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Andre Colling
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Rising Islamist militancy in Yemen

15 December 2013, 06:08

On 5 December 2013, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) launched a bold attack against the Ministry of Defence complex in central Sanaa, the Yemeni capital. The attack began when a suicide car bomber rammed the entrance to the facility and detonated his explosives creating a breach through which a number of well-armed militants dressed in military attire entered the facility. Following a gun battle with local guards and the elimination of all of the militants, at least 52 people had been killed, including seven foreign nationals and a relative of the Yemeni president, and over 160 wounded. The target of the attack was a hospital located on the grounds; AQAP’s media wing, al-Mallahem, stated via a Twitter post on 6 December that the attack was conducted because the building 'accommodates drone control rooms and American experts' - a reference to US military personnel who currently operate in Yemen with the local security forces and who have coordinated a highly successful and deadly drone strike war against Islamist militants in the country since 2011.

The devastating attack followed a mere two weeks after President Abdul Rabu Mansoor Hadi stated in an interview that al-Qaeda activity in Yemen, compared with 2011 and 2012, had been reduced. His mention of 2011 and 2012 was in reference to a particularly trying period for the state, which followed the initiation of the Arab Spring in early 2011 when AQAP and its affiliate, Ansar al-Sharia (AS), routed Yemeni security forces from much of the southern Abyan governorate. It was only following a concerted Yemen military offensive, after Hadi’s inauguration in early 2012, and with the support of the US military drones, that the state managed to oust AQAP and AS from its strongholds in Abyan governorate. Yet despite Hadi’s claims, it is becoming increasingly apparent that not only has AQAP regrouped, but that it is also reaching new levels of operational capability. Indeed, this reality is something that Western governments in particular have appeared to acknowledge. In August, a number of foreign diplomatic facilities closed in Yemen and across the region in light of US intelligence of a planned attack. The intelligence was based on an intercepted communique between AQAP leader, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, and al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Furthermore, since September, AQAP has conducted numerous assaults in the country, which have starkly underlined the group’s re-emergence as a major challenge to the state.

On 20 September, AQAP killed 56 soldiers and police officials and lost eight militants in coordinated attacks in Shabwa governorate against security force personnel, checkpoints and facilities. During these assaults, AQAP also attempted to attack the economically strategic Balhaf liquid natural gas export terminal. This was followed ten days later by an AQAP assault on the headquarters of the army’s Second Division in Mukallah, the capital of the eastern Hadramawt governorate. Dozens of AQAP militants, dressed again in military attire, stormed the base and briefly occupied parts of it. AQAP later stated that they were targeting an operations room used by US military personnel to direct drone strikes in the country. The Yemen authorities denied this claim and stated the base was used to direct anti-piracy operations. These incidents were followed a month later, on 31 October, with a complex assault on a military base in Ahwar, Abyan governorate, where a suicide bomber detonated explosives at the camp's entrance creating an access point for dozens of militants to storm the base. These noteworthy incidents have coincided with a general uptick in brazen conventional and suicide bombings, acts of sabotage, and assassinations across much of southern, south eastern and eastern Yemen. A number of these incidents have been attributed to anti-government armed groups aligned to separatist groups, former regime supporters, anti-government tribal federations and other rebel organisations; however, the majority of the attacks, including all the suicide attacks, have been claimed by or attributed to AQAP.

Islamist extremism and jihadist thinking have had a long history in Yemen and understanding the current security dynamics is difficult without an understanding of the wider historical context in the country. Militants have often had an interconnected relationship with the government and local tribal groupings. As early as the 1980’s, the regime of President Ali Saleh repatriated thousands of Islamist fighters back from the conflict in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, to fight the Soviet-backed Marxist government of South Yemen. These militants were joined by Arab fighters from across the region, including Osama bin Laden, the now deceased former leader of al-Qaeda. These fighters would later unite to create the Islamic Jihad in Yemen (1990 to 1994), Army of Aden Abyan (1994 to 1998) and al-Qaeda in Yemen or AQY (1998 to 2009). AQY was particularly infamous as it was involved in the attack against the USS Cole naval vessel in 2000 in Aden and the attack on the MV Limburg, a French oil tanker, in 2002. It was during the early 2000s that increasing pressure from the US government, following 9/11, led to the Yemeni government finally relenting and changing its policy towards Islamist militant groups in the country - and joining the US government’s ‘war on terrorism’. Despite this public acknowledgement, from 2001 to 2006, accusations continued to surface that the Saleh-led regime continued to support extremists. Indeed, given the extensive patronage network installed under Saleh to keep the country’s various factions in check it is highly likely that some form of agreement was reached between the state and the militants to avoid confrontations against one another and to maintain the political status quo.

In February 2006, 23 convicted militants escaped from a prison in Sanaa. The escape signalled a turning point for jihad in the country. Among the escapees was Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the current leader of AQAP, and a number of other high-ranking militants. This prison break allowed extremists to regroup and organise. In 2008, repeated crackdown on Islamist militants by the Saudi Arabian authorities resulted in an exodus of such elements to Yemen. These forces would later merge with their Yemeni counterparts and form AQAP in 2009. Between 2009 and 2011, AQY and then AQAP, launched several high-profile attacks. These included attacks against the Saudi Deputy Interior Minister, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, at his Jeddah residence in Saudi Arabia in 2009. AQAP was also connected to transnational plots. In December 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate a bomb on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 over Detroit. On 29 October 2010, two explosive-laden packages were found on cargo planes destined for the US from Yemen. Since the 2010 attacks, AQAP has emerged as a major internal security threat. The overthrow of the Saleh regime in 2011 and the political anarchy that followed this event created conditions wherein AQAP expanded and eventually took control of territory in the south (as mentioned above). Hadi’s intransigence towards the Islamists, due in large part to his close relationship with the US, when compared to the Saleh regime, served to sever any remaining influence the regime may have had over the militants, and AQAP has emerged as a direct challenge to state authority since 2012.

The road ahead
The Yemeni government is weak and its ability to confront the Islamist militant threat alone is questionable. The government is continuing a National Dialogue Conference (NDC) in an attempt to unify the country's disparate religious, tribal, ethnic and political players. However, the NDC process has been fraught with challenges due to recurring conflict in the north between Shiite Houthi rebels and Salafist tribesmen supported by Saudi Arabia, escalating southern separatist civil unrest and a rising militancy in the south east and east. The NDC process also, unsurprisingly, excludes AQAP/AS. This political isolation means that AQAP has no choice but to pursue a conflict agenda in order to achieve its goals. In addition, Yemen’s military has been reorganised under the Hadi administration and it is plausible that it will take a number of years for its intelligence and basic operational elements to come together sufficiently for it to make significant gains against militants. Furthermore, there remains the threat posed by powerful members of the former regime, who are thought to maintain ties to militants and who could use these armed groups to further destabilise the country.

Yemen’s most prominent ally in its pursuit of subduing AQAP/AS has been the US. The US currently operates a number of bases in the region, which have been directly involved in drone strikes targeting both low-level and high-level AQAP operatives. Estimates place the number of people killed by these strikes since 2009 at between 500 and 800 while hundreds more have been wounded. The campaign has proven successful. Numerous AQAP members have been killed, including Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011 and their deputy leader, Sa'id al-Shihri, in 2012 or early 2013. These strikes have also left dozens of civilians dead and have served to further heighten anti-government sentiment. Furthermore, these strikes may well encourage many Yemenis to support or join AQAP/AS.

Currently, AQAP’s options appear limited. It is excluded from the NDC and opportunities to negotiate with the regime are limited (although it is doubtful that the group, which is already ideologically opposed to foreigners and the state, would agree to negotiations, even if invited). It has reorganised its fighting forces in rural parts of southern and south eastern Yemen’s Abyan, Shabwa and Hadramawt governorates following its conventional military defeat in Abyan in 2012 and is thought to be operating strong points in the al-Mahfad area of Abyan. The group has also declared Islamic emirates in the Ghayl Bawazir region near Mukallah (Shabwa) and Habban district (Shabwa) in 2013. In addition, AQAP maintains cells in cities across the country, including in Sanaa and Aden. Estimating the exact size of the group is difficult; however, given its operational scope in 2013, it is likely to have the loyalty of hundreds of fighters at least. This excludes support teams, which are thought to include local tribal groupings linked to the militants through family connections, ideology, marriage or treaties.

Given current political, economic and social conditions in Yemen, AQAP will continue to find unstable areas within which to conduct its operations against the state. Only a full negotiated settlement between Yemen’s differing warring or competing regional and political groups will offer the state adequate time and space to confront the Islamists in a meaningful manner. Even if a political solution was found it would still take years for the government to fully eradicate the militant threat given the increasing interconnectivity between militants and local tribes. AQAP is, therefore, expected to continue to grow and increase its presence in the state. Short of another revolution or state collapse, AQAP is not expected to capture large swathes of territory as it did in 2011 and 2012; however, its support and resources will likely grow as fighters return to the country from conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and as socio-economic pressures increase, forcing the youth to pursue more radical lifestyles to survive. US drone strikes and state counterterrorism operations will also continue to result in civilian casualties and will increasingly lead to a rise in support for AQAP operations against the state. AQAP’s operational capability will also continue to evolve and develop. Traditional methods of attack may be supplemented by new tactics, such as the increasingly used complex assaults, hostage-takings and kidnappings.

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