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?”