Tuesday, August 07, 2018

‘We will unite with the devil in the face of Houthis’

Over the past two years, a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia, backed by the United States and the United Kingdom has claimed it won decisive victories over al-Qaida militants. What isn't disclosed is that many of their conquests came without firing a shot because the coalition cut secret deals with al-Qaida fighters, paying some to leave key cities and towns and letting others retreat with weapons, equipment, and looted cash. In one case, a tribal mediator who brokered a deal between the Emiratis and al-Qaida even gave the extremists a farewell dinner. Overall, deals that took place during both the Obama and Trump administrations have secured al-Qaida militants’ withdrawal from multiple major towns and cities that the group seized in 2015. The earliest pact, in the spring of 2016, allowed thousands of al-Qaida fighters to pull out of Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth-largest city and a major port on the Arabian Sea.  “We woke up one day and al-Qaida had vanished without a fight,” a local journalist said. “Coalition fighter jets and U.S. drones were idle,” said a senior tribal leader who saw the convoy leaving. “I was wondering why they didn’t strike them.”

 Tarek al-Fadhli, a former jihadi once trained by al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, said he was in touch with officials at the U.S. Embassy and in the Saudi-led coalition, keeping them updated on the withdrawal. “When the last one left, we called the coalition to say they are gone,” he said.

These compromises and alliances have allowed al-Qaida militants to survive to fight another day. Key participants in the pacts said the U.S. (and we presume the UK) was aware of the arrangements and held off on any drone strikes.  

The larger mission is to win the civil war against the Houthis. And in that fight, al-Qaida militants are effectively on the same side as the Saudi-led coalition. Coalition-backed militias actively recruit al-Qaida militants, or those who were recently members. Al-Qaida militants are extremist Sunnis seeking the defeat of the Shiite rebels and Al-Qaida militants are present on all major front lines fighting the rebels, according to Khaled Baterfi, a senior leader in the group.  Baterfi said that “those at the front lines for sure know of our participation, which is either actual fighting with our brothers in Yemen or supporting them with weapons.” Al-Qaida has reduced attacks against Hadi’s and Emirati-linked forces because assailing them would benefit the Houthis, Baterfi said. The branch is following guidance from al-Qaida’s worldwide leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, to focus on fighting the rebels, another top AQAP member. In some places, militants join battles independently. But in many cases, militia commanders from the ultraconservative Salafi sect and the Muslim Brotherhood bring them directly into their ranks, where they benefit from coalition funding. The Brotherhood’s Yemen branch is a powerful hard-line Islamic political organization allied to Hadi. Two of the four main coalition-backed commanders along the Red Sea coast are allies of al-Qaida, the al-Qaida member said. Video footage showed a coalition-backed unit advancing on Mocha, part of an eventually successful campaign to recapture the Red Sea town. Some of the unit’s fighters were openly al-Qaida.

“Elements of the U.S. military are clearly aware that much of what the U.S. is doing in Yemen is aiding AQAP and there is much angst about that,” said Michael Horton, a fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, a U.S. analysis group that tracks terrorism. “However, supporting the UAE and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia against what the U.S. views as Iranian expansionism takes priority over battling AQAP and even stabilizing Yemen.” Horton said much of the war on al-Qaida by the UAE and its allied militias is a “farce.” “It is now almost impossible to untangle who is AQAP and who is not since so many deals and alliances have been made,” he said.

“The United States is certainly in a bind in Yemen,” said Katherine Zimmerman, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “It doesn’t make sense that the United States has identified al-Qaida as a threat, but that we have common interests inside of Yemen and that, in some places, it looks like we’re looking the other way.”

One Yemeni commander who was put on the U.S. terrorism list for al-Qaida ties last year continues to receive money from the UAE to run his militia.  Another commander, recently granted $12 million for his fighting force by Yemen’s president, has a known al-Qaida figure as his closest aide. 

The U.S. is aware of an al-Qaida presence among the anti-Houthi ranks, a senior American official told reporters in Cairo earlier this year. Because coalition members back militias with hard-line Islamic commanders, “it’s very, very easy for al-Qaida to insinuate itself into the mix,” the official said. More recently, the Pentagon vigorously denied any complicity with al-Qaida militants.

In February, Emirati troops and their Yemeni militia allies declared the recapture of al-Said, a district of villages running through the mountainous province of Shabwa — an area al-Qaida had largely dominated for nearly three years. It was painted as a crowning victory in a months-long offensive. The Emirati ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, had proclaimed would “disrupt the terrorist organization’s network and degrade its ability to conduct future attacks.” The Pentagon, which assisted with a small number of troops, echoed that promise, saying the mission would weaken the group’s ability to use Yemen as a base. But weeks before those forces’ entry, a string of pickup trucks mounted with machine guns and loaded with masked al-Qaida militants drove out of al-Said unmolested.  Armed U.S. drones were absent, despite the large, obvious convoy. Under the terms of the deal, the coalition promised al-Qaida members it would pay them to leave.

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