Amid the chaos of the overlapping conflicts that constitute the current war in Yemen, the country’s local Al Qaeda affiliate has been a stubbornly resilient force.
As the violence in the country has continued along a number of axes - north against south; Houthi against government loyalists; Saudi Arabia versus Iran; Islah versus southern secessionists, among others - Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been able to exploit the cleavages and remain potent. The threat continues despite success after military success by the UAE and the local allies it has trained and backed, as well as US drone strikes and raids.
In May, a year after a UAE-led offensive drove Al Qaeda fighters out of the port city of Mukalla - which they had controlled, looted and taxed for a year - the US director of national intelligence Dan Coats stated that the terrorist group has been able to preserve “the resources, manpower, safe havens, local influence, and operational capabilities to continue to pose a threat”.
The group has not only been able to survive but also expand, and in some cases increase its influence by positioning itself as a crucial ally to tribal and Islamist forces across a number of battle frontlines with Houthi rebels in Taez, Al Bayda and Marib governorates.
In the absence of a political resolution that addresses local grievances and builds and empowers a central state that can provide jobs and services, Al Qaeda has filled vacuums and its fighters have found a role, while a sectarian narrative that is promoted by the group has increasing traction.
“AQAP fights alongside and supports local militias against the Al Houthi-Saleh faction in order to insinuate itself into local populations,” a recent report by the Critical Threats Project stated.
The UAE and its southern allies fighting both the Houthis and Al Qaeda face a conundrum - prioritising counterterrorist operations against the extremists can have an adverse effect on the fight against Houthis and their allies because the militants provide experienced and fierce frontline fighters. This can also create anger among anti-Houthi forces, which Al Qaeda exploits to bolster its position and propagandise against the coalition.
In a recent propaganda interview, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader Qasim Al Raymi called for more attacks on UAE forces and their Yemeni allies.
The terrorist group and its Ansar Al Sharia offshoot continue to conduct frequent attacks against UAE-backed Hizam Amni forces as well as Al Nukhba Al Hadramiya forces in Hadramawt governorate, according to Anthony Biswell, a Yemen researcher at the Delma Institute in Abu Dhabi.
“It is [also] important to note that AQAP considers Abyan [governorate] critical because it serves as a buffer zone for its more robust safe havens in Shabwa,” he added.
As the group allies with anti-Houthi forces, Al Qaeda has also been tactically flexible and has continued to find ways to profit from the thriving war economy that is perhaps the one area of cooperation between adversaries, despite the group’s loss of territory along Yemen’s south-eastern coast.
“AQAP attaches greater importance to the self-preservation of its members and operational capabilities than it does to territorial control,” Mr Biswell said. “In 2016, AQAP arguably preferred to withdraw from Al Mansoura, Al Mukalla, and other territories it held in Lahj and Abyan provinces than enter into a direct confrontation with a superior force.”
But when Al Qaeda is able to find a territorial or operational foothold in war-torn areas, a key objective - as with Al Qaeda affiliates elsewhere in the region - is to provide basic services and aid, as they did in Mukalla, where food and water was distributed during a time of general scarcity. “The group’s populist engagement split public opinion just enough to allow them to continue governing,” Mr Biswell said.
The Central Bank of Yemen that the government of President Adbrabu Mansur Hadi moved to Aden is still unable to pay basic salaries to public-sector employees that are crucial for millions of Yemenis across the country, providing another fertile ground for the militant group to compete for legitimacy.
Close observers of Yemen, including Mr Biswell, have called for a parallel focus on the battle for hearts and minds as a necessary component of any strategy to defeat the group that is now enmeshed in the social fabric of many parts via the conflict.
“To increase the medium and long-term chances of successfully defeating AQAP, a broad counterterrorism must go beyond military power by supporting social welfare programmes and financial support networks that generate popular support,” he added.