Thinking Aloud: Got Qat? Not in AQAP Territory

May 15, 2015 by Darius 

At long last, al-Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula (the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen) may have committed a fatal blunder: AQAP has banned qat in the Yemeni city it now holds.

Last month, in the chaos resulting from Saudi airstrikes, AQAP took over the southern Yemeni port of Mukalla, the country’s fifth largest city.  This week, AQAP banned the use of qat in Mukalla, even going so far as to burn bales of the stimulant leaf in the streets.

Qat is the Yemeni national drug, having eclipsed coffee as the stimulant of choice centuries ago.  Many Yemenis spend hours every day chewing wads of qat.  (When you see photos of Yemeni fighters, look for the nearly tennis ball-sized bulge in one cheek – that’s the wad of qat being chewed.  It also tells you the photo was taken in the afternoon.)

The country’s water table is being drained to grow qat, which is a very water-intensive crop.  Because qat is best enjoyed fresh, the first stop when one arrives in town is often the market, in order to buy qat for the day.  Qat is chewed every day throughout Yemen, by both men and women.  One in seven Yemenis owes his or her livelihood to the qat trade.  The relationship between Yemenis and qat is not one to be trifled with.

My point is this:  al-Qaeda may have run law courts before, but AQAP has never made this much of an intrusion into the daily lives of Yemenis.  AQAP has had much success portraying itself as the only defender of Yemen’s Sunnis (similar to ISIS in Syria), but Yemenis (like Afghans) have always been notoriously prickly about foreign domination.  Yemen has a variety of different forms of Islam, but even Islamists in Yemen have managed to reconcile their beliefs with their drug habit for decades.  If AQAP persists in banning qat in the territory it holds, it might finally persuade Yemenis that al-Qaeda is just another foreign player not looking out for Yemenis after all.

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