What al Qaeda's attack says about the state of Yemen’s army
Yemeni General Ali Salah, deputy chief of staff for military operations, visits soldiers in Yemen's restive Abayan province on March 6.
March 9th, 2012
01:19 PM ET

What al Qaeda's attack says about the state of Yemen’s army

Editor's Note: Daniel R. DePetris is the Senior Associate Editor of the Journal of Terrorism and Security Analysis.  He is currently a research intern with the American Enterprise Institute’s Defense and Foreign Policy division.

By Daniel R. DePetris - Special to CNN

Just two weeks into Abdu Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s young tenure as Yemen’s president, he is confronted with a serious string of military setbacks against the country’s active and ever-powerful al Qaeda affiliate in the southern desert.  The VP-turned-President was well aware of how difficult his new job would be, particularly against the terrorists who have been expanding their territorial control over the past year as the former government was trying to salvage its regime.  But even last Sunday’s attack was grisly for al Qaeda, which has typically resorted to small arms fire and ambushes against Yemeni soldiers.

The assault was not especially sophisticated in tactical terms, but the damages have nevertheless shaken Yemen’s fractured military to its core.  The exact details of the attack have been fluctuating over the past couple of days, but Yemeni military officials have reported that a band of Islamic militants from the southern city of Zinjibar snuck behind the army’s front lines when most of its soldiers were asleep in their tents.

When they were finally in place, al Qaeda’s fighters unleashed a torrent of automatic weapons fire straight into the sleeping quarters of the troops, all of whom were caught unaware in the middle of their sleep.  The unit was effectively under siege by the gunmen, heavily outmanned and underequipped to repel the attackers on their own.  Reinforcements were called, but arrived too late to do much damage to the militants before they succeeded in killing dozens upon dozens of soldiers.  The final damage was 185 dead and 55 troops captured (to be used as bargaining chips later on), with the militants losing only 32 of their own.

Yemen’s military establishment is in utter shock.  How could the soldiers be so outgunned and outmanned by a bunch of terrorists who would normally be too disorganized to do such an effective job?  Why were reinforcements sent too little, too late?  Were their any Yemenis in uniform that colluded with the militants?  And if so, what does that say about Yemen’s armed forces, even after tens of millions of dollars in U.S. funding and a growing U.S. commitment with training and equipping?  These are all questions that need to be answered by President Hadi if he has any chance at taking the fight to the enemy in the south, which he has strongly pledged he would do before, during, and after his swearing-in ceremony.

How quickly Hadi can assemble a competent, trustworthy, and merit-based counterterrorism team around him will determine the future credibility of his administration on the one issue that the United States cares most about.

Obama administration officials thousands of miles away have grasped how significant the latest al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) attack was, both in terms of its effectiveness operationally as well as the attacks second-order effects, such as the dwindling morale of and confidence of Yemen’s soldiers.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton immediately issued a brief statement after the AQAP ambush, expressing her condolences and redoubling America’s effort to aid and assist Yemen’s army so a similar incident in the future can be countered before an entire base gets overrun.

While U.S. assistance is undoubedbly vital, what President Hadi and his government need more than anything else is a recalibrated and reorganized Yemeni officer corps - commanders that will gain the trust of their men in uniform and units that will work with Yemen’s powerful tribal communities in their anti-AQ effort rather than trying to thwart them.

Those commanders who are not qualified, or who were promoted by the previous regime on the basis of family loyalty rather than merit, should be offered a generous retirement package to convince them to leave.  Commanders and fellow soldiers who are caught trying to subvert the system through corrupt practices need to be terminated.  The Yemeni Government, even with a new president for the first time in three decades, cannot expect their troops in the field to risk their lives for a system that turns a blind eye to corruption in ranks of the senior military leadership.

A proposal by John Brennan, President Obama’s senior counterterrorism adviser, to bypass the commanders and pay soldiers directly is a positive start to the process of deconstructing - and then reconstructing –the Yemeni armed forces.  If unable to convince Saleh’s son and nephew to leave, both Washington and Sana’a would be best served by keeping a watchful eye on them.  Yemen’s leaders cannot begin to chip away at al Qaeda without everyone being on the same team, looking at the same objective.  Accountability is a prerequisite step in order to ensure that al Qaeda, rather than money and prestige, is the central focus.

Transforming the Yemeni armed forces from an internally divided, tribally-based collection of militias into a modern military machine will not happen in a few days, or even a few years.  Hadi, after all, has only been in office since February 25.  Much of the previous regime is still operating, albeit with its leader Saleh now debating where to retire.  Yemen will remain a troubled country for a very long time, and even the United States will have its limits in poking and prodding their Yemeni partners to reform for the good of their country. Yet promoting military protocol, while not widely talked about in the counterterrorism fight, has the potential to make the job of al Qaeda far more difficult.  And it may just pull the armed forces together at a moment when Yemeni society is still unsure of which direction their revolution will take.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Daniel R. DePetris.

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Topics: Terrorism • Yemen

soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. George Patton

    It seems to be quite funny that an army so good at killing it's own people can't defeat Al Qaeda on the battlefield. The Yemeni army has been year in, year out propped up by U.S. and British aid in both money and material while Al Qaeda has been pretty much down and out! This is quite fishy indeed.

    March 9, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Reply
    • Tash

      This dude from Israel turned the US Congress into a mad house, where anrcgaroe received 50 standing ovations. This guy seemed like a bouncer admiring him self while he gave a speech in front of a mirror.It has been one of the one most disgraceful speeches I ever heard. One jewish girl was sent to the hospital after some dudes from a Lobby named APAC attacked her for screaming for human rights for the Palestinians.This is insanity. People in the US are scared to criticize the Israelis more than their own President. What a sociopath.Tetanyahu , is that his name ? What a disgusting person. Arrogant Killer. Thanks for helping Libya, President Obama and Cameron.

      July 13, 2012 at 2:08 am | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    Yemen's armed forces are by nature a tribally-based collection of militias. Before Saleh left office, they were internally divided due to the power struggle between a few tribes and Saleh's siblings. Those perpetrators were believed to be from al-Qaeda, but they could also have links with Saleh and were assisted by army leaders who had served under the former president. If it's true, it just shows how venomous Saleh is, while he was in power he combated the Islamists when they took control of parts of the country last year. Perhaps resenting the U.S. for not standing by him amid the uprisings, which led to his stepping down, he stages attacks on government's forces in order to weaken his successor, who sides with Washington.

    March 10, 2012 at 5:38 am | Reply
    • George Patton

      Wrong, j. von hettlingen. In fact, the Obama adminisration supported this tyrant Saleh to the bitter end and we even used those ungodly drones and Tomahawk missiles to kill off his opponents. Ever now Saleh is still pulling strings in Yemen through his successor whils living like a king in neighboring Saudi Arabia!!!

      March 10, 2012 at 7:55 am | Reply
  3. iran and the shiiazim are evil attack iran now and we will get red of syria and all the terrorists

    iran is helping the al hotheen what so called yemen al qayeda they are the evil getting money from iran and weapon from hizboallah and syria .
    dont allow iran to enter the immunity zone in any price.................Imagine if hitler did that you , your mothers and sisters and all your family will be slaves to the nazzies...iran muslims evil thugs of shiia cults are worse than hitler , make no mistake iran will use any thing because they want to start a war as this is will bring what so called AL MAHDI AL MONTADHAR....it is like the shiia massaiua to them , and the only way the MAHDI WILL COME BACK IS BY WAR, KILLING ZENA MOTAA ADULTERY AND CAIOUS thats what the sick shiia doctorine says in the books...fk all shiia and remove them from this earth and send them to the 4o vergins that they are waiting for...even some are dreaming to sleep with vergin mary in heaven cause she is vergin , so they pray extra prayers to see who is the one will be the lucky one to sleep with her in heaven that what they teach.

    March 10, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Reply
  4. attack russian interests now

    the muslims and arabs should attack russian interests any where every where inbcluding all embassies as russia veto on syria allow the killing of 17,000 women and children on the hands of the terrorists regieme of bashar al kalb of syria and hizboallah those evil getting weapons from evil russia and money from the great evil iran to kill daily backed by the evil iraqi shiia who provide men and shiia thugs to cross to syria and kill sunni...syria must be attacked if i was a leader in the middleast i wage war aganist russia and now in every mean possible until i get red of those communists puten and his followers...

    March 10, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Reply
    • George Patton

      If I were you, I'd be kind of embarrassed to let people know what a tiny mind I had. Gee, have you no pride?

      March 10, 2012 at 7:51 pm | Reply
    • aurelius

      Guess you learned English in the Gulag.

      March 12, 2012 at 7:53 pm | Reply
      • faris

        Partly because in retome and technologically depressed locations like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen news is not on a 24 7 cycle and is either tightly controlled or almost non-existent. That and the media knows Americans would rather not hear about that, to Bristol's point they (sadly) would rather hear about how big Kim K's ass has gotten or who Taylor Swift is being a beard for now.That and it likely is legitimately hard to actually confirm civilian deaths versus propaganda and outright misinformation. It's not like a blond hair, blue eyed Caucasian reporter would be even retomely safe walking around on the ground in places overtly hostile to westerners.

        July 11, 2012 at 2:50 am |
  5. iraqi shiia and iran shiia making fatwa to allow the killing of syrian sunni!!!as shiia islam allow killing

    منذ بدأت مريم رجوي, الرئيسة المنتخبة من قبل المقاومة الايرانية عملها الديبلوماسي الدؤوب من أجل كسر جدار العزلة والاقصاء الذي فرضه النظام الايراني على المجلس الوطني للمقاومة الايرانية, شهد العالم كله تحولات نوعية في الموقف الدولي تجاه هذا التيار المعارض الذي يخوض نضالا مستمرا منذ أكثر من ثلاثين عاما ضد النظام الايراني وقد نجحت مريم في اقناع الدول الأوروبية باخراج منظمة مجاهدي خلق من لائحة الارهاب تقود الان حملة غير مسبوقة لاقناع الادارة الأميركية بتصحيح موقفها من المقاومة والشعب الايراني عبر اخراج منظمة مجاهدي خلق من تلك اللائحة السوداء.

    «السياسة» التقتها عن قرب وأجرت معها اول لقاء تتحدث فيه مريم للصحافة الخليجية :

    *كيف ستتعاملون مع الاصرار العراقي – الايراني على نقل سكان أشرف الى خارج العراق ؟

    – أشرف بالنسبة للشعب الايراني بمثابة منار للأمل ونموذج لا نظير له في مجتمع ديمقراطي والذي يمنحهم العزم لكي يقفوا بوجه الدكتاتورية السوداء المختبئة خلف ستار الدين , وأود القول هنا ان النظام الايراني قلق من التحولات السورية فاذا سقطت الدكتاتورية في سورية , فان واحداً من أهم أركان نفوذه في المنطقة سيتلاشى.

    لهذا السبب يريد النظام قبل سقوط النظام السوري أن يتأكد من أمرين : الاول القضاء على أشرف وسكانه , والاخر الحصول على القنبلة النووية , لكي يتمكن من خلال هذين المكسبين التغلب على مشكلاته .

    March 10, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Reply

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