"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Today in Links!

Yeah, it is a lazy post.  I'm finishing up an academic-style paper, which I haven't done in like 10 years.  Bear with me.

First, of course, is the blogshocking news that Waq al-Waq is leaving the safe confines of blogspot in order to go to The Big Think.  You can access it here.   Hopefully, this will get more people reading Greg, which is always a good thing.   It goes without saying that his always-amazing analysis has survived the mood.

Carnegie has video up of last week's talk about Yemen by John Brennan, assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism.   He talks about a comprehensive strategy that isn't just CT, but we'll believe that when we see more tangible evidence.   Again, I think CT is the most immediately important step, but it has to be done in tandem with other things, to alter impressions.  And also to do good, but I'm speaking from a strict policy standpoint. 

Alex in Jordan was kind enough to send out this AFP story about the Holder interview (and I like to have wire stories in unusual places).   This is my favorite line. 

"He's on the same list with Ben Laden," said US Attorney General Eric Holder, speaking on US television.
"He's up there - one, two, three, four. I don't know. He's on the list of people that worry me the most," Holder told ABC television news. 

I like Holder, and the charitable interpretation is that he is just saying what people want to hear, but in reality al-Awlaki is number 100.  But I doubt that is the case.  

Although, to be perfectly fair, the AG is far more concerned with things that are going on inside his country.  Holder is not in charge of the CIA.  Al-Awlaki has American citizenship and seems tasked with getting dummies in the US to blow shit up.  These actions fall far more under Holder's writ than CT inside Yemen.   That said, this seems to pretty much reflect the mentality of the political and media class about al-Awlaki's importance. 

Finally, here's a press release out of Darien, CT.  Darien is having a lecture series in Jan/Feb about the Arabian Peninsula, featuring heavyweights like Chris Boucek, Barbara Bodine, Isobel Coleman and David Ottaway.  Your blogger will be there on the 20th, talking about how AQAP multiplies the rest of the threats inside Yemen.    Darien is very close to NYC, so make your plans now.  Now!

Monday, December 20, 2010


I've got a piece up in The National about Wikileaks and AQAP/Houthi violence.   I'm not sure how my predictions or reactions have played out since I wrote it a few weeks ago, but luckily I wasn't saying anything short-term.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Elections and democracy

I'm working on a project that is time-eating (though rewarding), but I am going to dip my toes into some dangerous and uncertain water here.  

Next year's parliamentary elections have been uncertain for a while now.  This isn't terribly surprising, given the political and security chaos inside of Yemen.  Elections are always difficult when a large part of the country wants to secede (for some perspective, read the Times' fascinating blog about what was happening in the US in 1860).   And, clearly, despite attempts to democratize in the late 90s and early 00s, President Salih has gotten increasingly paranoid and authoritarian, as he seeks to hang on to and perpetuate his rule in one form or the other.  Add to this the fragmentary and uneasy alliance between the two main opposition parties- the Yemeni Socialist Party and Islah, joined in the Joint Meeting Party (JMP)- and you have a perfect electoral mess.

Next year's elections were supposed to be a re-do of ones previously canceled due to a JMP boycott.  I think Salih looked things over, and decided that it was better for him to elongate a term rather than have an election more tainted than usual.  But it is also clear that he wasn't going to leave things up to chance, and this has led to more uncertainty.  A recently-passed law shifts electoral oversight from the parties to judges. Now, in theory, this is a good deal.  Judges, right- but who selected the judges?   The law was passed by a GPC (ruling party) dominated Parliament, and seems to ensure that any and all oversight will be in the hands of one party.  Needless to say, this is precipitating another boycott.

But this time the GPC is saying the show must go on.  In a vacuum, this would be a canny move.  Oversight was shifted to the august judiciary, but it still wasn't enough for the rapacious JMP, who want to see sacred elections tainted by party politics, and, failing in that, will take their ball and go home.  But who needs them?  We're going to have an election, because, by gum, this is a democracy.  But we aren't in a vacuum- Salih's government is badly delegitimized, and I really don't think people are going to fall for this.

Now, here is where it gets a little dangerous.  I think I'm in the "elections don't make democracy; democracy makes elections" camp.  It is an uncomfortable place to be, because it goes against a lot of gut instincts and deeply-held emotional beliefs.  It also can tend toward being at best patronizing, at worst insulting ("These wogs just aren't ready for democracy, my good man!").   But in an unstable society, elections have the ability to bring out the worst in people and to heighten divisions, as people tend to vote for the alliance that will protect them, and that often falls along tribal/ethnic lines.  

I think there are some things which mitigate that in Yemen- namely, the unlikely alliance, no matter how frail, of a religious party and socialists, who in the last Presidential elections put up an incorruptible (and alas, unelectable) candidate.    But of course, the JMP can't influence the system unless it takes enough seats from the GPC, and the GPC will use all their influence to keep the JMP from getting seats.  

In this atmosphere of disunion and violence, where the GPC is certain to do everything it takes to continue winning, is an election wise or even desirable?  I honestly think that having a tainted election will provoke even more unrest than not having one at all.  But that is rewarding Salih with very bad behavior.  I honestly don't know, and am looking forward to having some time next week to think about all of this, which is how I usually spend my Christmastime.   But in the meantime I am looking forward to comments.

Yes, this is a weasel ending, but I don't have a solid opinion yet, and have been trying to avoid the bloggy tendencies toward strident opinions on everything.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A few outside words about soccer

Ok, about football.  Irredeemably American, I suppose.

The Gulf Cup just took place, and the lead-up to it was the fear that there would be attacks from AQAP or the Southern Movement in an attempt the discredit the government or just to sew chaos.  Security was very tight- this is something that I regret not talking about, but I couldn't find an angle other than "FEAR THIS" and so for once wanted to avoid it.   Anyway, it went off smashingly, as this Robert Worth article shows.

We also have comments from reader Dozival, on the ground in Aden, printed in full.

Not really about your latest post but - 'Aden Felix' - hardly a bean from anyone about how brilliant the 20th Gulf Cup has been for Aden/ Abyan - and Yemen's reputation in general! The atmosphere's been brilliant, the security immense (I've never been helped across the road with a buggy by a Kalashnikov-wielding soldier before), the participation by families and women particularly noteworthy. Football crowds and no alcohol - would be a dream for British police! They were just so enthusiastic and I get the impression people from the other (much richer) Gulf states that they were really impressed, have made new friends, experienced Yemeni hospitality and have gone away with a different view of Yemen (which was, let's face it, frankly despised by wealthier Arab states). I just got home from Aden tonight. The final fireworks were something else! Buildings have been painted, railings and lamp-posts ditto, there are illuminated artificial trees on all the roundabouts, all the fountains are working and all the people I've met with have been really positive. Which doesn't mean they are ardent Saleh supporters - just that they've really appreciated this opportunity to be the focus of an important Arab nation football competition.

In an email, Dozival also mentioned how the painting projects were spearheaded by females, which lead to possibly unusual and bright color choices.   This is great, because after the civil war, Aden was plagued by a spate of what I irritatingly would call "northern realism"- the concrete-drab repetition of urban expansion.   

The question, of course, is whether this success is a respite or a new start.  Sports can bring people together, as much as tear them apart, and the major source of discontent in Yemen is the feeling that the regime is as unable to get things done as it is corrupt and authoritarian.   I don't think a successful tournament can chance all of that, but I think it also proves what we've been saying all along- there is national pride in Yemen; the idea of the nation isn't an invented one.   If this, in and of itself, is fleeting, it does go some ways into disproving the idea that anarchy is the natural state of being.  

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Paranoia, cont.

Will at the Yemen Peace Project has AQAP's latest statement on the bombing, which he calls "absolutely gleeful."    In it, AQAP indicates that the CIA and the Mossad are helping the Huthis- which is interesting, for those keeping score, because it means the CIA is using both AQAP and the Huthis in order to fight a proxy war against itself.   I don't want to get all domestic, but this seems to be a waste of my tax dollars.   Or someone's tax dollars, anyway.

It is hard to say if this is paranoia or posturing.  Posturing would make more sense- AQAP is still positioning itself as the defender of the faithful and of all Yemenis against foreign interference, when, really, they were just waging reinvented battles.  This is smart posturing by them, but in this case I doubt it will work.  After all, Yemenis have heard that it is Iran helping the Huthis- now suddenly America is there?

Of course, America did work with Shi'ites against the Sunnis in Iraq (until it worked with some Sunnis against others).  It isn't beyond the pale that America would team up with Iran to fight AQAP while also teaming up with the apostate Salih, who is opposed to Iran except when he isn't.   Also, the Jews are probably doing something.

It is fun to think like this, and it is important to know that many people, especially those with messianic complexes, are deeply paranoid, but again: it isn't necessary to need grand conspiracies to explain things in Yemen.  AQAP is believing in its own hype, and, after years of patience, might be willing to open it up and take their battle to the next level.  That isn't paranoid- it is exactly what we need to be looking for.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Paranoia Even Goya Couldn't Draw Ya

So, it probably isn't too surprising that the Huthis blame the US, by way of AQAP, for the murderous funereal bombing that threatens to open up a new front of violence inside Yemen.   There is a thick atmosphere of paranoia inside the country's politics.  President Salih lumps together the three threats of AQAP, Huthis and the Southern Movement- this is part cynical but part a logical extension of his belief that only he can hold the country together, an apres moi, le deluge mentality. (though one would have to ask: how much worse the flood?)  Everybody also blames Iran for the Huthis, despite lack of any evidence.  The Huthis and AQAP see the government as a pawn of the US and Israel, a notion that is being reinforced by the Wikileaks revelations.  Basically, you have the US and Iran fighting each other via al-Qaeda and the Huthis, respectively.  Israel fits in somewhere, probably supporting al-Qaeda (although, as I blogged about in April, AQAP was supposedly teaming up with anti-Hamas extremists in Gaza to attack Jews in both Israel and Yemen, so this isn't a perfect marriage).

This is the kind of thinking that comes from a poisoned and poisoning politics.  Despite the proliferation of NGOs, there is not an adequate public space inside of Yemen for politics to be hashed out.  Qat chews are a helpful outlet, and a wonderful part of life, but with the crackdown on press it is terribly surprising that the wildest conspiracy theories are ones that gain traction.  This is a mess of Salih's making.

I don't want to imply that paranoia is a strictly Yemeni or Arab phenomena.  There is plenty of paranoia in American politics as well- it is deeply a part of both the far left and mainstream, Tea Party right (who are not really "conservative", by any real definition).   I think it is part of human nature to see events as controlled and not left to chance and capriciousness and folly and short-sighted thinking.   While paranoids tend to be freaked out a lot, there is comfort there; paranoia is a safety blanket warmly shielding one from randomness.   In Yemen, where things are falling apart, and there is a history of outside interference, it is better to conjure a grand narrative than being buffeted by a series of ad hoc decisions.

In a strange way, I suppose it is almost reassuring that the Huthis blame the US for AQAP's attack.  Maybe there is a strong strain of thought preventing them from thinking fellow Yemenis could do such a thing.  Optimistic paranoia.   Maybe a happier Pynchon could do something with that.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The best of all possible worlds

I'm working on a piece about sectarian violence and the possible influence of foreign fighters in Yemen, and how they can expand, distort and possibly ultimately destroy AQAP's missions, but in the meantime I'd like to give you this year's most ridiculous, optimistic, half faux-tough half dreamily Panglossian spin, found thanks to the LATimes.  Bob Drogin has a fine article about Inspire, though I think the article and the analysts might give it too much credit by half.   Here are some examples.

"It's like the Vanity Fair of jihadi publications," said Bruce Hoffman, director of security studies at Georgetown University. "It's glossy and snarky, and is designed to appeal to Generation Z."
"It's Madison Avenue, terrorist style," agreed Yonah Alexander, terrorism specialist at the nonpartisan Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va. "It's much more sophisticated than what we've seen before."
It might be my fault, having no real conception of what Generation Z is, other than some term used to describes kids who tweet or something (and won't get off my goddamn lawn!).   But appealing to computer-paled slackers isn't the same as marshaling them into an effective jihadi force.   I don't doubt its technical sophistication- it is one of the finer looking pamphlets I have ever seen, and cousin, I've seen em all.  But here's the thing- glossy, snarky, Generation Z, hip, fun, jam-packed with cold disses- these are all well and good, but who are they going to recruit?  The cream of the crop, or people who are easily susceptible to snark and sarcasm and who, let's be honest, aren't exactly going to smuggle weapons-grade plutonium across the Rio Grande?

The "Madison Avenue, terrorist style" is accidentally more instructive than it is intended.  Who the hell trusts Madison Avenue?  It is a byword for dishonesty  and artifice.  Be yourself, and drink Coke.  I don't doubt that Inspire might push some already-teetering loner into an act of jihad, which, but for motivation, we would have labeled a crime.  The kind of people who will fall for this slick emptiness are not going to be a serious force for jihad.  It might be a threat, but a small one, and dressing it up with awesome buzzwords needlessly inflates the danger and gives Inspire the publicity it shouldn't have.

And yet these aren't the wort quotes of the article- indeed, they aren't wrong, just kind of misleading.  The worst comes from the opposite spectrum, strangely.   In full.

Larry Johnson, a former CIA analyst, said the latest magazine mostly shows that Al Qaeda is a spent force that is trying to make the best of a failed attack.
"This is spin worthy of a Washington pundit," he said. "I think they're trying to maintain their image of being a ferocious, deadly organization. But at the end of the day, they just showed they were incompetent."

Looking at this charitably, one could say Johnson's first sentence was just setting up his second as an example, what someone might say if they were trying to spin.   But, pretending it is not self-aware, this is absolutely ridiculous.  I've seen this formulation here and there- an attack wasn't successful, this shows they are dead, over-reaching in an attempt to promote a false image of relevance.  And then we see it after the next attack.

The incompetence thing is extraordinary.  No, nothing blew up, but as many have said we are reacting and spending in exactly the same way we would if the planes did go down.   And it was cheap, for them.  The idea that they are incompetent is incredibly self-cenetered, ignoring everything AQAP has done inside Yemen.  It is wishful thinking, a candyland of analysis.   This is the kind of statement that one should run away from.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A rhetorical question on Awlaki

Greg has a lengthy and worthwhile counter in the "how important is al-Awlaki debate".   I agree largely with his points, although I am beginning to stray from the "he's a nothing" camp very, very slightly- though through no particular skill of his own.   I've said before that he is basically a reality show jihadi, someone who is famous largely for being famous.  That said, of course, public relations is a huge part of international terrorism, and his fame, however unearned, is not entirely irrelevant.

I'm going to quote something from Greg's piece, which is not the thrust of the excellent analysis, but is important to what I want to talk about.

Also, isn’t it possible that knowing what we know AQAP and its development that as the Obama administration talks about al-Awlaki and as the media focuses on him, AQAP continues to push him forward, hoping to take advantage of all the free advertising? Basically, hoping that his name and association with AQAP can bring them more western recruits.  
This would explain his “poorly veiled coming out” and the reason AQAP didn’t talk about him prior to the attempt on Muhammad bin Nayyif and the Christmas Day plot, because he wasn’t integral to either one, including the one on the US. But as the Obama Administration focused on him, AQAP kept pushing him more and more to the front and now, after the parcel bomb plot we have a “Foreign Operations Unit” that he may or may not be the head of. 

Greg and I agree on this- the admin and the media have pushed him forward, possibly transforming him from a fairly obscure cleric about for whom one would have to twist and torture loose connections to make into a major figure to someone who "may or may not be the head of" a new unit in AQAP.  My take on the unit is that it is a sideshow for the leadership, a cheap way to do things on the side, but not part of their major plans.  Regardless, there is the potential for al-Awlaki to "inspire" people to do bad things in the US.

I agree that right now taking him out would only make things worse.  He isn't important enough to waste time and resources on, and because he is still largely unknown in Yemen, it would look punitive and reactionary and totally unnecessary to the people we need to court.   Ideally, we would stop focusing on this guy and his immature violence-junkie sidekick Samir Khan and they could recede from the foreground.  But I am not expecting the media to let go their hold on a charismatic English-speaker who is part American.  

So, and here is the rhetorical- will there be a point when, given the trends, al-Awlaki will become important enough to take out, if not by arrest than by assassination?  Can anyone foresee that day, or is it ludicrous?  It is partly philosophical, partly tactical- can our incessant pimping of his importance make him important?  I don't have an answer- I lean toward "no", but some other events which I need to write about could persuade me otherwise.   Do any of you have any thoughts?