Yemen strikes tribal alliance against al-Qaeda

Fifteen men described as al-Qaeda fighters whose names are on the government's wanted list surrendered to the authorities in southern Yemen yesterday.

They gave themselves up following negotiations with tribal leaders in the area and the governor of Abyan province is quoted as saying that more are expected to surrender during the next few days.

This seems to be a significant development, marking a change of tactics by the Yemeni government. The state has little authority in the area and some experts have been urging the government to engage with the tribes in order to defeat al-Qaeda.

One of the largest tribal groups in the area is the Awalik, to whichAnwar al-Awlaki, the wanted US-born militant belongs.

A security official quoted by al-Arabiya says the governor of Shabwa province and the Awalik have signed an agreement to "expel al-Qaeda elements from their territories and mount a joint operation with the army [to do so]." 

The deal, basically, involves paying off tribes and providing them with arms. A report by AP says:

Hassan Bannan, a leader of one of the Awalik branches in Shabwa and an opponent of the policy, told The Associated Press that more than 2,500 tribesmen have been divided into small groups to carry out daily searches. Another tribesman, Awad al-Awlaki, said 180 of his fellow tribesmen in the Shabwa town of al-Saaid each received 100 automatic rifle bullets and a daily stipend of $50.

The AP report strikes a note of caution about this, saying that critics of the policy fear it could further destabilise the situation by fuelling in-fighting among the tribes, since tribal members are thought to be divided in their attitudes to al-Qaeda.

Enlisting the support of tribes through payments and patronage is a common tactic in Yemen, though not always an effective one. The problem, often, is how to ensure that their support continues.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 October 2010