'Qaeda' Lost Control over 50% of its Southern Yemen Land Grabs

'Qaeda' Lost Control over 50% of its Southern Yemen Land Grabs

Sunday, 8 July, 2018 - 09:45
Mohammed Salim al-Buhar, left, commander of the Shabwani Elite Forces, walks outside a grocery in liberated Azzan. via Washington Post
South Yemen, Sudarsan Raghavan
The land mines had been planted. As hundreds of U.S.-backed forces approached in pickup trucks mounted with machine guns, the al-Qaeda militants watched and waited in their redoubt, tucked into the jagged mountains of southern Yemen.

The first explosion shattered one vehicle, but the convoy pushed forward. Then came a second blast. Within minutes, five trucks were destroyed and the militants began firing with heavy weapons from their perches, recalled five witnesses to the May 10 ambush.

“There were many traps,” said Raoof Salim Ahmed, 28, a fighter who was shot by an al-Qaeda sniper in the thigh and testicles, and spoke from a hospital bed. “They weren’t afraid. If they were, they wouldn’t have fought so ferociously.”

Over the past year, the shadow war between al-Qaeda and local Yemeni fighters has intensified, largely out of sight and out of the headlines. While much attention has been paid to a separate Yemeni civil war pitting northern rebels against the internationally recognized government, the battle being waged by U.S.-backed Yemeni forces against al-Qaeda militants has escalated.

In the first year of President Trump’s term, the United States conducted far more airstrikes against al-Qaeda militants in Yemen than it had in previous years. While the pace so far this year has slowed significantly, it remains well above the rate of President Barack Obama’s administration. U.S. Special Forces are on the ground here advising the anti-al-Qaeda fighters and calling in American airstrikes, a role that has grown as the air campaign has escalated.

Pentagon officials have said this effort is successfully rolling back al-Qaeda’s franchise in Yemen, considered to be the militant group’s most lethal affiliate.

But while the militants have been expelled from some of their strongholds, Yemeni forces acknowledge that their recent gains against al-Qaeda are precarious. Yemeni fighters combating the group in the hinterlands of Shabwa and Abyan provinces say al-Qaeda has weathered this pounding and remains a fierce opponent. In recent months, militants have pressed their campaign of hit-and-run attacks and strategic retreats, and have carried out a wave of bombings and assassinations, targeting government officials, security forces and others.

The intense clashes that lasted two days in the eastern Al Khabr mountains of Abyan province in May pitted some 500 local fighters against three dozen militants, witnesses said.

For nearly a decade, U.S. intelligence officials have considered al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch, known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP, as the most dangerous of all its affiliates. In 2009, AQAP tried to bomb an airliner headed to Detroit and send parcel bombs via cargo planes to Chicago the following year. AQAP also took credit for the 2015 assault on the Paris office of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that killed 11 people.

In 2011, AQAP took advantage of the political chaos that followed the Arab Spring populist revolt that eventually ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Within months, AQAP seized large swaths of southern Yemen.

A U.S.-backed Yemeni government offensive in the middle of 2012 drove the militants from many towns.

But three years later, the civil war erupted, drawing in a U.S.-backed Sunni regional coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that is trying to restore the government and weaken the influence of Iran, which is supporting the Shiite rebels. AQAP exploited the vacuum created by the civil war to seize territory, weapons and money. Al-Qaeda militants retook control over Jaar and Abyan’s provincial capital, Zinjibar, and swept into Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth-largest city and a major port. Meanwhile, over the past four years, the rival Islamic State has spawned its own modest affiliate in Yemen with at most a few hundred members, mostly al-Qaeda defectors.

Against this backdrop, the Trump administration has given the U.S. military more latitude to launch air and ground attacks without White House approval. The week after Trump’s inauguration, a U.S. Navy SEAL was killed in a botched raid north of Abyan that was anticipated by al-Qaeda.

Last year, the U.S. military carried out 131 airstrikes, more than six times the tally in 2016, according to the Pentagon’s data. The vast majority targeted AQAP, although 13 of the airstrikes were against the nascent ISIS affiliate. So far this year, there have been at least 30 airstrikes, all but one targeting AQAP.

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