Raid in Ye­men shows power of al-Qaeda af­fil­i­ate

Mil­i­tant group’s growth co­in­cides with in­creas­ing anger to­ward U.S.

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN sudarsan.raghavan@wash­post.com Ali Al-Mu­ja­hed in Sanaa, Ye­men, con­trib­uted to this re­port.

cairo — A U.S. com­mando raid in Ye­men that set off a fierce fire­fight re­vealed the grow­ing strength of an al-Qaeda af­fil­i­ate that has tar­geted both the United States and Europe in re­cent years.

Al-Qaeda in the Ara­bian Penin­sula, or AQAP, as the branch is known, had col­lected enough in­tel­li­gence to an­tic­i­pate the raid last week­end, Ye­meni of­fi­cials and an­a­lysts said. The mil­i­tants also had the fire­power to coun­ter­at­tack from their bas­tion, which was sur­rounded by land mines and other traps.

By the end of the raid, a Navy SEAL was dead and three other Amer­i­can troops were wounded. Ye­meni of­fi­cials said that as many as 30 civil­ians, in­clud­ing 10 women and chil­dren, were also killed. Among them was the 8-year-old daugh­ter of An­war al-Awlaki, the Ye­meni Amer­i­can al-Qaeda leader who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011.

The Pen­tagon ini­tially said it could not con­firm re­ports of civil­ian ca­su­al­ties, but it ac­knowl­edged Wed­nes­day that civil­ians were “likely killed” in the raid, which took place in Bayda prov­ince.

The raid and civil­ian ca­su­al­ties have trig­gered wide­spread anger across Ye­men to­ward Wash­ing­ton, adding to ten­sions over Pres­i­dent Trump’s en­try ban on cit­i­zens of Ye­men and six other ma­jor­ity-Mus­lim coun­tries. Ye­me­nis have posted pho­tos on so­cial me­dia of chil­dren pur­port­edly killed in the at­tack.

In the cap­i­tal, Sanaa, where anti-Amer­i­can slo­gans are scrawled on walls across the city, the raid ap­peared to unify Ye­me­nis, a rare oc­cur­rence these days in the frac­tured coun­try.

“What hap­pened caused more anger and ha­tred to­ward Amer­ica,” said Bas­sam Mah­moud, 40, a gov­ern­ment em­ployee. “Amer­ica has no right to carry out any mil­i­tary ac­tion in our coun­try. This a se­ri­ous vi­o­la­tion for our coun­try’s sovereignty and is to­tally un­ac­cept­able.”

On Thurs­day, the watch­dog group Amnesty In­ter­na­tional called for De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis to launch an investigation into the civil­ian deaths, and, if ap­pro­pri­ate, “pros­e­cute those re­spon­si­ble.”

The raid was the first coun­tert­er­ror­ism op­er­a­tion green­lighted by Trump, and he hailed it as a suc­cess. But re­gional an­a­lysts say it could help AQAP gain sym­pa­thy and sup­port from lo­cal pop­u­la­tions.

“The use of U.S. troops and the high num­ber of civil­ian ca­su­al­ties . . . are deeply in­flam­ma­tory,” April Lon­g­ley Al­ley, a se­nior an­a­lyst with the In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group, wrote on its web­site this week, “and breed anti-Amer­i­can re­sent­ment across the Ye­meni po­lit­i­cal spec­trum that works to the ad­van­tage of AQAP.”

The mil­i­tant group, which U.S. of­fi­cials con­sider al-Qaeda’s most dan­ger­ous branch, seized large swaths of south­ern Ye­men af­ter the 2011 Arab Spring re­volts that top­pled long­time au­to­crat Ali Ab­dul­lah Saleh. Now, with Ye­men gripped by a two-year-old civil war, AQAP has ex­panded its reach, gain­ing ter­ri­tory and re­cruits and deep­en­ing its net­works among lo­cal tribes.

Al-Qaeda in Ye­men “is stronger than it has ever been,” the In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group said, adding that the mil­i­tants are “thriv­ing in an en­vi­ron­ment of state col­lapse, grow­ing sec­tar­i­an­ism, shift­ing al­liances, se­cu­rity vac­u­ums and a bur­geon­ing war econ­omy.”

AQAP was be­hind some of the most au­da­cious as­saults against the West in re­cent years, in­clud­ing a failed at­tempt to blow up a U.S.-bound air­liner over Detroit on Christ­mas Day in 2009. It also as­serted re­spon­si­bil­ity for the deadly 2015 shoot­ings at the satir­i­cal Char­lie Hebdo mag­a­zine in Paris.

Also of con­cern is an emerg­ing Is­lamic State af­fil­i­ate that has staged nu­mer­ous sui­cide bomb­ings against Ye­meni mil­i­tary and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials in the south, es­pe­cially in the port city of Aden.

To­gether, the groups “emerged ar­guably as the big­gest win­ners of the failed po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion and civil war that fol­lowed,” the re­port said.

The ill-fated raid was an in­di­ca­tor of how much the po­lit­i­cal fall­out from the Arab re­volts has weak­ened U.S. coun­tert­er­ror­ism ef­forts in Ye­men. As the na­tion slid to­ward civil war, Wash­ing­ton scaled back on coun­tert­er­ror­ism train­ing, in­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing and ad­vis­ing of Ye­meni forces. The con­flict pits an al­liance of north­ern rebels known as Houthis and Saleh loy­al­ists against forces nom­i­nally loyal to Pres­i­dent Abed Rabbo Man­sour Hadi, who is lead­ing a gov­ern­ment in ex­ile. The United States, along with a re­gional coali­tion led by Saudi Ara­bia, is seek­ing to re­store Hadi to power.

To­day, a small con­tin­gent of U.S. Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions forces is help­ing Hadi’s gov­ern­ment and re­gional units com­bat AQAP and the Is­lamic State.

U.S. coun­tert­er­ror­ism ef­forts dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion mostly in­volved drone strikes tar­get­ing the rad­i­cal groups. Many AQAP lead­ers and op­er­a­tives were killed, but the over­all strat­egy did lit­tle to neu­tral­ize the rad­i­cal groups.

An­a­lysts say it is un­clear what broader strat­egy the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion will em­ploy but that it ap­pears he might also heav­ily rely on drones and spe­cial op­er­a­tions. “Yet drone at­tacks have shown lim­ited ef­fec­tive­ness and a propen­sity to back­fire po­lit­i­cally when they cause high civil­ian ca­su­al­ties,” Al­ley said, adding that the strikes have “failed” to stop AQAP’s “rapid growth — in large part be­cause the op­por­tu­ni­ties pro­vided by the war out­strip its losses.”

AQAP has forged al­liances with in­flu­en­tial Sunni groups and tribes, of­ten with cash pay­ments. It earns rev­enue from smug­gling goods into Ye­men, where an air, sea and land block­ade is be­ing en­forced by the Saudi-led coali­tion. In par­tic­u­lar, the mil­i­tants are covertly em­bed­ded into lo­cal com­mu­nity and within mili­tias bat­tling the Houthis and their al­lies.

To pre­vent alien­at­ing peo­ple, the group has stopped en­forc­ing its rigid Is­lamic codes in some ar­eas, wrote Michael Hor­ton, a Ye­men an­a­lyst, in last month’s is­sue of CTC Sen­tinel, a mag­a­zine pub­lished by the Com­bat­ing Ter­ror­ism Cen­ter at the U.S. Mil­i­tary Acad­emy.

Hor­ton, who de­scribed AQAP as “bet­ter funded and armed than at any point in its his­tory,” said the group is bol­ster­ing its in­tel­li­gence and coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence cells, while cre­at­ing a net­work of in­for­mants and sym­pa­thiz­ers, even in ar­eas were the group no longer rules.

In Bayda, where the U.S. raid un­folded, AQAP ex­ploited tribal ri­val­ries, “lever­ag­ing its ac­cess to arms, funds, and the mil­i­tary acu­men of some of its rank­ing mem­bers in ex­change for safe havens,” Hor­ton wrote.

But many tribes­men were prob­a­bly sup­port­ing AQAP be­cause of its fight against the Houthis and Saleh loy­al­ists and not be­cause it has tar­geted the West.

In fact, the United States is pro­vid­ing weapons, in­tel­li­gence and other sup­port to those fight­ing the Houthis and Saleh. But even U.S. al­lies con­demned the raid, which left as many as 13 mil­i­tants dead, in­clud­ing AQAP leader Ab­dulra’oof Al­da­hab.

“Killing out­side the law and killing civil­ians is a con­demned act and sup­ports ter­ror­ism,” Ab­dul­ma­lik al-Mekhlafi, the for­eign min­is­ter in Hadi’s gov­ern­ment, said in a re­cent tweet.

YAHYA ARHAB/EURO­PEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Graf­fiti protest­ing U.S. op­er­a­tions in Ye­men is part of the scene in Sanaa, the cap­i­tal. A re­cent U.S. raid has been widely con­demned.

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