The Missing Tribal Role in War on «Terrorism» in Yemen


Sat, 11-02-2023 01:41 PM, Aden

Ibrahim Ali* (South24) 

Over the past decades, the tribal Areas in a number of the Yemeni governorates have served as AQAP’s bastions. This is due to their being outside the influence of the central authorities. Moreover, this has created problems for the counterterrorism efforts. This has also created an opportunity for AQAP to recruit tribal elements. The group succeeded in bringing a large number of tribal people into its ranks. By tracing the identities of AQAP elements, it can be said that most of them belong to tribal areas. Sometimes, AQAP’s influence within tribes has been stronger than the tribe itself like what happened in Radda in the Al-Bayda governorate. The group was able to penetrate the tribe through the Al-Dhahab family which has big tribal influence within its areas. To a lesser degree than Qefa in Radaa, AQAP used the tribal nature of Wadi Obeida in Marib to enhance its presence. The Obeida tribes participated in blocking any military campaign on Wadi Obeida as they refused to allow official forces entering their territories. The tribal objective behind this is not necessarily defending AQAP like what happened in 2009 when the tribes prevented a security campaign to chase "terrorist" elements. [1]

For this reason, AQAP considers any campaign against such regions as an attempt to “break the nose” of the tribe. The group has repeatedly used this expression. This was clear in the AQAP video released in 2009 about the Marib campaign. [2] It can be said that the tribal status in North Yemen and South Yemen has been one of the most key factors for AQAP’s survival in this country. It is important to indicate that we talk here about the status of the tribe as a community component when the central government has no authority on the tribal areas. We do not mean here the tribe itself. Changing this status has been the responsibility of the consecutive authorities. This had to be implemented prior to the counterterrorism operation. However, this was not the case as terrorism in many phases has turned into a card for gaining Western financial and political support. This was clear during the era of late President Ali Abdullah Saleh. 

A popular incubator?

Although many studies and reports consider the tribal areas in Yemen as being popular incubators for AQAP, they are not actually like that. As we previously mentioned, it can be accurately said that the tribal status is the actual incubator. The proof for this is shown in the automatic shift in AQAP's status within the tribal areas when the latter's status changes. This was evident in some areas in Shabwa such as Al-Said District which was one of AQAP's most important bastions over the past two decades. However, the establishment of official forces in 2016 "The Shabwani Elite", whose elements belong to Shabwa, forced the group to exit it. The tribes did not play any role to defend AQAP or prevent the Shabwani forces from entering and deploying within their areas. If AQAP had not returned after the 2019 battles, led by the Islah Party in Abyan, Shabwa and Aden governorates, the situation would have remained the same since 2016. 

To prevent exploiting this new status, AQAP has resorted to encouraging the tribes at one time and intimidating them at another. However, the group has fully realized that what it deems as an "incubator" is not actually so. Recently, the group sent more than one message to the Yemeni tribes [3] some of them carry threats against any tribal elements who cooperate to counter AQAP. In addition to its realization that it does not have a popular incubator in the tribal areas, AQAP has realized that the role of tribes in the war against it can be decisive. Therefore, it resorted to the threat language which it has rarely used against tribes. Thus, it seeks to justify those threats by presenting the other party as being part of a foreign project agenda that aims to undermine Islam and those who defend it. This was clearly evident in the words of AQAP leader Abu Ali Al-Hadrami [4] which was recorded and released after the forces affiliated with the Islah party were expelled from Shabwa's capital city Ataq, months ago. Likewise, such an approach was remarkable in the latest words of its leader Khaled Batarfi. He expressed his dismay towards the stance adopted by tribal figures and Sheikhs. This confirms that tribes did not and will not serve as AQAP’s incubator if their status changes. 

Perfect status 

One of the main reasons for AQAP's decline in past years is that the group undoubtedly lost its perfect status that accompanied it over two decades where many areas were outside the influence of the central government. The group has found itself without strongholds or an incubator. However, the tribal role in the war against AQAP can be effective. Tribes whose status contributed to enhancing AQAP can play a prominent role in undermining it, especially in this critical phase. We will address this in the next axes.

The tribal role

It is hard to lead a counterterrorism operation without a pivotal tribal role through coordinating with the central government with its military and security aspects. Undoubtedly, there are experiences that can be built upon, despite not realizing their importance. This includes the experiences in Abyan, Shabwa and the coast of Hadramout between 2016-2017. This was achieved through the operations carried out by security and military formations who belong to the residents of these governorates. The development of these experiences would contribute in making a considerable progress in the field of counterterrorism, especially in the Southern governorates. For example, the latest Ataq experience can be considered as an extension of the Shabwani and Hadrami Elites during the aforementioned two years as part of a context that aims to eliminate the group. It is important to indicate here that while the previous experience revealed that tribes are not the AQAP’s incubator and can play a significant role to destroy it, the subsequent experience disclosed that the real AQAP's incubators are other components who have common ideological and intellectual points and common enemies.

Thus, it is critical to underscore the importance of countering the AQAP’s soft penetration into tribes as part of the proactive war against it. Furthermore, the tribes can play a role in this war by making them aware of AQAP danger and assigning them the appropriate tasks afterwards.


Accordingly, we can conclude some important points related to the tribal role in counterterrorism. We can summarize them as follows:

- The main problem is the tribal status, not the tribe itself. This has to be changed in the first place, especially if the tribe is not reluctant to do that. Changing its status has two aspects; the first is to impose the state authority within the tribal areas. The second can be achieved through development projects. One should take into consideration that imposing influence is not attained only through using force but by using programs which are able to win people’s hearts. This means that AQAP will be seen as a problem for tribes as it is for the state. 

- Creating counter-propaganda campaigns among the tribal elements. AQAP has sought to convince the latter that the group's foes are those who are against Islam and part of foreign plots to undermine the religion. This is noticeable when going back to all AQAP's latest releases.

- The popular incubator is not the tribe in fact but it is represented in other well-known parties whose presence and ideas within the tribes should be fought at the same level of the war on terrorism. 

- Strengthening the state’s presence is the guarantor of protecting everyone, activating the role of courts and prosecutors, and making quick decisions in people’s cases. Tribes can play the most significant role in counterterrorism when they feel safe from subsequent retaliation. The war on terrorism is not just security and military campaigns that have a start and an end but it has a broader and ongoing presence. Moreover, AQAP is not just elements that carry out operations but it is also like windows in the society’s wall which have to be closed. 

*Ibrahim Ali is a pseudonym of a researcher specialized in the armed group affairs. He demanded anonymity for personal reasons.


[1] The operation security agencies’ wanted elements but it failed in that as a number of government forces were killed and wounded, according to official sources at the time, including the Saba agency

[2] A video release seen by the writer at that time

[3] What is Behind Batarfi’s Admission of AQAP's Decline? (South24 Center)

[4] A Reading of «AQAP» Recent Message to Yemen's Tribes (South24 Center)

South YemenAbyanAQAPSTCIslahHouthisSouthern ForcesTribes