Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 06/2010

What Comes Next in Yemen? Al-Qaeda, the Tribes, and State-Building

Sarah Phillips

March 2010

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


News that the failed Christmas Day attack on a U.S. passenger jet was tied to al-Qaeda elements in Yemen prompted questions of whether the fractious Arab state might give rise to a Taliban-style regime. For its part, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has stated its intent to achieve “our great Islamic project: establishing an Islamic Caliphate” but it is vulnerable to the threat that Yemen’s tribes may ultimately find its presence a liability. Al-Qaeda operatives have found safe haven in some of Yemen’s tribal regions, but their goal of establishing an international caliphate conflicts with many local political realities, potentially limiting this hospitality. Tribal society in Yemen is regulated by complex rules that bind its members to one another. Much of Yemen’s periphery is without effective formal, state-administered governance, but this does not mean that these regions are ungoverned—or there for the taking, particularly by outsiders to the area. As an external actor with a clear political agenda, AQAP poses a threat to the local mechanisms that maintain a level of order, and it is the tribes that are most able to rout AQAP if they see fit. Yemen is a relatively young and developing state in which the rules of political power remain under negotiation. Western policy makers must consider the intricacies of the Republic’s domestic politics before acting. While overt military intervention is likely to further entrench al-Qaeda in the country, greatly increasing development aid also risks reinforcing a regime that is poorly equipped and poorly motivated to distribute the aid effectively among its people. Western chances of encouraging a more inclusive political system are questionable. In the long term, only a fundamental domestic restructuring of the political system to become much more inclusive will lead to stability.