Recent developments in Yemen have the potential to create security gaps that can be exploited by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State (ISIS).
The recent fighting in Aden, the de facto capital of the recognised Yemeni government of President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, and the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC), has been a long time coming. There have been prior clashes in the city between the STC and Hadi-aligned formations. After skirmishes in January 2018, the government accused the STC of an attempted coup, for example. And this recent power-grab by STC was foreshadowed in rumours that have been circulating since June.
The contradictions were always latent in Yemeni coalition that has been fighting to reverse the September 2014 takeover of the capital, Sana’a, by the Iran-backed Huthis. The reunification of Yemen in 1990 triggered a civil war as early as 1994 when the South came to see the settlement not as one of co-equals but as a Northern occupation of their territory by the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh. This fissure now appears to have opened up again and it could allow the Huthis to make gains in areas they have been driven out of.
Saleh was formally removed from office in 2012 but remained in the country, and by 2014 was looking for a way back to power. It was largely due to political-military networks loyal to Saleh that the Huthis were able to expand southwards so rapidly after seizing Sana’a. It seems Saleh was exploring reconciliation with Saudi Arabia at the time the Huthis killed him in December 2017.
Saleh’s long reign in Yemen was characterised by duplicity, foreign and domestic, and this continues to impact the country. An important reason AQAP remains so powerful in the country is because of its roots are deep, the result of a collaborative relationship with the Saleh regime, of which Hadi was a long-time servant. The extent to which this interpenetration of state and terrorists persists is difficult to gauge, but it would be surprising if it has wholly ended.
There is now a risk AQAP and ISIS will exploit any security vacuums in southern Yemen arising from the STC-Hadi schism. There are indications of this emerging, with the AQAP raid on Al-Mahfad base in early August, just as the fighting in Aden was taking place, which killed nineteen soldiers.
The persistence and growth of AQAP is an extremely serious issue because it was once the most active international terrorism division of Al-Qaeda. An AQAP operative tried to bring down a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 and in October 2010, soon after the creation of its Inspire magazine calling for “lone jihad” attacks, explosives packed into cartridges were sent against Jewish and homosexual targets in Chicago, a plot foiled in the UAE by authorities acting on intelligence from Britain. As late as the spring of 2012, AQAP was trying to attack America on the “homeland”.
Al-Qaeda took a strategic decision over the last half-decade to concentrate on a localist strategy, and to eschew foreign attacks, but there is no guarantee of this lasting. Indeed, there is every reason to expect it not to, and as Al-Qaeda tries to capitalize on the collapse of ISIS’s “caliphate”, external operations might be one of the ways it goes about it.
With ISIS itself, the so-called wilayat (provinces) outside Iraq and Syria have not (yet) been the source of foreign attacks, but the signs are already there of these outposts becoming attack-nodes against the West.
In years past, the U.S. and its allies relied on drone strikes and occasional SEAL raids to contain AQAP, eliminating key people like Anwar al-Awlaki. In theory, the U.S. had the Yemeni government as a partner, but, as mentioned above, Saleh played a double game. Important AQAP operatives were repeatedly broken out of jail, and the evidence is overwhelming that there was some official complicity.
After the Arab Coalition intervention, the U.S. options have multiplied, and the UAE specifically has spearheaded the military efforts against AQAP. The UAE’s ground presence provided what Michael Knights of the Washington Institute calls a “transformative ingredient” to the anti-AQAP campaign, namely “an Arabic-speaking, culturally attuned ground presence to undertake hands-on management of Yemeni counterterrorism forces and to exchange information and support with unique U.S. intelligence and strike capabilities.”
“Though some reporting has characterized the Emiratis as ‘paying off’ or even co-opting AQAP fighters, it would be more accurate to say the UAE defeated AQAP on the battlefield and splintered its support base by giving reconcilable tribal auxiliaries an alternative to Al-Qaeda”, Knights explains. “The lesson for NATO militaries may be the value of engaging Islamic world militaries as a partner when operating in the region.”
The Emiratis have also led against ISIS. In June, when the leader of ISIS in Yemen, Muhammad Qanan al-Sayari (Abu Usama al-Muhajir), was apprehended, it became clear that the UAE was the backbone enabling the Western anti-ISIS missions in Yemen.
The Western media has badly misunderstood the Yemen war, presenting the Arab Coalition as the aggressor, when in fact the Saudi-UAE intervention was a response, and a laggard one at that, to an act of Iranian aggression. Unfortunately, the media’s distorted picture of the conflict has been presented to Western publics, who have in turn applied pressure on Western governments to apply pressure against the Coalition. This has taken its toll.
At the beginning of July, the UAE announced it was beginning a withdrawal from Yemen, and there can be no doubt that one of the considerations is mitigating the reputational damage done to the UAE by its association with a war that has been so thoroughly misrepresented. This is a great shame since the UAE’s actions had weakened terrorist organizations — Iranian proxies and Sunni jihadists alike — that threaten peoples well beyond Yemen, and held out the hope of creating a balance on the ground that would allow a peace settlement to take hold. That prospect has now receded and a longer war, with more space for terrorist actors, seems likely.