Yemeni militias after Saleh

By Abdullah Hamidaddin



Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed after his seventh and final war against the Houthis, at a time when all thought that he was the strongest actor and key player in Yemen, assumed to have a popular and military base to enforce his will in the north of the country.

Most analysts considered Saleh’s capacities the prism through which they think of and analyze Yemen. They were considered in light of his pre-existing alliances, social and tribal structures, and previous popularity.

If there is a lesson to learn here, it is that we do not understand Yemen enough to predict future possibilities and suggest policies or interventions. What I say here is no more than thinking aloud on some of the issues which I suggest be taken into consideration by Yemen analysts and policymakers, in particular those working in de-radicalization and counterterrorism.

Before Saleh’s exit from the presidency, he played a significant role in empowering militant groups in Yemen. His purpose was to leverage them in his power competition with his ‘allies’: the Ahmars, al-Islah party, and Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar. He even competed with his allies in supporting al-Qaeda factions in the southern regions of Yemen to extort support from the United States and Saudi Arabia, to present himself as the only option for any counter-terrorism efforts, and also to label his allies as terrorist supporters.

Saleh considered his militarized adversaries tools to consolidate his grip on Yemen, never regarding them as a threat to his survival. I can think of three reasons why.

First, Saleh had no regard for state authority as much as he was concerned with his personal power and control. State authority demands full rejection of any form of organized, militarized groups that exert geographic influence, and the existence of such is tantamount to a threat, present or potential, that must be dealt with. Consolidating personal authority, on the other hand, may require militarized, non-state actors for purposes of balancing power, be they tribal groups or terrorist organisations. Saleh regarded organized terrorist groups in the same way he thought of armed tribes: In his view, they were a threat if and only if they aimed their guns at him; never if they aimed them at his contenders. He would support a tribe or militarised group, their contenders and adversaries, and direct his forces against them, all at the same time.

Second, Saleh well understood that Yemen’s social fabric was the key factor in the existence or expansion of any organized, militarised group. When Saleh supported al-Qaeda in the southern regions of Yemen, he understood that it would thrive due to local political and social grievances directed towards his governance. He also understood that he could eliminate al-Qaeda or make it ineffective by attending to those grievances. Moreover, he understood that no group could threaten his personal authority even at the cost of de-stabilizing the State. Saleh, in other words, understood that the tribal social fabric of Yemen is a repellent to foreign elements, and that the existence of any foreign element was but a temporary nuisance that he could leverage to achieve his political goals.

Third, Saleh would have already considered ways of eliminating a militant group from the moment he facilitated its conception or expansion. He would support militant groups while at the same time working on infiltrating them at an early stage so that he could influence their course when needed, or eliminate them when they became useless to him, using Yemen’s forces or the support of the United States.

Matters changed after he left the presidency. Yemen’s tribal social fabric was still a natural repellent to foreign elements — but a number of key changes happened.  First, Saleh was no longer a constraint on foreign elements whose existence and power he had facilitated. They grew to the point that Yemen’s society was unable to confront them. Second, some of the south’s identity-based communities decided to leverage militant groups to serve their own, local political agendas. Third, the Houthis took advantage of the power vacuum to expand their influence and consolidate their power. Fourth, Saleh gradually lost his own loyalists and assets within the militant organizations he had previously supported. Fifth, Saleh lost most of his military influence, mobilization capacity, and tribal base. Most of those who still followed Saleh did so because he was president and not due to any personal loyalty towards him. Saleh also lost his most important ally and source of influence, Saudi Arabia. Sixth, all of these shifts came amid a state of political and military conflict that stifled all efforts to revive state authority and rule of law.

So one might say that Saleh’s exit from power empowered militarized organisations — not because he was their adversary, but because he was the only one able to monitor and influence their growth having created them in the first place.

Saleh did not seem adequately aware of the changes taking place. Nor did we as observers and analysts. He thought, as many of us did, that he was still the key player in Yemen. There is no denying that he remained an important player, but only in the political domain. He had almost no influence in the military domain, and the little he had left after he exited the presidency was eaten away by the Houthis. Saleh’s presence after his exit had no influence, positive or negative, on militant militarized groups. He could have played a political role against them through Yemen’s parliament, but the parliament had been ineffective since the Houthi takeover of Sanaa in 2014. No one knows what he could have done had he lived after the war when the parliament regained his authority.

The death of Saleh will have no effect on the presence and expansion of militarized groups in Yemen, because when it came to any military reality in Yemen, Saleh had already become insignificant. His death, however, will push us to reconsider the prisms through which we understand Yemen. The prism of Saleh is now gone, and with it all the analytic distortions of the past six years.