US policymakers must be ever cognizant of the trap that al-Qaida hopes to lay by using agent provocateurs in deepening US engagement in Yemen and in pushing the Yemeni government to the brink of collapse.
By Jarret Brachman for ISN Insights
Earlier this year, al-Qaida’s top cleric updated the group’s strategy for exploiting American involvement in the Middle East. The cleric, Shaykh Abu Yahya al-Libi, presented the strategy in the immediate aftermath of the 2009 Christmas Day bombing attempt, which meant that it got little fanfare from al-Qaida’s supporters and drew even less attention from western counterterrorism analysts.
Titled, “Yemen to the United States: I Sacrifice Myself for Your Sake,” Abu Yahya offered a new look at al-Qaida’s approach to the US in the Yemeni context. He argued that, by continuously provoking the US, al-Qaida would be able to harness America’s manic need to act, thereby luring it into meddling with Yemen’s domestic affairs and inadvertently alienating the government from the people, thus setting the stage for a domestic al-Qaida coup.
However, unlike in 2001 when al-Qaida’s goal was to remove US influence from the Middle East, the movement’s new goal of enmeshing the US in Yemeni affairs as much as possible is purely instrumental. It is aimed at getting the US to convince the Yemeni people that their government had become nothing more than a handmaiden for the US and its interests.
A new strategy
For decades, marginal violent movements within Islam have been fruitlessly trying to overthrow Arab governments. Frustrated with their repeated failures, Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and al-Qaida’s senior leadership concluded that it was US military support to these regimes that had to be removed from the equation before toppling them. Al-Qaida consequently shifted its targeting strategy: rather than continue its policy of hammering Arab governments – its “near” enemy – the group’s leadership came to believe that a few painful strikes against the “far” enemy of the US would weaken the country’s resolve in supporting those regimes. Without their US backers, al-Qaida predicted, those governments would be ripe for overthrow.
However, as the US grew more entangled in the region, fighting two wars and engaging in extensive counterterrorism cooperation in the region, al-Qaida came to understand that severing the ties between the US and Arab regimes would be next to impossible. Instead, al-Qaida formulated a new plan, one premised on embracing increasing American involvement in the Middle East. Al-Qaida’s new goal was to entice the US to double-down on its commitment in the region and then use America’s involvement with Arab governments against them.
The strategy outlined by Abu Yahya is built on two assumptions about the US. First, according to his analysis, the US has been so haunted by the specter of terrorism that al-Qaida now need only shout “boo!” and the US will run, “staggering and stumbling like a drunk and confused person”, into its next foreign policy nightmare. Part of the reason for America’s ‘shoot-first’ mentality, he argues, is its delusional aspiration to comprehensively protect the country from al-Qaida.
In other words, American policymakers – goaded by an emotional public and feverish media scrutiny – have no choice but to throw money at protecting themselves from terrorism, if only to make it appear as if they are making progress. Over time, however, US policymakers inadvertently perpetuate the idea that an air-tight security cocoon might just be achievable, if only YouTube removes enough Anwar al-Awlaki videos here, and its Transportation Security Agency deploys enough body scanners there.
Abu Yahya’s second – and most important – assumption is that the US cannot send its own military forces into Yemen as it did in Afghanistan and Iraq. With America’s poor track record in fighting jihadists head-on over the past two decades, its cash-strapped economy, and an exhausted military and a public unwilling to lose more lives in the region, the US is simply unable to consider putting American boots on Yemeni ground, he contends.
Instead, America’s only viable option – given its neurotic compulsion to “do” things, he argues – will be to pour money into an undertrained and unreliable Yemeni military so they can hunt al-Qaida on America’s behalf. The problem with waging war by proxy, he explains, is that the more the Obama administration claims to be supporting the Yemeni regime, the less credibility and independence the government will hold in the eyes of its people, particularly as the US pressures it to do unpopular things. In time, as the Yemeni government tries in vain to please two masters, it will alienate itself from its core supporters and eventually collapse, leaving the country ripe for an al-Qaida revolution.
Enter the provocateur
Abu Yahya’s assessment is idealistic, yes, but certainly not absurd. He raises many important critiques of America’s historically near-sighted foreign policy decisions in the Middle East and its spasmodic bureaucratic reflexes when terrorist attacks slip through the security cracks.
Enter Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-Yemeni cleric now operating under the rubric of al-Qaida’s Yemeni franchise, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Al-Awlaki, the populist preacher turned violent jihadist poster child, now plays the role for AQAP that al-Qaida’s senior leadership had hoped another American, Adam Gadahn, would play for them: a provocateur. Al-Qaida seemed to think that promoting Gadahn would drive the US berserk, knowing that one of its own was aiding the enemy. At the same time, they believed he would facilitate a recruiting boon, drawing westerners into al-Qaida’s orbit. If Gadahn could do it, so could they.
On the contrary, Gadahn became a laughing stock within the American discourse on terrorism, viewed as absurd and anomalous. He did, however, serve a useful role for al-Qaida when trying to demonstrate metrics of progress to their Arab supporters: Gadahn showed that their appeal was expanding.
Al-Awlaki has created a draw for the US media, and an image within the collective American psyche, that Gadahn could not. His influence is likely due to his broad-based appeal: liking al-Awlaki does not mean that you support al-Qaida, but supporting al-Qaida now means that you probably like al-Awlaki, an increasingly popular and prominent figure among hardliners. He confounds understandings of conventional boundaries within the movement. He blurs distinctions in a way that lowers the barrier of entry to more people in the West.
It is precisely because of al-Awlaki’s unbridled “American-ness” and the impact that he seems to increasingly have in convincing Muslims in the West to go operational, that he is serving as one of those ‘lures’ that Abu Yahya believed would draw more and more American resources, time and attention to Yemen.
US policymakers must, therefore, be ever cognizant of the trap that al-Qaida hopes it can lay by using agent provocateurs such as package bombs or American-styled preachers. While emotionally tempting to chase al-Awlaki around Yemen with drones or openly back the Yemeni military in its effort to bring him to justice, the long-term implications could play directly into the hands of the movement.
That said, where Abu Yahya gets his strategy most wrong, is in assuming that US support for Yemen has to be publically trumpeted. If patience prevails and if the Obama administration gives counterterrorism professionals the time, discretion and resources they need, the US will be able to empower Yemen to stay stable and strong in its fight against al-Qaida.
Jarret Brachman is a counterterrorism specialist, author and public lecturer with a PhD from the University of Delaware. A former Director of Research at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, he currently works at the North Dakota State University and conduts private consulting on al-Qaida for clients inside and outside of government. He published his first book titled “Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice” in 2008 and is currently working on a book titled “The Next Bin Ladin”. Published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)
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