April 25, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: The Fight Pivots to Al-Qaeda in Yemen
On April 23, Yemeni government troops began a coordinated assault against al-Qaeda positions along the southern coast of the country, where the group has been steadily expanding its influence over the past year. The initial operation targeted al-Qaeda positions in the town of al-Kawd on the outskirts of Zinjibar, which is less than 25 miles from the city of Aden—currently serving as the seat of Yemeni president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi’s government. Operations on April 24 targeted the al-Qaeda stronghold of Mukalla, the provincial capital of the large western Hadhramaut Governorate. Sources reported jet fighters and Apache helicopters carrying out strikes against al-Qaeda positions in the city, including port facilities used by the group to smuggle supplies. Late on April 24, some reports indicated that the government had successfully retaken the city.
While Yemeni forces and aircraft from the Saudi-led coalition had previously been involved in small-scale operations against al-Qaeda forces, this is the first large-scale effort by the government to recapture al-Qaeda-held territory. Up to this point, the Yemeni government and its allies in the Saudi-led coalition have been focused on defeating the Shi’a Houthi rebels, which are backed by forces loyal to former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, as well as reported logistical support from Iran. However, after some diplomatic wrangling, peace talks between the Houthis and the Yemeni government began in Kuwait last week, building on a shaky ceasefire that has been in place since April 11.
The initiation of peace talks appears to have played a role in shifting the strategic priorities of both the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition toward al-Qaeda. It is also likely not a coincidence that this large-scale assault against al-Qaeda positions began two days after President Obama and a high-level delegation visited the region, holding a day of talks with Gulf leaders in Riyadh. As a result of the talks, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to countering the destabilizing behavior of Iran, which the Sunni Gulf countries view as the central regional threat. Specifically related to Yemen, the U.S. agreed to participate in joint naval patrols with the Saudi-led coalition to prevent Iranian arms shipments from being delivered to the Houthis. The U.S. and Gulf delegations also reaffirmed the military relationship between the parties, particularly in the sphere of counterterrorism.
Within the context of the talks in Riyadh, the U.S. delegation also expressed its concern over the seemingly unconstrained expansion of al-Qaeda in Yemen. The U.S. considers the Yemeni branch of the group—al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)—to be the most dangerous of al-Qaeda’s global affiliates, and U.S. security officials have watched with increasing alarm as AQAP has taken advantage of the conflict in Yemen to seize large swathes of territory along the southern coast. The U.S. declarations concerning Iran, and particularly the agreement to conduct joint naval patrols in Yemen, likely served as means to encourage the Saudi-led coalition to increase its efforts to degrade AQAP capabilities. Based on the events of the weekend, that strategy has begun to pay dividends.
However, the continuation of large-scale, coordinated operations against AQAP is contingent upon the outcome of the peace talks in Kuwait. While the fragile ceasefire has allowed Yemeni troops and Saudi-led coalition airstrikes to focus on AQAP positions, the failure of the peace talks will undoubtedly lead to renewed fighting with the Houthis along multiples fronts. As exemplified by the last year of the conflict, both the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition consider the Houthi forces to be a more significant threat than AQAP, and that calculus is unlikely to change if fighting resumes between the two sides. It remains unclear what progress, if any, has been made in the talks to this point. It is clear, however, that the success of the peace talks in Kuwait is key to not only ending the disastrous humanitarian situation in Yemen, but also preventing the spread of what is arguably al-Qaeda’s most dangerous and capable franchise.
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