Reports this week said al-Qaeda militants in Yemen have joined the Saudi-led coalition in the battle for the besieged city of Taiz. The group, seen as the deadliest part of the franchise, has also expanded its territory in recent months.
T he war in Yemen has been raging for some 11 months. At least 6,000 people have been killed and the vast majority of Yemenis are in need of humanitarian aid; there is little sign the violence will end soon.
The main fault line pits Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his allies (including Saudi Arabia, other Gulf emirates and Arab monarchies, and the West) against Houthi rebels and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Saudi-led coalition sees the Houthis as Iranian proxies, a charge the group denies. But there is another active force not usually included in the equation, and one which has made significant advances without much uproar: al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), often described by analysts as the deadliest arm of the jihadi movement once spearheaded by Osama bin Laden.
AQAP “is well on its way to reconstituting the emirate it held in 2011 and 2012, almost unnoticed by the outside world,” Katherine Zimmerman, the lead analyst on al-Qaeda for the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project, wrote in a report published on February 17.
Indeed, although US-led drone strikes have targeted senior al-Qaeda members over the last months, most of the international community’s attention has been focused on the campaign to push back the Houthis and their allies and, eventually, regain Sanaa, the capital. Gulf-based media outlets have been covering the situation virtually on a daily basis.
This week, however, al-Qaeda was back in the spotlight after a documentary filmmaker working for the BBC found evidence that AQAP and its allies were joining the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in the fight against Houthi rebels in the southern city of Taiz. Safa al-Ahmad, reporting from the frontlines of the besieged city, for months a major battleground, was reportedly told not to film a certain group participating in the battle, as it was angered by the presence of a woman. The group, she was told, was al-Qaeda affiliate Ansar al-Sharia.
The BBC report said pro-government militiamen and jihadis were supported by soldiers from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a leading force on the ground in Yemen.
The 10-country-strong coalition led by Saudi Arabia has denied any tactical cooperation with Sunni extremists and the coalition’s members see AQAP as a terrorist organisation. Saudi Arabia has long been engaged in a struggle against the group within the kingdom.
But similar reports, while difficult to independently verify, have appeared before. The Wall Street Journal reported in July 2015 that al-Qaeda fought alongside pro-government tribal fighters and Emirati special forces in the “liberation” of Aden, now the temporary capital of Yemen. Since the Houthis were pushed out of the southern port city in July 2015, however, the presence of AQAP has been seen as one of the main reasons for the persisting instability there.
According to the Critical Threats Project report, the cities under the militant group’s control are spread throughout four provinces, including the capital of the vast Hadramawt province, al-Mukalla, and of Lahj, al-Hawta. On February 20, AQAP reportedly seized the town of Ahwar in southern Abyan province, but withdrew several days later after tribal mediation. Nevertheless, the push in Abyan highlights the group’s ambitions to expand its territory amidst the war in Yemen, analysts said.
“AQAP seems to have developed a multi-prong strategy that places the main leadership in charge of holding and administering al-Mukalla in Hadramawt, solidifying their role on the ground,” veteran Yemen analyst Fernando Carvajal tells The World Weekly. Meanwhile, the group’s local affiliate, Ansar al-Sharia (sighted in Taiz by the BBC), appears to be doing most of the fighting in Abyan and Sheba, “mostly distracting regional and western powers with limited intelligence on both groups,” Mr. Carvajal says.
While the Popular Resistance, a loose confederation of southern tribes opposed to al-Qaeda, is confronting the group, the broader military campaign is not focused on AQAP. “Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council states fighting in Yemen appear far more committed to combatting the Houthi rebels and al-Saleh loyalists than countering AQAP,” Giorgio Cafiero, co-founder of Gulf State Analytics, tells The World Weekly. “Despite the fact that the radical Islamist militia has seized large swathes of Yemeni territory... the Saudi-led military campaign has essentially left them alone.”
In February alone, the group reportedly seized four areas, including the commercial hub of Azzan, which al-Qaeda previously controlled for around a year up to 2012.
Al-Qaeda and the Gulf
If the Gulf states involved in Yemen label al-Qaeda as a terrorist organisation, this begs the question: Why are they not confronting it - and potentially even cooperating with it - in Yemen?
“The line from Riyadh is that the coalition must first defeat the Houthi and al-Saleh fighters and restore Yemen’s 'legitimate' government before taking on AQAP,” Mr. Cafiero says.
“Yet given the dismal realities on the ground in Yemen, this goal appears entirely unrealistic in the near-term. Therefore, a number of experts have posited that Saudi Arabia and AQAP’s common interest in crushing the Houthi rebel movement has led the kingdom and the al-Qaeda division to maintain a tacit relationship throughout the foreseeable future.”
The Gulf expert says that this does not create conditions for a long-term alliance, however, because of AQAP leaders’ repeated calls for the overthrow of the ruling al-Saud family and the mass execution of Sunni Islamists in Saudi Arabia.
While AQAP’s main base has always been Yemen, its ambitions extend to all of the Arabian Peninsula, as its nomenclature indicates. But the turmoil in Yemen has provided a fertile ground for al-Qaeda to expand, despite the ongoing US drone strike campaign.
In an interview last year, Mr. Carvajal told The World Weekly that there was a deeply entrenched belief among many in Yemen that AQAP “is merely an instrument of former President Saleh and foreign powers”. This belief, he explained, centers on Saleh's “politics of instability that help him remain relevant to the balance of power”. From that standpoint, al-Qaeda is seen as an instrument used by regional powers to balance the forces on the ground. “This is a major issue that obstructs the drafting and implementing of strategies against the militants in Yemen, as the US fails to gain lasting support from actors on the ground in areas where AQAP operates,” Mr. Carvajal said. An investigative report by Al Jazeera last year uncovered alleged evidence of ties between the Saleh regime and AQAP.
Nevertheless, there have been reported clashes within AQAP over leadership roles, for example in Zinjibar, east of Aden. Mr. Carvajal says that one of AQAP’s major challenges is the restructuring of the organisation under its “new, ambitious leaders like Qasim al-Raymi and Khaled Ba’trafy”.
The group is also not without competition as militants associated with Islamic State (IS) have started their own bloody campaign across Yemen, having claimed responsibility for a whole range of deadly attacks against both Houthis and the government of President Hadi.
While pointing to the blows dealt by drone strikes and competition from IS, “the group remains well rooted in vital areas with abundant support and major financial resources from smuggling operations,” Mr. Carvajal comments.
“AQAP’s growing power and the rise of Daesh in Yemen underscore how extremists are proving to be the only winners in Yemen’s multisided and complicated civil war.”