The Yemeni government has begun a new experiment in fighting al-Qaida, paying off tribes and providing them with weapons to hunt down militants, officials said Monday.
The tactic resembles the U.S. military's policy of persuading Sunni tribes in Iraq to turn against al-Qaida and form armed "Awakening Councils" to fight the insurgents, an effort that had major success in tamping down the terror group's offshoot there. But it is far more tenuous in Yemen, where powerful tribes frequently shift loyalties and often have branches that support al-Qaida militants.
Yemeni opponents of the policy cast doubt on whether it will be effective and warn that it could further destabilize the situation by fueling infighting among tribes.
Al-Qaida's affiliate in Yemen, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, is believed to have several hundred of fighters hidden in the mountainous reaches of the country, and the Obama administration has dramatically stepped up its aid to Yemen's military to uproot it. The group has carried out a campaign of violence against security forces and attacks on U.S. and European facilities in the capital — and claimed responsibility for a failed Christmas Day attempt to blow up a passenger jet over the U.S.
Yemeni troops have been pursuing al-Qaida militants. But on Monday, the governor of Shabwa province — believed to be where many militants are hiding — announced in a speech that a joint team of solider and tribal fighters had carried out sweeps together for the first time in nearby mountains, hunting for al-Qaida fugitives.
Governor Ali Hassan al-Ahmadi said the Awalik tribe, one of the biggest in the province, had agreed to cooperate in fighting al-Qaida after a meeting last week with tribal representatives.
"The Awalik tribes assured that they are against al-Qaida and they are ready to confront them if any of their elements appeared in their regions," he said.
The Awalik is a large tribe made up of several branches, including one to which radical U.S.-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki belongs. The United States has put him on a kill-or-capture list, accusing him of becoming an active al-Qaida operative.
Al-Awlaki is on Yemen's list of wanted fugitives, meaning he would be among those the tribal militias are hunting, security officials said. But the tribal militias' focus appeared to be more on a cell of militants suspected in an attempt earlier this month to assassinate al-Ahmadi.
Yemeni security officials and several members of the Awalik tribe said the government was now providing monthly stipends and ammunition to tribal fighters to help in the hunt for al-Qaida members. The security officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about the program.
Hassan Bannan, a leader of one of the Awalik branches in Shabwa and an opponent of the policy, told The Associated Press that more than 2,500 tribesmen have been divided into small groups to carry out daily searches. Another tribesman, Awad al-Awlaki, said 180 of his fellow tribesmen in the Shabwa town of al-Saaid each received 100 automatic rife bullets and a daily stipend of $50.
The central government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh has little direct control outside the capital, San'a, and powerful, well-armed tribes control large parts of the country. Saleh often strikes alliances with tribes or parts of tribes, using money, jobs or other patronage to keep their support. But even allied tribes show great independence, bristle at central control and balk at following policies from San'a.
That makes enlisting tribes to hunt al-Qaida an uncertain prospect. Moreover, some tribes are believed to give refuge to al-Qaida fighters in their territory, so tribesmen may be unwilling to hunt down militants protected by their kinsmen — or risk intertribal clashes if they do.
"This will cause discord among members of the tribes. It will incite a war inside the tribes. Now each single tribe is divided between supporters and opponents," Bannan said.
Bannan doubted the government was serious in the policy, accusing it of trying to "deceive the Americans," which are funneling some $150 million in military assistance to Yemen this year along with a similar amount for humanitarian and development aid.
"They want to show to the Americans that they are serious about combating al-Qaida and at the same time they want to keep the aid flowing," he said.
A coalition of Yemen's biggest opposition parties issued a statement condemning the policy and saying the government was imitating the Awakening Councils in Iraq.
"Cloning other experiments implemented in other parts of the world, such as the Awakening Councils, and trying to implement them in Shabwa is like planting land mines," the coalition said. "It will bring nothing but destruction and discord. The fruits will threaten the future of coming generations."
Associated Press reporter Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this report.