Operation Enduring Freedom against Afghanistan was spearheaded by the United States after the 9/11 attacks and triggered the “War on Terror” which has since engulfed several other countries, including Yemen. In 2015, Yemen witnessed the beginning of Operation Decisive Storm by a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Now, two conflicts with differing motives have started to merge, and US counterterrorism partners in Yemen are failing to exploit anti-Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) sentiments on the ground.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has expanded its military objectives to include counterterrorism missions against AQAP in return for US engagement against the Houthis. The Americans have not officially taken military activity against the group, although it has fired missiles at US and allied ships in the Red Sea, with unmanned suicide boats exploding near coalition vessels.
Both the US and UAE believe that Iran is fuelling Houthi military advancements, while Saudi Arabia keeps its distance from counterterrorism operations. In fact, America’s allies in Yemen are lagging behind in anti-AQAP tribal mobilisation. An opportunity like this don’t come round often, and the warring parties against the Iranian-backed Houthis are damaging it.
The fact that AQAP is fighting the Houthis as a common enemy alongside the US-supported Saudi-led coalition throws up a paradox for alliances between warring groups and dynamics on the ground. The US is indirectly supporting armed groups which fight alongside AQAP, which directly undermines its counterterrorism operations.
Shabwa united against AQAP
US Navy SEAL raids and drone strikes have taken a toll on Yemen’s tribal communities, leading to tensions over AQAP’s presence, particularly in Shabwa province. Civilian casualties have prompted Yemenis to hold negative view about the US, while still allowing AQAP to live among them and train in the province.
More than 1,200 people have been killed in US drone strikes since 2004, with 210 confirmed to be civilians and 49 children. Tribal leaders in Shabwa, led by Saleh Bin Farid Al-Awlaki, mobilised the community to form an alliance to fight and remove AQAP from the province in a bid to prevent US operations threatening the lives of “tens of thousands of civilians”.
In April, AQAP agreed to stop mounting attacks in the West in order to prevent US counterterrorism operations in Shabwa. This was unprecedented, and illustrated that the tribal leaders have some sway over the AQAP leadership. The agreement between Shabwa province and AQAP fell away as the terrorist group started calling for external attacks last month.
What shifted the dynamic?
According to AQAP Commander Qasim Al-Rimi, the UAE “cooperates with the Americans constantly” and “wants to implement the American project in Yemen in its entirety.” What’s more, in recent publications AQAP criticised US Navy SEAL raids and strikes in Yemen, which claimed the lives of innocent civilians; particular attention was paid to the Marib governorate raid in which five civilians were killed.
Both the counterterrorism aspects of the conflict and Yemen’s civil war have influenced AQAP’s stance, with its alleged alliances with US-backed forces on one hand and fighting against the Saudi coalition on the other. Since 2011, AQAP has focused its efforts on winning hearts and minds with a community-based approach. Strategies include handing out quiz sheets to locals with an AK-47 assault rifle as top prize.
This strategy by the group has shifted the heavy-handed implementation of its goals toward instilling its cause within the social fabric of society. For example, AQAP claimed most recently that it collaborated with local tribes in a battle against the Houthis in Al-Jamajim area of Bayda.
This shows that AQAP is benefiting directly from the anti-Houthi fight and forming alliances that it may not have forged without a common foe, the Houthis. AQAP has positioned itself as the protector of Yemen’s Sunnis against the Shia Houthis, which would appeal to tribes across the country. The US and UAE should thus be cautious about where and which tribes are on the receiving end of counterterrorism strikes; getting it wrong could disrupt growing anti-AQAP sentiments.
It is becoming increasingly clear that AQAP is frustrated with the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and has started to regard all of the Gulf countries involved against the Houthis as foes. UAE-backed Hadrami Elite Forces backlash Despite a pause in attacks by AQAP in south-east Yemen, the UAE-backed Hadrami Elite Forces were attacked by AQAP this week, leaving twelve dead. The attack came after the Daily Beast website published an investigation accusing the Hadrami Elite Forces of human rights abuses. This group is accused of abducting hundreds of men and placing them in secret prisons at Ryan Airport in Mukalla.
Reports suggest that civilians have been kept in metal shipping containers and left unattended in the blistering heat, which can reach up to 50 degrees Celsius. Tactics like this have been documented in the notorious US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.
Such brutality employed against the civilian population benefits AQAP and allows it to preserve its presence in southern and central Yemen.
As the US and its allies continue to fight for increasingly blurred military objectives, it is becoming clear that anti-AQAP sentiments amongst the tribes are beginning to unravel due to the methods employed by America and the coalition in Yemen; they are failing to exploit those sentiments.