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  • Yemen:Hearts, Minds & Al-Qaida
  • Eleanor T. West

The death of Osama bin Laden has focused new attention on al-Qaida's "affiliates"—semi-autonomous regional groups that, in the past decade, have forged partnerships with the central organization bin Laden founded. Some experts believe that the most dangerous of these is al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), based in the increasingly unstable nation of Yemen.

AQAP's international profile has risen in recent years, ironically as a result of a number of noteworthy failures—the "underwear bomber" who attempted to bring down a Northwest Airlines flight bound for Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009, and a thwarted 2010 attempt to hide explosives inside printer cartridges on cargo planes bound for the United States. Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical American-born preacher, is a key figure in the group. In May, the United States tried to kill him in a drone strike in Yemen, but he escaped unharmed.

Even as the autocratic regime of Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, appears to be giving way to the demands of a popular uprising inspired by the "Arab Spring," AQAP's activities have created an image of Yemen as a center of radicalism and terrorism. Yet earlier this year, Glevum Associates, a social-science research and strategic communications firm that works primarily as a contractor for the U.S. military, released a wide-ranging report on Yemeni public opinion that found little support for AQAP in a wide swath of the country.

"Al-Qaida's tactics and its program are absolutely rejected," explains Charles Schmitz, a Yemen expert at Towson University who is not affiliated with Glevum. "Al-Qaida is interested in blowing stuff up, and Yemenis are not interested in that. They want economic development. In fact, many Yemenis believe AQAP is a creation of President Saleh, or of the United States. They don't even believe it's really Yemeni."

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But according to the Glevum study, there are parts of the country where AQAP enjoys up to 33 percent support. According to Andrew Garfield, Glevum's founder, approval of AQAP is highest where citizens are most dissatisfied with the Yemeni government. "In those areas," Garfield says, "it's 'an enemy of my enemy is my friend.'" American support for President Saleh is another factor. "It's a vicious circle," Garfield notes. "The more we support the president, the greater his unpopularity, and the more AQAP can gain traction." But, he adds, sympathy for AQAP tends to be lowest in areas where the group has been most active, most visible, and most violent—a sign that does not bode well for AQAP's long-term prospects among those from whom they seek to draw strength. [End Page 122]

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[End Page 123]



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