x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Two blows against Yemen, and a real sectarian threat

WikiLeaks is not even Yemen's most explosive challenge of the last few weeks. For that, one must look to a troubling rise in sectarian violence.

Yemen, as is now mentioned to the point of throat-clearing banality, is a fragile state. The droning repetition of this meme, unfortunately, does not make it any less true. Yemen, which can ill afford new stresses, was met late last month with two potential catastrophes - one from old words, the other from new bombs.

The first is the WikiLeaks document dump, a global phenomenon which has proved incredibly embarrassing to the United States. Inside Yemen, however, the leaks are less uncomfortable than they are dangerous.

In one cable, President Ali Abdullah Saleh is quoted as giving the US a green light to attack the Yemeni branch of al Qa'eda, al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), so long as both sides claim attacks are a Yemeni action. In the same meeting, the deputy prime minister mentions how he just got through lying to Parliament about the provenance of a strike (which killed many Yemeni civilians).

Analysts might shrug off the tone, but for people inside Yemen who don't have the same level of cynical detachment it has been like lightning.

In the cables, Mr Saleh is seemingly revealed as conforming to the image that anti-regime propagandists have painted: someone who is far more concerned with helping foreign powers than he is with helping his countrymen. He is opening up the country to imperialist drones and letting infidels attack Muslims, or so the local logic goes.

Mr Saleh's principle domestic challenge is that of legitimacy, and any event that questions his commitment to the nation is potentially devastating. The Houthi rebellion in the north, the southern secessionist movement, the threat of AQAP, general discontent: they all have as their root the idea that the central government is illegitimate. These cables can only accentuate that problem.

And yet, WikiLeaks is not even Yemen's most explosive challenge of the last few weeks. For that, one must look to a troubling rise in sectarian violence.

An AQAP attack on a Zaidi funeral in late November could prove to be far more damaging and bloody to Yemen's tenuous internal coherence, and not just in the long run. The attack was on the funeral of one of the leaders of the Houthi rebellion, a strike that threatens to open up a distinctly un-Yemeni brand of sectarian violence.

The Houthis are Zaidis, which is a from of Shiism, but its form is far different from the Twelver branch of Islam found in Iran and Iraq. Zaidi jurisprudence resembles Sunni thinking, and is popularly called another school of Sunni Islam. Sunnis and Shiites in Yemen historically have been virtually indistinguishable, and for all its other problems the country has avoided the mutual charges of apostasy you see elsewhere.

Saudi influence has begun to change that, though, and indeed the backlash to aggressive Wahhabi preaching was one of the engines of Zaidi political revivalism, its strongest manifestation being the Houthi rebellion. Yet communal violence had long been absent. As much as people have painted the rebellion as a Shiite one, it has always been political in nature, tied deeply to Yemeni history. Its religious nature only came in the accusation that Mr Saleh, himself a Zaidi, was selling out the country to Israel. Sunni Islamists sympathised.

What had made AQAP so dangerous was their patience, and their unwillingness to turn Yemen into an Iraq-like quagmire of sectarian division. They had avoided the mindless violence seen in other al Qa'eda venues, and hadn't attacked the so-called "ancient enemy" of Shiism. You didn't have attacks in markets, at funerals or mosques (with one possible exception in 2008). This lack of wanton bloodlust has helped them avoid backlash inside Yemen.

Until now. It is the exact nature of the November funeral attack that is uncertain; AQAP's statement of responsibility was strange and oddly vague and reactive, unusual for an organisation with such a sophisticated propaganda machine. It is possible that the Yemeni bombers acted without direct approval from the top, which itself would show a dangerous lack of command and control, and the leadership reacted clumsily in an attempt to prove they still held tightly to the organisation.

Regardless, though, the operation was sanctioned, if even retroactively. What had once been words is now action.

It is impossible to understate the dangers of this. Depending on Houthi reaction, this could open up another fighting front in a country that already has several intertwined and dizzily confusing ones. Even if the Houthis somehow shrug this off, a campaign by AQAP would be impossible to ignore. From a very narrow view, this might be seen as a positive. Better AQAP bleeds itself out play-acting dusty blood feuds than to plot against the West.

But there are two problems with this reasoning. The first is that this kind of ancient and invented sectarianism appeals to hardened jihadis, and AQAP is on a serious recruitment drive. The second is that it could lead to horrific violence, in itself a nightmare, and that violence could hurl Yemen's shaky stability off the cliff. From both a humanitarian and a counterterrorism perspective, this is unacceptable.

There are now wider divisions in Yemen than there were just a month ago. The few are separating the many. Mr Saleh is even further isolated in his tower, and a small group of men are actively trying to wreck Yemen's famed tolerance. These are potentially disastrous developments in a country whose cracks are threatening to completely swallow the land.


Brian O'Neill is a former writer and editor for the Yemen Observer. He is currently an independent analyst in Chicago