A Sheikh's Life


Tariq al-Fadhli wept when he heard that Osama Bin Laden had been killed.

“I love him and thank him for supporting me. If it wasn't for Osama Bin Laden, maybe I wouldn't have returned to my country,” recalled al-Fadhli, a well-known Yemeni tribal Sheikh recently expelled from his compound in southern Abyan province at gunpoint by anti-al-Qaeda militiamen who were convinced he was aiding militants in the area. But during an interview at his government-proffered villa in neighboring Aden, al-Fadhli insisted that he is affiliated with not al-Qaeda.

“If I had a relationship with al-Qaeda, the local intelligence would know,” he said, waving a cigarette in his neatly manicured hand. Safe behind a high wall buffered with heavily armed tribesmen—most of whom had a wad of khat (a mildly narcatoic leaf chewed by many Yemenis) in their cheek—Sheikh al-Fadli was relaxed. Wearing a local kilt-like futa, a traditional dagger known as a jambiya, and other colorful accessories, he even cracked jokes. If the accusations of al-Qaeda affiliation turn out to be true, he said, “I am prepared to go to Guantanamo and pay for the ticket. I would go there naked.”

Al-Fadhli is a notoriously enigmatic figure in Yemen’s kaleidoscopic political landscape. As Yemen struggles through a U.N.-backed political transition designed to reconcile the tensions that pushed the country toward civil war in 2011 and prepare it for multiparty elections scheduled for February 2014, al-Fadhli personifies the Sisyphean challenge that interim President Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi is up against.

In the late 1960s, following the end of British colonial domination of the region, what is now Yemen was split into two separate nations: the tribal-dominated Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) in the north and the socialist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) in the south. In the late 1980s, al-Fadhli, fresh from the battlefields of Afghanistan, returned to the southern capital of Aden to wage jihad against the socialist regime that had driven his family into exile.

The North and South signed a fragile unity agreement in 1990, but it crumbled in 1994 when the South tried to exit the pact. As tensions flared in the lead-up to civil war, al-Fadhli’s band of jihadis sided with President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the YAR’s autocratic leader, helping crush the socialist regime. Fadhli’s guerrillas were accused of assassinating a number of the some 150 socialist officials and supporters ahead of 1993 parliamentary elections. They also played a prominent role in the war, backing northern troops in a decisive victory.

Seeing Saleh and his ruling party—a relatively secular mix of technocrats, businessmen, and close associates of the now ex-president—as a means to prosperity, al-Fadhli formalized the alliance after the war, trading jihad for a public sinecure in the Sana’a-based government. It was not until 2009 that his calculus changed. In another about-face, al-Fadhli joined the mounting “Hirak” movement, made up of aggrieved southern secessionists who seek remuneration for a slew of injustices suffered under the rule of the northern-centric administration.

“I grew up with [Hirak supporters] and I understand them,” al-Fadhli said, explaining his change of heart. If his appearance at a Hirak rally this January is any indication— he donned a Che Guevara shirt bearing the flag of the former South Yemen—al-Fadhli seems to have fully embraced his newfound freedom-fighter persona.

Some, however, suspect that al-Fadhi only joined Hirak as a means to regain ancestral territory and to restore personal and family prestige as heir to the fallen al-Fadhli Sultanate in Abyan. Indeed, his chameleonic political career makes his loyalites nearly impossible to discern. But as players jockey for power in the new Yemeni state amid economic stagnation and political uncertainty, the survivalist mentality that is gripping many corners of the country is not so different from al-Fadhli’s serial pragmatism.

President Hadi must juggle tribes, militants, militias, separatists, Islamists, and a host of international powers vying for influence in the country. Saleh, who ruled Yemen for 33 years, famously referring to the job as “dancing on the heads of snakes.”

The country’s numerous non-state actors are as important to Yemen’s stability, if not more so, than the political parties nominally in charge. Tribes, for example, have formed the backbone of governance and social order for millennia. Integrating clans, tribes, and confederations into the modern political system has proven difficult, with government leaders (i.e., ex-President Saleh and loyalists) often choosing temporary appeasement over more durable solutions. That said, “tribalism” is only one of many Yemeni identities, and in some areas plays little to no role at all.

Religion represents another piece of the Yemeni puzzle. Over the centuries, the country has hosted Jews, Shia Muslims, various Sunni sects, and the occasional Christian. In recent decades, sectarian tensions have escalated and have been exacerbated by political agendas. The most conspicuous split is between various Sunni offshoots and a revivalist Zaydi Shia sect, known as Huthis, whose oppositionist stance made them the target of six wars waged by the central government leading up to the Arab Spring in 2011. In the post-revolution transitional period, the Huthis have greatly expanded their sphere of influence, which had up until then largely been limited to the northern province of Saada

This fluid system of governance and loyalties can confound foreign observers, who tend to view Yemen through the lens of Western politics.

Al-Fadhli has, for example, proven hard for U.S. diplomats to read. An October 2009 cable from the U.S. embassy in Sanaa describes his relationship with various Hirak leaders:

Fadhli has "good communication" with [Ali Salem al] Beidh, Ali Nasser and Mohammed Ali Ahmed, the former governor of Abyan [province] now living in the United Kingdom.

Yet in early 2011, al-Fadhli burned pictures of Ali Salem al-Baidh and Ali Nasser Mohammed while denouncing Ahmed’s more moderate stance toward unity.

Another leaked 2009 cable from the U.S. embassy referred to al-Fadhli as the “strongman” of Abyan. Recent events suggest otherwise. Last November, anti-al-Qaeda militias besieged one of Fadhli’s compounds in Abyan for allegedly facilitating al-Qaeda’s takeover of the province in 2011.

Fadhli admits that his support across Abyan is far from unanimous, even in cities historically loyal to his tribe. "The [local militias] in Jaar agreed with me, and the one in Zinjbar was against me,” he said.

President Hadi, also a native of Abyan, intervened on al-Fadhli’s behalf during the November siege, in part to pacify the local militias that his government supports and also because of their personal relationship—al-Fadhli is technically his tribal sheikh. To calm the situation, Hadi relocated al-Fadhli and most of his family to their current seaside residence, after an initial stay at a house next to the defense minister’s in Aden.  

Despite these troubles, al-Fadhli remains entrusted with delicate tasks such as mediating al-Qaeda kidnappings. Asked how he has managed to do so, he said: “I'm a tribal sheikh. I know al-Qaeda and I know the government. I tell the truth to al-Qaeda, I tell the truth to the government, and I tell the truth to the people. I don't take sides.”

Al-Fadhli described his role in negotiations for the release of a Saudi diplomat kidnapped last March in Aden.

“I was the mediator between Saudi Arabia, al-Qaeda, and the Yemeni government,” he said. The head of Ansar al-Sharia, a populist-oriented al-Qaeda subsidiary formed in 2011, apparently sent proof of life to al-Fadhli via two curriers.

“They brought me a C.D., and I opened in the laptop to make sure it was the Saudi. Immediately I was sure that it was [him]. He was living, talking, and behind him was a black flag of al-Qaeda.”

Al-Qaeda was demanding the release of prisoners held in Saudi Arabia. Al-Fadhli said they even refused monetary offers for the diplomat’s release. “I called one southern [Yemeni] businessman in Saudi Arabia and he was he was ready to pay $13 million. Cash.”

To Americans, the most important non-state actors in Yemen have long been violent global jihadists; in October 2000, al-Qaeda bombed the USS Cole, a Naval destroyer docked in the port of Aden. Following the 9/11 attacks, in which some Yemeni nationals were implicated, Yemen became a front line in American counter-terrorism efforts. The militants have proven difficult for international and regional players to manage ever since.

As al-Fadhli put it, “It's like a burning soccer ball that everyone throws on the other.”

While Bush-era counter-terrorism policy in Yemen relied heavily on capturing al-Qaeda suspects, the Obama administration has carried out a controversial targeted-killing strategy that has come under increasing public scrutiny. The first Senate hearing on the subject was held last week, highlighted by the impassioned testimony of a young Yemeni activist, Farea al-Muslimi, talking about an American airstrike near his village days earlier.

“The reality is that U.S. interests in Yemen are always going to be first and foremost security interests,” said Danya Greenfield, the deputy director of the Rafik Hariri Center at the Atlantic Council, a think-tank in Washington, D.C.

Al-Fadhli holds an unexpectedly moderate stance on U.S. drone policy. While he stopped short of endorsing American strikes, he did not denounce them either, instead saying that they are preferable to Yemeni Air Force operations. He lived in Abyan during the heaviest periods of U.S. drone strikes in the region, from mid-2011 to late 2012, and said that, “When the Americans strike a target, they strike the target correctly, 100 percent.”

“Yemeni planes bomb indiscriminately. They break houses, they kill innocent people, and the relationship with America is clear. So leave the skies to the Americans,” he said.

In many ways, the enigmatic Fadhli embodies the challenges facing an international community that has struggled for decades to make the right move—or at least avoid erring too seriously—in the chess game of Yemeni politics. The unprecedented size and scope of support on offer from foreign donors during Yemen’s current transition has only magnified these concerns. Perhaps Greenfield phrases the problem best:

“It's very easy to get lost, or stuck, or misled within the complicated web of factors in Yemen,” she said. “There is no one single truth.”

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