Experts say tackling terror group in Yemen presents unique challenges
Results bear out multi-pronged strategy against Al Qaeda in Yemen
Since seizing swathes of government held-territory in 2015, including Mukalla, the capital of Hadramawt province, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap) has been met with a concentrated push back from Yemeni government forces supported by the UAE.
Indeed, in June, Aqap leader Khaled Batarfi went as far as publicly acknowledging the organisation’s losses over the past year. Pushed out of Mukalla in 2016, the group then withdrew from Zinjibar and Jaar, following battles and government-led mediation.
A strategy consisting of counter-terrorism raids, drone strikes and the cutting of strategic deals with local tribes had, it seemed, critically weakened Aqap. The group were pushed out of cities they once openly ruled over, senior leadership figures were killed and captured, and the group’s media output lost a once-professional edge.
Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Gargash said on Monday that the UAE-backed operations had posed the greatest challenge to Aqap and had left the group at its weakest since 2012.
"UAE-enabled counter-terrorism/counter-insurgency strategy working in Yemen," Dr Gargash said on Twitter. "AQAP at its weakest since 2012.Thousands of militants removed thru CT/COIN operations.Deprived AQAP safe havens, access to funding, recruitment of local pop. Mukalla no longer center of AQAP influence."
Officials in the Arab Coalition supporting Yemen's government said US-based reports on Monday that much of Aqap's foot soldiers had been bought off to lay down their arms or switch sides were inaccurate. “The story doesn’t square with the fact the UAE has lost men fighting Al Qaeda, that Al Qaeda was defeated in battle in Mukalla and it also doesn’t square with the fact that the UAE has joint operations with the US to defeat Al Qaeda,” one UAE official told The National.
Dr Gargash made the point in another tweet, and said the Al Qaeda threat remained.
One statistic that shows the scale of the battles is that out of 273 operations claimed by Aqap in 2017, 75 per cent of those carried out in the first six months were against Houthis but then 51 per cent of the attacks in the second half of the year targeted Yemeni forces.
Analysts note that a broad-brush approach to Aqap is not useful to understanding the dynamics of the area. ”"One thing is clear: Aqap is not monolithic, and is becoming less ideological and more political, with some of its loyalists showing flexibility to making deals with their arch-nemesis, the Iran-backed Houthis, in order to gain more territory in areas that the coalition control," said Fatima Al Asrar, a senior Yemen Analyst at The Arabia Foundation.
Yemen faced an insurgency from extremist-linked factions long before the Houthi-led takeover of Sanaa. Parts of the south and eastern coastline provided havens for leading ideologues including the propagandist Anwar Al Awlaki.
A number of terror plots emerged from Yemen, including plans to bomb trans-Atlantic flights that were disrupted by western intelligence. Ibrahim Hassan Al Asiri, the bomb maker behind the use of concealed explosives, was based in Yemen when he was listed as a terror kingpin by the UN in 2011.
In August 2017, Shabwa was cleared of Al Qaeda elements for the first time in years, as fighting led by Yemeni troops and supported by the UAE and the US led to the liberation of the city.
The means of ending modern asymmetric conflicts vary greatly and sometimes the same military takes radically different approaches in different theatres. Alex Mello, a regional security analyst at Horizon Access, notes that deal-making is an important part of any counterinsurgency effort in a country like Yemen.
“Any counterinsurgency effort that’s small-footprint [and] fought primarily through local partners is going to have to adapt to the local environment, which will involve tactical deal making. Especially in a fluid, hyper-localised, highly tribal and multi-faceted conflict such as Yemen,” he said.
There are parallels to battles waged against militant groups elsewhere in the region. In Iraq in 2007, tribes in Anbar province were incentivised to turn their backs on Al Qaeda, whom some of them had actively supported in the years after 2003, and join the Awakening movement formed to fight them.
“In the longer term the focus on peeling off tribes from Aqap and incorporating one-time Aqap fighters into local security structures isn’t dissimilar from what we saw during the early days of the US-backed Awakening,” said Mr Mello.