A group of men stand at attention in front of a raised American flag billowing in the wind. The strained sounds of America’s national anthem, the Star-Spangled Banner, echo through the courtyard.
This is not the scene of a Memorial Day celebration or military ceremony in Tennessee or Texas. This image comes to us from war-torn South Yemen, and the man standing tall and proud in the foreground is Tariq al-Fadhli. A former associate and friend of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan during the 1980s, he returned to his home of Zinjibar near Aden in Abyan province and would come to be a prominent leader in the current tribal resistance against the Yemeni central government. A former member of the ruling party, al-Fadhli is the head of the Fadhli tribe and son of the last British-backed sultan of the Fadhli Sultanate.
Though the former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh would accuse al-Fadhli of being a terrorist and member of al-Qaeda, al-Fadhli saw the US as an ally in his struggle against the government, and, in turn, saw himself as an asset for the US due to his connections with his fellow Yemeni, bin Laden. In a 2010 interview in the New York Times, he stated:
I can be a mediator between America and al-Qaeda. We can be allied with the United States against terrorism, and we will achieve the interests of the United States, not those of the regime.
To underline his support for the US, he released the video of him and his fellow tribesmen standing at attention before the Stars and Stripes. Referring to his days in Afghanistan, al-Fadhli stated:
The Americans were our allies back then, and what I am doing now by raising the American flag is a continuation of this old alliance.
One year later, al-Fadhli would shoot a video showing him burning that same American flag. He was explicit about his reasons for firmly turning against the US. He specifically cites a 2009 incident in which a US cluster bombing of a village in Abyan province in southern Yemen killed 41 people, among them 21 children and 14 women.
US drone strikes
The US cruise missiles and drones are making a bad situation worse in Yemen. Drone strikes have largely concentrated on the southern Abyan province. In 2011, Zinjibar would experience six drone strikes. These weapons are being introduced into an already chaotic situation and further alienating the local southern population who sees the Yemeni government as colluding with the US in the killing of innocent people.
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This reality was laid bare at a US Senate hearing about the use of the drones on April 23 in which Yemeni activist Farea al-Muslimi testified about his village in Yemen being struck by a drone. He stated of those terrified villagers, “Now, however, when they think of America, they think of the terror they feel from the drones that hover over their heads, ready to fire missiles at any time.” The strikes have a ripple effect beyond those killed. They are creating enemies where they did not exist before, as in the case of Tariq al-Fadhli.
In a broader sense, the US misunderstood the historical reasons why the southern tribes were fighting against the government in Sanaa, a conflict which was expanded and exacerbated by the involvement of the US. In order to understand the reason behind the current volatile situation in South Yemen, it is necessary to look at the distinct history of the region.
For centuries, the strategic region around the ancient port city of Aden on the Red Sea shipping lane would trade hands between various colonising powers and local tribal sultanates. When the British established their strategic colony at Aden in 1838, they found it expedient and necessary to work through the traditional tribal leaders already endowed with authority to maintain stability.
The fiercely independent tribes who often ignored their leaders still proved a challenge for the British with tribal rebellions a constant worry. One successful British political agent in the 1930s, Harold Ingrams, stated:
Sultans were generally disregarded not only by their tribes but even by other local rulers and peace could not have been secured in any other way than personal intervention and the help of men of influence. There were in fact not two governments to deal with but nearly 2,000.
Shortly after South Yemen independence was declared in 1967 following a four year armed struggle against the British crown, a Marxist faction took power, and a Communist state was formed, modelled on and backed by the Soviet Union. Many of the traditional tribal leadership, whose lands were confiscated and authority attacked by the ruthless government, fled South Yemen, including al-Fadhli and his family. Like al-Fadhli, a number of these Yemeni tribesmen would go on to fight with the mujahidin in Afghanistan in order to take revenge against both communism and the Soviet Union.
South Yemen was unified with North Yemen in 1990. When a civil war erupted in 1994 when the former communist leaders had second thoughts about the union, al-Fadhli, who had by now returned from Afghanistan, supported the Yemeni government under President Ali Abdullah Saleh along with his allied tribes, retaking Aden and sending communist leaders fleeing the country. He would be rewarded with a top government posting. This happy union would not last long.
The south, beset by supply shortages, would grow disillusioned from the wealthier north as they would come to perceive the union as a northern victory. A key source of friction for the south was the seizure of land by northerners. A military commander from the north, according to the managing editor of the Aden-based Al Ayyam newspaper, “had helped himself” to a tract of land in the south “nearly the size of Bahrain”. His newspaper was later closed for encouraging “separatism”.
Al-Fadhli stated that the unified Yemeni state was “born deformed, grew up disabled and now is thankfully buried” and would even welcome British colonial rule. Al-Fadhli’s father, the last British-backed Sultan, recollected, “In British times there was the rule of law; no one could be imprisoned for more than forty-eight hours without charge.” Breaking with Saleh’s US-backed government in 2009 to fight for an independent South Yemen, al-Fadhli quickly became one of the nation’s most wanted men.
When my sons saw what happened to me and their country and the creation of Ansar al-Sharia, they joined Ansar al-Sharia and fought with them, and I’m proud of that...
‘War on terror’
Al-Fadhli, who currently sits under house arrest in Aden with an uncertain future, would come to support of Ansar al-Sharia, the name adopted by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in 2011. After a military attack on his home, in which his sons were present, he stated:
When my sons saw what happened to me and their country and the creation of Ansar al-Sharia, they joined Ansar al-Sharia and fought with them, and I’m proud of that… if I had one thousand sons I wouldn’t choose for them any other way but this path.
AQAP was founded in 2009 by Yemeni tribesmen fleeing the Asir province in southwestern Saudi Arabia who found refuge among the tribes of southern Yemen. The newly christened Ansar al-Sharia made headlines with its many daring strikes. In March 2012, the group attacked a military base just south of Zinjibar, blowing the base’s gates with suicide bombers. They stormed inside, seized artillery, rifles, rockets and armoured vehicles, and turned them on the troops inside, killing 185 and wounding a further 150.
In May of the same year, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives at a military parade rehearsal commemorating the 1990 union between north and south Yemen. Around 100 soldiers were killed with 300 injured. It was announced that this strike was in “revenge” for the military operations in Abyan province. Supported by American military aid, the Yemeni government resorted to military intervention against the tribes. Yemen’s military efforts were bolstered further by the direct intervention of US drones and cruise missiles targeting the southern tribes.
The US needs to understand the local history and tribal dynamics, as their actions are otherwise alienating potential supporters and allies in the region. The failure of the US to reach out to al-Fadhli demonstrates the failure of our current paradigm for fighting the “war on terror”. Instead, the US needs to return to the vision of its Founding Fathers, a vision rooted in justice and the rule of law.
The US, instead of funding military operations, should be promoting education and development projects. The central government, with support from the US, needs to establish a neutral and fair political administration for the people of the periphery in order to more effectively deal with men of violence rather than breeding new enemies and creating more violence.
This article is based on research for Akbar Ahmed’s book The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a War on Tribal Islam, published by Brookings Institution Press.
Ambassador Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, DC and the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.
Harrison Akins is the Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow at American University’s School of International Service and assisted Ambassador Ahmed on his new study, The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, published by Brookings Press.