Journalist Adam Baron had some interesting comments about a recent video released by AQAP. What he found interesting was the distinctly Yemeni clothing of the cleric, Hareth al-Nathari:
The key is the juxtaposition of Nathari’s uniquely Yemeni clothes with his broadly directed remarks. It’s hard to make the case that his statement was Yemen-focused: subtitled in English, it delved into recent events in everywhere from Afghanistan to the Sinai, casting the actions of disparate groups like the Taliban, Jabhat al-Nusra and AQAP itself as part of one single movement, as different arms of a global jihad. It’s obviously not my place to tell AQAP how to cast its activities, but to paraphrase the comments of a few analysts I talked to, the statement seemed almost divorced from the bulk of AQAP’s activities on the ground in Yemen. Nathari’s clothes, however, brought things back to the country, subtly demonstrating, I guess, that the group can indeed walk and chew gum at the same time.
In that sense, the video functions as a clear–if, perhaps, inadvertent–demonstration of the reason for AQAP’s resilience, of what, ultimately, makes the group so dangerous: they can play to audiences abroad while still doing the same for those in Yemen itself. The video wasn’t the first time a man of Nathari’s ilk appeared in a video in Yemeni dress–Anwar al-Awlaki, for example, often delivered addresses in the traditional clothes of a tribesman from his native province of Shabwa.
When it comes to discussions of AQAP, the focus often tends to be on the group’s global aspirations: its status as an Al Qaeda franchise, its plots to strike the US. But AQAP’s strength is inextricably tied to its knowledge of local dynamics in Yemen and its ability to manipulate and respond to them. Drone strikes and military offensives can kill militants, but those battling AQAP can achieve victory by beating them at this part of their larger game–by outplaying them on the ground.