August 9, 2018
IntelBrief: Choosing al-Qaeda in a Fight Against Iran
The U.S. has long made containing or diminishing al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the most dangerous al-Qaeda affiliate, one of its counterterrorism priorities. It has conducted numerous drones strikes and worked with Yemeni security services in the past on training to contain the very real threat that AQAP poses. No other AQ affiliate has combined stated intentions to attack the West with a demonstrated capability to do so—particularly against civilian aviation.
Among the many ways in which the ongoing war in Yemen is a disaster is the impact it has had on the counterterrorism (CT) campaign against AQAP. The war, a conflict in which the U.S is heavily involved, has relegated fighting AQAP to a secondary goal; the overwhelming focus is now Iran. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) view Iran as the greatest threat in their region. The U.S. agrees and is fully committed to a campaign in Yemen that has not only failed to push back Iranian influence but actually increased it. Attempting to degrade Iran’s influence in Yemen has also not only taken pressure off AQAP but led to its growth amid the fighting. The complicated tribal nature of coalition allies in Yemen has led to the U.S. and its allies actually working with al-Qaeda fighters, paying them to either temporarily relocate or join the Saudi-led coalition.
On August 06, the Associated Press documented what it said was clear evidence of a systemic de-targeting of AQAP by the coalition, including by the U.S. Saudi Arabia and the U.S. have denied the details in the report. The Pentagon responded to the AP by saying, in part, that the U.S. is continuing its fight against AQAP and has conducted ‘140 strikes [since 2017] to remove key AQAP leaders and disrupt its ability to use ungoverned spaces to recruit, train and plan operations against the U.S. and our partners across the region.’
The issue is that the fight in Yemen is not at all straight forward; while the Saudi-led coalition views the conflict as a clear struggle against Iran, on the ground it is a knot of local tribal ties and influences. AQAP has been successful in Yemen by making sure its reach doesn’t exceed its grasp and by growing from within the tribes—not from without. The group is not a foreign jihadist entity in Yemen; rather, it is a Yemeni tribe-based terrorist group with deep ties to areas such as Shabwa. As reported by the AP, the anti-Houthi coalition is, by necessity, working with tribes across southern and central Yemen and among them are AQAP elements. The insistence on framing every decision in Yemen through an anti-Iran lens results in counterproductive decisions that end up back firing and creating more instability than Tehran, which is in fact a serious threat to regional stability, could ever achieve on its own. In large part because of their actions now, however the conflict in Yemen ends, the U.S. and its allies will have to contend with a well-armed and resurgent AQAP for many years to come.
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