As the US drone war against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Ansar al-Sharia picks up steam, the US State Department is beginning yet another high-tech campaign against AQAP on a different front – the internet.
The Yemeni military, backed by American advisers and drones, has been attempting to beat back AQAP and Ansar al-Sharia from cities in the restive governorate of Abyan in Southern Yemen since March of 2011, when militants first seized control of Ja’ar, later moving into Zinjibar and Lawdar. As the fighting rages, the US State department has been attempting to counter AQAP’s propaganda on websites belonging to Yemeni tribes by arguing against AQAP supporters and calling attention to the toll that the war has wrought on the Yemeni people.
"Within 48 hours, our team plastered the same sites with altered versions of the ads that showed the toll Al Qaeda attacks have taken on the Yemeni people," Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said Wednesday.
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In spite of low levels of internet penetration among Yemenis, tribes have recently taken to the internet, establishing websites to post news and host discussions concerning tribal issues. The website belonging to the al-Ahmar family, one of the most influential families in the Hashid tribal confederation in northern Yemen, has operated a website for some time.
The State Department's online efforts have been misrepresented in the press as sophisticated hacks against militant sympathetic websites when in actuality the US was operating within the intended parameters of the websites as well as US law.
"There was absolutely no hacking," said William McCants, a jihadi research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, a research and development center serving the Navy. "If a member of the US Government is posting, they have to identify themselves as such. Everything is completely overt."
Without taking part in a hack of any sort, State experts created user accounts on the tribal forums and posted messages and photos just as any other user would. Identifying themselves as representatives of the US government is not likely to sway the opinions of Yemeni readers, quite often acutely aware of levels of government propaganda, be it foreign-born or domestic. But, says McCants, they’ve been relatively successful.
“One way it's been effective is that it's gotten inside the heads of the Al Qaeda recruiters and they see it as a problem. They’ve said so on their online forums several times,” he added.
Clinton described the effort as part of a new, multifaceted approach to counterterrorism in Yemen that includes a large number of drone strikes, psychological operations, and training conducted by American military advisers.
The level or carnage in Abyan has reached an all-time high as violence among militants, the Yemeni military, and government-backed tribal militias intensifies. Reporting for the Times of London from Lawdar, Abyan, Yemen-based journalist Iona Craig described the bloodshed.
"The decapitated bodies lay among the ashes of the burnt-out power station. The heads of at least a dozen resistance fighters and soldiers had been tossed to one side. The prisoners’ mutilated corpses were a grim warning left by retreating militants to those who dare to take the fight to Al Qaeda and its allies in Yemen," wrote Craig.
In spite of over a year’s worth of fighting, the Yemeni military has sporadically shown signs of progress in driving out AQAP from parts of Abyan. Earlier this week, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive strapped to his body during a practice for Yemen’s National Day military parade celebrations, commemorating the union of North and South Yemen in 1990, killing at least 90.
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Yemeni activists and Western analysts have described the US’ seemingly covert drone war against AQAP as neither covert nor successful as Yemenis are constantly wary of drone strikes that could potentially kill unarmed civilians at any time. While killing AQAP militants, many argue that drone strikes in Yemen bolster recruiting for AQAP and Ansar al-Sharia by projecting an image of a foreign military presence in rural part of southern Yemen. The online campaign against militants in Yemen may be acting as a counter-narrative to this popular sentiment, drawing attention away from drone strikes and more towards the amount of civilian deaths caused by the fighting.