Severe blow to al-Qaeda in Yemen

Sunday 01/05/2016
Forces loyal to the Saudi-backed Yemeni president

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.