UAE troops, US special operations forces step up fight against al-Qaeda in Yemen
LONDON - The war against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is entering a new phase with the revelation that US special operations units would extend their presence in Yemen and step up the joint effort with the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf troops against the terrorist group’s most lethal branch.
US forces are planning on re-establishing an on-the-ground counterterrorism presence in Yemen as the war between the Houthi rebels and the internationally recognised Yemeni government continues, according to a report by the Washington Post. US officials said a team of a dozen men would assist troops from Gulf countries in tracking down AQAP.
UAE Ambassador to Washington Yousef al-Otaiba said forces of Emirati, Saudi and Yemeni troops were a part of a drive to attack AQAP fighters throughout Yemen. He said efforts to tackle al-Qaeda in Yemen would be lengthy, adding that “military priorities have shifted from fighting the Iranian-backed Houthis to being more focused on AQAP”.
With much of the world’s attention focused on fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq, often overlooked is that Yemen has become a base for terror groups, particularly AQAP, for about ten years.
According to a report by the US Department of Defense, in 2015 “AQAP expanded its safe haven by seizing several towns, including the port city of Mukalla, which has given it access to increased financial resources”. The report said that, despite losing a number of senior leaders, AQAP increased recruiting and expanded its safe haven in Yemen.
Yemeni forces backed by Gulf Arab coalition air strikes drove AQAP out of of Mukalla after the terror group went almost a year unchecked, a side effect of the on-going war. The UAE adjusted its strategy to include training of thousands of Yemeni tribal fighters to face AQAP in addition to Houthi rebels.
In April, as talks to end the war in Yemen were about to begin in Kuwait, the UAE requested US support in retaking Mukalla. The Washington Post reported that the USS Boxer Amphibious Ready Group ships sent aircraft and commandos to Mukalla, where they provided intelligence support, which helped identify militant targets.
The retaking of Mukalla was a major blow to AQAP as the port city was a strong financial source for the group. Staff Brigadier Musallam al- Rashidi, commander of UAE forces in Hadramawt, said AQAP looted up to $100 million a day while in control of Mukalla.
The UAE military is considered the most polished of all Gulf Cooperation Council members and has played a central role in the fight against AQAP. US military officials were so impressed that they nicknamed the UAE “Little Sparta” after the ancient Greek city-state known for its military training and excellence.
The US Central Command revealed that it conducted three counterterrorism air strikes in early June, killing six AQAP operatives. The US drone programme has eliminated a number of key al-Qaeda figures, including spiritual leader Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen, in 2011. However, the programme has come under criticism from human rights groups due to civilian causalities and issues of sovereignty.
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.