Al Qaeda expands its toxic footprint in Yemen

The Yemen solution cannot be pursued in a manner that ends up strengthening Al Qaeda, argues Hussein Ibish

The conflict with the Houthis in Yemen is being cast by some in sectarian terms, allowing Al Qaeda to falsely pose as champions of the local Sunni Muslim population. Mohamed Al Sayaghi / Reuters
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As the war in Yemen intensifies, it's becoming increasingly clear that the big beneficiary has been Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap). None of the parties are attempting to strengthen the terrorist group. On the contrary, all of the other principal combatants are clearly concerned about the rising power of the extremists. However, with most other groups involved directly in the growing civil conflict, Aqap is expanding its footprint in parts of Yemen.

This is mainly taking place far away from the rest of the fighting, and in areas where Aqap was already present. The terrorist group overran the city of Al Mukalla, relieving the local bank of its cash and the local prison of its most important prisoners, including a senior Aqap leader. It also seized control of Riyan airport and the adjacent military base near Al Mukalla, which just happens to be the fifth largest in the country. In the process, and in other encounters with the fragmenting Yemeni army, Aqap has reportedly grabbed heavy weaponry including tanks, along with Katyusha rocket launchers and small arms. The cherry on top was a significant oil terminal.

All of this happened while Saudi-led air strikes were targeting the Houthi rebel militia in the country’s major cities including the capital Sanaa, Taiz and Aden, as well as the Houthi stronghold, Saada. After four weeks of bombing, the Arab air intervention does not yet appear to have significantly slowed the Houthi advance, let alone turned the table in favour of troops fighting in support of exiled president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi. But it has inadvertently eased pressure on Aqap in Yemen and created space for the extremists to consolidate and expand their presence in the country.

More dangerous still, United Nations negotiator Jamal Benomar recently told The New York Times that Aqap is taking advantage of the conflict to also strengthen its political standing in Yemen and build alliances.

“For the first time, Al Qaeda is building a strategic alliance with the tribes,” he reportedly said. “It is a strengthened and dangerous Al Qaeda. This is what worries everybody.”

The conflict with the Houthis is being cast by some in sectarian terms, allowing Aqap to falsely pose as champions of the local Sunni Muslim population. The Houthis, for their part, claim that Aqap dominates the forces confronting them on the ground, further cementing a dangerous sectarian narrative which, though essentially false, can nonetheless become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The strengthened Aqap also appears to be using the conflict in Yemen to its advantage in its burgeoning rivalry with ISIL, a rival terrorist network. ISIL affiliates in Yemen claimed responsibility for the bombing of two Houthi-frequented mosques in Sanaa on March 20 that killed 137 worshippers. But the chaos in Yemen generally appears to be strengthening the hand of Aqap, which may be poised to regain dominance in the terrorist subculture as ISIL finds itself being rolled back territorially in Iraq, facing an increasingly united opposition from regional and international states, and increasingly unpopular in Arab public opinion due to its extreme brutality.

In Al Mukalla, the capital of the Yemeni province Hadramaut, Aqap has established what is generally regarded as the most effective Al Qaeda franchise currently extant in the Middle East, and the only one capable of attempting significant terrorist acts internationally and in the West. Indeed, Aqap claimed responsibility for the January 7 massacre of 11 people at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

As a consequence of this capability, the group has been a frequent target of American drone strikes. On April 14, the group said that one of its senior ideologues and spokespersons, Ibrahim Al Rubeish, a 35-year-old Saudi national who is a former detainee at the US military prison in Guantanamo was killed in a drone attack near Al Mukalla. At least six other senior Aqap figures have reportedly been killed by American drone attacks over the past year. In 2011, the American cleric and terrorist ideologue Anwar Al Awlaki, one of the most important figures produced by Aqap and the leading proponent of “lone wolf” or small-scale terrorist attacks in the West, was killed in a drone attack.

However, any notion that the terrorist group was effectively contained, let alone degraded, has clearly been dissipated given the advances it has made in the context of the expanding war and lawlessness in Yemen. Obviously this outcome is not acceptable, including to the Arab states currently intervening in the conflict.

Stopping the Houthi advance and creating conditions for the restoration of order and political legitimacy in Yemen, and a negotiated peace agreement in the country, are exceptionally important. But they cannot be pursued in a manner that ends up strengthening Aqap, particularly if that is because the approach is insufficient to resolve the conflict and instead creates a stalemate.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Gulf Arab States Institute in Washington

On Twitter: @ibishblog