How Yemen spawned the Charlie Hebdo attacks – the Guardian briefing
What’s the story?
An al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen on French magazine Charlie Hebdo, reiterating the gunmen’s call to kill those who insult the prophet Muhammad. Two shooters in the Paris terror attacks , officially known al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). At least one appears to have been trained in Yemen – a country that has become a nexus of civil war, Islamic extremism and US counterterrorism operations over the past 15 years.
Charlie Hebdo gunman Chérif Kouachi, 32, claimed to have traveled to Yemen around in 2011. His brother, Saïd, 34, is said to have spent several months in the country around that time, but media reports have questioned Saïd’s travels, positing . After the brothers , they told and that they were “from al-Qaida in Yemen”. What direction the group actually gave the Kouachi brothers remains unclear.
But a Yemeni official’s statement to Reuters supports the younger Kouachi’s claim that he met AQAP leader Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-Yemeni preacher later killed. According to a former Yemeni classmate interviewed by the , Saïd Kouachi also spent time at al-Iman University, a controversial religious school run by radical Sunnis and in September.
How did this happen?
How the Kouachi brothers and the third gunman, Amedy Coulibaly, is a question that will be parsed at a microscopic level for months, if not years, but Yemen’s fall into chaos and extremism is more clearly understood.
Yemen has only existed with its present boundaries since 1990, when the Yemeni Arab Republic (known colloquially as North Yemen) with the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (known as South Yemen). A tangled political battle ensued between groups boosted by wealth, the military, tribal powers and Islamists, from which the North Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, emerged to lead the new nation. In the wake of the Arab uprisings which began around the Middle East in 2010, violent clashes over corruption under Saleh’s 22-year reign. Saleh eventually ceded his authority in a deal brokered by the US and Gulf states.
But the country’s stability, fragile under Saleh’s rule, deteriorated further after his departure. Yemen’s internal turmoil had long proven amenable to al-Qaida sympathizers (the USS Cole was bombed in a Yemeni port in 2000), and Anwar al-Awlaki’s efforts there after 2007 boosted AQAP’s profile. Lawlessness in southern Yemen helped put al-Awlaki until a drone strike killed the American citizen in 2011.
Adding to the chaos of the south, Yemeni forces in the north have spent a decade fighting the Houthi rebels, a group named after a Zaidi Shia sect leader who wanted to take control from. As protesters took to the streets in 2011, the Houthis and al-Qaida began a war against each other and the government, leaving hundreds of fighters and civilians dead in gunfights, and .
Partisans have accused both , a Zaidi Shia, , Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, of orchestrating the rebellion for political gain. By the end of 2014, the Houthi rebels had , Hadi had of the country and with the rebels and the civil war had given AQAP opportunities in much the same way the Syrian civil war bolstered Isis’s very different aims.
Fertile soil for radicalization: A prerequisite to the success of extremist groups like AQAP is a zone outside the reach of law and order – regions that have grown dramatically in Yemen over the past few years. Islamic State (Isis) militants seized power and drew foreign support in the vacuum of the Syrian civil war; Boko Haram has surged out of Nigeria’s indigent north-east; anti-Russian Islamists have survived in the mountains of the Caucasus for decades and al-Qaida hid for years in the interstitial territory between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Fractured by civil war, has been and will probably remain a haven for extremism for years.
Fueling the war and the extremism are corruption and poverty. Yemen is one of the in the world, according to Transparency International, and bribery is “endemic”, per the . The fiefdoms carved out by militants, tribes and moneyed powers have created a country in which money and guns than the law.
Yemen is also one of the poorest countries in the world, (the price of which is at ) but with diminishing reserves and unable to use petroleum riches to impose order as Saudi Arabia does. Malnutrition affects, there is virtually no employment outside security work and an of all Yemenis live in poverty. Extremism of one kind or another, whether , often thrives when no moderate alternative seems viable.
These factors, combined with cheap air travel and a or marginalized at home, have given new opportunities to AQAP. The Paris attacks may signal a shift away from AQAP’s penchant for controlled bomb attempts – eg ” – toward a looser, less direct form of terrorism. In the words of , author of people like the Kouachi brothers may not have been directly ordered into action but simply felt an allegiance to al-Qaida “nearer to that of a football team, in a sense”.
Western counterterrorism: The US has for years fought a shadow war in Yemen via and , largely with the blessing of the Saleh and Hadi governments. But Yemen, like Syria and Iraq, represents a knot of security issues without any clear or immediately foreseeable solution.
In September 2014, President Barack Obama said the US strategy against Isis in Iraq would mirror tactics “”; this strategy of drone strikes and covert raids has killed al-Qaida and but also and failed to help establish order in either nation. A charted AQAP’s grim rise in Yemen, where it now challenges the Hadi government for control of entire provinces.
The US launched in Yemen in 2014 than in past years even as Yemen has grown more dangerous and opaque: in September the US , and in December AQAP killed an American hostage after a rescue attempt by navy seals which lacked intelligence about a second hostage, who was also killed. A key difference between the campaigns against Isis and AQAP is that the former includes coordination from Middle East allies such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and de facto cooperation with Iran..
Although and its military has been in Yemen, there is no coordinated offensive to root out AQAP in the same way many countries are rallying strikes, logistics and proxy forces to fight the newer threat of Isis. What European nations do in response to the Paris attacks may shape the counters of counterterrorism response for years.
A wider conflict: As in Iraq and Syria, the rivalry between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran is playing out violently in Yemen. Many Sunnis and fomenting chaos at Saudi Arabia’s doorstep; in turn many Shias accuse Saudi intelligence of in Yemen’s weak governments.
The conflicting interests of the Saudi monarchy and Iran are unlikely to develop into outright violence between those nations, but they will complicate any counterterrorism operations on the ground by further destabilizing Yemen. Just as sectarian war divided Iraq with , weakening the government and western aims, competing spies and special forces will probably only create more lawlessness on the ground in Yemen.
Where can I read more?
Gregory D Johnsen’s () book The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaida and America’s War In Arabia in 2012. Charles Schmitz of the non-partisan Middle East Institute has about Yemen. The Guardian’s Jason Burke () has in his for the Guardian. New York Times reporter Kareem Fahim () .
• This article was amended on 15 January, 2015 to clarify the nature of Chérif and Saïd Kouachi’s travels to Yemen.