Security

Weakened al-Qaeda in Yemen eyes return as six-year war grinds on

By Nabil Abdullah al-Tamimi

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A fighter loyal to the Yemeni government keeps watch over a valley west of Taez on March 8, 2021. [AHMAD AL-BASHA / AFP]

ADEN -- Efforts to revive the peace process in Yemen, led by the United Nations and supported by the United States, will help to neutralise al-Qaeda, which has attempted to exploit the ongoing conflict to regroup, experts and analysts say.

A resolution to the six-year war will enable the Yemeni government to redirect its resources to fighting the extremist group, which has taken advantage of the government's preoccupation with the Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah) to carry out attacks.

Al-Qaeda attacks have become increasingly common as the war drags on.

Suspected al-Qaeda gunmen on March 18, for instance, attacked a security checkpoint in the Ahwar area of Abyan province manned by the UAE-trained Security Belt Forces.

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Pro-government fighters in Yemen ride in the back of a pickup truck with mounted heavy machine gun while closing in on a suspected location of an AQAP leader during an offensive in Hadramaut province's Mesini Valley on February 21, 2018. [Saleh al-Obeidi/AFP]

The attackers launched rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and fired machine guns on the checkpoint in the coastal district of Ahwar, killing four civilians and eight soldiers. The attackers escaped after opening fire.

Political analyst Mahmoud al-Taher said the continuation of the war and its expansion to more than one front "will prolong the conflict and create conditions that are more conducive for al-Qaeda elements to regroup".

This could lead to a resumption of terrorist activity, he said.

Al-Qaeda active in Marib

Years of setbacks have weakened the Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda, but the group has been attempting to regenerate while the government and the Houthis are locked in a fierce fight in the northern province of Marib, AFP reported.

The battle for Marib is creating a security vacuum that is being exploited by al-Qaeda, security officials and tribal leaders said.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has suffered multiple defeats in the past three years, leaving the group deprived of territory and fighters, and with mystery surrounding the fate of its leadership.

Marib has been AQAP's main stronghold, an intelligence official said.

While the main combatants sustain heavy losses in an effort to control Marib city, AQAP remains "at ease" elsewhere in the region, where it retains strong influence in villages and small towns.

"As others get busy fighting, they are training fighters again, planning, rebuilding relations" with local tribes and chasing "financial support" from local communities, the official added.

Extremists fed on instability

AQAP thrived as Yemen grappled with growing instability -- a secessionist movement in the south, a rebellion in the north, and a crippling economic crisis.

By 2010, "they had a strong basis for their movement and many safe havens", said Hossam Radman of the Sanaa Centre for Strategic Studies.

AQAP peaked in 2014, invading towns and taking control of the Hadramaut provincial capital of al-Mukalla in 2015.

When Saudi Arabia launched a military intervention in Yemen in March 2015, aimed at halting the Houthis, its eye also was fixed on AQAP.

The UAE, a key member of the Saudi-led Arab coalition, took the lead in driving AQAP out of villages with the help of US forces, weapons and intelligence.

US forces managed to locate and kill key leaders, including the group's leader, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, in 2015.

Another challenge was the ambition of the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS), as the rival extremists tussled for territory and support over the years.

"All these elements weakened AQAP. Today, it is facing financial problems, many members are accused of treason, and others joined ISIS," said a tribal leader in Marib.

But now the fighting in Marib "is helping the group reorganise", he said.

Fear of al-Qaeda's return

It remains a possibility that al-Qaeda will return, said Mohsen al-Faqir, a government employee from Abyan.

This is because the Yemeni government has suspended its efforts to fight al-Qaeda and hunt down its members and sleeper cells, he said.

Al-Taher, the political analyst, called for enhanced efforts to bring peace to Yemen, and for the government, Arab coalition and United States to ramp up efforts to fight al-Qaeda.

Parts of the country still provide "a safe haven for al-Qaeda elements", he said, pointing to al-Bayda and Abyan provinces, and to a lesser extent, Shabwa.

Al-Qaeda, like any other terrorist group, takes advantage of ongoing events, said Abaad Studies and Research Centre director Abdulsalam Mohammed.

"To such groups, the state is enemy number one, and when they see it weakening or embroiled in multiple wars, they move to achieve whatever gain they can on the ground," he said.

"Terrorist groups move into any area where the state is absent, and any instance of the government's weakness will give al-Qaeda and others an opportunity to move in and establish presence," he added.

The defeat of terrorist groups begins with the restoration of the state and the elimination of armed groups operating outside state control, Mohammed said.

"The government, in co-operation with the [Arab] coalition and international partners, should launch a military campaign to take back the areas controlled by terrorist groups," he said.

The government also should launch a transitional process to achieve sustainable peace for Yemen, Mohammed said.

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