UAE-backed campaign puts Al Qaeda under pressure in Yemen

Local leadership appears to be on the run as terrorist group's numbers dwindle

Yemeni fighters loyal to the government backed by the Saudi-led coalition fighting in the country ride in the back of a pickup truck with mounted heavy machine gun while closing in on a suspected location of an Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leader during their the offensive in the Mesini Valley in the vast province of Hadramawt on February 21, 2018.
Yemeni special forces trained by the United Arab Emirates -- a key member of a Saudi-led alliance fighting alongside Yemen's government forces -- had in the previous week launched the offensive, codenamed "Al-Faisal", against Al-Qaeda cells in oil-rich Hadramawt province.
Two soldiers were killed on February 17 in the offensive, which targets the Mesini and Amed Valleys in Hadramawt and which are critical in the control over Yemen's southeastern coastline. / AFP PHOTO / SALEH AL-OBEIDI
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Al Qaeda's entrenched presence in Yemen is showing signs of crumbling under a sustained onslaught by Yemeni forces supported by the Saudi-led coalition.

Government forces stepped up their counter-terrorism efforts against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or Aqap, as part of efforts to stabilise the country. Last month, a military operation succeeded in expelling Aqap from key outposts in Hadramawt province, which shares a 600-kilometre border with Saudi Arabia. The group was driven out of the main city in the province, Mukalla, in a UAE-backed operation in 2016.

The campaign has forced the Sunni extremist group to divert resources from its main focus of fighting the Shiite Houthi rebels to attacking government forces, and there are indications that its membership is falling and its leadership on the run.

Out of 273 operations claimed by Aqap in 2017, 75 per cent of those carried out in the first six months were against Houthis whereas 51 per cent of the attacks in the second half of the year were against Yemeni forces, a new study shows.

“This switch in targeting reflects the increasing challenge Aqap is facing from UAE-supported forces, which are heavily focused on counter-terrorism,” said Professor Elisabeth Kendal, the senior research fellow at Oxford University who conducted the study.


Read more: US-UAE counter-terrorism operations on the rise in Yemen


Long targeted by the US in a campaign of drone strikes, Aqap took advantage of the security vacuum created after civil war broke in 2015 to expand its reach in southern Yemen. At the same time, ISIL took root in the country and has carried out numerous attacks.

Now, under pressure from the sustained counter-terror campaign, Aqap's internal mechanisms appear to be failing.

“The group released a video warning of a threat of loose communications over the internet. Their media communications have also been curbed, as the official Aqap wire went down for three weeks in February,” said Prof Kendall.

Another telltale sign is the release of video messages from its leader, Qasim Al Raymi, that were clearly recorded months earlier — suggesting the leadership is on the run.

But more importantly, there are signs that the group's numbers are dwindling.

“Aqap is definitely hurting. We’ve seen a steady stream of martyr photos appear on their supporters’ wires since the end of last year especially,” said Prof Kendall.

Many fighters have also dropped out of its ranks.

“When Aqap was ousted from Mukalla, many core fighters and sympathisers returned to ordinary life. Contacts of mine reported a lot of beard shaving. This has continued as fighters have peeled away with the increasing presence of UAE-supported forces and the absence of material benefits from Aqap now that it has lost its state,” Prof Kendall said.

The drop in Aqap's presence could also be attributed to the loose relationship the group has to Yemen’s tribal east. At times, its sophisticated weaponry and militant nature have been sought out to resolve the tribal conflicts common in the region and in Bayda province.

But ultimately, "the Bayda tribes and Aqap have conflicting objectives in Yemen's war", said Nadwa Al Dosari, a Yemeni researcher.

"The tribes’ final goal is to secure their land and expel the Houthis from their territory. They don’t have any interest in fighting the Houthis outside of Bayda,” Ms Al Dosari wrote in a Carnegie Melon report.

“Aqap, however, wants to use guerrilla warfare to draw the Houthis into tribal areas so that they can ensnare them in a costly war of attrition.”

Yemeni forces are also clamping down on ISIL's presence in the country. On Sunday, the Yemeni authorities arrested ISIL militants in Aden and seized a large amount of equipment and explosives. Last week, the Aden police captured a high-ranking ISIL member believed to be the mastermind of a series of attacks — including a double suicide car bombing  in Aden on February 24 in which 14 people were killed and 40 injured.