Yemen chaos a boon for Al Qaeda
The militant group’s franchise is carving out a haven that could help it launch terrorist attacks, experts say.
WASHINGTON — A brazen territorial grab by Al Qaeda militants in Yemen — together with a $1-million bank heist, a prison break and capture of a military base — has given the terrorist group fundraising and recruitment tools that suggest it is following the brutal path blazed by Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which was long forced into the shadows by U.S. drone strikes and commando raids, has taken advantage of the growing chaos in Yemen’s multi-sided war to carve out a potential haven that counter-terrorism experts say could help it launch terrorist attacks.
After seizing a regional airport and a coastal oil terminal this week, Al Qaeda militants consolidated their gains Friday in Mukalla, a port on the Arabian Sea. Fighters stormed a weapons depot and seized armored vehicles and rockets after apparently forging a truce with local tribes and forcing government troops to flee.
Many of the armories in Yemen hold weapons and ammunition that the U.S. helped supply to support government counter-terrorism operations against AQAP, as the Al Qaeda franchise in Yemen is known.
AQAP has repeatedly attempted to smuggle sophisticated bombs onto passenger jets and cargo planes headed for the United States. U.S. intelligence considers it the terrorist network’s most active and most dangerous franchise and says it has a global strategy.
But Islamic State’s dramatic claim that it controls a vast caliphate, its ability to raise huge sums of cash from oil exports and other schemes, its stunning early success on the battlefield, and its Internet-driven appeals to zealots around the world have eclipsed Al Qaeda’s once-fierce image.
Islamic State has “changed the game” for terrorist groups, Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at
Georgetown University, said in an interview.
It’s been said that publicity provides oxygen to terrorist groups. But now, Hoffman said, “territory and safe havens are oxygen to them.”
AQAP suddenly has “a lot more elbow room,” said Stephen Seche, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 2007 to 2010.
“If they can seize and hold territory … if they can loot banks, they are seen as more viable and can recruit troops,” he said.
The fighting in Yemen has hobbled a long-established U.S. counter-terrorism operation, forcing a special operations unit and intelligence officials to destroy equipment and leave the country last month.
At a Pentagon news conference Thursday, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said the U.S. has kept up the pressure despite the loss of its operations base.
“Our efforts have to change their character but remain steady in their intensity,” he said.
Even amid the chaos, a drone strike this week in the southern province of Shabwa reportedly killed a senior cleric who had acted as AQAP’s spokesman.
Yemen has been engulfed in conflict since last fall, when a Shiite Muslim minority group called the Houthis overran Sana, the capital, and took over much of the government.
The Houthis then pushed south and appeared on the verge of capturing Aden, the country’s economic hub, when Saudi-led warplanes launched a fierce counterattack on March 26 that continues today. The rebel onslaught forced Yemen’s president, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, to flee the country.
The Houthis have fought against AQAP, Sunni Muslims whom they consider enemies. But the Saudi airstrikes have targeted only the Houthis, giving Al Qaeda a relatively free hand.
They “are doing exactly what we expected them to do, which is take advantage of the chaos,” a U.S. counterterrorism official said Friday. The pressure on them has been “greatly reduced,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe internal assessments.
AQAP has captured territory before. In 2011, the group took advantage of political turmoil sparked by anti-government protests to seize several cities in Yemen’s south and east. In mid-2012, military forces and tribes loyal to Hadi’s government in Sana pushed them back into a rugged eastern enclave.
“They get out of control when the cage door opens,” the U.S. official said.
Thick plumes of smoke rose over Sana on Friday as some of the heaviest bombing in weeks shook the capital, including residential areas. Major streets were deserted as hundreds of families fled the city for safety.
The United Nations reported that at least 150,000 people have been displaced by the conflict. It said more than 750 civilians have been killed since mid-March.
“Thousands … have now fled their homes,” Johannes van der Klaauw, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, said in a statement. “Ordinary families are struggling to access healthcare, water, food and fuel — basic requirements for their survival.”
President Obama spoke by phone Friday with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. The White House said the two agreed that the collective goal is “to achieve lasting stability” in Yemen through a negotiated political solution and “discussed the importance” of the humanitarian crisis.
Aden now appears to be in ruins, pummeled by airstrikes and ravaged by closequarters street fighting. Aid groups report overflowing morgues and increasing shortages of electricity, food, fuel and other items.
A few shipments of medical supplies have arrived, far outstripped by needs.
With the Saudis focused on the Houthis, AQAP fighters launched a jailbreak near Mukalla that freed about 300 prisoners, including several dozen of their comrades, officials and residents said.
The militants also stole more than $1 million in Yemeni rials from the local branch of the Central Bank, security officials said, and set up roadblocks across the city.
Col. Patrick Ryder, spokesman for U.S. Central Command, which oversees military forces in the Middle East, said AQAP posed “a significant threat” even before it captured Mukalla.
“We continue to keep capabilities in the region to address that,” he told reporters at the Pentagon.
HOUTHI REBEL camps east of Sana, Yemen, are hit by Saudi-led airstrikes. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has taken advantage of Yemen’s multi-sided war to raise arms and capital and gain “elbow room.”