As usual, today’s reporting on Yemen has been high on al-Qaeda hype and low on political information. Units attributed to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) assaulted multiple positions near Zinjibar, mainly the base of Brigade 211 in Doufas district. Dozens of casualties have been reported on both sides after air-strikes (of an unconfirmed source) struck back at the militants. In total nine areas in Abyan province reported military activity.
This area, according to numerous U.S. officials, now represents the most dangerous threat to America’s national security. According to many Yemenis and observers, the conditions of southern Yemen have been manipulated to pose as a threat to the West.
Speculation has run wild throughout the last five months of fighting in Abyan and Aden governorates. Local witnesses speak of retreating government forces and Brigadier General Mohammed al-Sawmali, commander of Yemen’s 25th Mechanized Brigade, openly admitted to the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat, “The security services pulled out of Abyan leaving their weapons behind, and Al Qaeda seized these weapons, and is now using them against us. This is something that no one can deny.”
The General’s brigade was “encircled” by AQAP in July and left to fend for itself. At one point al-Sawmali condemned Yemen’s Defense Ministry for ignoring his requests for reinforcements. “Nobody is listening to us,” he warned weeks before reinforcements eventually arrived.
The available information indicates that Ali Abdullah Saleh’s exploitation of AQAP and Yemen’s southern governorates is no theory: the besieged tyrant allowed a takeover of Abyan in order to “take it back” with U.S. air-strikes, keeping himself useful in the process. al-Sawmali protected his comrades by refusing to answer why other security units withdrew, explaining that he doesn’t want to “cross the line and accuse my colleagues of complicity with Al Qaeda.” He chalks the developments up to “God,” “fear,” and “cowardice” after Zinjibar’s government officials fled, even though Saleh likely ordered the retreat.
al-Sawmali also explicitly criticized Saleh’s U.S.-trained “counter-terrorism units,” saying, “the Central Security Organization [affiliated to the Interior Minister] pulled out without confronting Al Qaeda, and this is shameful!” The unit is commanded by Yahya Mohammed Abdullah, Saleh’s nephew and a Pentagon liaison. Together with the Republican Guard, led by another Pentagon liaison (Saleh’s son, Ahmed), Central Security has carried out the regime’s crackdown in Sana’a, Taiz, Aden and other urban centers of revolution.
Meanwhile Ali al-Anesi, head of the Yemen National Security, triumphantly boasts, "Al Qaeda was aiming at attacking and controlling Aden province after the success in Abyan. But, government efforts halted their spread and we have retaken large areas of Abyan from militants hands.”
al-Anesi adds that Yemeni security forces have killed hundreds of militants since May, when chronic urban violence boiled into open assaults on southern towns. However the government’s soaring casualties figures, now exceeding AQAP’s force estimates, have simply added to public and international doubts. AQAP reportedly maintains between 300-500 hardcore fighters, by Saleh and Washington, a moderate to sustain a low-level threat for both sides. Now they have reason to inflate these figures, to increase the perceived threat but also to explain how a small guerrilla force could overrun multiple armored brigades.
The rising estimates of AQAP’s strength leaves few options: AQAP is successfully recruiting off of Saleh’s regime and U.S. support, or proxy-militants are being funded by the government. Or a combination of both factors could be driving the battles in southern Yemen.
Several fighters spoke of external influences to the Western media, hinting at a mysterious source of militants. Abu Abdullah told The Global Post from Doufas, "Every time we kill 100 of them, another new batch of 100 arrive to the fight... We do not know who is supporting the militants. They gathered from all over Yemen and do not get support from the tribes in Abyan. Only about 20 percent of the militants we’ve killed were known to be from Abyan, while others were from outside the province."
Mislabeled a “pro-government fighter” by CNN - those tribes now fighting against al-Qaeda are largely aligned against the government - Abdullah added that Saudis and Somalis were among the dead.
The only reaction Washington has to any of these developments is the occasional warning on AQAP. Never is any concern directed at Saleh’s regime, even though many strings running out of the south lead north to Sana’a. Using its local name of Ansar al Sharia (the Army of Islamic Law), one U.S. official recently told the Long War Journal that AQAP is seeking to emulate the Islamic State of Iraq and Talibanize southern Yemen, a duel-scare tactic. If AQAP does aim for such a high goal, its task is made easier by a corrupt despot supported by Washington and Riyadh - the ideal political arrangement to validate al-Qaeda’s ideology.
For the last decade Saleh has funded his own “jihadists” to exploit against the Southern Movement, and now re-designates local insurgents as AQAP militants for U.S. warplanes. The Pentagon and CIA likely suffer from an incomplete view of Yemen’s environment, unable to fully differentiate between AQAP, legitimate local groups, anti-government tribes and Saleh’s proxies.
Seemingly oblivious to the consequences - or perhaps seeking chaos - Washington continues to stoke Yemen’s fire through military action and diplomatic inaction. Obama officials have already jumped from Libya back to Syria, blocking out Yemen in the process. After ignoring the revolution on Monday and Tuesday, one reporter waited until the final seconds of Wednesday’s State Department briefing to ask if U.S. policy had updated on Saleh. Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland responded, “Our position remains unchanged. Whether he stays, whether he comes back, we need him to sign this GCC agreement and move on, allow his country to move on. So our position is unchanged.”
Asked if Saleh’s return would further complicate Yemen’s political and military environment, Nuland said that she didn’t “think it matters where he is; he has the ability to use a pen and sign.”
While Saleh can operate from Sana’a or Riyadh (his location doesn’t have an immediate effect), a return would set Yemen aflame due to his provocative behavior. Improving health won’t persuade Saleh to sign the GCC’s intiative, but to retrench before a push towards government-overseen elections. Worst of all, the GCC’s biased initiative would increase instability by preserving Saleh’s regime and obstructing justice for his crimes. Pressing for his resignation under the GCC’s terms is the keystone in Washington’s political duplicity. Blocking out Yemen’s revolutionaries in the media has further contributed to instability by misinforming an apathetic U.S. public, leaving the Obama administration free to tune out DOD and CIA operations.
Brute counter-terrorism bears no resemblance to counterinsurgency, and will prolong Yemen’s cycle of violence indefinitely. Unfortunately this is exactly what Saleh and Washington desire.