The UAE, as an intervening regional power in Yemen, has been exploiting a political vacuum in areas liberated from the Houthi rebels to begin an ostensible move to control southern Yemen. The UAE has succeeded in recruiting UAE-loyal southern forces, mainly Salafists, to establish what are now known as Security Belt Forces to control the city of Aden and other cities.
The UAE has recruited several Salafist groups led by Adil Abduh Fari al-Dabhani, more commonly known as “Abu al-Abbas,” in the city of Taiz in southwest Yemen, to fight on its behalf. But how did Abu al-Abbas grow to become such a powerful force in Taiz?
Three years ago, armed religious militias joined Yemeni government forces in their ongoing war against the Houthi group in Taiz. These religious militias formed a number of tactical military formations with names such as Abu al-Abbas Battalions, the Hasem Brigade, and the Saalik Brigade. The Abu al-Abbas Battalions, named for their leader Abu al-Abbas, remained relatively unknown until the end of 2015.
After the Houthis forcibly displaced thousands of Salafists from the northern province of Saada in the beginning of 2014, the Dammaj Salafi Center, the only group of Salafists in the predominantly Houthi province, disbanded, and the students were forced to return to their native provinces. Later, still united by ideology and doctrine, the scattered students began to form military forces in opposition to the Houthis. Abu al-Abbas was one of those pupils from the Dammaj Salafi Center.
In 2015, Abu al-Abbas first established these militias under the name “Hamat al-Aqeda” (Protectors of the Faith), a description that highlights their origin and their ideological motivation. President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi appointed Abu al-Abbas (a former football player with the nickname “the German Tank”) leader of the Eastern front in the city and awarded him the rank of colonel in the Yemeni military, although he had never attended a military institution and only held a high school certificate. The Abu al-Abbas Battalions began gaining notoriety and influence after Abu al-Abbas returned to Taiz.
Since then, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have lavishly supported this militia with money and weapons as part of Abu Dhabi’s strategy to strengthen their Salafist allies, such as Hani Ben Brik in Aden and Abu al-Abbas in Taiz. Abu al-Abbas received support from the “coalition forces like any other faction in the resistance before Saudi Arabia and the UAE appointed him a financial official for the resistance in Taiz,” he said in an interview.
Despite the affiliation the Abu al-Abbas forces have with the 35th Brigade of President Hadi’s government forces, Abdul Aziz Jabari, deputy prime minister, asserted in a TV interview that he was “deeply concerned about the upsurge of armed groups.” He complained that they “receive orders from UAE officials, and at the same time have refused to follow the government’s orders.”
Ironically, Salafists now represent a major threat to the parties to the conflict in Yemen, especially to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Yet despite the fact that the majority of the factions are accused of extremism and intellectual or sectarian affiliation with al-Qaeda or ISIL, the UAE does not object to working with these groups. The Washington Post and the New York Times have reported on the UAE’s secret deals with al-Qaeda in Yemen.
The rise of Salafist militias in Taiz has contributed to periodic waves of violence between those militias and pro-government factions, especially with the armed factions of the Muslim Brotherhood. It has also given birth to an environment that generates extremist groups such as al-Qaeda.
The Abu al-Abbas Battalions fought against the armed factions of the Islah Party to control the city, especially in areas liberated from the Houthi rebels in April 2017. This fight culminated in fierce clashes that ended with the 22nd Mika Brigade and the Islah-affiliated Taiz forces taking control of large areas under Abu al-Abbas influence in August. The Islah faction accused Abu al-Abbas of refusing to relinquish control of public institutions in Taiz to the government. Abu al-Abbas, in turn, accused the Islah of stealing the popular resistance funds.
Abu al-Abbas called on his fighters to leave Taiz after handing over buildings, installations, and sites under the control of his brigades to a presidential committee set up by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi on August 11.
On August 30, Abu al-Abbas reconsidered and retracted his call to action, although not revealing much about the details or the guarantees given for the retraction. The handover came after fierce battles between al-Abbas’s battalions and other militias affiliated with the Yemeni Islah Party.
Earlier, on October 25, 2017, the United States designated Abu al-Abbas a terrorist after the US Treasury Department had found that he “had worked for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” and that, since June 2016, “he had been a leader of ISIL in Taiz province.” Paradoxically, the Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE followed suit and also classified Abu al-Abbas as a terrorist. They made no comment on why they, nonetheless, continued to support him.
However, al-Abbas denied any connection with terrorist groups, and identified himself, in a statement, as “the leader of the Eastern Front and the Kadha Front of Taiz” affiliated with the resistance loyal to the legitimate government. He stressed that he has fought “in cooperation with the countries of the coalition, headed by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.” He asserted that those countries had “sacrificed their finest men to fight shoulder to shoulder with us.”
Ironically, while the UAE now classifies Abu al-Abbas as a terrorist, at the same time, it still treats him as a military leader. On August 24, Abu Dhabi TV, the official Emirati channel, invited him to participate in a phone interview. This is thought to be one of his first live media “appearances.” (Abu al-Abbas refuses to appear on camera because the Salafi ideology of Islam forbids it.) The channel characterized Abu al-Abbas as a “victim of the Islah Party in Taiz.” Al-Abbas also spoke of the efforts of the coalition led by General Abu Said to resolve the conflict.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE claim that the relationship with Abu al-Abbas “the terrorist” is over, but his interview on official Emirati TV suggests a relationship that is ongoing and strong and not likely to end any time soon.
By regarding Abu al-Abbas, a relatively obscure militant, as both a “leader” and a “terrorist,” the Saudis and Emiratis are taking advantage of every means to achieve victory even at the expense of contradicting themselves. So this raises the question, why are Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s actions apparently continuing to support Abu al-Abbas contrary to their supposed condemnation of him? Does this contradiction mean that they have no intention of ramping down hostilities any time soon and are preparing for further violence in Yemen?
Only time, and perhaps other developments such as international political pressure, will tell whether the Saudi and Emirati bombardment of Yemen is winding down or winding up. In the meantime, the country remains the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis” with millions starving and the worst famine seen in 100 years, according to the UN.