No compromise in war against Al Qaeda in Yemen
Yemeni Forces are being trained to drive Al Qaeda out.
The sweeping views of Mukalla from atop the rugged mountains wrapping the southern coastal stretch look picture perfect. But for the heavily armed Yemeni forces manning the military outposts from a vantage point, it is crucial to keep round-the-clock watch over the port city that was once rampaged and ruled by Al Qaeda up until 2016.
The militants were successfully evicted from the city, which is also the capital of Yemen's largest province, Hadramawt, thanks to a military operation launched by a Saudi-led Arab coalition forces two years ago.
But the threat from AQAP or Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula - as the Yemeni franchise of the terrorist group is known - persists. Its fighters who are holed up in remote mountainous terrains of Hadramawt, are believed to have the ability to regroup and activate sleeper cells. Though largely invisible for now, they are still considered the most lethal offshoot of Al Qaeda nursing ambitions to launch terror attacks globally.
The UAE is well aware of the security threat Al Qaeda poses, both for the region and the world. Reason why the country, which is currently fighting a deadly war against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the north of Yemen, shows no sign of complacency in its hunt for Al Qaeda in the South. "Even if the Houthi war is over, we will continue to fight Al Qaeda," Brigadier Ali, Commander of the Coalition Task Force in Hadramawt and Red Sea Coast, told Khaleej Times.
The same policy was echoed by a senior UAE military official who told the paper: "The counter Al Qaeda operation will remain and we will remain in Yemen until AQAP is broken. We will stay until the job is done."
The official, however, affirmed the AQAP is at its weakest since 2012 with hardly 200 fighters left from its rank and file. A map at the UAE military headquarters in Abu Dhabi that marks the current Al Qaeda presence in Yemen shows only a few blotches of red mainly in Marib, Bayda and Wadi Hadramawt. The militants' capability to strike local targets, let alone global ones, has also been considerably reduced.
According to the UAE army, there were only five terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda in the first half of 2018, compared to the 77 in the same period of 2016. The last attack the group claimed on a foreign soil was in 2015 for the massacre at the office of the French magazine, Charlie Habdo.
"Where once it was ruling and plotting, Al Qaeda is now running and hiding. We have deprived them of their safe havens, finance streams, and recruitment pools," said the military official.
"The Coalition has been relentless in its pursuit of the group, thanks to the 30,000 Yemeni forces we have trained and equipped to take them on. The terrorists have been pushed back into the wilderness, territorially and politically."
AQ's rise to power in Mukalla
It was the chaos and political instability spawned by the Arab Spring in the region, and the domestic power vacuum in the South of Yemen, that gave Al Qaeda an opportunity to establish its foothold in the country in 2015. Many of its fighters who had retreated home from Afghanistan after the post Bin Laden era were war-hungry. As the Houthi rebels captured the capital Sanaa and forced President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi into exile, the AQAP took advantage and stormed into Mukalla and made huge territorial gains in the Hadramawt province the same year in April. AQAP flags fluttered atop all major buildings and Mukalla was officially under the Al Qaeda rule.
"It was a peaceful takeover of Mukalla. Many in the army were from the Northern part of Yemen, and had agreements with Al Qaeda. They did not want to fight (Al Qaeda)," alleged Hadramawt's current governor, Faraj Salamayn Al Bahsani.
"First they (Al Qaeda) went to the jail and freed all the criminals. Then they looted all the banks. They took control of the main harbour and the airport. People who opposed them were publicly executed," Al Bahsani told Khaleej Times during an interview at his office.
"They were attacking police officials and destroying government buildings. They closed down universities and stopped girls from going to school. The civilian life was disrupted. It was a disaster," said Al Bahsani.
After the capture of Mukalla, the militants were flush with cash as they pillaged a total of 24 billion Yemeni Riyals ($111 million) from local banks. Also, with major ports under their control, $2 million hard cash was going straight into their pockets daily that they extorted from local companies and in import taxes. The group also came to possess some of the most sophisticated weapons as the Yemeni army left their posts and fled in the face of the marauding militants.
Retake of Mukalla by Coalition forces
A combination of a wealthy AQAP and violent Houthi insurrection in control of Yemen presented an appalling prospect for regional stability, international security and the people of Yemen. It was becoming increasingly clear that the Yemeni government did not have the resources to halt Al Qaeda. And the Coalition forces entered the battlefield spearheading a counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operation in Yemen.
Brigadier Ali said a whole year of work and preparation went into the liberation of Mukalla, including training and equipping 10,000 Yemeni forces.
"We established the Khalidia camp in April 2015. We recruited more than 12,000 men from different tribes across all of Hadramawt - especially from north Hadramawt. At the same time, we worked with the resistance inside Mukalla, who supported us with intelligence. We started to equip tribesmen in April 2015 with armoured vehicles and weapons, especially anti-tanks missiles, such as RPGs," Brigadier Ali said.
"Gathering intelligence was the first step, and for that building relations with the local tribes was important. We wanted the tribes to fight Al Qaeda," he added.
On April, 24, Yemeni forces backed by the UAE army marched through Mukalla, and in a single day, retook the city as the US planes pounded the AQAP hideouts with heavy shelling.
"We received support from the US. They helped us with technical and surveillance intelligence from drones," said the brigadier.
The militants moved west to Shabwah and Al Bayda province during the operation and the coalition army continued the chase. In August 2017, the forces took Shabwah province from AQAP. "We liberated the north and east of Shabwah in that same month. In February 2018, we liberated west of Shabwah, which meant we had liberated the whole of the province."
In a massive air offensive dubbed 'The Black Mountain Operation', the coalition forces took the east of Wadi Hadramawt, completing the rout of Al Qaeda in March 2018. "We know that many Al Qaeda leaders are holed up in safe havens in Marib. We are confident that we will deal with them effectively. We will eventually cleanse Yemen of all terror outfits," said the brigadier.
One of the biggest battles
"Around 500 fighters from Al Qaeda died. We estimate that there were a total of 1,500 Al Qaeda fighters," he said, panning a recent media report alleging the coalition forces had made decisive victories over Al Qaeda 'without firing a shot' and by striking deals with the retreating fighters.
"The reason the battle did not take so long was Al Qaeda doesn't fight face-to-face. They only know guerrilla warfare. The leaders fled west. It was a quick battle, the local people supported us, but it took a few days to clear Mukalla."
In response to the same report, Hadramawt governor Al Bahsani said the allegations are baseless. "It was one of the biggest battles. Nearly 360 Al Qaeda fighters were killed in Mukalla alone."
"It took at least four hours to take over a military base at the entrance of Mukalla. The fight at the air base was also heavy."
Around 1000 core AQAP fighters have been killed since 2015, including 13 of 18 most-wanted leaders, and 1,500 captured, according to military sources.
Rubbishing the allegations of financial deals with Al Qaeda as "completely untrue and illogical," an official spokesperson for the UAE government said one of the primary objectives of the UAE operations in Yemen has been to "deprive AQAP of the financial strength they had acquired with territory seized, to prevent them from being able to carry out regional or global terror attacks".
"We would never authorise any course of action which worked against this objective."
When asked whether there were any reconciliations and rehabilitation of Al Qaeda fighters, the spokesperson said: "There have been isolated cases of surrender, involving individual or small groups of fighters, and these have been handled in accordance with international conventions. There have been no reconciliation agreements."
Winning the battle of hearts
Decimating Al Qaeda and its capability to launch terrorist attacks is at the heart of UAE's foreign policy and counter-terrorism operations. With that aim, the UAE has so far trained and equipped roughly 60,000 Yemeni fighters, around 30,000 of which have been directly involved in the fight against Al Qaeda.
But AQAP cannot be contained through physical superiority alone. As the senior military official puts it, "counter-terrorism is as much a battle for hearts and minds as it is for military victory; it is essential that this campaign is waged and won by Yemenis."
The rebuilding work the UAE is doing in the south of Yemen through the UAE Red Crescent is proof of its long-term commitment to support the country. Since 2015, the UAE has given $3.8 billion in aid to support and stabilise Yemen, a country that has been ravaged by three years of relentless conflict. With millions of dirhams as investments flowing into the construction and maintenance of schools, hospitals, power plants, airports and rebuilding of government and civil society, Mukalla is surely emerging from the dark shadows of terror.
Governor Al Bahsani, the man in charge, is optimistic that Hadramawt is sculpting a new future with the help and support of the Emirati leaders and their military might. But he wishes the global community will do more to rally behind Yemen.
"We need aid and assistance from the global community, and we deserve that help. We have been fighting terrorism all these years."
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