the Yemeni monarchy when traditional class distinctions were set in stone and Qadhis (judges) and sayyids (descendants of the prophet Mohamed) could typically be discerned by their specific mode of dress. They’re still worn today, of course, but far less commonly than in the past–grooms from sayyid families will don traditional dress for their wedding photos, while politicians and officials descended from qadhis tend to treat the traditional apparel as a sort of formal wear.

It’s hard to differentiate the clothes of a sayyid from the clothes of a qadhi; to make things even more difficult, the details vary from region to region. The easiest way to tell a Yemenis background is from their family’s background (there’s a reason I have a 150 dollar encyclopedia of Yemeni last names). A quick check confirmed that Nathari was indeed from the Natharis of Baadan, Ibb, who’ve had members in the ‘ulama (the ranks of scholars of Islamic jurisprudence) for centuries. Case closed, I thought to myself, he’s a descendant of qadhis dressed as a qadhi. But the reactions of many Yemenis I showed the video to fueled doubts.

I was sitting next to a friend from Ibb when I first saw the video. We both immediately thought he was dressed as a sayyid; his comment that the Nathari wasn’t a sayyid name was what initially spurred me to consult my multi-volume encyclopedia of Yemeni last names. He was too focused on the oddity of extremist cleric’s sartorial choice to do much speculating on its meaning.

“It’s so weird,” he kept repeating. “I’ve never seen Qaeda dress like this.”

A different friend initially responded with certitude.

“He’s dressed as a sayyid,” he said. “Al Qaeda is trying to appeal to sayyids.”

Hailing from a prominent sayyid family himself, he quipped as he explained his argument.

“Come on,” he joked, “When I see a guy dressed like this, I immediately have to pay attention.”

A few more inquiries to a few other friends lead to a lot of speculation but little certitude; one friend went as far as to argue that Nathari’s clothes were those of a Hadrami sayyid. Finally, the next day, I gave Abdulrazzaq al-Jamal a call. Abdulrazzaq is an AQAP analyst with pretty unparalleled sources within the group, so I have no reason to doubt what he said: that Nathari was wearing qadhi clothes due to his position in AQAP’s sharia council. Still, I had to ask him what his initial reaction was.

“When I first saw the video,” he said, “I did think [Nathari’s] clothes were kind of strange.”

Of course, Abdulrazzaq’s remarks were only one part of the to the question of what Nathari’s clothes meant. On one level, yes, they were simply a sign of his role in the group, worn to demonstrate his prominence. But on another level, the cleric’s mode of dress served as a subtle demonstration of AQAP’s larger strategy.

The key is the juxtaposition of Nathari’s uniquely Yemeni clothes with his broadly directed remarks. It’s hard to make the case that his statement was Yemen-focused: subtitled in English, it delved into recent events in everywhere from Afghanistan to the Sinai, casting the actions of disparate groups like the Taliban, Jabhat al-Nusra and AQAP itself as part of one single movement, as different arms of a global jihad. It’s obviously not my place to tell AQAP how to cast its activities, but to paraphrase the comments of a few analysts I talked to, the statement seemed almost divorced from the bulk of AQAP’s activities on the ground in Yemen. Nathari’s clothes, however, brought things back to the country, subtly demonstrating, I guess, that the group can indeed walk and chew gum at the same time.

In that sense, the video functions as a clear–if, perhaps, inadvertent–demonstration of the reason for AQAP’s resilience, of what, ultimately, makes the group so dangerous: they can play to audiences abroad while still doing the same for those in Yemen itself. The video wasn’t the first time a man of Nathari’s ilk appeared in a video in Yemeni dress–Anwar al-Awlaki, for example, often delivered addresses in the traditional clothes of a tribesman from his native province of Shabwa.

When it comes to discussions of AQAP, the focus often tends to be on the group’s global aspirations: its status as an Al Qaeda franchise, its plots to strike the US. But AQAP’s strength is inextricably tied to its knowledge of local dynamics in Yemen and its ability to manipulate and respond to them. Drone strikes and military offensives can kill militants, but those battling  AQAP can achieve victory by beating them at this part of their larger game–by outplaying them on the ground.

All AQAP statements are analyzed and dissected by intelligence agencies across the world; Nathari’s latest, I’m sure, is no different. I have little doubt that there will be a great degree of effort paid to divining the larger meaning of what he’s saying. But I wonder how much attention western analysts will pay to what Nathari was wearing.

link to video; for those who didn’t get it, title is a reference to the American board game “Guess Who?”

For those just tuning in

As someone who’s lived in Yemen for more than two years, its hard to suppress a general sense of alarm each time the media spotlight falls on this particular corner of the Arabian Peninsula. In my work as journalist, I often feel like I’m swimming against the current with only a handful of other comrades, fighting a nearly sisyphean battle to add nuance to discussions that tend to be plagued with rather lazy stereotypes. With Yemen once again in the news due to the current “AQAP threat alert,” I figured I’d collect some of the pieces I’ve written for those seeking a deeper context into the country that–for better or for worse–is currently dominating the news cycle.

It’s fallacious–if not dangerous–to equate Yemen’s troubles with Al Qaeda. Almost every Yemeni you speak with will tell you that the nation’s Al Qaeda presence is only a result of other larger issues. Yemen remains acutely impoverished and while the country’s current post-Arab Spring “transition”–most specifically, the ongoing Conference of National Dialogue–has been hailed by some as a model, things are far more complicated. The ultimate fruits of the 2011 uprising against Ali Abdullah Saleh remain unclear; the central government continues to face the challenge of reckoning with the Houthi rebels, who have carved out a virtual state within a state in the country’s far north, and southern secessionists, who seek to restore autonomy to the formerly independent south. The country often seems as if it’s sitting on a knife’s edge; “on the brink” appears to be the favored term. Still, on occasion, there are moments where Yemen’s political divisions feel as if they’re not as fractious as they often appear to be.

Even in areas notorious for their Al Qaeda presence, residents tend to argue they have bigger things to deal with. Still, the battle against Yemen’s local extremist franchise often tend to dominate the discussion outside of Yemen, even its effects of American government’s policies that tend to do so here. At times, the resentment of these policies is palpable. But as an American who’s nearly constantly surrounded by Yemenis, I’d argue its false to say that anti-American sentiment here is rife. Few Yemenis are keen to support AQAP, which is unsurprising, as the vast majority of those killed by the group’s attacks have been Yemenis themselves.

Since current president Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi took office as part of an internationally brokered power transfer agreement aimed at ending the uprising against Saleh, there have been some tentative gains in the fight against AQAP. But even victories are not as resounding as they seem. American drone strikes may have lead to the deaths high-ranking AQAP militants like Said al-Shihri, they’re also deeply opposed by many Yemenis. There have been numerous cases of civilian casualties, in addition to strikes that seem to contradict the Obama Administration’s claims that they’re only used as a tool of last resort. In areas where the strikes are common, many locals say they’re ultimately doing more harm than good.

This shouldn’t have to be stated, but Yemen is–obviously–more than simply a “battleground in the fight against Al Qaeda.” As a young freelance journalist, I often feel particularly enslaved to the tides of media interest. But to state the obvious, I’d much rather be writing about things like Sanaa’s surprisingly vibrant art scene,  the glories of Yemeni  cuisine, of certain controversial cultural habits. In the end, the last thing Yemen represents for me is a refuge of bloodthirsty militants plotting to strike the US and, for that matter, I’ve long seen it as far more than just a staging point for launching my career as a journalist. Ultimately, Yemen is my second, adopted country; more than anything–as as bizarre as it may sound–Yemen is home.

Drones and the YPC Report

A few months ago, the Yemen Polling Center released a report on Public Perceptions of Security Sector and the Police Work in Yemen. The report’s summary runs 86 pages and tackles a pretty decent array of issues, ranging from Yemenis thoughts on female police officers to their confidence in security forces. Ultimately, however, a decent—and arguably inordinate—degree of attention has been placed on a single question, which is copied below.

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I’ve been dealing with Yemen long enough to know that anything drone related will eventually prove to be a lightening rod for attention, so I guess its not surprising. But looking at some of the discussion of this small excerpt of the report, the question remains: what, if anything, does page 32 of the latest YPC report tell us about the perceptions of US drone strikes in Yemen.

On a superficial level, the result could be used to suggest that Yemenis don’t really care about the strikes; only .8% listed drones as the greatest threat to their personal security. It may be worth noting that, ironically, that is a greater percentage than those who answered the same question with “Al Qaeda;” still, it isn’t difficult to imagine how some would seize upon such an interpretation to legitimize certain policies or cast aspersions on certain assertions.

Of course, the results to the query come with two significant caveats—it was an open question and only a single response was recorded. It wasn’t, ultimately, a question aiming to divine anything specifically related to Yemenis thoughts on drones. That being said, it is rather troubling that, according to the survey, there are over 100,000 Yemenis who see American airstrikes in Yemen as the greatest threat to their personal security.

Nevertheless, in my opinion, it is rather foolish to see these results as significant evidence of anything one way or another on Yemenis’ perceptions of drone strikes. Respondents were unable to offer more than one answer—to state the obvious, seeing financial matters as the greatest threat to one’s personal safety, for example, doesn’t preclude a person from seeing drone strikes as a danger as well, especially considering the areas where drone strikes tend to occur are quite poor and underdeveloped. It is also important to remember that strikes are largely concentrated in certain parts of the country. The majority of Yemenis live in provinces where drone strikes have never taken place; it would be difficult to imagine that a Yemeni living in, say, Taiz or Hudayda, would see drones as a threat to their personal safety—regardless of how they feel about them on an abstract level. That itself is another key aspect: a Yemeni from the province of Taiz, where a drone strike has never occurred, can still vociferously condemn drones as a violation of Yemen’s sovereignty even if they feel that they present no personal threat to their own safety.

In the end Yemeni perceptions of drone strikes are a complicated issue that can’t be covered in a single question—especially a question in a report that’s devoted to a completely different topic.  The YPC has put out a useful report on an important subject. The temptation to use said report to attempt to derive answers to a question it wasn’t asking is probably one that’s best avoided.

Two Cab drivers, two (unintentional) monologues

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1. Cab driver from Sanhan, diverging as he answered a question regarding his thoughts on yesterday’s military decrees:

You know, as a people, we’re tired. But every Yemeni knows what’s possible. We’re sitting in one of the world’s oldest cities in a country that is the birthplace of the Arab people. Drive through the countryside—whether to the north or to the south: where else is nature that incredible? Walk through the old city: have you ever seen buildings that beautiful? We’re tired, yes, but we’re capable of so much. And within every Yemeni is the ability to make this country into something that would fill Saudi Arabia and the Emirates with envy.
2. Cab driver from Ibb, offering his thoughts on why Yemen seems to weather unrest and instability better other nations in the region two hours later:

The situation is completely different here, and the reason has nothing to do with the (GCC) initiative or the international community. People say we’re backwards, that Yemenis are violent, that the country is filled with guns. They have no idea what they’re talking about. There’s poverty, yes, and unfortunately, there’s a lot of illiteracy and a low level of education. Still, look at 2011—any other country would have fallen into civil war a thousand times. But even when the bombs were exploding and people were dying, I didn’t think it would happen. Maybe its our culture, or something we’ve learned from everything we’ve had to put up with in our history. But within nearly Yemeni is this real wisdom. And that’s why what’s happening in Syria, God willing, could never happen here.

Photo is of a poster in my favorite dessert place. Text is a remark said to have been made by the prophet Mohamed (PBUH). “الايمان يمان و الحكمة يمانية:” faith is Yemeni and wisdom is Yemeni.”

After the Drone

I’d always imagined that I would make it to Beit al-Ahmar at some point. The village, a short drive outside of Sanaa, was the birthplace of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and number of the key players in his rise and fall to power. Regardless of whether I’d end up gaining any profound insights from any prospective visit, a trip to Saleh’s hometown seemed like a necessity, if only to say I’d been there.

Even if I still find it hard to believe it took place, it was a November 7th drone strike on the outskirts of the village targeting an alleged Al Qaeda militant from a prominent local family that finally brought me to Beit al-Ahmar. Through a series of events I can’t really get in to, I managed to secure passage to now-even-more-notorious town, escorted by the late target’s brother and his driver, who conveniently offered to pick me up a few minutes walk from my house.

It’s hard to describe how it feels, as an American journalist, to drive through Sanaa in the back of an SUV coated in posters commemorating the ‘martyrdom’ by drone of an alleged Al Qaeda militant as his brother sits in the front seat.  All the obvious triggers of ill ease almost contradicted each other, mostly leaving me with a low level of paranoia that was largely focused on all the possible ways I could screw things up, ranging from incorrectly conjugating Arabic verbs to failing to suppress nervous laughter. The ride was far from painful; that being said, I’m glad it was short.

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