Al-Qaeda thrives in Yemen despite US counterterrorism campaign

Al-Qaeda thrives in Yemen despite US counterterrorism campaign
America's battle against al-Qaeda in Yemen is contradictory if its coalition allies foster and aid the faction, writes Jonathan Fenton-Harvey
6 min read
19 October, 2018
Government fighters close in on a suspected location of an AQAP leader in Hadramawt [Getty]
Using Yemen's mountainous scenery to launch guerrilla attacks, making tactical alliances with warring factions and tribal networks, and capitalising on the chaotic war environment, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remains robust after a largely unsuccessful US airstrike campaign, and continues to threaten Yemeni stability.

One of al-Qaeda's earliest off-shoots, initially made up of returnees from the Afghan Mujahideen in the 1980s, the Yemeni branch merged with the Saudi branch in 2009 to form AQAP.

The Arab Spring and the 2015 Saudi-led war allowed AQAP to exploit the chaos, going from a fringe group of just a few hundred members, to a major force with an estimated 6000-8000 fighters by 2018.

As the coalition pushed the Houthis from parts of Yemen in 2015, AQAP seized swathes of territory following the vacuum, including Yemen's fifth largest city al-Mukalla (which it withdrew from in 2016 after cutting deals with the UAE).

Washington has been concerned about international threats posed by AQAP, who have been linked to various attacks on American soil – with a senior AQAP figure Khalid Batarfi in early 2018 calling supporters to "rise and attack" Americans "everywhere". AQAP has also claimed credit for incidents including the horrific Charlie Hebdo massacre in 2015.

The Islamic State group [IS] also has a presence in Yemen, establishing an offshoot there in 2014. However, IS currently poses a very minor threat, believed to hold just a few hundred fighters, and unlike AQAP which has a deeper history and ties with local tribes in Yemen, IS is opposed by virtually all factions in Yemen, meaning it would struggle to establish a strong presence.

While America has carried out operations against AQAP since 2009, they have surged during the Yemen war, especially under the Trump administration, with 131 reported airstrikes in 2017, increasing from 44 in 2016.

Trump's AQAP campaign has attracted controversy. Just five days into the Trump administration, on January 29, 2017, US Navy Seals launched a surprise raid on AQAP in Al-Bayda, which failed to rout out the faction. While al-Qaeda seemingly remained unharmed, local reports show 25 civilians were killed, including nine children under the age of thirteen, and a US Navy Seal, despite the US military claiming there were no civilian casualties.

Subsequent US airstrikes against the faction have reportedly had successes, according to American and Yemeni officials. This includes claims of killing prominent AQAP figures such as bomb-maker Ibrahim Al-Asiri in August, who was tied to the attempted blowing-up of the Detroit airliner in 2009.

US Central Command (CENTCOM) also claimed in January their airstrikes had killed three AQAP leaders in the previous month. Yet CENTCOM have often given limited details about their operations and alleged results.

"As a matter of policy and operational security, we do not comment on numbers, as the area of operation is very fluid and can change at any moment," LTC Earl Brown at CENTCOM told The New Arab. "We continue to work with the Yemeni government as we work together toward the defeat of AQAP and other violent extremist organizations."

Furthermore, the US Department of Defence (DOD) has claimed to have eliminated AQAP fighters in different regions such as Al-Bayda in November 2017.

Fuad Rajeh, a Yemeni journalist, however says that even if the US claims of killing AQAP leaders are true, the faction cannot be completely defeated without "sincere efforts from the Yemeni army."

"America should instead provide necessary support to the Yemeni army, instead of bombing. No foreign country should come to directly fight terrorism in our country," he told The New Arab.

Rajeh also suggests that AQAP has merely been able to relocate across different parts of Yemen instead of being defeated.

Only ending the Yemen conflict and strengthening the democratic transition can they prevent the rise of extremism, which has been allowed to flourish because of the states America has backed

Civilian casualties from US airstrikes have generally not been extraordinary, solely because "drone strikes have usually been carried out in remote areas and on less densely populated cities," he added.

Nabil Al-Bukhari, a Yemeni researcher based in Istanbul, also told The New Arab that America's anti-extremism in Yemen has been a failure, as it has focused more on military means to ending terrorism, which has in turn created more chaos and given extremists more room to flourish.

"Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been a beneficiary of the [Yemen] war. As long as the war continues, AQAP will find plenty of ungoverned space to thrive in and plenty of angry Yemeni recruits," said former CIA official Bruce Reidel.

Furthermore, the United States has given impunity and military support to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, whose policies in Yemen have allowed al-Qaeda to thrive, including secretly supporting the faction – undermining any US efforts to defeat AQAP.

The UAE have supported Salafi militias with friendly or non-hostile ties to AQAP, such as Abu al-Abbas, commander of a Salafi militia listed on the US terrorism list for al-Qaeda ties.

The Associated Press also reported in August that the coalition had "cut deals" with AQAP, giving them cash to withdraw.

In some cases, AQAP fighters have simply joined the coalition. The USA was also reportedly aware of the deals and held off airstrikes as they occurred.

Fuad Rajeh argues that if such coalition support to al-Qaeda continues, it could lead to the long-term presence of extremism.

Read also: Saudi Arabia and UAE's dangerous rivalry over Yemen 

"New generations of al-Qaeda will be powerful in Yemen and terrorist networks may have different names," he said.

It indicates America's battle against al-Qaeda in Yemen is contradictory if its coalition allies foster and aid the faction.

Similarly, as al-Qaeda has capitalised and recruited many fighters because of the chaos in Yemen since 2015, and some civilians have even voiced support of the faction because of the stability it provides.

As the United States has sold tens of billions of dollars' worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia since the war began, it shows America in another contradictory move is complicit in the destruction of the Yemeni state.

This and Saudi Arabia's bombing campaign disintegrates the Yemeni state, allowing AQAP to flourish.

"Only ending the Yemen conflict and strengthening the democratic transition can they prevent the rise of extremism, which has been allowed to flourish because of the states America has backed," added al-Bukhari.

The USA can help push for a peaceful solution to the conflict, while halting military support for Riyadh's coalition, if it is sincere about defeating extremism in Yemen.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a freelance journalist.

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey