Campaign against al-Qaeda in Yemen scores victories despite ongoing civil conflict

By Nabil Abdullah al-Tamimi

Yemenis gather around a burnt car after it was targeted by a drone strike killing three suspected al-Qaeda militants on January 26, 2015, between Marib and Shabwa provinces. [AFP Photo/STR]

Yemenis gather around a burnt car after it was targeted by a drone strike killing three suspected al-Qaeda militants on January 26, 2015, between Marib and Shabwa provinces. [AFP Photo/STR]

ADEN -- International efforts to hunt down leaders and operatives of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have substantially weakened the group, experts and researchers in Yemen said.

The US State Department’s Rewards for Justice programme is offering up to $6 million for information leading to the identification or location of Saad bin Atef al-Awlaki, the AQAP "emir" of Yemen's Shabwa province.

In late June and early July, the programme made three back-to-back announcements offering rewards for information on three al-Qaeda leaders present in Yemen.

It offered up to $5 million for information on Ibrahim al-Banna, an Egyptian al-Qaeda leader who was a founding member of AQAP and serves as a functionary to al-Qaeda leaders based in Iran.

The programme also offered a $10 million reward for information on prominent AQAP leader and Sudan native Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al-Qosi.

And it offered $5 million for information that brings Khaled al-Batarfi, a senior member of AQAP in Yemen's Hadramaut province and a former member of the group's shura council, to justice.

"There is no place for al-Qaeda traitors in Yemen, not now nor in the future," Rewards for Justice said.

In November, local government officials reported that two al-Qaeda operatives had been killed when an air strike targeted their vehicle in the border region between Shabwa and al-Bayda provinces.

Political analyst Waddah al-Yaman Abdul Qader told Al-Mashareq that al-Awlaki is "one of the active leaders on the ground" and is one of AQAP's most dangerous.

"But they work within an integrated framework of leaders, all of whom have been targeted by the Rewards for Justice programme in the past months, including leaders of Arab origin who reside in Yemeni territory," he said.

The higher level of visibility afforded by the Rewards for Justice programme restricts the movement of al-Qaeda operatives and hampers their activities, he said.

But to be truly effective in the quest to hunt down al-Qaeda elements in Yemen and break up sleeper cells, he said, the country's security and intelligence institutions must be rehabilitated.

While Yemen's security apparatus remains weakened by years of war against the Iran-backed Houthis, he said, AQAP has sought to reorganise its ranks, which calls for additional international measures to keep it in check.

Constricting AQAP movements

The ongoing efforts to hunt down AQAP leaders via the rewards programme and air strikes "have significantly constricted the movement of its leaders and hampered its attempts to regroup", said Ahmed Bamaas.

According to Bamaas, deputy head of the Hilf bloc, a tribal alliance in Hadramaut province, AQAP "is weak, fragmented and wracked by conflicts over leadership".

Additionally, he said, "its leaders are being hunted down in military operations carried out by the Yemeni army with the support of the Arab Coalition" in areas where al-Qaeda has a presence.

A number of factors have contributed to weakening the group, he said, including the constant operations targeting its leaders and operatives and the efforts to dry up its financial wellsprings.

Youth who once might have joined AQAP cells have held back, he said, because they are convinced that this move is futile, as the group has been weak and ineffective since the death of Osama bin Laden.

Furthermore, he added, there is a general lack of tribal or social support for al-Qaeda.

Erosion of support for AQAP

Journalist Khaled Ahmed also noted the erosion of social support, and especially of tribal support, for AQAP.

This lack of an incubating environment has seen the group unable to lift itself out of its weakened state, even though Yemeni security and military agencies are preoccupied with the battle against the Houthis, he told Al-Mashareq.

The erosion of social support "explains why AQAP's leader in Yemen Khaled Batarfi tried to court Yemeni tribes in a recent video recording released by the group's al-Malahem Media", he said.

Ahmed pointed to the "constant and intensive efforts being made to pursue the group's elements and leaders of the organisation on all levels, including the financial, intelligence, security and military levels".

"The arrival of al-Qaeda leaders in Yemen accentuates the importance of being ready to counter any activity on any level, including engagement in military confrontations," he said.

Yemen's security and military services must receive the support they need to enable them to undertake that task, Ahmed said.

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