About a year and a half ago, I journeyed deep into Yemen’s eastern desert, the wild Wadi Doan, to visit the now-decrepit old mud mansion where Osama bin Laden’s father was born and find out how significant a figure bin Laden still was to his countrymen. I’m not sure what I was expecting — an extremist block party? A cult of Osama? — but what I found was a small, impoverished village named al-Rubat, where global jihad was pretty low on the priority list. “You want to know our major problem?” an old man named Ali Abdullah, once a neighbor of bin Laden’s father, asked me, his voice taut with frustration. “We don’t have enough teachers, the date palms are sick, and there’s too much trash in the streets. These are the things we think about here. Not Al Qaeda.”
Yemen, like much of the Arab world, has been rocked by violent protests in recent months. Since February, hundreds of thousands of unarmed, anti-government protesters have been demonstrating across Yemen, and more than a dozen provincial governors have quit their posts in recent months to join the protests. On Friday, protesters and supporters of President Ali Abdullah Saleh clogged the streets of the capital, Sana’a,, after an international effort to convince him to step down was stymied.
Earlier in the week, upon learning the news of bin Laden’s death, a small number of extremist protesters left the demonstration in Sana’a to pray, but most remained. Within a few hours, “people were singing and dancing and carrying on as normal,” said Abdul Ghani al-Eryani, a prominent Yemeni analyst. “There was no sign of mourning.”
Most of the protesters I spoke to echoed the words of the old man from al-Rubat. “We want freedom. We want Saleh to step down. We want jobs,” said Adel al-Hashi, a young man from Sana’a. “That’s what we care about. Not Osama bin Laden.”
Now that al-Rubat’s most infamous export has been killed, opinions both inside and outside the country are divided on the question of what his death will mean for Yemen, the poorest nation in the Arab world and the home base of one of Al Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliates, Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
One camp says that bin Laden’s death doesn’t really change anything on the ground in Yemen, where AQAP has been operating independently of bin Laden for years. AQAP is run by an unsavory fellow named Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who is most likely the mastermind behind the botched bombing of an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 and the explosives packed in FedEx and UPS parcels, which were intercepted in Dubai and the U.K. in October. “Wuhayshi has command and control of people who swear an oath of allegiance to him, in much the same way that they used to for bin Laden,” Gregory Johnsen, an expert on Yemen at Princeton University, told the Christian Science Monitor.
The second camp says bin Laden’s death will provide motivation for AQAP operatives to act now, during a time of political and social upheaval in Yemen. The protests could leave what many Yemeni officials worry are “power vacuums” in rural regions where AQAP is active.
“There are major security gaps now, so existing members of AQAP will be able to act relatively freely,” said Aish Ali Awas, a researcher specializing in AQAP at the Sheba Center for Strategic Studies in Sana’a. Targeted attacks — like the one that killed bin Laden — “may kill individual men,” he said, “but they [are] not killing an ideology.” Despite what some Western thinkers would have you believe, “the AQAP ideology is still very much alive.”
And that’s why the outcome of those anti-government demonstrations is a much bigger determinant of what will happen to Al Qaeda there than the death of its own founder, said Abdul Ghani al-Eryani, a prominent Yemeni analyst. “It used to be that angry young men would turn to terrorism as the only means to express their frustration, which was a powerful tool for Al Qaeda. But the revolution here has provided another outlet,” he said.
At the protests in Sana’a, activists urged the crowd not to carry bin Laden banners for fear that the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh would use them as a pretext for another violent crackdown.
Thursday also provided a powerful reminder that the U.S. military forces that proved so lethal in Pakistan on Sunday remained focused on Yemen. Reuters reported that two mid-level Al Qaeda operatives, Musa’id and Abdullah Mubarak, were killed by a U.S. drone in the province of Shabwa, where AQAP is active.