Supplanting informal institutions

Following the previous post, it may be worthwhile to examine a part of the world where institutions are not simply failing – as is the case in Iraq (although there may be an uptick in momentum following a successful completion of the campaign against ISIS in the besieged city of Mosul) – but have failed entirely. I speak, of course, about Yemen. An oft-ignored country whose leading export seems presently to be rockets inaccurately fired at American warships, the conflict in Yemen is incredibly confusing. Ali Abdullah Saleh was president of North Yemen from 1978 until 1990, at which point a political unification took place and Saleh became president of a full and “united” Yemen, a position he held until 2012 at which point he ceded power to Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi only to reappear with the Houthi rebels shortly thereafter in an attempt to reclaim his authority. Saudi Arabia watched all of this unfold with great dismay until 2015 when the Saudi army invaded and demonstrated that their military is not nearly as well-equipped or organized as the Americans who supply them with weaponry, and have, for the most part, made everything worse by bombing civilians indiscriminately.

Amid this chaos, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been able to flourish, for similar reasons to the ones highlighted hereThe Washington Post operates a blog called The Monkey Cage which discussed the author’s interaction with community leaders dependent on an unsavory relationship with AQAP, given the inability of the government to participate, so engrossed have they been with rebelling against themselves in whatever sort of weird game of musical flying carpets is being played in Sana’a.

During my most recent research trip to eastern Yemen late last year, I was struck by a meeting I had with three leading community members from Mukalla, which had been overrun by AQAP since April 2015. Long into the night I listened to their litany of complaints against AQAP, linked to the new restrictions afflicting their familiar daily routines. When I suggested continuing our discussion the next day, one of them was quick to apologize; he had to rush to a meeting with AQAP commanders. He shrugged off this seeming contradiction by explaining that there was a water problem in his village, and AQAP had promised to fix it. His companion chipped in with news of a long-standing land dispute that AQAP was helping to settle. Despite popular dislike of the organization, even its detractors grudgingly acknowledged that AQAP was approachable, had some sense of justice and got things done. In the West, counterterrorism is framed in terms of security: how to combat (read ‘kill’) militant jihadist fighters. But the real problem is not so much the jihadists, ready and even eager to die for their cause. It is AQAP’s notable ability to create safe havens in which extremism can flourish by establishing relationships among populations that rarely share their vision but nevertheless tolerate them. These populations abide AQAP because the terror group helps to support those communities.

This, then, is the danger inherent in a collapsing society. The people have needs, and they will satisfy them through whatever means they can. There were repeated efforts to involve more legitimate actors, but none were forthcoming. So, we get al-Qaeda. Oops.

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