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Al-Qaeda in Yemen Three Years after Mukalla’s “Liberation”

Much coverage of the Yemeni civil war has focused heavily on the conflict between the Iranian-backed Houthi rebellion on one side and the Saudi/Emirati-led coalition and Yemen’s internationally recognized, albeit exiled, government on the other. Yet the ascendancy of two Sunni extremist forces in the country—al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Yemen Province (ISIL-YP)—has made Yemen’s multifaceted war increasingly complicated. Amid Yemen’s disintegration and collapse following the Houthi takeover of Sana‘a in 2014, both jihadist groups have capitalized on chaotic conditions for their own empowerment.

In early April 2015, shortly after the Saudi-led military coalition launched Operation Decisive Storm, AQAP invaded and subsequently occupied Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth largest city and the capital of Hadramaut governorate, for an entire year.

In early April 2015, shortly after the Saudi-led military coalition launched Operation Decisive Storm, AQAP invaded and subsequently occupied Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth largest city and the capital of Hadramaut governorate, for an entire year. After the al-Qaeda-linked extremists entered the Arabian Sea port city, Yemeni troops failed to put up a fight, with most surrendering or fleeing. Soon after, AQAP established somewhat of a state apparatus in the Yemeni city not unlike ISIS’ de facto state system in eastern Syria and western Iraq. AQAP raised revenues via fees, formed a judicial system with Sharia courts, and executed criminals in public.

From Washington’s vantagepoint, AQAP’s capture of an airport, the port in Mukalla, and an oil export terminal constituted an unacceptable development in the Yemeni crisis. Thus, in no small part due to pressure from the U.S., Abu Dhabi, and its allies in Yemen concentrated on removing AQAP from power in Mukalla. The Emiratis amassed a force of 12,000 Yemeni and Emirati fighters, primarily made up of tribal fighters from Hadramaut, to expel AQAP from Mukalla. Yemen’s government led by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi established the Hadrami Elite, which the UAE supervised and the Saudis paid for with the U.S. military providing technical support.

In April 2016, these Yemeni and Emirati ground forces, with support from Saudi fighter jets and U.S. drones, liberated Mukalla from AQAP. The operations only took several days and the final day of that month the Yemeni/Emirati forces toppled AQAP from the city, killing approximately 800 of the terror group’s fighters, according to the coalition. But it is important to note that the UAE also permitted many AQAP to peacefully leave the city, leading to criticism of the Emiratis for allowing the al-Qaeda-linked militants to relocate elsewhere after giving them a safe retreat. Mukalla, in stark contrast to Aleppo, Mosul, or Raqqa, remained largely intact following AQAP’s fall from power, underscoring the extent to which violence was largely avoided.

That the U.S.-backed forces successfully took back Mukalla rapidly enabled the UAE to better position itself vis-à-vis Washington and other Western capitals as a rising power in the Arab world that carries out its responsibilities in the global “war on terror.” Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, in which two of the hijackers were Emirati, the UAE’s leadership has sought to establish itself in American eyes as leading the Islamic world in the struggle against extremism. Doubtless, against the backdrop of many failures in the coalition’s fight against Houthis, news of a key coalition member triumphing over AQAP served an important public relations purpose for Abu Dhabi.

Since AQAP’s loss of Mukalla, U.S.-backed Emirati operations against the terrorist group have also led to AQAP losing significant power. But AQAP’s fall in Mukalla and the UAE-led campaigns against it have not marked the demise of al-Qaeda’s Yemeni franchisee as an influential actor in the civil war. To the contrary, AQAP remains al-Qaeda’s most powerful enterprise, and although it is not the only jihadist group in Yemen, it is the country’s preeminent one. Since AQAP lost Mukalla, the terror group has relocated and carried out operations in the Bayda, Shabwah, and Abyan governorates, where it has combated a host of actors from the Houthis to Emirati-backed southern separatists and ISIL-YP. Despite the U.S. conducting a significantly lower number of airstrikes against AQAP in 2018 than in 2017, a spokesman for U.S. CENTCOM stated that the terror organization remains a “significant threat.”  

Over the past three years, AQAP has benefited from its established financial networks and ability to recruit disenfranchised Yemenis who support the group’s Salafist ideology. AQAP’s success in maintaining its foothold in Yemen since losing Mukalla has been largely attributable to the organization’s projection of a more moderate image in the eyes of Yemenis who have observed AQAP’s focus on stabilizing impoverished parts of the country and providing locals with water, fuel, and electricity, as well as a form of security. Such a strategy has contrasted with AQAP’s previous ones which prioritized attacks against international targets. Moreover, AQAP has been social media savvy and used its accounts to spread its anti-Houthi and anti-Hadi narratives.

Another factor which has boded well for AQAP has been the Saudi-led military coalition’s focus on combating Houthis.

Another factor which has boded well for AQAP has been the Saudi-led military coalition’s focus on combating Houthis. As a consequence of the coalition prioritizing the struggle against Houthis over fighting al-Qaeda’s hand in Yemen, not only have resources been diverted away from campaigns against AQAP, but there have also been instances of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s allying with al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch against Ansarullah. As stated by some Emirati military commanders, in certain cases AQAP fighters were absorbed into the UAE’s military forces, underscoring the terrorist organization’s willingness to cooperate with the Arab coalition.

From an American standpoint, the gravest threats to U.S. national security out of Yemen are the local al-Qaeda and ISIS branches. That U.S. allies in the Gulf have made moves to legitimize and sponsor such Salafist forces as a part of the Arab coalition against the Houthis highlights an issue of contention among officials in Washington and their counterparts in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. With the coalition focused on what will likely be a long and bloody struggle to topple the Houthis from Sana‘a, it appears as though the Saudi-led coalition will continue seeing Ansarullah, rather than AQAP, as the gravest menace in Yemen.

Looking ahead, the threat that AQAP poses not only to Yemenis, but to global security at large will remain real. Unfortunately, the odds are good that Yemen will continue to remain in chaos with the world’s worst humanitarian disaster proliferating as the civil war ensues. Within this environment, it is difficult to imagine AQAP not continuing its expansion and exploitation of countless problems throughout Yemen.

Hence, three years after Mukalla’s liberation, there is sound reason to be worried about an AQAP comeback soon.