Al-Qaeda threat grows in Yemen
Catherine Shakdam / First published March 11 in / Foreign Policy Blogs (author)
As Yemenis rose against President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the wake of Egyptian President Hosni Mubaraks’ resignation, hoping that they would also be able to facilitate a change in regime by the sheer will of the people, the Islamic terrorist group saw in the unrest that followed a perfect opportunity. Aware that the regime was concentrating its efforts on quelling the brewing rebellion, as it recalled most of its military forces back to the capital, Sana’a, where massive protests were being staged, the armed militants moved into position, ready to pounce on Yemen.
A few months into the revolution, Al-Qaeda militants traveled along the country’s southern provinces, knowing that the terrain and somewhat lawlessness would favor their advances. Yemen’s southern territories are largely controlled on tribal grounds, which prevents to some extent the central government from fully establishing its authority in the region. The provinces therefore also serve as a breeding ground for groups like Al-Qaeda.
The most infamous defector from the regime, General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, who was once an ally of President Saleh, accused the incumbent of allowing the Islamic militants to roam the land in order to prove a point: to establish once and for all that only he could keep Al-Qaeda at bay. President Saleh actually warned last year that with his departure, Al-Qaeda would soon move to the offensive, seize several provinces and jeopardize the nation’s unity. Regardless of one’s belief, his foretelling of Yemen’s fall into darkness is materializing, striking fear at the heart of Yemenis.
Seemingly, the elections that appointed Abdu Rabbo Mansour as Yemen’s new President signaled the beginning of Al-Qaeda’s widespread military campaign across the country’s southern regions, with a surge in attacks on military bases and bombings against government buildings and officials. In a matter of weeks the group had declared two Caliphates in Yemen, claiming the southern provinces of Abyan and Shabwa.
Sources within the military and Yemen’s Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) have told the press that the militants are now moving dangerously close to controlling the southeastern province of Hadramout, one of Yemen’s largest and natural resource rich regions. According to tribal leaders and local officials in Al-Mukalla, Al-Qaeda has already spread out an impressive support network, warning that if the regional capital was to fall, nothing and no one would stop the militants from taking over and claiming control over the province.
Last week, pamphlets were posted all over Mukalla city warning that whoever sides with the regime would be considered a traitor to Islam and therefore killed, a campaign that underscores the far reach of the group and its new daring approach. The Central Security Forces say an estimated 300 Jihadists are present on the ground and are currently training in the Azzan and Maifa’a directorates of Shabwa governorate in preparation for an assault against Mukalla. If one bares in mind that 100 Al-Qaeda fighters managed to slaughter their way through a reported 185 soldiers in Abyan last week, one can only imagine what tragedy could unfold if 300 were allowed to rain death on Mukalla.
Tens of thousands of Yemenis across the nation came out this Friday to denounce Al-Qaeda’s attacks and massacres in Dofes and Al-Qud, urging President Abdu Rabbo Mansour Hadi to execute the people’s revenge. Yemen is mourning its braves, waking up to the harsh reality of terrorism, which so far seemed to be a mere political tool, a myth without substance.
Wounded in its flesh, Yemen is now calling for a national strike against the group, with Yemenis across the political spectrum expressing their outrage and disgust. “We are very sad about what happened in the Dofes massacre,” said Mohamed Mohsen, a government employee. “Al-Qaeda has gone way beyond the red line, taking advantage of [Yemen's current] military and political divide. The time has come for the state to take revenge for its men and restore stability to these areas, especially since there are thousands of displaced people from Abyan who are enduring hardship because of Al-Qaeda’s presence there.”
Hamoud Al-Hattar, former minister of endowments and guidance, told the press that terrorist acts are contrary to Islamic law. “We condemn all terrorist acts that occurred after February 21st, including Al-Qaeda’s attack on the presidential palace in Mukalla and Sunday’s incident in Dofes,” he said. “We called for the formation of a neutral commission of inquiry to investigate what happened, especially if there was dereliction on the part of members of the army.”
The Joint Meeting Parties, an umbrella group comprised of all political factions opposed to the incumbent General People’s Congress, interestingly expressed their condemnation of Al-Qaeda’s attack on Yemeni soil after Saleh’s loyalists advanced the possibility of a proxy war with Al-Islah, Yemen’s Islamic party, who they say would attempt “to raise hell and finish off the Republic” in order to attain power. The theory is that Al-Islah’s most radical militants would disguise themselves as Al-Qaeda agents or possibly would have infiltrated Al-Qaeda ranks to draw the regime into an armed conflict, weaken the central government and pounce on the presidential seat asserting Al-Ahmar’s rise to ultimate domination.
Although some might categorize the conspiracy as borderline delusional, it cannot be ignored that certain figures amongst Al-Islah have undeniable ties with the terrorist group. Names such as Sheikh Abdel-Mageed Al-Zindani and Sheikh Al-Dhahab are all high ranking leaders of Al-Islah and alleged terrorists according to the US.
Saleh’s loyalists also supported their allegations by pointing out that only the Republican Guards and the Central Security Forces, both under the control of Saleh’s family members, had been targeted so far, proof that Al-Islah was trying to get rid of the competition.
Who can save Yemen?
But beyond political manipulation is the fate of a nation, with people looking towards Sana’a for a strong military leader. With its armed forces in tatters and little to no unity, Yemen faces its toughest challenge yet. And while politicians from the opposition are clamoring for an immediate military restructuring, urging President Hadi to fulfill the terms of the power-transfer, the people are starting to wonder whether it would be wise to remove the very figures who could save the country from utter disaster.
“Not that I necessarily agree with them or even know what they stand for politically, I would rather keep Ahmed Saleh [the Head of the Republican Guards and Saleh’s eldest son] and Yehia Mohamed Saleh [the Head of the Central Security Forces and Saleh’s nephew] than put Yemen’s fate into the hands of others. At least they have been trained and are fully in control of their men. Who’s to say that the soldiers would follow another leader? We don’t need more problems. Hadi should postpone the restructuring until after Al-Qaeda is destroyed,” said a university professor, Mohamed Al-Ansi.
So far the Americans and the Saudis have been in favor of keeping those two main figures of the regime as they represent strategic allies, directly going against the JMP’s wishes as the latter seeks to appoint their own loyalists. With alarming reports warning against Al-Qaeda’s plans to strike at the very heart of the Yemeni capital by targeting the US embassy and other state institutions, the government has raised the alarm to a maximum.
Sources said that Al-Qaeda cells in the areas of Zindan and Arhab have trained for operations involving the storming of fortified sites, attacking fixed and mobile targets while aboard vehicles and motorbikes, and that Al-Qaeda militants have entered Sana’a in preparation for carrying out their attacks in the coming few days.