Editor's Note: Daniel R. DePetris is a Senior Associate Editor of the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Daniel R. DePetris.
By Daniel R. DePetris - Special to CNN
On January 15, the residents of Radda - a small rural town 100 miles south of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a - were virtually in a state of siege. The small shops and markets that kept the town’s life afloat were shut down, converted into makeshift military barricades by fighters associated with al Qaeda’s regional-based affiliate, who easily overtook the village from Yemen’s security forces. The mosque - the center of activity in many small villages - became an al Qaeda headquarters, with the group’s black flag erected over the building in a demonstration of firm control.
The Yemeni Government, already fragmented and struggling to progress from the long era of Ali Abdullah Saleh, was powerless to stop the incursion. The Yemeni military promised to assemble reinforcements to re-capture the town and push the al Qaeda militants out of the area, but the mobilization was far too slow for the people whose lives were darkly interrupted.
Yemen’s powerful tribes, long a substitute for the government in large portions of the country, once again had to take matters into their own hands. Tribal officials tacitly representing the Yemeni Government sat down with the militants and attempted to strike a compromise that would avert bloodshed, which has been the unfortunate norm for thousands of Yemenis.
The negotiations, lasting days, eventually succeeded in breaking through. The Islamists agreed that they would withdraw from Radda, but only on the condition that the town council was replaced in full and 15 of its colleagues were released from Yemen’s shaky prison system. The tribes and the government put their stamp on the agreement, and crisis was averted.
At first glance, the tribal-militant discussions look like just another example of conflict mediation in a poverty-stricken and power-keg type of a nation. But when analyzed further, the decision to negotiate rather than fight may represent a new overarching strategy for the al Qaeda organization, which has taken a severe beating over the past year with senior commanders and fighters alike dying as a result of Washington’s pinpoint covert drone program.
Al Qaeda may be increasing its presence in Yemen, but the group is still no match for an even divided Yemeni military, which after all, continues to possess fighter jets in its stockpile and maintains a tactical and intelligence relationship with the United States. Viewed in this context, the Islamists’ hold on the town would collapse eventually due to its weakness in sheer numbers and firepower, regardless of how weak the national army is.
Strategy, however, may have also played a significant part to al Qaeda’s withdrawal. The organization seems to have learned some hard lessons from Iraq, when at one time it declared Anbar Province its Islamic Emirate and subjected Anbar’s tribes and people to its interpretation of the Quran.
That arrangement did not last long - after only a month of declaring Anbar Province an Islamic State, the tribes began partnering with their former enemies in the United States in a bid to drive out a cadre of Islamists that were killing Iraqi civilians for sheer intimidation.
The Awakening Movement grew from that time on, with tens of thousands of Iraqi Sunnis running checkpoints in their neighborhoods and hitting al Qaeda hard. The final verdict - al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is a dilapidated form of its former self. Jihadists continue to conduct attacks on innocent Iraqis, but their message is no longer appealing to Iraqis (if it were at all), begging the question of whether AQI can maintain itself over the next couple of years.
AQI’s brethren in the Arabian Peninsula, at least on the surface, appear to be taking those experiences into consideration. In addition to negotiating their way out of trouble in Radda, reports have popped up claiming that the group is now conducting preliminary dialogue with the Yemeni Government over its control of Zinjibar, a city that al Qaeda fighters overran last May.
The contours of those discussions are similar to those that dominated the conversation over Radda - the militants will withdraw from Zinjibar without any more widespread shooting, but only if the city council starts governing according to Sharia. The newly formed unity government in Sana’a is on board with the initiative, and is trying to replicate the talks across Yemen’s southern tier, where al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is the most entrenched.
The Obama administration has yet to release a statement on these reports, knowing full well that any dialogue with AQAP could collapse just as quickly at it was initiated. But the development nonetheless poses another dilemma to the White House’s overall counterterrorism strategy inside Yemen. Do you support negotiating with terrorists, in the hopes that some grand bargain will propel the movement to lay down their arms? If so, can Washington live with an even more extreme mindset folding into Yemeni politics?
Whatever the answers to these questions, Washington and its counterterrorism partners in the region may have to soon dust off its “war on terror” playbook, realizing that they may be confronting an enemy that is not only dangerous, but getting smarter.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Daniel R. DePetris.