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The future of Al-Qaeda in Yemen?

Despite continual US drone attacks, and Security Belt forces operations, Al-Qaeda remains present in Yemen, and may even expand

Ahmed Eleiba , Friday 5 Oct 2018
AQAP militants
File Photo: Al-Qaeda members listen to their late chief Nasser al-Wuhayshi at undisclosed location in Yemen (AFP)
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Some Western analysts predict that Al-Qaeda will see a resurgence in Yemen aided by the Islamic State group’s failure to establish an organisational base there and in spite of the setbacks Al-Qaeda in Yemen sustained at the hands of the Security Belt forces, also known as the Hizam Brigade, and in the wake of US drone strikes against Al-Qaeda strongholds.

Al-Qaeda activity in Yemen has increased noticeably in recent months, even if, according to international reports, the number of operations carried out by the organisation has declined to half of their rate a few years ago due to Security Belt military operations, one of the most successful of which was Resolute Sword, spearheaded by an elite force from Shabwa Province in February.

The organisation’s recent attacks have focused primarily on security checkpoints manned by the UAE-supported Security Belts in the governorates of Shabwa and Hadramout.

On 29 August, Al-Qaeda operatives attacked a Security Belt military checkpoint in Al-Mahasma in Al-Ahwar district of Abyan, killing five soldiers and wounding three.

The attack was followed by a security operation carried out by the Shabwa elite force against an Al-Qaeda camp in Khora, in Merkhah Al-Ulya district. Al-Qaeda leader Nayef Al-Sairi Al-Diyani was killed in the attack while three members of the terrorist organisation were arrested.

In addition to the counterterrorist campaign against Al-Qaeda in Yemen being waged by the Security Belt with Arab Coalition support, the US has sustained nearly continuous drone attacks against Al-Qaeda locations.

The Pentagon has stated that it carried out more than 120 raids in 2017, primarily in the governorates of Bayda and Shabwa where Al-Qaeda has the most fighters.

Nevertheless, there have been reports of attempts to bargain with Al-Qaeda as a means to end its presence in Yemen.

An Associated Press report, headlined “US allies cut deals with Al-Qaeda in war against rebels”, claims that the Saudi-led Arab coalition made secret pacts with Al-Qaeda fighters in Yemen, paying them large sums of money to leave key towns and cities.

The article also reported that some factions supported by the coalition have recruited Al-Qaeda fighters in their battle against Houthi forces in the north.

Under the provisions of one pact, some 250 Al-Qaeda militants were incorporated into the UAE-supported Security Belt forces, according to the AP investigation.

Arab Coalition Spokesman Turki Al-Maliki denied the report in its entirety, maintaining that it is unsubstantiated by convincing proof.

He stressed that coalition forces do not deal with terrorists, but rather fight terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State group, and the Houthi Ansar Allah, all of which share the traits of subscribing to extremist ideologies and a refusal to coexist with the other.

As for Al-Qaeda’s sustainability in Yemen, as opposed to the Islamic State group, which was never able to gain a foothold there, according to a Yemeni source, the latter was never a real rival to Al-Qaeda in Yemen to begin with, because of the two organisation’s different attitudes and modes of operation.

In a recent policy paper for the Washington-based Middle East Institute, Elisabeth Kendall examines both the pressures on Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its incentives for staying in Yemen.

Among the foremost pressures has been the increased rate of US drone strikes against Al-Qaeda strongholds, which has led to the erosion of the organisation’s bases of tribal support, as one of the effects of drone strikes was to arouse local hostility towards AQAP for attracting danger to the area where it is based.

The security forces that were recruiting members of southern tribes in the fight against Al-Qaeda also had a strong impact on the organisation.

According to Kendall, in 2017 Al-Qaeda released several formal statements, warning tribal members against joining the security forces. A third problem AQIM encountered in Yemen was weak leadership.

“Its current leader, Qasim Al- Raymi, is less popular and charismatic than his predecessor, Nasir Al-Wuhayshi, who died in 2015 in a drone strike,” Kendall writes, adding that evidence of this is to be found in AQAP media content in which Wuhayshi still features more prominently than Raymi. 

The study cites two further sources of pressure on AQIM: “communications challenges” and “decentralisation and/or fragmentation”.

On the other hand, the same study suggests that Al-Qaeda still has many incentives for trying to revive its activities both in Yemen and abroad. Among those that Kendall enumerates are the need to reassert and prove itself, the need to avenge the large number of deaths by US drones, and Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem which, she writes, “has sharpened the focus on hitting back, particularly given that AQAP’s slogan has long been ‘Jerusalem, We’re Coming.’

”She noted that AQAP leader Khaled Batarfi briefly broke his long silence to issue a bloodthirsty call to Muslims around the world “to kill every Jew” as well as to take revenge on America and all those historically responsible for the Palestinian plight, including Britain and France.

She also notes that AQAP has continued to incite so-called lone wolf attacks in the West.

Despite of the offensive against Al-Qaeda in Yemen, the ongoing war will continue to fuel extremism and feed Al-Qaeda, even if the organisation remains remote from the point of focus of the battle in Sanaa and Al-Qaeda remains unengaged with the Houthi movement.

Funding may be one of the main reasons as Al-Qaeda has established itself in oil rich areas in the south, in Shabwa.

There are probably other environmental, historical and social reasons but, perhaps too, as some Yemeni sources observed, there is a political one, namely the former regime’s determination to exclude Al-Qaeda from certain settlements.

One Yemeni source contacted by Al-Ahram Weekly suggested that the legacy of the relationship between the former regime and Al-Qaeda may have been passed down into the post-revolutionary period. “Al-Qaeda was able to seize control of Mukalla while the forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh were there. Al-Qaeda departed in the same manner when government forces recaptured Mukalla. It is as though there was a single director for the whole show.”

The source adds, “in spite of the confrontations that are taking place at present and their results, the organisation continues to exist because of a security vacuum due to the disintegration of security and military forces in many areas and their replacement by local forces.

Despite the aforementioned relationship between the former regime and Al-Qaeda, the security and military agencies in the past would never have allowed the organisation to expand under normal circumstances or to seize control of a city the size of Mukalla.”

The source also underscored the peculiarity of the situation of Al-Qaeda in Yemen, which favours its continued presence over that of other jihadist movements and which may account for its stance towards the conflict in the north.

That situation has its roots in the social/tribal composition of Yemen society. But the source also believes it is connected to the “logistic relationship” between Al-Qaeda and Iran.

That Iran serves as a transit point and shelter for Al-Qaeda operatives has contributed to keeping Al-Qaeda in Yemen remote from the centre of the conflict in the north in Yemen and from a direct confrontation against the Houthis.

At the same time, the organisation shares Iran’s animosity towards the US and the US allies in the Arab Coalition which, in turn, are also battling Al-Qaeda in alliance with the US.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Al-Qaeda in Yemen

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