The news today is that Yemeni government troops and local tribal militia have finally dislodged the ultra-conservative Ansar al-Sharia from their base in the southern towns of Ja’ar and Zinjabar. These cities had been under de facto control of the rebels for over a year, with the military weakened during the long drawn-out political turmoil that eventually led to the removal of Ali Abdullah Salih. According to al-Jazeera, “Since the offensive began, 485 people have been killed, according to an AFP tally combined from different sources. This includes 368 al-Qaeda fighters, 72 soldiers, 26 local armed men and 19 civilians.” Without question this is a major blow to a group that used foreign fighters and was increasingly at odds with local tribes. During their tenure both towns had become virtual ghost towns where a distinctively non-Yemeni form of Islamic law was mandated by force. Details thus far are rather skimpy. but it appears that the remaining individuals of Ansar al-Sharia fled east to al-Shaqra.

The question remains, of course, of whether this is a major blow to Ansar al-Sharia and its affiliated partner al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula or a skirmish. Given the massive external support now being given to the central government, I strongly suspect that this is the beginning of the end for Ansar al-Sharia as a fighting force. It has survived thus far on weapons looted from the army with almost no direct outside support apart from an influx of foreign fighters from Afghanistan and Somalia. The agenda of Ansar al-Sharia, like that of AQAP, has failed to find fertile ground among the bulk of the population with outright antagonism from most tribal leaders. It has flourished primarily due to the weakness of the government over the past year.

Yet, as a historian, I am reluctant to sign an obituary for this or any other violent anti-government movement in Yemen. For the past week I have been reading the 14th century Yemeni historian al-Khazraji’s account on the rise and fall of the Rasulid dynasty in Yemen. The Rasulids were Turkish retainers that came along near the end of the 12th century with the Ayyubid soldiers of Turanshah, the brother of the famous Saladin. When the last Ayyubid ruler left Yemen in the middle of the 13th century, the Rasulid dynasty took off and became quite wealthy and unmolested by outside forces for the end of that century. Indeed, Marco Polo called the sultan he had heard about in Yemen, namely al-Muzaffar, one of the richest rulers in the world. With a kingdom based largely in the Red Sea coastal region and southern highland town of Ta’izz, the Rasulids were able to extract major customs revenues from the busy port of Aden, a major stopping point along the Red Sea/Indian Ocean trading network. Like modern Yemen, they even created a coast guard to protect ships involved in the trade from the pirates of that day.

I mention the Rasulids because by the middle of the 14th century there was major rebellion within Yemen against their rule. The sultans ruled with an iron fist combined with incredible largesse in trying to win friends. Local emirs and tribal leaders were wooed with colorful robes and cash or else had their heads chopped off if they rebelled. Yemen at that time was impossible to control, so the various mercenaries of the sultan would be sent out on forays with the right to pillage to their heart’s content. The main concern of the Rasulid leaders was to extract revenues from the population and this was often burdensome. In all of this the sultans maintained an outward show of Muslimness, sending gifts to Mecca and building mosques and religious schools. But they were ruthless and fought much among themselves. One sultan, al-Mujahid, had almost all of his adult sons rebel against him at one point or another.

If anything, Ansar al-Sharia was created in the mode of the Rasulids rather than the local people. They talked religion but ruled with contempt for the lives of anyone who dared go against them. Yet the Rasulids were shrewd in a way that Ansar al-Sharia has not been in practice. If a rebel was cornered and sued for peace, he was often granted it, to live and fight another day. The sultans knew that they did not have the manpower to physically enforce their commands across the country, especially in the mountainous tribal north, where the Zaydi imams were usually able to gain the support of the powerful tribes. The Rasulids also thrived on trade and so worked to make the roads and sea lanes safe for merchants. But they hanged rebels and lopped off heads as though such a public display would discourage further rebellion. For the most part it did not, just as reinstituting harsh “medieval” penalties has not made friends for Ansar al-Sharia.

Pundits who think that Ansar al-Sharia and AQAP represent a wave of terrorism sweeping Yemen fail to understand Yemen’s history and diversity. It is not surprising that Ansar al-Sharia evolved in the south, which has had major grievances against the government of Salih. Unification turned out to be a disaster for southerners and the port of Aden, with its great potential, languishes. But channeling anger against the government in the north is not the same as calling for a new caliphate. Any historian who knows how all the previous caliphates and wannabe political ummahs actually worked would certainly not want to bring back such a travesty. Past Muslim rulers, as the many writings of learned Muslim scholars attest, were often ruthless brutes far worse than contemporary dictators. A Taliban-style wave is not about to emerge in Yemen, despite the economic and political problems facing the country. In large part this is because so much of the country is still rural and local communities operate on the basis of customary law, which still has powerful sanctioning capability. There are regional differences, to be sure, but no major ethnic divides as one finds in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Nor has the Sunni-Shi’a split been a major rallying point in Yemen’s recent history, apart from the imported anti-Shi’a salafi support engineered by Saudi Arabia.

Is Ansar al-Sharia on the ropes? I certainly hope so and the advancement of government troops on the remaining fighters will soon tell us how soon this nightmare will end.

Daniel Martin Varisco