Yemen is plagued by two overarching conflicts. First, the “war on terror” led by the United States with strikes against Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), pursued by drone strikes and raids. Second, the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention since 2015, which is intended to reinstate President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s government and push back the Iranian-backed Houthis’ territorial control. Both conflicts have blurred objectives and alliances on the ground. The United Arab Emirates is the only member of the coalition to expand its military objectives to include counterterrorism alongside the US. The blurring is particularly pronounced in Ta’iz, Ibb, North Dale and Baydah.
In early August, a strategic offensive in southern Yemen’s Shabwa province was led by the UAE and US alongside 2,000 Shabwani Elite forces. The offensive resulted in pushing AQAP out of Shabwa and into the nearby Abyan governorate.
Two months earlier, the UAE recruited tribes from Shabwa province to fight alongside Emirates-backed forces in the offensive against AQAP. The selected tribesmen were trained in nearby Hadramout, and led to a successful “counterterrorism” operation hailed by US and UAE media. The US provided local air support, refuelling assistance and Special Forces on the ground to attack AQAP, which was pushed out of its strongholds of Azzan, Ataq, Al Aqla, Jabban and Houta.
AQAP anticipated the offensive and warned loyal tribes to leave Shabwa province. This withdrawal strategy by AQAP has been seen once before when the group governed Mukalla for a year, on the south Yemen coast. AQAP’s rule was ended by the UAE’s strategic aerial bombing campaign that cleared the group from Mukalla in April 2016. Having lost Mukalla, Yemenis loyal to AQAP were concerned about the strategic Shabwa retreat and alleged that it demonstrated the weakness of the Al-Qaeda extremists. “We only withdrew to make the enemy miss the opportunity to take the battle to your houses and markets, and your roads and mosques, for those people do not care about the believers,” responded AQAP on social media, a few days after the offensive began. “So when we saw this, we took the initiative to stop this evil plan and halt this dirty war, and we decided to fight our enemy as we want, not as they want.” Without displaying any sense of weakness, AQAP passed over the withdrawal from the province as a deliberate strategy.
Shabwani Elite forces alliance vs AQAP
Since 2004, more than 1,200 people have been killed by US drone strikes in Yemen, with at least 300 more injured. The Shabwa tribal leaders have had a rocky relationship with AQAP due to such raids, which have taken a toll on Yemen’s tribal communities, leading to tensions over AQAP’s presence. In April, Shabwa formed an alliance to fight and eradicate AQAP from the province in a bid to prevent US drone strikes threatening the lives of thousands of civilians. In an unprecedented move, AQAP agreed to the demands of the tribal leaders and agreed to stop mounting attacks against the West. However, the agreement was broken in May when AQAP released videos encouraging its fighters to launch strikes. On the back of this tension, the UAE may have found sufficient sway to influence the Shabwa tribes to merge together for the creation of the Shabwani Elite forces.
The Shabwa offensive is by no means a long-term fix to AQAP’s presence within tribal society in Yemen. The group is part and parcel of the social fabric. Unlike other non-state armed groups, AQAP has focused on the development of society, winning hearts and minds, and more or less building local infrastructure. For this it has been criticised by other armed groups for diluting “jihad”. The tribes pay protection money and propagate the religion of Islam to the provinces in a bid to influence society and have, to an extent, succeeded.
Saudi Arabia may have paid Yemeni nationals $800 per month to fight and defend its southern border against Houthi threats in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, but money will certainly not trump tribal politics, the dynamics of the war and the long-term governance strategy for Yemen.
Awaliq tribe calls for revenge: blowback
The UAE’s recruitment of tribes to create the Shabwani Elite has divided the governorate and had a ripple effect on neighbouring provinces. The Awaliq tribe based in Abyan, west of Shabwa province, exhibit the discomfort that the tribes have with the UAE-US offensive. Tribal sheikhs and elders met with the UAE representatives in Belhaf on the south coast and agreed to join the Shabwani Elite; the decision may have been influenced by financial transactions or a deal for better economic conditions, but we may never know for certain. However, local reports found that on the same day 65 tribal sheikhs and elders denounced the idea of merging with the US/UAE and called for revenge attacks against the UAE-sponsored Shabwani Elite forces, a clear indication of a divide over the presence of the UAE and US. This announcement was made following a strike on an Awaliq family by the UAE which triggered calls for revenge and the rejection of external involvement in Yemen.
The Awaliq tribe released an anti-UAE statement on social media which claimed that on 5 August Fareed Al-Awlaqi, a member of the tribe, was kidnapped along with his family and that a house was raided on 8 August by UAE forces. Al-Awlaqi’s brother was also abducted in the operation. The statement blamed the “Emirates’ role” in Yemen and forces supporting the US “agenda” in the country.
“There is only one option for the Awaliq tribe,” said the statement, “confrontation and defence of our dignity and honour.” Surrendering, the statement continued, is not something that the tribe has inherited from its forefathers or an action that’s representative of the Awaliq. “We hold the “Emirates and anyone who took part in it responsible, and the fighters of the Shabwani group, which does not represent Shabwa or its dear tribe.”
Abyan warned of UAE-US merger
The clearance of its presence in Shabwa province placed pressure on AQAP to unite around the local tribes and governorates against impending counterterrorism operations. On 18 August, in the aftermath of the Shabwa offensive, AQAP released a warning to the neighbouring province of Abyan: “Our response will be harsh and painful” if Abyan tribes merge and enlist with the UAE, which is, alleged AQAP, serving the US agenda. The group’s stance on this occasion was more pronounced in comparison with the withdrawal strategy in Shabwa. Abyan may be deemed to be on the loyalty threshold for AQAP, which is now seeking proactively to counteract the UAE’s recruitment activities amongst the tribes.
In an identical statement on 22 August, Shabwa province tribes were also warned by AQAP not to merge and act with the UAE’s “mercenaries” and “crusader slaves”. The extremist group effectively amalgamated tribal political tensions on the Shabwa offensive with religious connotations, a tool that is effective in influencing tribes in Yemen.
No US-UAE offensive has been forthcoming since the one in Shabwa, which begs the question of whether or not there will be any momentum for fighting against AQAP’s presence in other provinces. AQAP has already fought alongside other tribes, such as the Qayfah, for example, against the Houthis in Baydah governorate. The Islamic State branch in Yemen is also fighting the Houthis in Qayfah, although there is no indication that the extremist groups have an alliance against the Houthis on this front. What is clear, though, is that AQAP and Islamic State in Yemen are not in conflict with each other militarily as seen in Syria and Iraq.
It is unlikely that another US-UAE offensive will take place in the near future, particularly in Baydah governorate. There is a strong possibility, though, that the three armed groups will ally themselves against the US/UAE-backed forces if an offensive is carried out; they would be seen as a common foe on the Yemeni landscape.
The counterterrorism layer of the Yemen war is having a direct impact on tribal alliances. Significant territorial gains have been made in the Shabwa offensive by the UAE and US, but there has also been similar blowback among other tribes, which is having a ripple effect. With anti-US sentiments already high among Yemeni tribes, it’s important for tribesmen and states alike to consider what implications there may be for a short-term military operation.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.