BEIRUT -- Al-Qaeda's branch in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, which security officials believe was responsible for last week's attempt to down American-bound aircraft, has managed to avoid the mistakes of its Iraqi counterparts, making it perhaps more resilient than the militant group's other franchises, according to an assessment by an analyst.
Much like the U.S. military, which has had to adapt to fighting in the Muslim world, al-Qaeda has been doing its homework and changing its ways, according to a recent paper by Ryan Evans in the Sentinel, the monthly journal of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
Whereas al-Qaeda in Iraq has been led in the past by foreigners, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is led by locals, Saudis and Yemenis who share a common culture. While Abu Musab Zarqawi, the late Jordanian mastermind of al-Qaeda's Iraq branch, alienated the tribes, the militant group's Yemeni offshoot is cultivating them.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is also adopting the grievances of locals instead of dismissing their concerns and urging them to fight for a different cause.
All this, says Evans, who works for the U.S. Army's Human Terrain System project, "suggests al-Qaeda's senior leadership may have learned from its failures in Iraq," perhaps adopting what he describes as a "Maoist" approach to mobilizing potential supporters.
Evans' article includes a synopsis of the "plethora of strategic critiques and commentary" regarding Zarqawi's extreme strategy that began to emerge during the height of the Iraqi insurgency.
Zarqawi, who grew up in a rough industrial city in Jordan, did not seek to engage Iraq's rural Sunnis. He didn't trust or respect the locals he led, the article says. Al-Qaeda in Iraq upset potential supporters when it began to muscle in on the smuggling trade by Sunnis in the country's west, especially Anbar province, and to impose a harshly puritanical version of Islam on people who had long had their own ways.
Instead of building bridges to Iraqis, Zarqawi launched a campaign of violence against Shiite Muslim civilians.
Zarqawi's elders in Afghanistan, including Osama bin Laden's deputy Ayman Zawahiri, voiced alarm, urging him to work with those who didn't hold the same religious views and tone down attacks on civilians lest he lose popular support. Indeed, Iraq's Sunnis began fighting back, making common cause with U.S. forces and the Iraqi government and whittling al-Qaeda in Iraq down to a shadow of its once formidable force.
"To Mao, the guerrilla is the fish that swims in the sea of the population," Evans writes. "The sea in Anbar had dried up."
Evans suggests al-Qaeda's branch in Yemen and Saudi Arabia has learned from those mistakes. It seeks not to undermine but to "co-opt existing social and political structures." Its attacks are aimed at security forces and foreigners rather than civilians, advancing "its military campaign only as it perceives that it mobilizes support."
Its leadership is firmly in Yemeni and Saudi hands. In fact, Evans notes, one analyst has concluded that al-Qaeda might be Yemen's "most representative organization," transcending "class, tribe and regional identity in a way that no other Yemeni group or political party can match."
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