Al Qaeda in Yemen is weaker than it has ever been as the UAE’s military training and counterterrorism operation continue to battle the terrorist entity in the country, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Gargash told reporters on Monday.
Mr Gargash said the UAE’s fight against Al Qaeda in Yemen – also known as AQAP – represents the country’s wider policy towards the region.
“Our fight with regards to extremism and terrorism is basically at the core of foreign policy, and for us, we don’t look at this simply as a Yemen issue, because the issue of terrorism is a major problem not only in the Arab world but beyond,” he said.
The UAE continues to work on the ground with Yemenis to help eliminate terrorist strongholds but has limited its presence on the front lines, instead it hands responsibility to UAE-trained local military units.
The country intervened, as part of the Arab coalition, on behalf of the internationally recognised government of Abdrabu Mansur Hadi to fight the Iran-backed rebels. The Houthi insurgency in 2014 and 2015 allowed AQAP to fill a power vacuum and gain ground in the east of the country.
Brig Gen Musallam Al Rashedi said on Monday that despite gains, the battle against Al Qaeda in Yemen required the continued support of the Yemeni people. Brig Gen Al Rashedi commanded the UAE special operation task force in 2015 and 2016.
“You can’t kill your way to victory against AQAP in Yemen with drones and raids, the secret to winning is in the hearts and minds of the people of Yemen that will allow us to win this forever”, he said during a press briefing in Dubai on Monday.
The UAE, as part of the Arab Coalition and in coordination with the US, has trained approximately 60,000 Yemeni fighters to battle the terrorist group. They are able to combine local knowledge and methods with counterterrorism strategy.
By training tribes and militias who are local to areas where the terrorist insurgency has the most influence, the UAE has been able to implement a counterterrorism programme that has proved more effective, the official said.
The task force has killed around 1,000 core members of AQAP, including 13 out of the 18 most wanted leaders.
He said the terrorist organisation is so compromised that it is unable to export its ideology to the region, let alone maintain its presence in Yemen.
“We are denying them the oxygen, so to speak, to exist. Most importantly for everyone outside Yemen, we have hampered their ability to export terrorism, they can’t go anywhere to conduct their operations,” Brig Gen Al Rashedi said.
The UAE’s counterterrorism goal, the officer said, was not only to cut off supply routes and recapture strongholds but to maintain control of those areas and prevent militants returning.
“They key is to have the Yemenis do it themselves, we can’t stay in the long haul in Yemen, they won’t do it if we don’t win their hearts and minds, at the grassroots and government level, they have to step up and do it," he said.
AQAP’s presence in the Arab world’s poorest country, has resurfaced twice in the last ten years, and both in response to political instability.
Mr Gargash, echoed the sentiment, saying the UAE backs a political solution in Yemen, which will be pursued during peace talks in Geneva on September 6. But he remains apprehensive on the Houthis intent, saying they are likely to hamper any efforts.
“We still believe the main obstacle to a political solution is the Houthis, they have undermined all the previous initiatives by refusing to pull-out of militias and heavy weapons from urban centres to start the political process,” Mr Gargash said.
The UAE and the Arab Coalition recently ceased its military offensive on Hodeidah, a strategically important city still under rebel control, to allow UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths to negotiate a settlement.
The Arab Coalition says it adhered to the ceasefire in part to support the political process, which continues to be their ultimate goal, but also to limit the humanitarian cost of the battle in Yemen’s largest port city.
More than 600,000 residents remain in the Red Sea city where men have been forcibly conscripted by the Iran-backed rebels or coerced to cooperate with the Houthis.
According to Mr Gargash, the Houthis used the ceasefire to further entrench themselves in the port city by digging trenches and deploying militias among the civilian population. He said the coalition’s approach to the offensive, “was sensitive, and I would say at our own cost.
“We could have done this very quickly in terms of a quick operation, but we understood this is a population of 600,000 and we are not going to be drawn into a street to street fight,” the minister said.
The UAE continues to apply pressure on Hodeidah, believing that further compromising the Houthis position will bring better results in the peace talks.
Mr Gargash said that the humanitarian toll of the civil war has always been a heavy factor in weighing up battle scenarios. He said civilian affected by fighting was “an unfortunate burden of war.
“I accept the coalition is criticized for some of the humanitarian weights of this war, but all parties need to accept their part in what we are doing today. Having said that, we are doing what we can to support the humanitarian’s situation in Yemen,” he said.
The minister also urged international organisations and media to look at the Houthis as well.
“I also urge various friends and NGOs and others in the international community to scrutinize the details of the Houthis as well not just the coalition, look at the million mines planted by the Houthis, look at the large mobilization of child soldiers, look at the indiscriminate attack on Saudi cities,” he said.
Although he didn’t explicitly touch on the incident, the coalition received heavy criticism last week after an airstrike in the Saada area of north Yemen caused a number of civilian casualties, including of children.
At the time, coalition spokesman Col Turki Al Malki said that the attack in Saada was launched against Houthi rebels responsible for firing a missile at the southern Saudi city of Jazan the previous day.
The coalition referred the incident to its special investigative panel soon after the reports by relief organisations working in Yemen, an official told the Saudi Press Agency said Saturday.