Success against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen has depended on the redeployment of thousands of Yemeni troops and the emergence of local armed groups willing to fight AQAP’s insurgent wing, Ansar al Sharia. These local tribal militias, known as “popular committees,” played a critical role in turning the tide against AQAP’s insurgency. They will also be a key determinant of the long-term viability of the progress in southern Yemen, since the government will not be able to maintain a large military footprint there indefinitely. Not surprisingly, AQAP and Ansar al Sharia have also identified the popular committees as primary targets.
Saturday, a suicide bomb ripped through a funeral in Batis, a town in south Yemen, dealing a serious blow to the local popular committee. That attack, coupled with an attack at the end of July, proves that Ansar al Sharia militants still operate in the area. American policy-makers must now be concerned about two key issues: First, will the popular committees stand against this level of AQAP attacks? Second, do the increasing number of terrorist attacks against popular committee members indicate that the Yemeni military offensive against AQAP and Ansar al Sharia is culminating before having fully defeated or even displaced the terrorist organization?
AQAP could be preparing to launch a counter-offensive where its insurgency was once strong. Ansar al Sharia has already warned of future, deadlier attacks. It is very likely that the group has the capabilities to carry out its threat, even after the Yemeni army’s so-called victory against the insurgents in Abyan. Saturday’s blast killed over 45 people and injured dozens more — a successful first strike. There was security at the targeted funeral, according to reports, but the bomber was able to enter by claiming to be a family friend. The leader of the local popular committee, Abdul Latif al Sayid, survived the explosion, though two of his brothers were killed. Al Sayid said in June that he had previously been an al Qaeda sympathizer, but he led the fight against Ansar al Sharia in July. It is unclear what motivated him to switch sides.
Countering Ansar al Sharia is a difficult task: the insurgency has, with limited success, been able to tap into a widespread anti-government sentiment or provide benefits to local fighters. The emergence of an organized tribal resistance to Ansar al Sharia certainly facilitated the Yemeni military’s task of regaining control of seized territory. But will the tribal resistance collapse in the face of increased pressure from Ansar al Sharia? Will Yemen once again be facing a situation where insurgents control an entire governorate? Given our reliance on local Yemeni forces to counter the insurgent threat, America has a significant stake in the answer.