SANAA (AFP) – Yemen has launched a new campaign to eradicate Al-Qaeda but the government will need the cooperation of the country’s powerful tribes if it has any hope of winning the war, analysts say.
Unlike Pakistan, with a “tribal zone” that is virtually off-limits to the central government, Yemen is an impoverished country where tribes and their influence are omnipresent.
Except for the coastal plains and in major cities, where immigration and greater contact with the outside world have diluted their influence, the rest of Yemen is largely the fief of various tribes.
And the central government has never really tried to extend its power to any significant degree to the mountains, plateaus and deserts in the interior.
A Western diplomat in Sanaa said the tribal structure is so much a historic part of Yemen’s fabric that the central government, a modern invention, “has chosen to graft itself on to that structure by means of permanent negotiation.”
“Effectively, you have two powers superimposed,” said the diplomat, who asked not to be named.
But tribal power, which is more influential and more powerful in certain areas, “has the ability to act that is immeasurably stronger than the state,” he said.
The mountains and the plateaus are ruled by tribes with a warring history, heavily armed and capable of mobilising thousands of fighters that the security forces would not want to take on.
But this does not mean the two sides are permanently at odds.
“Since its foundation, the Yemeni state has played the tribal card,” explained French anthropologist Franck Mermier, with tribal sheikhs recognised as part of the system.
“They are paid salaries, given gifts. Many of them are deputies (in parliament). Their sons or nephews are officers in the army or the police.” The idea of “setting the state against the tribes makes no sense in Yemen.”
Hamid Alawadhi, head of the humanities faculty at the University of Sanaa, expanded on that.
“In the tribal zones, it is possible for the state to intervene, but it always prefers to go through the tribal chief. In places, the presence of the state is purely symbolic. The sheikhs run the place.”
When the government is hunting a suspected criminal, or an Al-Qaeda militant, it contacts the dominant tribe in the area where the person is thought to be hiding.
If the tribe is not prepared to cooperate, there is little that can be done.
But Mohammed Saleh al-Zihadi, a member of a tribe in Dhamar, south of Sanaa, said: “We work very well with the state. Many of our members are in the police, which makes things much easier, and in the army … sons, brothers, cousins.”
In a sign of possible change, the head of Yemen’s security services, who is a nephew of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, on Sunday issued a clear warning to tribes harbouring Al-Qaeda suspects.
“We broadly tell citizens in the concerned regions that they should not accept the presence of Al-Qaeda elements amongst them,” said General Yahya Saleh.
“If the tribes accept the presence of Al-Qaeda despite the warnings that we put out on television, newspapers and radio, then they are doing it with the full knowledge of the facts. They have been warned,” he told AFP.
On December 17 and 24, Yemeni planes raided suspected sites of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Along with 60 suspected militants, dozens of local civilians were also killed.
If an Al-Qaeda militant is granted the hospitality of a tribe, it is rarely for ideological reasons but rather because one of them, with comrades, has sought refuge among his own people.
Tribal leader Sheikh Arfaj Hamad bin Hadhban said the war on Al-Qaeda was the central government’s business, not that of the tribes.
At the same time, he said, the tribe is not going to hand over someone simply because he happens to be a suspected militant, whether he is a member of the tribe or not.
First, his guilt has to be established.
“This Al-Qaeda business, because of its international dimension, is outside the framework of tribal customs,” he said, referring to the custom of providing hospitality to anyone, even to one’s enemies, if they are in your home.
Central security chief Saleh has a more cynical view.
“If some tribes aid or protect Al-Qaeda, it is usually because some members of the tribe are part of the network, or because a terrorist has married a woman from the tribe or because they have been paid by Al-Qaeda,” he said.
“Yemen is not Afghanistan, nor Pakistan, where the jihad (holy war) ideology is strong. Here, the tribes are always on the side of the one who pays, according to their interests.
“They could sell an Al-Qaeda man from one day to the next.”
Saleh is not in favour of forming a tribal anti-Qaeda militia, along the lines of the American-backed “Sunni Awakening” movement in Iraq, created to fight the terror network.
Such measures would be “very dangerous” in Yemen. “If you do so, the tribes would hand us presumed Al-Qaeda militants in their hundreds, just for money. It would be very easy, but hardly efficient.”