Middle East Insights

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MEI Insight No. 146 13 June 2016

Middle East Insights Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore

Recapturing Mukalla: AQAP in the Yemeni Civil war By Mohammed Sinan Siyech When the former president of Yemen, Abdullah Ali Saleh, stepped down in the wake of the Arab Uprisings of 2011, the Houthis - a Zaydi Shia tribe - took advantage of the chaos that followed to protest against years of his government’s misrule.1 In a bid to capture power and rule the country, they declared an open revolt against the successor Abdul Rabi government in March 2015. The country has, since then, witnessed a full scale civil war between the Houthis and the government with their foreign supporters.2 Gaining from the anarchy, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the most active terrorist groups in the world since 20093, launched its own operations in the town of Mukalla in Southern Yemen on 1 April 2015. It began by freeing many prisoners and looting around US$110 million from the central bank of the town.4 It then went on to establish itself as a powerful player in the city’s administration which was reeling from the lack of government presence in the region. AQAP has since captured more than five territories in Southern Yemen, including Zinjibar, and populous towns in the Abyan and Shabwa region, in the past year.5 What were the factors that contributed to AQAP’s rise? Civil War: Opportunity for AQAP The protracted civil war was the single biggest contributor to AQAP’s strength. The population is now divided loosely into those aligned with the Houthis and those against them, corresponding with the Sunni-Shia divide. Arresting the threat of the rise of the Houthis was a significant selling point in AQAP’s recruitment drive. The fact that AQAP repeatedly declared its intent to 1 "Yemen's Houthis form own government in Sanaa." Al Jazeera. February 07, 2015. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2015/02/yemen-houthi-rebels-announce-presidentialcouncil-150206122736448.html (accessed May 01, 2016). 2 Faheem, Kareem. "As War Strangles Yemen, Many Fear the Grip Will Never Break." New York times. May 10, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/11/world/middleeast/yemen-civil-war.html (accessed Msy 03, 2016). 3 Zimmerman, Katherie. "Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula ." Critical Threats. September 27, 2012. http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/zimmerman-aqap-leaders-and-networks-september-27-2012 (accessed May 25, 2016). 4 Amir, Aiysha. "How al Qaeda Rules in Yemen." Foreign Affairs. October 28, 2015. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/yemen/2015-10-28/how-al-qaeda-rules-yemen (accessed May 05, 2016). 5 Zimmerman, Katherine. "AQAP Expanding behind Yemen's Frontlines." Critical threats . February 07, 2016. http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/zimmerman-aqap-expanding-behind-yemens-frontlines-february-172016 (accessed May 09, 2016).



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MEI Insight No. 146 13 June 2016 fight the Houthis gave them additional support even though many locals did not particularly prefer AQAP’s leadership.6 The civil war also led to two other negative effects. First, the Gulf military coalition backing the Abdur Rabi government has been focused solely on defeating the Houthis to contain the Shia influence in Yemen while largely ignoring the problem of AQAP.7 Second, US marines who had been involved in counter-terrorism operations in Yemen from the time of the previous president, were forced by worsening conditions at the start of the civil war to evacuate Yemen.8 As a consequence, the US not only lost $500 million worth of military equipment, but also forfeited the human networks that had been built up over the years.9 It was these networks that had previously led to the killing of some of the top leaders of AQAP, including Nasser al Wuhayshi (the AQAP top commander) in June 2015.10 The American exit from Yemeni counterterrorism operations gave a major boost to AQAP’s expansionist goals. Co-opting the Local Population After the capture of Mukalla, AQAP’s de-facto capital city, the group formed a 60-member committee to govern the city comprising mainly local citizens.11 This allowed AQAP to rebrand itself as the security apparatus of the town and it gave them control of the city without expending their manpower or money for governance. AQAP also renamed themselves the ‘Sons of Hadramout’, a move that helped gain the appreciation of the people of the Southern province of Hadramout who identify very strongly as ‘Hadramis’ rather than ‘Yemenis’.1213 Without the burden of governance of cities under their control, AQAP was able to build their resources and networks across the country. This was aided by Mukalla’s status as the third largest sea port of Yemen. The group was thus able to draw in an estimated US$2-5 million a day through customs duty and smuggled fuel. They could thus abolish taxes in the city and

6 Batati, Saeed Al. "Yemen: The truth behind al-Qaeda's takeover of Mukalla." Al Jazeera. September 16, 2015. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/09/yemen-truth-al-qaeda-takeover-mukalla150914101527567.html (accessed May 27, 2016). 7 Yara Bayoumy, Noah Browning and Mohammed Ghobari. "How Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen has made al Qaeda stronger – and richer." Reuters. April 08, 2016. http://www.reuters.com/investigates/specialreport/yemen-aqap/ (accessed May 09, 2016). 8 Cooney, Phil Stewart and Peter. "U.S. Marines say they destroyed weapons before leaving Yemen." Reuters. February 11, 2015. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-pentagonidUSKBN0LG06920150212 (accessed May 11, 2016). 9 Whitlock, Craig. "Pentagon loses track of $500 million in weapons, equipment given to Yemen." Washington Post. March 17, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/pentagon-loses-sight-of500-million-in-counterterrorism-aid-given-to-yemen/2015/03/17/f4ca25ce-cbf9-11e4-8a46b1dc9be5a8ff_story.html (accessed May 05, 2016). 10 Siyech, Mohammed Sinan. "Yemen’s Civil War Protagonists:A New Leader of Al Qaeda?" RSIS. October 15, 2015. https://www.rsis.edu.sg/rsis-publication/icpvtr/co15217-yemens-civil-war-protagonists-a-newleader-of-al-qaeda/#.V1fWizV97ct (accessed May 13, 2016). 11 Horton, Michael. "The Hadramawt: AQAP and the Battle for Yemen’s Wealthiest Governorate." Jamestown Foundation. July 10, 2015. http://www.jamestown.org/programs/tm/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=44145&cHash=abcfc507897 44995937a4a6609dcc4c6#.V1fXWDV97cs (accessed May 16, 2016). 12 Reidel, Bruce. "Al-Qaida's Hadramawt emirate." Brookings. July 12, 2015. http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/markaz/posts/2015/07/12-al-qaeda-yemen-emirate-saudi-riedel (accessed May 17, 2016). 13 See Preface of Ho, Engseng. The Graves of Tarim : Geneology and Mobility across the Indian Ocean. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006. Pg xix



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MEI Insight No. 146 13 June 2016 provide many essential services like bridge and road repairs along with delivery of medical supplies and salaries for workers to hospitals.14 Another interesting point would be the implementation of Sharia (Islamic law) in the southern towns. In most areas where people revolt against terrorist groups, the harsh version of the sharia professed by these groups becomes a point of contention for the local populations. However, Southern Yemen has traditionally been more conservative than most parts of the Muslim world including Saudi Arabia. Women are used to being completely covered and most shops are closed during prayer time.15 Against this backdrop, the policies of AQAP were not very alien to the local populations, with the exception of harsh punishments for crimes. However, since these punishments had been rare in the past, the group earned approval from the local populations. Looking Forward With the recent ceasefire agreed by all warring factions, Saudi- and Emirati- backed Yemeni forces took over Mukalla towards the end of April, forcing out AQAP from the town.16 The removal of the AQAP, however, did not mean that the socio-economic concerns of the local populations was now addressed. The ceasefire also did not lead to an impounding of the AQAP’s accumulated wealth and weapons. Continuing to neglect or even reject these issues only risks strengthening the group’s hand in a deteriorating situation. Instead, plans should be put in place for alternative and clean governance in areas previously controlled by them, along with developing a military strategy that can stem the rise of AQAP. Furthermore without additional work on meeting the demands of all the different groups, the situation could escalate again. Given the experience of AQAP and its successes over the last year, the situation should not be considered fully resolved until strong military and socioeconomic solutions are developed.

Mohammed Sinan Siyech is a Research Analyst with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.He has stayed in Mukalla, Yemen previously for a diploma in Arabic, where he witnessed the beginning of the current civil war. He is presently focusing on the Middle East and North Africa region.

Bibliography

14 Yara Bayoumy, Noah Browning and Mohammed Ghobari. "How Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen has made al Qaeda stronger – and richer." Reuters. April 08, 2016. http://www.reuters.com/investigates/specialreport/yemen-aqap/ (accessed May 09, 2016). 15 Amir, Aiysha. "How al Qaeda Rules in Yemen." Foreign Affairs. October 28, 2015. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/yemen/2015-10-28/how-al-qaeda-rules-yemen (accessed May 05, 2016). 16 Joscelyn, Thomas. "Arab coalition enters AQAP stronghold in port city of Mukalla, Yemen." The Long War Journal. April 25, 2016. http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2016/04/arab-coalition-enters-aqapstronghold-in-port-city-of-mukalla-yemen.php (accessed May 17, 2016).



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MEI Insight No. 146 13 June 2016 "Yemen's Houthis form own government in Sanaa." Al Jazeera. February 07, 2015. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2015/02/yemen-houthi-rebels-announcepresidential-council-150206122736448.html (accessed May 01, 2016). Faheem, Kareem. "As War Strangles Yemen, Many Fear the Grip Will Never Break." New York times. May 10, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/11/world/middleeast/yemen-civil-war.html (accessed Msy 03, 2016). Amir, Aiysha. "How al Qaeda Rules in Yemen." Foreign Affairs. October 28, 2015. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/yemen/2015-10-28/how-al-qaeda-rules-yemen (accessed May 05, 2016). Zimmerman, Katherine. "AQAP Expanding behind Yemen's Frontlines." Critical threats . February 07, 2016. http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/zimmerman-aqap-expanding-behind-yemensfrontlines-february-17-2016 (accessed May 09, 2016). Yara Bayoumy, Noah Browning and Mohammed Ghobari. "How Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen has made al Qaeda stronger – and richer." Reuters. April 08, 2016. http://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/yemen-aqap/ (accessed May 09, 2016). Cooney, Phil Stewart and Peter. "U.S. Marines say they destroyed weapons before leaving Yemen." Reuters. February 11, 2015. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-pentagonidUSKBN0LG06920150212 (accessed May 11, 2016). Whitlock, Craig. "Pentagon loses track of $500 million in weapons, equipment given to Yemen." Washington Post. March 17, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/nationalsecurity/pentagon-loses-sight-of-500-million-in-counterterrorism-aid-given-toyemen/2015/03/17/f4ca25ce-cbf9-11e4-8a46-b1dc9be5a8ff_story.html (accessed May 05, 2016). Siyech, Mohammed Sinan. "Yemen’s Civil War Protagonists:A New Leader of Al Qaeda?" RSIS. October 15, 2015. https://www.rsis.edu.sg/rsis-publication/icpvtr/co15217-yemens-civil-warprotagonists-a-new-leader-of-al-qaeda/#.V1fWizV97ct (accessed May 13, 2016). Reidel, Bruce. "Al-Qaida's Hadramawt emirate." Brookings. July 12, 2015. http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/markaz/posts/2015/07/12-al-qaeda-yemen-emirate-saudiriedel (accessed May 17, 2016). Horton, Michael. "The Hadramawt: AQAP and the Battle for Yemen’s Wealthiest Governorate." Jamestown Foundation. July 10, 2015. http://www.jamestown.org/programs/tm/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=44145&cHash=abc fc50789744995937a4a6609dcc4c6#.V1fXWDV97cs (accessed May 16, 2016). Joscelyn, Thomas. "Arab coalition enters AQAP stronghold in port city of Mukalla, Yemen." The Long War Journal. April 25, 2016. http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2016/04/arab-coalitionenters-aqap-stronghold-in-port-city-of-mukalla-yemen.php (accessed May 17, 2016).



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MEI Insight No. 146 13 June 2016 Zimmerman, Katherie. "Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula ." Critical Threats. September 27, 2012. http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/zimmerman-aqap-leaders-and-networks-september-272012 (accessed May 25, 2016). Batati, Saeed Al. "Yemen: The truth behind al-Qaeda's takeover of Mukalla." Al Jazeera. September 16, 2015. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/09/yemen-truth-al-qaeda-takeover-mukalla150914101527567.html (accessed May 27, 2016). Ho, Engseng. The Graves of Tarim : Geneology and Mobility across the Indian Ocean. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006.

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