Yemen's war on terror hampered by belief al-Qaeda 'is only a myth'

AS YEMEN intensifies its military campaign against al-Qaeda's regional arm, it faces a serious obstacle: most Yemenis consider the group a myth, or a ploy by their president to squeeze the West for aid money and punish his domestic opponents.

Those cynical attitudes - rooted in Yemen's history of manipulative politics - complicate efforts to trace the perpetrators of the recent plot to send explosives by courier to the United States.

They also make it harder to win public support for the fight against jihadist violence, whatever label one attaches to it.

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"What is al-Qaeda? The truth is there is no al-Qaeda," said Lutfi Muhammad, a weary-looking unemployed 50-year-old walking through this city's tumultuous Tahrir Square.

Instead, he said, the violence is "because of the regime and the lack of stability and the internal struggles".

That view, echoed across Yemen, is only partly a conspiracy theory.

The Yemeni government has used jihadists as proxy soldiers in the past, and sometimes conflates the al-Qaeda threat and the unrelated political insurgencies it has fought in northern and southern Yemen.

In a country where political and tribal violence is endemic, it is often impossible to tell who is killing whom, and why.

One thing is clear: Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has stepped up his commitment to fighting al-Qaeda. On Saturday, a day after the discovery of the air freight bomb plot, Mr Saleh said al-Qaeda had killed 70 police officers and soldiers in the past four weeks.

But many Yemenis seem doubtful al-Qaeda was guilty in all or even most of those killings, which took place in the same southern areas where a secessionist movement has been growing for the past three years.

"We cannot differentiate between what is propaganda and what is real," said Abdullah al-Faqih, a professor of political science at Sana University. "It's impossible to tell who is killing who; you have tribal feuds, al-Qaeda and the Southern Movement and the state is doing a lot of manipulation."

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In a sense, there are two narratives about al-Qaeda in Yemen. One of them, presented by the Yemeni government and al-Qaeda's internet postings - and echoed in the West - portrays a black-and-white struggle. The other is the view from the ground in Yemen: attacks by armed groups with shifting loyalties, some fighting under political or religious banners, some merely looking for money.

The Yemeni authorities have long paid tribal leaders to fight domestic enemies. That policy has helped foster a culture of blackmail: some tribal figures promote violence, whether through jihadists or criminals, then offer to quell it for cash.

"Some of what looks like al-Qaeda is really terror as a business," Mr Faqih said.Yemen's tribes are often cast as the chief obstacle in the war on al-Qaeda, sheltering the militants because of tribal hospitality. In fact, few tribal leaders have any sympathy for the group.