DUBAI (Reuters) - When Anwar al-Awlaki appeared in a recent videotape with his trademark glasses and a traditional Yemeni dagger tucked into his tunic, it was perhaps his supreme confidence that was most striking of all.
An adept communicator, the U.S.-born populist preacher harried religious scholars in his native Yemen and beyond for obedience to treacherous leaders who he said had sold out to U.S. and Israeli interests.
“These rulers, kings, princes and presidents, are not worthy of leading the nation,” Awlaki said with the slight trace of a smirk on this face. “They don’t even deserve to lead a herd of sheep, never mind over a billion Muslims.”
According to the government of veteran president Ali Abdullah Saleh, the troubled Arabian Peninsula state of 23 million has been trying its level best for the past year to apprehend this man deemed a “global terrorist” by Washington.
But Awlaki’s cocky performance in the video, posted on Islamist websites just days before the latest attempt by al Qaeda militants in Yemen to strike at the United States, says much about Sanaa’s commitment to make war on militancy.
“While al Qaeda does pose a genuine security threat to the Yemeni regime, it appears that some remain wary of completely annihilating the group,” said Sarah Phillips, a Yemen specialist at Sydney University.
It was only after two bombs were sent in late October from Yemen on planes bound for the United States that Yemeni authorities issued an order for his capture dead or alive and began a trial in absentia for “membership of an armed gang.”
One reason analysts say Saleh’s government is reluctant to reign in figures like Awlaki is because acting on Washington’s orders plays badly with domestic public opinion.
Authorities have told Yemenis they are in control of operations against suspected al Qaeda militants this year -- though U.S. diplomatic cables published this week by WikiLeaks suggest this was a lie to cover-up U.S. air strikes.
“The people are always accusing the Yemeni government of selling out on sovereignty and independence, which could give people reason to join al Qaeda,” said Hassan Abou Taleb, a Yemen analyst at an Egyptian government think-tank.
But the popularity of figures like Awlaki hints at a more fundamental issue: With its inaccessible mountains, valleys and desert, Yemen offers not only an ideal physical environment for al Qaeda -- as with Afghanistan, it provides the perfect ideological environment too.
This month popular Egyptian preacher Amr Khaled began a series of lectures at the invitation of Saleh’s General People’s Congress party government in a belated effort to fight radical sentiment that critics say it has done much to encourage.
Saleh’s military-backed regime has tended to prefer tribal patronage to outright repression to stay in power, but has links with groups from the estimated 20,000 Yemeni jihadis who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in 1979-89, using them as shock troops in conflicts in both north and south Yemen, experts say.
Even though the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Yemen over the past two years is now taken seriously, the lingering Houthi rebellion by Zaydi Shi‘ites in the north and, above all, the threat of secession by the south, have always ranked higher in Sanaa’s list of security priorities -- with the government trying to portray both conflicts to its U.S. allies as al Qaeda-linked.
In cables from U.S. diplomats published by WikiLeaks this week Gulf Arab rulers complain that Saleh relies on paying people off to solve Yemen’s problems and that he was not giving enough attention to al Qaeda.
Saleh first turned to Islamists for support after north Yemen united under his watch with the Socialist-led south in 1990 and Islamists of various persuasions were employed to fight the southern secularists in a brief civil war in 1994.
The moderate Islamist Islah party was Saleh’s ally in government for some time, while Yemenis who formed a significant group of the Muslim fighters in Afghanistan during the 1980s were welcomed back as a source of support for the regime.
Saudi-inspired Islamic puritans often referred to as Salafists -- meaning imitators of the ways of the Prophet and early Muslims -- became strong in Yemeni society.
“The import of hardline Saudi Salafism had an impact,” says Christopher Boucek, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Saudi Arabia funded religious schools and backed certain clerics. It also expelled some one million Yemenis during the 1990-91 Gulf crisis. “When those Yemenis came back, they brought back Saudi versions of Islam,” Boucek said.
A series of prison breaks in recent years has demonstrated the widespread sympathy there is in Yemen for the kind of anti-Western militancy promoted by al Qaeda. Twenty-three men broke out of jail in 2006, including men convicted of the al Qaeda bombing of a U.S. warship, the USS Cole, in 2000.
The southern opposition, disenchanted by what they say is years of exploitative rule from Sanaa, say the al Qaeda elements now fighting the government in southern Shabwa, Maarib and Abyan provinces for long lived there quietly with state sanction.
“The regime wants al Qaeda in the south since it faces a popular movement there. They want to silence the voice of southern rejection,” said Faisal al-Safwani, a writer on opposition website Aden News.
State media accuses the southerners of being in bed with al Qaeda -- an accusation thrown at north Yemeni Shi‘ites who have often rebelled against central government since 2004.
Al Qaeda was effectively crushed by joint U.S.-Yemeni action after the September 11, 2001 attacks. By 2008 it had regrouped as a Saudi-Yemeni coalition under the name Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula with a new desire to target the Yemeni state itself.
“Yemen used to be a place to train and rest between jihad, but AQAP has transformed it into a place to engage in jihad against an unjust, illegitimate regime,” Boucek said.
Editing by Samia Nakhoul