Regime Change in Yemen

The outcome of the anti-government protests in Yemen could have profound implications for the development of Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula

By Peter Browne for

After thirty-two years in power, Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh has largely lost his mandate to govern and is facing a growing wave of protests calling for his removal. The anti-government demonstrations, whilst overwhelmingly peaceful, have in recent weeks been met with increased brutality by the police and Central Security Forces (CSF). The most significant turning point occurred shortly after noon prayers on Friday 18 March, when police and government-sponsored gunmen opened fire from rooftops. killing fifty-two demonstrators.[1] Where before police were primarily shooting in the air to disperse crowds, now they are deploying tear gas and shooting to kill.[2] This has drawn harsh criticism from the opposition groups, and prominent members of Saleh's own government have begun resigning en masse in protest against the violence.[3]

The most significant defection, ostensibly prompted by the violence, occurred when Major General Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, Commander of Yemen's North-Western Military Zone, publicly announced on 21 March that he and his 1st Armored Division would protect the protestors.[4] He was quickly joined by Muhammad Ali Mohsin, Commander of the Eastern Military Zone, leaving the remaining two of Yemen's four military zones loyal to Saleh and effectively splitting the armed forces in half.[5] In the subsequent weeks there has been a tense stand-off between the two factions which has erupted into violence on several occasions, and the threat of civil war looms.[6] Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, while bolstering the opposition militarily, has also fractured it. He is not universally liked, especially for his role in the controversial counter-insurgency efforts in Sa'da, and is seen by many as a symbol of the old order.[7] As a result it remains unclear how his defection will shape the future of the opposition.

Britain's Security Minister, Pauline Neville-Jones, suggested that the democratic revolutions sweeping the region will weaken Al-Qa'ida's message that Islam and democracy are incompatible, and to an extent this may explain the lack of a tangible Al-Qa'ida presence during the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions.[8] However, as President Saleh is wont to say, Yemen is neither Egypt nor Tunisia, and the crippling political, economic and infrastructural challenges that Yemenis are facing have created an ideal environment for Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). If Saleh leaves, AQAP stands to benefit both in terms of recruitment options and operational freedom. Some of these benefits are variously contingent on the manner in which Saleh departs, the timeframe for this, and who comes to replace him.

Economic Hardship

The economic challenges that Yemen is facing could prove to be a key recruitment tool for AQAP in the months after Saleh's departure. Whilst there is real desire for change across Yemeni society, the harsh reality is that a post-Saleh state will find its power considerably weakened and will inherit a raft of serious and worsening problems: dwindling oil resources, lack of economic diversification, water shortages, food insecurity, massive unemployment and illiteracy, to name but a few.[9] Nadia Sakkaf, editor of The Yemen Times, believes Yemeni youth in particular may be disheartened to realise that things have not improved despite a change in regime:

'There will be resentment among the youth. The common enemy that united them will be gone. And so they will turn around them and see that there's nothing left to fight for. And they - the jobs that they wanted, they are not going to be created overnight. So, we're going to be facing a lot of disappointed youth waiting for opportunities to happen.'[10]

In the past AQAP has proven itself to be a shrewd operator, and has rarely missed an opportunity to capitalise on local discontent.[11] Unless the next government successfully and rapidly meets these challenges, then AQAP could find itself with a fresh wave of disaffected potential recruits looking for an alternative method to effect change. The degree to which AQAP can benefit from this is not significantly contingent on the timing or manner of Saleh's departure, as the economic and infrastructural landscape under a subsequent government will not look much different whether Saleh is ousted tomorrow or steps down in a year's time.[12]

A Weakened Security Apparatus

In an article in Inspire, AQAP's English-language magazine, Al-Qa'ida ideologue Anwar al-Awlaqi wrote that 'Yemen already has a fragile government and ... any weakness in the central government would undoubtedly bring with it more strength for the mujahedeen in this blessed land.'[13] The longer the unrest continues, and the greater the fractures within the armed forces become, the more Saleh's counter-terrorism (CT) efforts will take a backseat to protecting himself and his dwindling support base. The timeframe for Saleh's departure will hence prove crucial.

There are already numerous examples of Saleh prioritizing his personal security over the continuation of the CT effort, for example the recent withdrawal of CT forces from Abyan, where AQAP is particularly active.[14] This withdrawal may also have been a tactical move on Saleh's part, allowing militants free reign in a bid to scare the US into exerting a more tangible effort to keep him in power.[15] Indeed, after the explosion at an ammunition factory in Abyan on 28 March, in which over 150 died, Saleh immediately blamed AQAP, although local sources attributed the explosion to an accident.[16] Many within the opposition have directly blamed Saleh for the blast, raising the possibility of collusion between Saleh and AQAP or other state-sponsored militants, which he has a history of doing.[17] Days later, in the same area in Abyan, a group of militant Islamists announced their takeover of the town of Ja'ar. Again, the government blamed AQAP, however during an interview one of the militants denied involvement in the explosion at the ammunition factory or having any direct links to Al-Qa'ida or the Taliban, despite what he described as their 'shared destiny'.[18] Saleh has a history of invoking the threat of AQAP in order to reinforce his political standing. Such efforts have often proven ineffective, but these latest incidents demonstrate that he is unlikely to break the habit whilst still in power.

The issue here is not whether the explosion at the factory or the alleged takeover of Ja'ar are the result of genuine AQAP activity or other (potentially state-sponsored) Islamist militants, but rather that they demonstrate the opportunities created for militant groups by a weakened security presence. Further deterioration of Saleh's security apparatus is also taking place. Soldiers have begun deserting out of fear of tribal backlash, and important military commanders have defected.[19] If Saleh is ousted, it is likely that his family members will suffer the same fate. As his son and nephews comprise much of the remaining military and security leadership, particularly the CT forces, then post-Saleh Yemen could find itself missing a sizable portion of its domestic security command structure. This will afford AQAP greater freedom to operate and establish safe havens.

Domestic Politics

Considering Major General Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar defection, many believe that both he and the prominent tribal leader Hamid al-Ahmar may end up playing an important role in a post-Saleh government. Recently leaked diplomatic cables suggest that this potential future alliance has been in the making for some time, and that a military coup is a real possibility.[20] The significance of this is that both Ali Mushin al-Ahmar and Hamid al-Ahmar have strong ties to the Islamist opposition party al-Islah, as well as to other previously state-sponsored Islamist groups within Yemen.[21] Should either al-Islah as a whole, or Hamid al-Ahmar and Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, form part of Yemen's next government, then AQAP may find itself living in a Yemen governed by those more amenable to its ideals than President Saleh. This will likely be compounded by the current lack of US CT connections beyond Saleh and his immediate family. Before the US can realistically attempt to encourage future Yemeni CT operations, it will need to build a good relationship with the relevant figures in a new government, which is likely to take some time. This challenge is something that AQAP explicitly highlights in the 5th issue of Inspire, predicting that this loss of key CT connections will open 'the doors of opportunity' for Al-Qa'ida.[22]

Regional Politics

Ongoing civil unrest elsewhere in the region will also play into AQAP's hands. Given that Saudi Arabia is now militarily involved in Bahrain and has its own domestic unrest to attend to, its security focus is at best divided. The longer the unrest in the region keeps Saudi Arabia's military and, presumably, its intelligence focus fixed on Bahrain, the less AQAP will be subject to Saudi scrutiny. Furthermore, it remains unclear what the nature of the Saudi relationship with a post-Saleh government will be. Saudi Arabia has a vested interest in the future of CT operations in Yemen, as many of the original Saudi incarnation of AQAP moved to Yemen during its January 2009 merger with Al-Qa'ida in Yemen (AQY), and the current AQAP has attempted several operations in Saudi territory.[23] While both Hamid al-Ahmar's family and Ali Mohsin have close ties to the House of Saud, and so in theory could make good CT partners, they also harbour ties with radical Islamist groups within Yemen which, as is often the case in Yemeni politics, may result in a conflict of interests.

International Politics

In late March of this year, US support for Saleh began to wane and officials began privately urging him to step down, a stance which by early April had become public.[24] This marked an important change in US policy towards Saleh, whom it heralds as the best and only option for combating terrorism in Yemen.[25] However, it may be too little too late, as the US has remained mostly silent during President Saleh's increasing brutal crackdown on demonstrations. That US officials have claimed that the State Department has no real plan for a post-Saleh Yemen provides some explanation for its silence, but does not undo the damage.[26] By openly condemning and then militarily intervening to stop the violence in Libya, but ignoring similar brutality in Yemen, the US has lost credibility among the demonstrators and risks alienating the future leaders of Yemen before they have even come to power.[27]

AQAP stands to benefit from this in two ways. Firstly, from a propaganda perspective, the contradiction between the condemnatory US stance in Libya and its silence in Yemen plays right into AQAP's narrative that the US and its allies are untrustworthy and morally bankrupt. Anwar al-Awlaqi himself has commented on this, writing that Yemen represents 'another great opportunity for the West to show their hypocrisy of calling for freedoms while supporting a dictator.'[28] Secondly, the lack of US engagement with the Yemeni opposition, even if it lacks a coherent leadership, means it has missed an opportunity to lay early foundations for a future CT partnership.

The Threat of Civil War

With the division in the armed forces and Saleh's recent proclamation that he would make no further concessions, there is an uneasy peace between the pro- and anti-government military factions which has been punctuated by episodes of violence.[29] Most significantly, the intense exchange of fire on 13 April in central Sana'a, and the 5 April shootout (which Ali Mohsin claims was a government attempt to assassinate him), have pushed the country towards a civil war that would benefit AQAP.[30]

A war between the two military factions will likely pull in tribal players on both sides, in much the same way that collateral damage and self-interest pulled different tribes into the war in Sa'da.[[xxxi]] AQAP could well exploit such a conflict to expand its influence through co-operation with the anti-Saleh tribes, creating a reputation for itself as a reliable partner with prior experience of fighting the government's security forces. Shifting territorial control during such a war would give AQAP the opportunity to more firmly establish itself in areas previously under government control. Some believe such instability will attract a greater influx of foreign fighters - particularly from Pakistan - giving AQAP a recruitment boost as well.[32]

The general distrust of Ali Mohsin among both the separatists in the south and the Huthis in the north, coupled with their long-standing enmity for Saleh, raises the possibility of a multi-faction conflict. While potentially less intense than a two-sided civil war, this would likely be more protracted as the conflicting interests of the groups would make both a clear military victory and a negotiated settlement more difficult.[33] Further, tribal allegiances and interests are complex and prone to shift, so in a situation as dynamic as a civil war, predicting which tribal loyalties will hold and which will change is extremely difficult. AQAP knows it would thrive in a conflict of this nature, by playing off the competing interests of the various protagonists to expand its influence and operational freedom.[34]

Ultimately, AQAP stands to gain from the ongoing civil unrest and Saleh's eventual departure in a number of ways. While none of these situations need be permanent, in the short- to medium-term AQAP will see a relaxation of CT efforts with a corresponding expansion of its operational space, as well as a possible boost to recruitment.


[1] Johnsen, Gregory (2011) "See Ya, Saleh", Foreign Policy, 23 March 2011 (; Sky News (2011) "Yemen angry as death toll climbs to 52", Sky News, 20 March 2011 (

[2] Boone, Jeb (2011) "Bloodbath in Yemen as snipers target protestors", The Independent, 19 March 2011 (

[3] Mareb Press (2011) "The haemorrhaging of resignations is still continuing", Mareb Press, 19 March 2011 ( (Arabic)

[4] Johnsen, Gregory (2011) "See Ya, Saleh", Foreign Policy, 23 March 2011 (

[5] Hardy, Frank W. (2011) "Top Army Generals & Diplomats Desert President Ali Abdullah Saleh", Suite 101, 21 March 2011 (

[6] Reuters (2011) "Rival security forces clash in Yemeni capital", Reuters, 13 April 2011 (; Mareb Press (2011) "Sana'a: Clashes between Division soldiers and military gangs who attacked a Division checkpoint at the Amran roundabout in which 8 were injured", 13 April 2011 (Arabic) (

[7] Blumi, Isa (2011) "In Yemen, Hardly a Revolution", NY Times, 8 April 2011 (

[8] Reuters (2011) "Arab revolts can boost anti-terrorism fight - UK", Reuters, 17 February 2011 (

[9] Phillips, Sarah (2011) "Yemen: Developmental Dysfunction and Division in a Crisis State", Development Leadership Program Research Paper 14, February 2011, pp. 9-10

[10] Transcript of interview with Nadia as-Sakkaf on PBS Newshour, 24 March 2011 (

[11] Johnsen, Gregory (2009) "The Expansion Strategy of Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula", CTC Sentinel 2(9), p. 10 (

[12] According to officials in the US Embassy in Sana'a on 4 April, President Obama, having reversed his stance, is likely to openly call for Saleh to step down within the next two months to avoid a power vacuum that AQAP could exploit. (See:

[13] Al-Awlaqi, Anwar (2011) "The Tsunami of Change", Inspire 5, p. 53

[14] Kasinof, Laura & Worth, Robert F. (2011) "Factory Explosion Follows Yemeni Forces' Pullout",, 28 March 2011

[15] Schmitt, Eric (2011) "Unrest in Yemen Seen as Opening to Qaeda Branch", NY Times, 4 April 2011 (

[16] Al-Jazeera (2011) "Scores killed in Yemen arms factory blasts", Al-Jazeera, 28 March 2011 (; Al-Masmari, Hakim (2011) "Death Toll From Yemen Blast Rises to 150", The Wall Street Journal, 29 March 2011 (

[17] Global Post (2011) "Yemeni president and opposition blame each other for violence", Global Post, 29 March 2011 (

[18] Al-Hud, 'Abd al-Khaliq (2011) "Ja'ar is not Kandahar", Mareb Press, 9 April 2011 (Arabic) (

[19] Mareb Press (2011) "The President fires the Commander of the 115 Mechanized Brigade in al-Jawf", Mareb Press, 16 March 2011 (Arabic) (; al-Tagheer (2011) "Major General Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar announces his support for the youth revolution and says that his army will protect them", 21 March 2011 (Arabic) (

[20] Whitlock, Craig (2011) "U.S. was told of Yemen leader's vulnerability", Washington Post, 7 April 2011 (

[21] STRATFOR (2011) "Yemen in Crisis: A Special Report", STRATFOR, 21 March 2011 (

[22] Al-Awlaqi, Anwar (2011) "The Tsunami of Change", Inspire 5, p. 53

[23] Handley, Paul (2010) "Saudi fugitives key AQAP players", Kuwait Times, 2 November 2010 (

[24] Kasinof, Laura and Sanger, David (2011) "U.S. Shifts to Seek Removal of Yemen's Leader, an Ally", NY Times, 3 April 2011 (; Saeed, Ali (2011) "The West calls for President Saleh to leave", Yemen Times, 7 April 2011 (

[25] Kasinof, Laura and Shane, Scott (2011) "Radical Cleric Demands Ouster of Yemen Leader", NY Times, 1 March 2011 (; Schmitt, Eric (2011) "Unrest in Yemen Seen as Opening to Qaeda Branch", NY Times, 4 April 2011 (

[26] Kasinof, Laura and Shane, Scott (2011) "Radical Cleric Demands Ouster of Yemen Leader", NY Times, 1 March 2011 (

[27] Blumi, Isa (2011) "In Yemen, Hardly a Revolution", NY Times, 8 April 2011 (

[28] Al-Awlaqi, Anwar (2011) "The Tsunami of Change", Inspire 5, p. 53

[29] (2011) "President Saleh: No more concessions from now on",, 27 March 2011 (

[30] Boone, Jeb (2011) "Rebel soldier killed in clash between military factions in Yemeni capital", The Washington Post, 13 April 2011 (; Al-Tagheer (2011) "Al-Tagheer publishes the complete details of the attempted assassination of Major General Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar by the ruling regime", Al-Tagheer, 6 April 2011 (Arabic) (

[31] Hamidi, A. (2009) "Inscriptions of Violence in Northern Yemen: Haunting Histories, Unstable Moral Spaces", Middle Eastern Studies 45(2), p. 171 (

[32] Schmitt, Eric (2011) "Unrest in Yemen Seen as Opening to Qaeda Branch", NY Times, 4 April 2011 (

[33] Cunningham, David (2006) "Veto players and civil war duration", American Journal of Political Science 50(4), passim (

[34] Johnsen, Gregory (2008) "Al-Qa'ida in Yemen's 2008 Campaign", CTC Sentinel 1(5), p. 1 (


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