Across desert mountain ranges and in dusty urban alleyways, Yemen’s army has begun a U.S.-backed offensive to dislodge al-Qaeda militants whose growing numbers pose a threat to neighbors including Saudi Arabia.
President Barack Obama highlighted the Yemen campaign in his foreign-policy speech yesterday, pledging to train the Arab nation’s army to help it fight the militants. The Yemeni army is deploying tanks and helicopters in a campaign coordinated with Saudi Arabia as well as the U.S., Faris al-Saqqaf, an adviser to Yemeni President Abdurabu Mansur Hadi, said in an interview on May 15.
“This is the first time government troops have really taken the fight to al-Qaeda,” and the assault follows months of preparation, al-Saqqaf said. Hundreds of militants have been killed and injured since late April, according to the army. Al-Qaeda is retaliating, and its raid on the southeastern town of Seiyun last weekend led to a firefight that left dozens dead.
Large swathes of Yemen, a country bigger than Spain, are effectively beyond the reach of a weak central government, offering an attractive haven for al-Qaeda. Attacks that the group has plotted from its bases there include attempts to assassinate a top Saudi official and bomb a Detroit-bound plane, and its presence is growing.
“The number of foreign fighters in Yemen has increased recently, they appear to be coming from the Syrian conflict, and they’ve set their sights on Saudi Arabia,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, in a phone interview. He said Al-Qaeda’s presence there “needs to be eliminated to preserve the security of Yemen and ultimately neighboring countries.”
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemen operation calls itself, emerged when leading figures from the Islamist group fled a crackdown in Saudi Arabia. Operating more freely from the new base, it has become bolder.
Militants attacked the Defense Ministry in December, leaving more than 50 dead, and they have also assassinated officials and ambushed army patrols. The U.S. and other countries have been forced to temporarily close embassies due to threats.
Obama said yesterday that he’ll set up a fund of as much as $5 billion to help U.S. allies fight terrorism, and referred specifically to the “security forces in Yemen who’ve gone on the offensive against al-Qaeda.”
As well as the Islamist takeover of parts of the country, Yemen’s government has also been trying to contain well-armed Shiite-Muslim Houthi rebels in the north. Adding to the chaos were the Arab Spring-inspired protests that forced President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down in 2011.
That year the economy contracted 13 percent. It won’t regain the lost output until 2015, according to the International Monetary Fund, which estimates annual per-capita gross domestic product at about $1,500.
The deterioration of security along multiple fronts has raised the prospect of the state’s collapse. The country with most to fear from that outcome is Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter and Yemen’s neighbor. It’s one reason Saudis are leading a donor drive, pledging more than half of the $6.4 billion in aid to the Arab world’s poorest country.
“Yemen could be a far more dangerous place than even Afghanistan as a source of violent extremism globally,” said Paul Sullivan, a Middle East specialist at Georgetown University in Washington. “Add Yemen to Libya and Syria and the world could have real problems ahead.”
Saudi authorities are engaged in their own battle with militant Islamists. Earlier this month they announced the arrest of dozens of al-Qaeda-linked militants said to be planning attacks against domestic and foreign targets. The Saudi Interior Ministry said the cell it uncovered had links to groups in Yemen, as well as to fighters in Syria battling to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
In Yemen the attack on al-Qaeda looks like a war, not a police roundup. Hundreds of militants have been killed and wounded in fighting in the Shabwa and Abyan provinces, according to Yemen’s army.
The U.S. is targeting al-Qaeda enclaves with drone strikes. The State Department cited al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as posing “the most significant threat to the United States and U.S. citizens and interests in Yemen,” according to this year’s terrorism report published April 30. It said AQAP is an example of “the emergence of a more aggressive set” of affiliates that have gained prominence as al-Qaeda’s core leadership has weakened.
In Yemen’s southeastern Hadramut province, the army this month had to fight off an al-Qaeda assault on Seiyun which left at least 10 soldiers and 15 militants dead, including two Saudi nationals, the official Saba news agency said May 24. Militants attacked an army base and looted three bank branches.
Reporters haven’t been permitted to enter the areas where the recent fighting took place. Bullet-holes in the walls of buildings in the village of al-Koud, in the southern province of Abyan, are signs of earlier battles. Al-Qaeda had a strong presence there until 2012.
Now, members of local militias loyal to the government guard street corners, and local residents count their losses. Abdu Ali said his 14-year old son had both his hands blown off, and his friend died, when they accidently detonated an explosive left behind by the conflict.
“My son needs medical and psychological care,” he said. “He suffers from terrible nightmares. There has been no government support.”
During the current military offensive, the army uncovered car-bomb making centers and suicide belts, according to al-Saqqaf. The militants had dug trenches around some the villages they controlled, he said.
In the capital, Sana’a, security forces are on alert for possible retaliatory strikes.
“Hadi is serious about fighting terrorism,” said Saeed Obaid al-Jemhi, an independent al-Qaeda expert based in Sana’a and author of ‘Al-Qaeda in Yemen.’ “But al-Qaeda represents a dangerous threat. It is still able to retaliate.”