Tribal militias in Yemen: Al Bayda and Shabwah


Pro-army tribesmen man a checkpoint on a road leading to Lawdar town in the southern Yemeni province of Abyan June 19, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • Stability of Yemen rest on the reliability of tribal militias in key governorates

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  • If tribal militias quarrel with each other, central government, or both, then progress against AQAP may collapse

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The tenuous stability of post-Saleh Yemen and the limited and fragile gains against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) rest on the reliability of tribal militias in key governorates. Those militias, called “popular resistance committees,” emerged in 2011 in response to AQAP advances. Initially supplemented by Yemeni regular military units, they are now holding ground against AQAP counter-offensives with diminishing support from the government in Sana’a, the capital. If these tribal militias fall to quarrelling with each other or with the central government, or both, then progress in the fight against AQAP may collapse. Evaluating the prospects for sustaining and expanding that progress, therefore, requires a clear-eyed examination of the nature of these committees and the strength or fragility of the tribal sub-strata on which they rest. Unfortunately, such an examination offers little cause for optimism. The nature of Yemeni tribes, especially in the governorates most at risk of AQAP counter-attack, strongly militates against the durability of tribal militias as a solution to this challenge to the security of Yemen and the United States.

Key Takeaways

  • Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Qaeda’s Yemen-based affiliate, is still a threat to the United States. An objective of U.S. policy is to deny AQAP operating space in Yemen. Operating space allows AQAP to plan and execute transnational attacks. The U.S. has largely outsourced the problem of containing AQAP to the Yemeni military. Yemen, in turn, has outsourced the task to local tribal militias. The validity of American strategy in Yemen thus rests on the viability of these local groups over the long term.
  • AQAP fielded an insurgent wing, Ansar al Sharia, that has seized and held territory in Yemen previously. The perseverance of effective ground forces in the strategic governorates where Ansar al Sharia is a threat is vital to stopping a still-virulent al Qaeda franchise from gaining even more operating space.
  • Local Yemeni tribal militias, called “popular resistance committees,” are now the primary defenders of areas threatened by Ansar al Sharia. These militias have been effective, but are not reliable in the long term. Many instances of tribal militias clashing with government forces or with each other indicate as much. Meanwhile, the Yemeni army has been crippled by a steady stream of brigade-level mutinies as President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s efforts to restructure Yemen’s armed forces falter. Many tribal committees are suffering from diminishing operational support from the Yemeni government in Sana’a. 
  • A history of instability in the area, combined with the inauspicious progression of current events, poses an increasing danger to the southern governorates and to the reliability of the popular committees. Moreover, the nature of Yemeni tribes, especially in the threatened areas, strongly militates against the durability of tribal militias as a solution to this challenge to the security of Yemen and the United States.
  • An understanding of tribal dynamics is necessary to anticipate where pockets of vulnerability lie and to guard against a still-active AQAP presence in Yemen. Unfortunately, it is unclear whether the interested parties possess the required expertise.              


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