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.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Brian Bennett and Laura King

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.

Mo­hammed Huwais AFP/Getty Images

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.”

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