The Emirati soldiers in Yemen’s port city of Aden were starting to get jumpy. We had only spent 15 minutes in Dar Saad, one of the city’s worst hit districts from the ongoing war, when they thought security had been compromised. This section of the neighbourhood is deeply impoverished and divided. It is also where the Shia Houthi rebel group first entered the city back in March 2015 when they swept control of the country and ousted the recognised Yemeni government, prompting the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen.
“We have to go back a different way, groups may have laid land mines or IEDs along the road we originally took while we’ve been here,” said one of the officers quietly. The 15-vehicle armoured convoy swiftly rolled away.
Despite the fact that Aden is now the de facto headquarters of the Gulf coalition and the Yemeni government, the UAE forces are taking no chances. Days after The Independent was there, a roadside bomb targeted the convoy of a coalition-backed provincial leader in the city. Ameen Mahmood, governor of the southwest province of Taiz, was not injured but his bodyguards were.
The Gulf coalition and the recognised Yemeni government control the city but face hidden threats from supporters of the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and al-Qaeda’s most lethal franchise, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), that once controlled a western district of the city.
The UAE in particular is concerned their forces will be targets since it has spearheaded the coalition’s complex and controversial counter-terror operation in Yemen, which was launched in April 2015 alongside the war against the Houthis, and which has faced some backlash.
Since then, unlike the Saudis, the Emiratis have rolled out a significant military footprint in Yemen, with UAE troops or forces trained by their men, controlling several bases, airfields and ports along the south coast of the Gulf’s most impoverished country.
The UAE military leadership say it is their job and their “highest priority” to crush AQAP, as the only member of the Gulf Coalition Council to have previous counter-terror experience from their time in Afghanistan. They have vehemently denied accusations that their successes have relied on doing deals with AQAP members.
In rare interviews with top UAE commanders in both Abu Dhabi and Yemen, representatives from the Gulf state have vowed to stay put in Yemen until AQAP’s central command has been beaten. Even if it means remaining embroiled in the country’s conflict long past the end of the war with the Houthis.
The UAE says that since the Gulf intervention in 2015 it has trained a force of 60,000 Yemeni soldiers, made up of tribesmen, former security forces and militiamen, half of which are leading the counter-terror battle in Yemen.
It says under the military guidance of the UAE, these troops have now reduced AQAP’s geographical control to just a string of villages and its fighting force in south Yemen to just 200 men that are doing little else but “surviving coalition strikes”.
“Al-Qaeda is now running and hiding. We have deprived them of their safe havens, finance streams, and recruitment pools. The coalition has been relentless in its pursuit of the group, thanks to the 30,000 Yemeni forces we have trained and equipped to take them on,” said a senior UAE military official.
“The counter al-Qaeda operation will remain and we will remain in Yemen until AQAP is broken. We will stay until it is done,” he added.
Brigadier Ali, a senior Emirati task force commander, echoed that even if the Houthi war ends the UAE will continue to fight the “global enemy” of al-Qaeda.
“We will eventually cleanse Yemen of all terror outfits,” he added.
Certainly, before the Emiratis and their Yemeni counterparts started the war against AQAP, the terror group controlled a significant sweep of territory that stretched along the entire southern coastline of Yemen and into the mainland.
The militants had been able to expand their territory by exploiting the chaos after the Houthi takeover of Yemen that ousted recognised Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
The group raised its flags above several provincial capitals including Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth largest city, as well as Zinjibar and Jaar, the capital of Abyan and the province’s second largest city. According to the UAE, AQAP governed cities with a combined population of 850,000, providing a major source of funding and recruits.
AQAP has been labelled by the US as one of the most lethal franchises of al-Qaeda. Since it was formed in 2009 it has attacked US, Italian and British embassies, targeted Belgium tourists with suicide bombers, killed more than 90 military recruits in Sanaa and in 2009 bombed a Japanese tanker.
In the same year, AQAP militant Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to take down a Detroit-bound jet on Christmas day by smuggling explosives into his underwear. AQAP also claimed responsibility for the January 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris that killed 12 people.
The Emiratis say thanks to their counter-terror operation, the group is now on the decline: al-Qaeda only holds tiny pockets of isolated land in the central province of Marib, to the south in Bayda and to the east in Wadi Hadramawt. Its capabilities to plan attacks abroad from Yemen have been all but destroyed.
But despite these successes, the UAE’s counter-terror operation has come under fire. Some have accused the coalition of not winning militarily but rather striking secret deals with AQAP fighters, paying many of them off, allowing others to leave with looted cash, and recruiting hundreds more into its ranks.
The most controversial battle was the one to free Mukalla, which AQAP held for just over a year until April 2016 when Emirati-trained and led Yemeni forces ousted them.
A recent investigation published by the Associated Press, quoting tribal leaders, military security and government officials in the area, claimed militants were guaranteed a safe route out and allowed to keep weapons and cash looted from the city, up to $100m by some estimates.
Emirati commanders dismissed the accusations as “untrue and illogical”. They said there had been “isolated cases of surrender” from small groups but no major reconciliation agreements. They added that allowing fighters to leave with loot would contradict their primary objectives: depriving AQAP of its financial strength.
General Faraj al-Bahsani, governor of Hadramawt, the province where Mukalla is located, pointed to the high death toll on the battlefield as proof they secured his city through a military win.
“The accusations are completely untrue. From our side, 360 were killed from Hadramawt in the liberation of the area, there were high casualties,” he said from his offices in Mukalla.
“It took at least four hours to take one of the military bases on top of the mountain. The fight at the airbase was heavy,” he added.
Bahsani also dismissed accusations that the counter-terror forces had absorbed battle-hardened al-Qaeda leadership into Yemeni ranks, saying it would be suicide.
“If they were inside or with us I would be the first one to be killed – there would be sleeper cells,” he added.
That said residents of central Mukalla admitted they heard little fighting in the battle to retake the city, which lasted just 24 hours.
“We heard a bit of fighting, it was violent in some places, particularly outside the city,” said Ahmed, who was kidnapped by al-Qaeda himself during their year-long hold on the city.
“We understand there was some kind of mediation to avoid a high civilian death toll. We were pleasantly surprised when al-Qaeda was quickly gone.”
Analysts say that deals within Mukalla were made “early on” in the battle.
“AQAP were presented with a pretty simple choice: either you can fight [the coalition] or you can leave and walk out with your weapons and your money and people,” said Peter Salisbury, a Yemen expert at Chatham House.
“AQAP made a strategic decision … After application of pressure, after drone strikes against their leaders, that it made more sense in their long-term interest not to occupy a physical space where they were a visible target,” he added.
Michael Horton, a fellow at the Jamestown Foundation that tracks terrorism, agreed: “AQAP understood it was not going to hold Mukalla, AQAP knew weeks ahead and were seen moving heavy equipment out of Mukalla,” he told The Independent.
“That said it’s undeniable that AQAP are no longer controlling those huge swathes of territory”, he added. Whatever is happening in south Yemen, the war against AQAP is reducing their geographical footprint.
One senior Emirati commander did admit to The Independent that they had absorbed deserting al-Qaeda fighters, the rank-and-file that had been lured to AQAP with promises of money, after a careful programme of investigation, observation and rehabilitation.
The commander said that the programme was successful: ex-fighters sent positive messages back to their former AQAP colleagues, encouraging more to break rank and join the Yemeni forces.
Another senior Emirati army official said that due to the complexity of the situation in Marib, central Yemen, where the coalition has a significant force fighting the Houthis in the hills, the security of their camp bizarrely relied on an unspoken relationship with al-Qaeda.
Although it is their intention to eventually snuff out al-Qaeda in Marib, if coalition forces were to battle the militants in the area right now while trying to fight Houthis, angry AQAP fighters would pose a major threat to their camps.
The same officials also admitted that when they clandestinely went into Aden to first oust the Houthis in the spring of 2015, they found themselves accidentally fighting alongside al-Qaeda, who as battle-hardened Sunni fighters had a common enemy in the Shia Houthis.
In short, the problems lie in how complex al-Qaeda is in Yemen and its ability to be indistinguishable from other groups, which is part of its survival strategy in the Gulf state. It is not an easily separable international terror group but often deeply engrained in society: their leaders have married into major families, become part of influential tribes and bought loyalty.
Its ideology is also virtually indistinct from powerful Salafi groups in Yemen that are fighting within the Gulf coalition against the Houthis.
One Yemeni from a prominent pro-UAE family in the south, whose cousin was kidnapped by al-Qaeda in Mukalla in 2015, said his relative was taken to an AQAP training camp. There he saw fighters belonging to a brigade controlled by powerful Salafi commander Aboul Abbas, that was going afterwards to fight the Houthis with the coalition in Taiz.
“There were also people training in that camp reinforcing the [anti-Houthi] front in Aden,” he said.
“At the beginning of the war the coalition used all the people who are against the Houthis – in particular their fiercest ideological rivals the Salafis. But the problem is that in Yemen you can’t really differentiate between Salafi fighters and AQAP,” he added.
That all said it is clear that AQAP’s presence in Yemen has been severely compromised. The UAE said that the number of attacks by AQAP in Yemen has fallen by over 93 per cent in the past three years. They added that around 1000 core AQAP fighters have been killed since 2015, including most of the group’s most-wanted leaders.
It’s impossible to independently verify this. But the once boisterous group has remained largely quiet on social media. The number of reported attacks has plummeted.
The Emiratis meanwhile are determined to keep reducing AQAP’s footprint in Yemen with their 30,000-strong force of Yemeni soldiers. Having recently cleared the whole of the south-central province of Shabwah, where much of the AQAP leadership hails from, they said Wadi Hadramawt and Marib is next on the cards.
“We know that many AQ leaders are holed up in safe havens in Marib,” said Brigadier Ali from a heavily armed base in Mukalla.
“We are confident that we will deal with them effectively.”
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