Last week, Ansar al Sharia militants, insurgent fighters for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), resumed attacking pro-government positions in an area recently recaptured by Yemen’s military. This attack may prove Ansar al Sharia’s staying power in the region should the group choose to resume a regular campaign against Yemen’s military there. The insurgency in Yemen expanded AQAP’s safe haven and was a notable shift in operations for the terrorist group, already deemed to be al Qaeda’s most operationally active node. Even if Ansar al Sharia does not resume a full-fledged insurgency, the continued presence of militants in Abyan and across south Yemen is worrisome: Targeted assassinations of Yemeni security officials are already on the rise in those areas. These are the leaders of the forces upon which the United States is relying to fight AQAP and Ansar al Sharia.
The Yemeni military’s much-touted success against Ansar al Sharia appears to have been a false victory. Abyan had effectively been under the AQAP-affiliated militants’ control since the spring of 2011. Over the past few months, Yemen’s military, aided by local tribal militias, swept through Abyan and across neighboring governorates. The fast pace of operations, however, makes it extremely unlikely that the area was cleared of insurgents. Indeed, the door remains open for Ansar al Sharia to regenerate and sow violence again. Last week’s attack on the town in Abyan, repelled by a local militia, demonstrates that the Yemeni security forces continue to have a fight on their hands.
Local militias have had, and will likely continue to have, a significant role in the fight against Ansar al Sharia. These militias, composed of local tribal levies, have sprung up across south Yemen. The popular committees, as the militias are known, have supplemented and cooperated with the Yemeni military. In some cases, it appears, they have replaced Yemeni forces. Additional deployments of Yemeni troops may be en route, however.
The question now is whether this reliance on popular committees can solve the AQAP and Ansar and Sharia problem in the long term. Sasha Gordon, a Yemen analyst on AEI’s Critical Threats Project, concluded in a recent report that Yemen’s “tribes are essential to an effective campaign against Ansar al Sharia, but they are not a silver bullet.” The popular committees have stopped the spread of Ansar al Sharia’s safe haven in south Yemen for now, but it should be incumbent on the Yemeni military and security forces to develop the capability to re-assume the duties now held by these committees.
The U.S. has an interest in aiding Yemen’s military and security forces to do so. The Pentagon has recognized this, and has requested that Congress authorize capacity-building assistance. But as the fight to consolidate gains in Abyan continues, the tribes remain an important player. Gordon recommends that given this fact, “The U.S. must examine the likely requirements for external support to the tribes, by, with, and through the Yemeni military and state if possible, but by other means if necessary.”