From Daniel Byman
The Washington Post‘s reporting on the weekend that “all the defendants convicted in the  attack [on the USS Cole] have escaped from prison or been freed by Yemeni officials” will hardly surprise anyone watching how Yemen has handled the issue of terrorism since 9/11. While Yemeni security forces have at times made important arrests of Al Qaeda members and like-minded groups, the government is often lenient to violent Sunni jihadists, particularly those who direct their activities outside the country. Sanaa’s solution seems to be to balance its crackdown with efforts to divert the jihadists’ focus from Yemen to other countries. As Gregory Johnsen and Brian O’Neill contend, “Since 2003, the Yemeni government and Al-Qaeda in Yemen have reached what could best be described as a tacit non-aggression pact.” Many jihadists who went through the government’s “reeducation” program reportedly later went to Iraq to fight against U.S. forces there. As Murad Abdul Wahed Zafir, a political analyst in Yemen, contends, “Yemen is like a bus station—we stop some terrorists, and we send others on to fight elsewhere. We appease our partners in the West, but we are not really helping.”
Why does Yemen tolerate this? In part, anything that smacks of cooperation with the United States is unpopular, while the anti-U.S. Sunni fighters in Iraq are lionized as heroes. But it is more than this simple story of anti-Americanism. Yemen has suffered a persistent low-grade insurgency from Houthi rebels since 2004, and it is concentrated among Yemen’s large population of Zaydis. (The Zaydis are a Shi’a community, but their beliefs and traditions differ from the better-know school of Shiism practiced in Iran.) The government has used the Shi’a-hating Sunni jihadists to fight this insurgency, as it used the same group in the early 1990s when it faced a civil war from southern socialists. Moreover, many of the jihadists are linked to strong domestic political groups like the Islah party. So Yemen’s leaders find it best to try to tolerate and divert the jihadists rather than confront them directly.
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