Al-Qaeda’s apology and its implications

Al-Qaeda's apology is indicative of its decline, organizational flaws and penetration in the Yemeni security apparatus

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Yesterday Yemenis woke up to find most of the local and regional media circulating exceptional news: the first apology in al-Qaeda’s history. On a recorded tape with English subtitles, the military commander of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), apologized for the brazen Dec. 5 attack on the Yemeni Ministry of Defense hospital. This apology is potentially indicative of future attacks, reveals a serious organizational decline, and casts doubt over the level of al-Qaeda’s alleged penetration of the Yemeni security apparatus.

The partial apology is due more to the restoration of the organization’s image than genuine repentance. Faced with public outrage after the footage of the attack was aired by the Yemeni national TV, the AQAP leadership feared losing the few Yemeni sympathizers who provide the group with a safe haven. They resigned to apologizing for the innocent victims but not for the murdered soldiers or the attack itself.

The AQAP’s military commander, Qassim al-Raimy, blamed the deaths of innocent patients and doctors on a disobedient attacker in a targeted message intended for al-Qaeda sympathizers. Al-Raimy offered to pay blood money and compensation for the victims, according to Islamic law which states ‘a life for a life.” This was strategic to pander to the organization’s supporters and their way of thinking.

Since al-Raimy offered to pay blood money and compensation for the victims’ families, it is reasonable to predict a shift in the objectives of AQAP’s future operations. According to the initial report by an investigation committee published on Dec. 6, the attack on the Ministry of Defense and its hospital claimed 56 deaths and 215 injuries. The compensations for such a death toll will amount to millions of dollars, an amount unlikely to be available to the AQAP at the moment. For example, attacks could target banks or kidnap foreigners in order to secure the money for compensations. This tactic might be new for the AQAP, but it is not new for Al-Qaeda in general as kidnapping for ransom has been done by the organization in sub-Saharan Africa and was successful in forcing Western governments to pay. Potential targets will need to be vigilant but not too worried as the apology in itself shows that the AQAP is weaker than previously thought.

While al-Raimy proved to be clever in apologizing in order to preserve the AQAP’s image amongst its affiliates and sympathizers, he revealed a considerable organizational weakness. The assault on the Ministry of Defense Hospital indicates a number of capacity limitations of the AQAP. First, admitting that murdering civilians was committed by a disobedient member is clear evidence of never before seen discordance within the group and a crisis of leadership in a historically systemized organization. Second, shifting the objective of the attack from reaching the drone control office, as Al-Qaeda claims, to a last minute random killing of the hospital’s patients, doctors, and security personnel, shows hasty planning and poor training.

A local joke spread after the announcement the group had confused the drones control room with the hospital’s operating room, saying the two terms are translated the same into Arabic, ‘operating room.” Third, the disoriented assault indicates that the AQAP is badly hurt and that the attack was a desperate attempt to make a major blow against the leadership of the Yemeni military to regain balance or at least to restore the moral of its affiliates. Fourth, the fact that half of the terrorists are non-Yemenis is a sign the organization is losing its eminence within the population, a fact which should please the Yemeni security and military forces.

Due to the polarized political environment and distrust among the Yemeni political leaders, each party viewed the assault as a conspiracy orchestrated by their rivals. Some analysts concluded that it was a military coup planned in tandem with al-Qaeda. Little analysis focused on the capacity of the security and military forces. Even public consensus believed that the security apparatus is breached by al-Qaeda. The apology by the AQAP’s military commander, however, rules out that theory and proves that the while it suffers from capacity limitations, the integrity of the security apparatus, at least within the Ministry of Defense, is still intact. Thus, politicians and their media arms should stop projecting their security obsessions on the military and security forces and cheer them instead.
“Farouk Al-Salihi, is a Yemeni political scientist with special interest in democracy and democratization. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics (Democracy) from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).”

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