What fuels al-Qaeda's survival in Yemen's south?

What fuels al-Qaeda's survival in Yemen's south?
6 min read
13 September, 2017
In-depth: Three years of war have failed to unseat al-Qaeda from Yemen's south - how is the militant group still surviving?
Al-Qaeda have maintained a foothold in Yemen's south throughout the country's protracted war [AFP]
The years of war on Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula(AQAP) has not annihilated its members in Yemen.

AQAP continues to survive, if not expand, in Yemen's south, and its attacks on security and military personnel have been persistently deadly.

The suicide bombings have not ceased, and the numbers of casualties are ballooning. Last month, a suicide attack killed five soldiers and wounded 20 others in Abyan province. 

A car bomb detonated last month near a checkpoint in Shabwa province, leaving at least five soldiers dead. In July, a suicide bomber targeted a government army complex in Shabwa, killing five soldiers. 

These attacks on pro-government forces follow more than two years of the Saudi-led aerial campaign against the Houthi militants in Yemen. Since the crushing of the Houthis in southern cities in 2015, al-Qaeda has been wreaking havoc in many southern areas. Al-Qaeda activity in Yemen's north is almost extinct. 

Today, the coalition has neither incapacitated the Houthi group nor has it eliminated al-Qaeda. In fact, the reverse is true. The Houthis constantly fight to thrive in northern areas under their tight grip, and al-Qaeda continues to survive in the south. 

The south, where the coalition forces - particularly those of UAE - are present in large numbers, is a shelter for al-Qaeda operatives. The extremists find areas where they can safely live, plot and spread their venomous ideologies. 

Why is Yemen's south now a better hub for Al-Qaeda? 

A myriad of reasons stand behind al-Qaeda's continuing survival in the south, despite seemingly nonstop US drone strikes and the counter-terrorism operations of the Saudi-led coalition forces and the Yemeni army. 

One salient reason is the deep divides between the major factions running the south. Presently, the south is the playground of conflicts mainly between UAE-backed separatist factions and groups loyal to the internationally recognised government of Yemen - whose many members now live in Saudi Arabia, including the president. 

The tensions between the UAE, a key coalition member, and Yemen's government, have destabilised the south - particularly around Aden.

This has given room to Al-Qaeda to survive and strengthen. 

The UAE last week reportedly prevented President Hadi from returning to Aden.  Hadi was prevented from travelling when he was in Riyadh's King Khalid bin Abdulaziz airport, intending to head to Aden. 

The UAE-Yemen government feud is neither fresh nor superficial, and this why the two sides have diverted their attention from consolidating security and fighting the terror affiliates to clashing with one another. 

In May, the internationally recognised president, Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, accused UAE of "acting like an occupier".  

In early February, the president's aircraft was refused permission to land at Aden Airport which was controlled by UAE-allied forces. The president was instead forced to land on the island of Socotra. 

Such undeniable feuds are indicative of the gulf between the two sides' priorities and agendas. Though relieving the danger of terror attacks is a major priority, the two sides have been trying to maintain a competitive edge over one another. This rivalry has created an ungovernable space, exploited by groups including Al-Qaeda as an incubation hub. 

Government fragility fosters AQAP strength 

It could be excusable that the legitimate government is weak in the north where the Houthis and allied forces have a strong popular base. However, the government is fragile in the south, and its presence here has not made a remarkable difference in the lives of the people. 

The government has not efficiently worked to offer services such as water and electricity to areas under its control. Salaries have not been paid to state employees for about a year. The health system is also dire, and the humanitarian situation in both the south and north is not pleasing to anyone. 

The government has not efficiently worked to offer services such as water and electricity to areas under its control. Salaries have not been paid to state employees for about a year

Though the government has started to improve the service sector in Aden, the security situation remains volatile, a matter which threatens the sustainability of the slight improvement in services. 

In a meeting early this week, Abdulaziz Al-Maflahi, the recently appointed governor of Aden, said: "We will not accept guardianship. We will not accept already designed projects." 

The tone of his speech indicated outside interference was impeding the autonomous performance of the legitimate government in Aden.

Another indicator of the government's fragility is the seemingly "secret" jails run by the UAE in the south - particularly in Hadramout and Aden. A recent AP report revealed the Emirates running at least 18 clandestine prisons in southern Yemen. 

If the government would have had a strong presence in areas under its control, such violations would not have happened and the Emirati forces would have been forced to confine their mission to the battleground.

Al-Qaeda exploits ideological divides

Presenting themselves as the defenders of Sunni Muslims in Yemen, al-Qaeda operatives have been feeding on sectarian ideologies to gain local support. Though they harbour hatred against the southern government-allied forces, their antagonism towards the Iran-allied Houthis is immense. 

In May, Qasim al-Raimi, the current leader of AQAP, said his group fought alongside the pro-government "Sunni" fighters against the Houthi militias. He said, via al-Qaeda media outlet al-Malahem: "We fight alongside all Muslims in Yemen, together with different Islamic groups... [including] the Muslim Brotherhood and also our brothers among the sons of [Sunni] tribes." 

Presenting themselves as the defenders of the Sunni Muslims in Yemen, Al-Qaeda operatives have been feeding on sectarian ideologies to gain local support

AQAP has capitalised on sectarianism to infiltrate society and attract further recruits in the name of defending Sunni Muslims in Yemen.  

The retreat may not signal defeat 

Last month, al-Qaeda largely retreated from the oil-rich Shabwa governorate in Yemen's south. This came in the wake of a coordinated UAE-US push on the extremists-controlled area. 

While it seems good news that the militants did not put up a fight, the bad news is that they have not fled from Shabwa to drown in the sea. Instead, they have fled to Abyan, a neighbouring province. Here, they will either engineer evil plots or prepare for battle with local and foreign forces. Therefore, the retreat does not necessarily mean their sweeping defeat.

The withdrawal of Al-Qaeda militants from one area to another will not bring an ever-lasting victory on terror. What can bring the ultimate triumph is the withdrawal of distorted and destructive thoughts from these misguided minds so that Yemen lives in peace.

Otherwise, extremist ideology will not stop breeding and the country will long be beset with terror.

Khalid Al-Karimi is a freelance reporter and translator. He is a staff member of the Sanaa-based Yemeni Media Center and previously worked as a full-time editor and reporter for the Yemen Times newspaper. 

Follow him on Twitter: @Khalidkarimi205