Democracy Lab

The Islamic State that Wasn't

Yemen's al Qaeda franchise isn't moving to create its own Islamic state quite yet. But the fact that it continues to thrive is ominous enough.

SANAA — In late July, reports began to circulate that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) -- described by the White House number as one of the world's deadliest terrorist groups -- had announced plans to set up its own "emirate," a miniature Islamic state, in Yemen's east.

Citing a leaflet apparently circulated by the group in Hadramawt province in eastern Yemen, Reuters reported that AQAP had issued instructions on how women should dress and conduct themselves in public as part of its preparations for the installation of an Islamic state in the area. The report grabbed headlines. Analysts compared the group's strategy to that of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, which now prefers to simply be known as the Islamic State (IS), which had staged an audacious takeover of Mosul in northern Iraq just a few weeks earlier.

There was just one problem with the story: It wasn't true. According to a number of people with intimate knowledge of the group, the leaflets, widely distributed on social media, were fakes. They were not issued by AQAP, or by its sister organization Ansar al-Sharia, which in late July took to Twitter to deny distributing the leaflets and to demand that the flow of statements being made in its name be brought to a halt.

Issuing threatening guidelines on dress isn't AQAP's way of doing business, several people who study the organization closely tell FP. In fact, the group -- which has drawn up a playbook for other al Qaeda franchises, offering advice like "you can?t beat people for drinking alcohol when they don?t even know the basics of how to pray" -- is strongly focused on winning over the local population in the areas where it operates before trying to introduce its own interpretation of Islamic law. (That isn't to say, of course, that members of the group aren't capable of meting out their own, brutal form of justice, as they've shown on numerous occasions.)

But that doesn't mean AQAP doesn't have big plans for Yemen -- or that the group isn't considering a second run at creating its own administration there, possibly starting in Hadramawt, the ancestral home of al Qaeda's founder, Osama bin Laden. And the continuing weakness of Yemen's post-revolutionary state -- above all the failure of the security forces to bring the organization to heel despite a widely heralded campaign against the group earlier this year -- is still offering them plenty of opportunities to do so.

Since late July, AQAP has released at least four videos of attacks it has staged on military installations in Hadramawt, including a raid on the main airport on the province, as well as photos of an assault on a Saudi Arabian military outpost on Yemen's southeastern border with the kingdom. AQAP has also allegedly engineered dozens of assassinations of security officials over the past year, along with a series of attacks on military checkpoints. And that's not even to mention a December 2013 attack on the main defense ministry compound in Sanaa. That operation resulted in the deaths of 52 civilians at a military hospital inside the facility, prompting a rare apology from AQAP's leadership.

Perhaps most importantly, AQAP has weathered a military assault that Yemeni leaders described as an "all-out war" when they launched it, with much media fanfare, in April of this year. The campaign has largely petered out without achieving any clear victories, sources with knowledge of the military's current movement say, and Yemenis are not unaware of this: that is probably why gave as much credence as they did to the "emirate" leaflets. (The photo above shows Yemeni soldiers launching a rocket during a major offensive against AQAP in Shabwa province in early May.)

AQAP exploited a security vacuum created by unrest in the north of the country in 2011 to seize territory in the south, declaring the creation, for the first time, of a short-lived "Islamic emirate" there. In 2012, Yemen's newly elected president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi decided to take the fight to the group, using the army and local militias to push AQAP out of the main cities and towns in the south. AQAP responded by retreating into the Yemeni hinterland, setting up a training camp in one remote region and expanding its presence in others. These remote bases were left largely undisturbed until the latest campaign began in April.

Sanaa hailed the military campaign as a major success. Government officials claimed that the assault had severely dented AQAP's organizational capabilities, and that the group had been uprooted from its base areas. But many observers have come to question these assertions, especially when it comes to the extent to which the campaign has reduced AQAP's capacity to wreak havoc.

In at least one area of the 2014 campaign, says Abdulrazzaq al-Jamal, a leading Yemeni AQAP analyst, the "assault" was staged. In his account, the government negotiated access to key areas with local tribes in Shabwah province, gradually setting up checkpoints among the main roads in the area but rarely coming into contact with AQAP members, who similarly negotiated an exit with the tribes, a claim repeated to FP on a number of occasions by people who have visited the area. ("Tell that to the families of soldiers that were killed in Shabwah," says a government official, responding to claims that there was very little actual fighting in the area. "The tribes pushed AQAP out of the towns but the army fought the militants in the area... [But] many militants escaped to Hadramawt.")

AQAP, according to the same sources, simply moved on, setting up shop in other parts of the country -- most notably Hadramawt, where, according to local residents, it had a small footprint before 2014. Since the beginning of the year, they say, the group's presence has become increasingly visible. "Al Qaeda wasn't really here before," says Ahmed Bazaal, a journalist based in Seiyun, the biggest city in central Hadramawt, which lies at the heart of the Hadramawt valley, where AQAP has been particularly active in recent months. "But this year, especially in the Hadramawt valley, they have been more and more present."

Bazaal attributes the group's presence to the lack of security in the area, a common complaint in Yemen, especially since the 2011 uprising, whose legacy has been overshadowed by infighting between former allies in the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, Hadi's predecessor and Yemen's president of 33 years. In Bazaal's telling, known AQAP operatives walk the streets of Seiyun openly, with little fear of reprisal. Several people with knowledge of military operations in the area mutter, meanwhile, that senior military officers may well be helping the group achieve its aims. Hadi, who is overseeing a U.N.-backed political transitional period that is meant to end in elections in 2015, has struggled to manage Yemen's many factions and impose government rule over a significant proportion of the country.

AQAP, meanwhile, has proven adept at exploiting the lack of government presence in areas like Hadramawt, learning to present itself as a viable and more attractive alternative to the government before attempting a takeover, Jamal says. Soon, he believes, AQAP will be ready to seize territory again. "I think people will be shocked when they see what they do next," he says. "I genuinely expect that soon some governorates will fall to AQAP. People expect that they will do this in Hadramawt, but AQAP never do what is expected of them and maybe they are looking elsewhere."

Hadi is unlikely to allow AQAP to put down roots for a third time in as many years without a fight, and rumors are rife in the Yemeni capital that a fresh campaign is planned in Hadramawt. A troop build-up is underway in the area to "counter the threat" of AQAP, the same government official says. But questions about the military's ability to bring the group to heel -- and how AQAP will react to a renewed assault -- remain unanswered. Since the end of Ramadan last month, AQAP has launched attacks on the Yemeni army at least three times in Hadramawt. The most recent fighting took place around the town of al-Qatn, which, according to local media, AQAP is trying to take over.

In Seiyun, meanwhile, Bazaal says that locals have begun to ask the government to remove checkpoints and military installations from the area, fearful of another round of attacks inside the city. "People are scared, even to leave their houses during Ramadan, especially after the last attack [on the airport]," he says. "As long as the army and police presence here is weak, they will attack again."

STR/AFP/Getty Images


'Around Here, People Love Him'

In the Cambodian province where Khmer Rouge leaders came to die, people aren’t celebrating a guilty verdict against two top regime officials. After all, they’re neighbors.

PAILIN PROVINCE, Cambodia — When former Khmer Rouge officials Nuon Chea, 88, and Khieu Samphan, 83, were sentenced to life in prison on Thursday for committing crimes against humanity, no one inside a small pagoda near the Cambodia-Thai border clapped. Sitting on mats strewn across the floor, most people watching the state broadcast of the ruling seemed to be intermittently paying attention. Many viewers chatted with friends and family or stared down at their cell phones as judge Nil Nonn from the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) -- the U.N.-funded tribunal established to try senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge -- read the guilty verdict.

There were 20 such public screenings across the country, organized by the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-CAM), an organization that specializes in historic preservation, education, and outreach about the Khmer Rouge, the brutal communist regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975-1979. Nearly two million people were killed in the Cambodian communists' attempt to create their own brand of the Great Leap Forward. Except for a hasty 1979 show trial convicting senior leaders in absentia, there was no justice in the immediate aftermath of the ruinous regime. It wasn't until 2006 that, as a result of international pressure, the ECCC was established. And until Thursday, there had been only conviction in the court, in the case of Kaing Guek Eav, or Duch, who ran an infamous prison torture center.

The men on trial this time were two of the Khmer Rouge's top officials: Nuon Chea, who served as deputy to Pol Pot, the regime's notorious leader, and Khieu Samphan, the one-time head of state. They faced a raft of charges, including crimes against humanity and genocide. Cambodians who have waited 35 years for a major Khmer Rouge leader to be convicted finally saw it happen.

But Pailin province, where the pagoda screening was held, is different.

One of the first places invaded by the Khmer Rouge when it was an insurgent army, Pailin also became the de facto home of many of the Khmer Rouge leaders after the regime fell. Ieng Sary, the ex-Khmer Rouge minister of foreign affairs who died last year before the verdict in his trial, and his former wife, Ieng Thirith, who was declared unfit to face the court due to dementia, both still have relatives and property in the area. Chea and Samphan also lived there at the time of their arrests in 2007. Pailin, in short, is where many Khmer Rouge figures came to die.

Many in the area want to forget the past, and those who knew the defendants, including the men's relatives, think they are innocent or were too old to be prosecuted. Others have simply stopped paying attention to the ECCC after nearly a decade of limited progress.

Him Klou watched the verdict with his prosthetic leg placed beside him on a mat. Klou, 65, served in the government army before being forced to enlist with the communists when they maintained an insurgency in the 1980s. He lost his leg after stepping on a landmine. Klou, who also lost relatives to the Khmer Rouge, now runs the commune, the small administrative area where the screening was held -- and his time in Pailin has given him a unique view on the ECCC. Klou said the verdict was just and that he supports the court, but he also said that since locals are friends of Chea, he can understand why they don't want him to be in jail.

"From my point of view, what I see is good," Klou said, describing Chea's life in Pailin. But then he hedged: "When he has no power, he is good."


Pailin is a six-hour drive from the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh; it is the last province before the Thai border. The vestiges of the Khmer Rouge came here in the late 1980s as the Vietnamese military, which had pushed them out of power in 1979, withdrew from Cambodia. As part of a deal with the government, the part of the Khmer Rouge loyal to Ieng Sary lay down their arms and defected in exchange for semi-autonomy. Chea and Samphan, who had been with Pol Pot in a separate stronghold, followed a few years later. In the early 2000s, the area became a legitimate province.

Among those who moved to the border in the 1980s are the relatives of Samphan and Chea. They now live in Prom, a village within sight of Thailand. A taxi driver named Has Sarom knew the way.

"[Chea] was just a normal person, he stayed at home," Sarom said as he drove along a winding mountain road. "Very simple and very kind." Sarom, 57, said he was not aligned with the Khmer Rouge when it was in power, but he also doesn't understand why officials would want to lock up a man in his 80s. "Nuon Chea is so old. Why did the trial arrest him?"

"I cannot believe [Chea] made the decision to kill people," he added.

Nearing the Thai border, Sarom turned left down a muddy road before pulling up to a clearing. A short walk down a path stood two clapboard structures. Laundry was hanging up, and a young child was feeding ducks, but no one else was in sight. This, Sarom said, is a house that Chea used to live in. The complex was in disarray. Later, a relative of Chea's said the owner of the land had gotten so sick of journalists coming down the path seeking interviews with Pol Pot's second-in-command that he personally dismantled the house.

Back toward the main road, Sarom parked outside a large house built of timber. A man identifying himself as Chea's grandson-in-law, a 36-year-old police officer named Ou Boran, came outside to talk. Like Sarom, he didn't understand why Chea was in jail, let alone about to be sentenced for crimes against humanity.

"[Chea] is clean. He did everything for the nation," said Boran, referring to Chea respectfully as Lok ta, which translates to "Sir Grandfather". "Around here, people love him. People in Pailin, they believe that those leaders are respectful."

Khieu Samphan's house is located about 20 minutes away, on a street closer to the center of Pailin town, across from a gas station and in view of a mountain peak. The house is a rectangular box of concrete surrounded by coconut and mango trees. An elderly man who came out of the house said he was a distant relative of Samphan's, though a neighbor later said he was actually a brother-in-law. The man refused to give his name and seemed nervous, ambiguously saying that he had to call someone to make sure he could give an interview. (He did not specify who was on the other end of the line.)

Yet after a while, he seemed more at ease. "A lot of people living here think it is wrong to arrest Khieu Samphan because he was not involved and had no part in the killings," the man said. (A common argument offered in support of Samphan is that he was just a figurehead in the Khmer Rouge.) "About Nuon Chea, I don't know, but about Khieu Samphan, it's an injustice."


The vast pagoda where the verdict was screened has columns stretching from floor to ceiling. Paintings of the Buddha's life cover the interior, and a 15-foot Buddha statue stands at the head of the shrine. The crowd inside for the show was mixed in age; some had lived through the Khmer Rouge's awful reign, while others weren't alive at the time.

Hun Pheun, 61, a senior village official, joined the Khmer Rouge in 1973, two years before the group took power. He insisted that he never killed innocent people, and that he only learned of the grievous nature of the regime when the ECCC trials began. He said he tried to leave the Khmer Rouge many times to defect to the government, but never succeeded. As for the verdict, Pheun said the life sentence was necessary, to set the right precedent. "It would be a bad habit for the old to be released," he said. "It will be a model." He suggested giving the convicted two life sentences, just to drive home the point.

Like others at the viewing, however, Pheun couldn't help expressing misgivings about the convictions. "Everybody has bad and good," he said, noting that when Chea was in power, he did some things right, like eliminating thievery and striving for equality.

"But," Pheun acknowledged, "he killed people."