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In Yemen, al Qaeda's Greatest Enemy Is Not America's Friend

The Houthis are taking the fight to al Qaeda in Yemen and finding far more success than the US — but that doesn’t mean the Houthis are popular in Washington.
December 5, 2014, 4:55pm
Photo by Peter Salisbury

Locals describe Manasa as a village, but it's little more than a complex of houses loosely clustered around an earthen courtyard at the end of a bumpy dirt track five hours from Yemen's capital of Sanaa.

On a bright afternoon last month, Waleed al-Daelemi gestured toward a patch of ground in the courtyard. "This is where they cut his throat," he said of a Houthi fighter who was killed by al Qaeda militants. "They cut it with a big knife. We haven't found the body yet."

The execution was documented in a video being widely circulated in the country.

Another man then pointed to a nearby mountain range, a collection of craggy, volcanic peaks known locally as Jebel al-Thaleb, or Fox Mountain. "They used to call that Slaughter Mountain," he said, explaining that the nickname was the result of al Qaeda commanders' habit of taking prisoners there to execute them, often forcing them to dig their own graves beforehand.

For many Yemenis, Manasa is a macabre fairytale. The area around the village has gained notoriety in recent years as a base for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the local al Qaeda franchise that, until the then-affiliated Islamic State exploded in Iraq and Syria, Washington saw as al Qaeda's deadliest branch.

"It was like a ring of fire," said Waleed al-Ghutha, head of the local division of the Central Security Forces, a Yemeni paramilitary security unit. "It was their stronghold, a base for people from all over Yemen and outside of Yemen."

Houthi fighters in Rada. Photo by Peter Salisbury

AQAP massively expanded its presence in Al Beidah, the province of which Manasa is a part, during the country's 2011 uprising. But for the past two or three months, Houthi fighters from the north of the country have been streaming into Al Beidah, taking AQAP on — and mostly winning. So confident are the Houthis of their control of the area that Western journalists were able to openly travel there last month for the first time in more than three years. (Female journalists hidden under burkas had travelled into the area earlier in the year.)

The recent campaign against AQAP would seemingly elicit some good cheer in Washington. The US has spent the past decade and hundreds of millions of dollars trying to root out Islamist extremists in Yemen. And the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda is currently threatening to kill an American citizen it kidnapped in 2013.

Relatives of American al Qaeda captive held in Yemen plead for his release in video. Read more here.

But the Houthis are actually a massive headache for the security establishment in Washington, so much so that in November the US government pushed for the UN to sanction two of the group's leading military commanders.

The sanctions came in retaliation for a four-day siege of Sanaa that left the Houthis in effective control of the capital. The Houthi takeover left Yemen's increasingly unpopular president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, an American client who has praised the US drone campaign in Yemen, in a deeply weakened position. The Houthis, who Washington alleges are backed by Iran, emerged as political kingmakers.

The group is implacably opposed to AQAP, America's main strategic target in Yemen, but it is also openly hostile to American intervention in the country. Houthis are deeply critical, like most Yemenis, of the American drone campaign while leaders of the movement, whose well-known and ubiquitous slogan is "Death to America" — Houthis say they don't mean it literally, and that it's really just another way to say "Fuck off America" — refuse to meet with American officials, who they believe have a destructive influence in the Middle East. The Houthis blame the US for the rise of the Islamic State.

In September, President Barack Obama praised Yemen as a success story in the fight against al Qaeda, saying it should serve as a model for American intervention in Iraq and Syria. "This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years," he said.

But the US has often killed the wrong people with its drones in Yemen, catalyzing anti-US and anti-government sentiment. Meanwhile, the Yemeni government has often paid lip service to providing security but hasn't provided much of it outside the capital. After a decade of counterterrorism operations in Yemen, AQAP is stronger than ever.

A Houthi fighter in Manasa. Photo by Peter Salisbury

When VICE News asked him whether the drone campaign had helped push AQAP back, Sari al-Ajaeli, a judge who lives and works in Rada, pointed to a December 2013 drone strike that killed 12 civilians, part of a wedding convoy crossing through Al Baydah. Although the strike sparked popular outrage in Yemen, Washington has yet to publicly acknowledged that it made a mistake.

"[Al Qaeda] attack civilians, and we all condemn this," al-Ajaeli said. "But the drones helped al Qaeda with their recruitment."

Similarly, when it comes to America's "partner on the ground" — the Hadi government — locals in Rada were hardly effusive in their praise, accusing officials in Sanaa of cutting deals with AQAP rather than trying to defeat the group. According to al-Ghutha, when Hadi announced a campaign against AQAP in the area in 2012, the government was actually in the process of reaching an agreement with local al Qaeda commanders.

The same has been true in other parts of the country, said Baraa Shiban, a Yemeni activist who tracks counterterrorism operations in Yemen and works for UK human rights organization Reprieve. "I think even if the government doesn't announce it, it's pretty clear that there have been ongoing deals and negotiations between the government and AQ," he said, pointing to widely publicized military campaigns in the south of the country in 2012 and 2014 that were underpinned by deals between the government and AQAP militants who simply moved on to other parts of the country.

US strategy in Yemen has achieved "limited success," said Katherine Zimmerman, a research fellow at the conservative Washington-based think tank American Enterprise Institute. "Where [the strategy] has been most effective is where popular militias that understood the local dynamics partnered with the Yemeni military."

The Houthis have successfully used the same tactics, exploiting popular grievances over security and a lack of government services to bring local tribes to their side, which has expanded their presence across the country and allowed them to take the fight to AQAP. "A successful US partner against AQAP would be capable of doing the same," Zimmerman said.

US cluster bombs keep killing civilians in Yemen. Read more here.

And so Obama faces a hard choice in Yemen: Continue with a problematic strategy that has had little actual impact on AQAP, or consider a partnership with a group that the US has publicly condemned and is viewed in Washington as an Iranian proxy.

"As long as the American Yemen policy is predicated on countering AQAP, we probably won't see a shift from the US," Zimmerman said. "But the rise of the Houthis should give the US pause, since their long-term objectives may be in conflict with those of the US."

Follow Peter Salisbury on Twitter: @altoflacoblanco