April 7, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Driving Back al-Qaeda in Yemen

• On April 3, a Yemeni official reported that Saudi-led coalition aircraft had struck several al-Qaeda camps near the port city of Mukalla

• The strikes come less than a week after Yemeni government troops launched an offensive against al-Qaeda positions in the southern city of Aden

• Al-Qaeda has capitalized on the chaos in Yemen to expand its influence and territory in the country

• As negotiations between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and the Shi’a Houthi rebels gain traction, Yemen and its allies will likely shift their focus to containing the spread of al-Qaeda. 


On April 3, a Yemeni official reported that warplanes from the Saudi-led anti-Houthi coalition had struck several al-Qaeda camps outside the port city of Mukalla, in Yemen’s eastern Hadhramaut Governorate—though the affiliation of the aircraft could not be independently verified. The coalition, which has been supporting the Yemeni government against Shi’a Houthi rebels for more than a year, is primarily composed of forces from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The airstrikes are the latest in a string of aerial assaults against al-Qaeda positions in recent weeks. On March 22, a U.S. airstrike on an al-Qaeda camp killed upwards of 50 militants, and an unidentified airstrike on March 30 killed at least 4 additional al-Qaeda militants. Also on March 30, Yemeni troops pushed into the Mansoura district of Aden—which had been controlled by al-Qaeda—capturing dozens of fighters. 

The increased pace of operations against al-Qaeda follows a year that has seen significant expansion of al-Qaeda-controlled territory in Yemen; the group seized control of at least seven cities since last April. The first city the group captured was the port city of Mukalla, the provincial capital of Hadhramaut, where al-Qaeda’s regional affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has a long history. Throughout the past year of conflict, AQAP has grown increasingly bold, expanding west toward Aden, and even taking neighborhoods within Aden itself. The Saudi-led coalition, for its part, has been singularly focused on defeating the Houthi rebel force, which the coalition views as an Iranian proxy. In February 2016, the BBC even reported that coalition-backed forces were fighting alongside al-Qaeda militants during an operation against the Houthis near the city of Taiz. 

However, recent AQAP aggression—combined with the initiation of peace negotiations between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels—may be changing the calculus on the ground. In the past several months, AQAP has begun rapidly expanding west, and has actively targeted Yemeni government officials and security forces. The expansion immediately caught the attention of the U.S., which ramped up its airstrikes against the group. Now, as peace talks at least temporarily mitigate the threat from the Houthis, AQAP activity will increasingly attract the attention of the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition. A strong AQAP that holds significant amounts of territory severely undermines the legitimacy of the Yemeni government trying to reassert control over the country. By emphasizing the existential threat AQAP poses to the stability of Yemen, the government also ensures continued support from the U.S., which was vital to the pre-war government of Ali Abdullah Saleh. 

In any operation against AQAP, the Yemeni government will require significant support from international partners. However, it remains to be seen how willing the Saudi-led coalition will be to commit to another engagement in the country. Willingness to negotiate with the Houthi rebels is indicative of coalition fears of getting bogged down in Yemen, as happened to the Egyptian military in the 1960s. In measuring the cost-benefit of operations against an entrenched AQAP, there is a strong chance that both Saudi Arabia and the UAE will choose to provide air and logistical support, rather than contribute ground forces. The United States, too, will undoubtedly continue providing logistical and air support to the Yemeni government, but it is unlikely that the U.S. will provide ground troops—outside of the periodic deployment of Special Operations Forces (SOF)

Even with the support of international partners, driving back AQAP will not be an easy task. The Yemeni military and pro-government militias have been locked in a vicious civil conflict for more than a year. Approximately 82 percent of the Yemeni population—some 21.2 million people—is in need of humanitarian assistance; 14.2 million of which are food insecure, and 19.3 million lack access to clean drinking water. Even with massive levels of international aid, the scale of the humanitarian crisis will likely complicate government efforts to mount effective military operations against AQAP. Further complicating matters, AQAP has established tribal relationships in the remote eastern Governorates of Yemen—particularly in Hadhramaut—making it difficult to effectively root AQAP fighters out of those communities. While aerial support from international partners can serve to weaken the group, without capable ground forces, AQAP will likely continue to persist in Yemen for years to come. 


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