Severe blow to al-Qaeda in Yemen
LONDON - Yemeni government ground troops, backed by air support from United Arab Emirates and Saudi jets, dealt a major blow to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), capturing the city of Mukalla and seizing its port and airport in a large coordinated operation.
After a day of heavy air strikes, Yemeni government and coalition troops encircled the city on April 24th and launched ground operations the next day, local reports said. Islamic clerics and tribal leaders mediated with AQAP, persuading the militants to lay down their weapons before they fled to the west.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) coalition said about 800 al- Qaeda fighters were killed in the offensive but Mukalla residents disputed the figure, saying many al-Qaeda fighters had fled instead of fighting.
The loss of Mukalla is a setback for AQAP, particularly financially. Local officials estimated militants had been generating $2 million-$5 million a day from the port, mainly from customs duties and smuggled fuel.
AQAP in 2015 attempted to export 2 million barrels of oil stored in the Ash Shihr terminal east of Mukalla, a request rejected by the Yemeni government.
With much of the world’s attention focused on fighting against the Islamic State (ISIS), often overlooked is that Yemen has been a secure base of operations for terror groups, particularly AQAP, for about ten years.
AQAP has tried to emulate ISIS by functioning as a quasi-state. The militants formed the Hadramawt National Council (HNC), a militia that included AQAP members and local tribes, to protect government buildings, schools and local businesses but also imposing its brand of sharia.
The group also provided basic services, such as water and electricity, in an effort to build support among the Yemeni population.
Fearing AQAP was operating unchecked, by the end of 2015, the UAE adjusted its strategy to include the training of thousands of Yemeni tribal fighters to face Houthi rebels and AQAP.
US counterterrorism official Lisa O. Monaco met with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in February, with a significant portion of the meeting devoted to how to proceed against the al-Qaeda threat in Yemen.
Analysts say geopolitical issues had previously pushed the fight against AQAP to the back burner.
“There were two different phases of al-Qaeda’s build-up in Yemen, including major prisoner breaks, as well as the rebuilding of the group under its leader at the time, Nasser al-Wuhayshi,” said Michael Stephens, head of the Royal United Services Institute think-tank in Qatar.
AQAP had tried to set up an emirate in 2011 and 2012 but was stopped. However, changing geopolitical considerations might have led to the United States and Saudi Arabia shifting attention from the terror group.
“From the Saudi point of view, you had a reprioritising of their geopolitical issues, so AQAP was not seen as a priority. For the Americans and the British, who have been running the drones programme, they simply didn’t have the people on the ground,” Stephens said.
The major threat posed by al- Qaeda had never diminished in the eyes of the United States, Stephens said, and support it is providing to GCC military operations and political goals in Yemen comes with the request that Gulf Arabs step up efforts against the AQAP.
“We’ll provide intelligence support and some logistical support but we need to see a commitment from Gulf states and that there is some alignment between your security priorities and our security priorities,” Stephens said, describing the US viewpoint.
The Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda is considered by US officials to be its most dangerous, and has been targeted with US drones for several years, including operations that killed al-Qaeda spiritual leader Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011 and Wuhayshi last June.
The Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda has been linked to a number of high-profile international terrorist operations, including the November 2009 Fort Hood, Texas, shooting and the January 2015 attack on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris.