Katherine Zimmerman, a scholar specializing in the al-Qaida network, critiqued U.S. foreign policy in Yemen at a student discussion Tuesday evening.

The American Enterprise Institute at Duke, Duke International Relations Association and the Duke Israel Public Affairs Committee co-sponsored the talk by Zimmerman, the lead analyst on al-Qaida for the right-leaning think-tank AEI’s Critical Threats project. In her talk, which was delivered via Skype, Zimmerman noted that the U.S. should look to combat the conditions that allow for groups like al-Qaida to rise to power rather than targeting individual leaders in the group.

“We’re only fighting the tip of the sphere of al-Qaida and not actually going after the foundations on which they are built,” Zimmerman said.

She criticized current U.S. policy in Yemen for only focusing on a small cell of individuals who lead al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemeni al-Qaida organization, rather than viewing larger insurgency groups as the primary threat. She noted that Yemeni citizens have also expressed grievances such as political marginalization and the unfair distribution of wealth.

The situation is complicated further because Yemen is home to so many regional identities, she explained, noting local concerns about resource distribution. Some of Yemen’s key natural resources lie in its poorest provinces.

“These are nation-states, but they have histories,” Zimmerman said. “Yemen easily fractures into six natural divisions...all of them are trying to figure out how to balance the distribution of natural resources justly.”

In the question-and-answer portion, sophomore Eidan Jacob asked Zimmerman if it is realistic that Yemen would divide into multiple countries. Zimmerman expressed doubt about the prospect of a division and said that diplomatic efforts to determine which Yemeni government is recognized are underway.

“There has to be some sort of unified state because of natural resource distribution,” she said, noting that southern Yemen is economically significant because of its oil resources.

Zimmerman emphasized that U.S. policy in Yemen fails to understand the complexities of the issues on the ground, whereas al-Qaida has a better understanding of these issues, which it has used to gain influence in recent years. She also noted that AQAP does not itself govern. Rather, it has locally appointed councils that lean towards decisions favorable to AQAP and identify grievances the group can use to strengthen its insurgency.

Partly because of al-Qaida’s understanding of the problems in the area, Zimmerman explained that U.S. partnerships with local Yemeni military forces have not been sufficient.

“This is a place where the security forces are so degraded that they will not be viable partners next year,” Zimmerman said.

She explained that Yemen is a “chaotic system” because it is often difficult to obtain information about who is fighting for whom or what weapons each group possesses. Recent efforts have been damaged by a weakening in the alliance between Saudi Arabia and the United States, she noted.

“The Iran deal was a huge blow to that partnership,” she said.

Senior Pi Praveen, chair of the American Enterprise Institute Executive Council at Duke, asked Zimmerman about comparisons between al-Qaida and the Islamic State group—questioning why Zimmerman believes that AQAP has more endurance in the long run relative to the Islamic State group.

Zimmerman said that AQAP is more of a long-term threat than the Islamic State group in Yemen because it is more well-versed in delivering their message to the Yemenis and solving problems by, for example, providing clean water or teachers for local schools. She did note, however, that the Islamic State group has mobilized social media in ways al-Qaida has not.

Both groups are real threats, she noted, explaining that the U.S. needs to develop a comprehensive strategy to go after the Islamic State group, al-Qaida and other jihadist movements, as well as the conditions that allow them to grow.

“You can defeat a group, but you haven’t defeated the idea and the conditions on the ground,” Zimmerman said.

Several students among the approximately 15 who attended the talk at the Link, expressed their appreciation for Zimmerman’s emphasis on the need to combat these conditions comprehensively.

“I think that she was super engaging. She breaks down this issue into different aspects. We got a very comprehensive view of Yemen,” sophomore Jenny Peng said.