STILL FIGHT­ING AL-QAEDA In Ye­men, U.S. airstrikes are pound­ing the group, yet the mil­i­tants fight on fiercely

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN

jaar, ye­men — The land mines had been planted. As hun­dreds of U.S.-backed forces ap­proached in pickup trucks mounted with ma­chine guns, the al-Qaeda mil­i­tants watched and waited in their re­doubt, tucked into the jagged moun­tains of south­ern Ye­men.

The first ex­plo­sion shat­tered one ve­hi­cle, but the con­voy pushed for­ward. Then came a sec­ond blast. Within min­utes, five trucks were de­stroyed and the mil­i­tants be­gan fir­ing with heavy weapons from their perches, re­called five wit­nesses to the May 10 am­bush.

“There were many traps,” said Raoof Salim Ahmed, 28, a fighter who was shot by an al-Qaeda Shab­wani Elite Forces mem­bers stand on a hill over­look­ing Hota, Ye­men. The mili­tia, which is sup­ported by the United Arab Emi­rates, lib­er­ated the vil­lage in De­cem­ber 2017 from al-Qaeda in the Ara­bian Penin­sula, but it still faces in­cur­sions. sniper in the thigh and testicles, and spoke from a hos­pi­tal bed. “They weren’t afraid. If they were, they wouldn’t have fought so fe­ro­ciously.”

Over the past year, the shadow war be­tween al-Qaeda and lo­cal Ye­meni fight­ers has in­ten­si­fied, largely out of sight and out of the head­lines. While much at­ten­tion has been paid to a sep­a­rate Ye­meni civil war pit­ting north­ern rebels against the in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized gov­ern­ment, the bat­tle be­ing waged by U.S.-backed Ye­meni forces against al-Qaeda mil­i­tants has es­ca­lated.

In the first year of Pres­i­dent Trump’s term, the United States

con­ducted far more airstrikes against al-Qaeda mil­i­tants in Ye­men than it had in pre­vi­ous years. While the pace so far this year has slowed sig­nif­i­cantly, it re­mains well above the rate of Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion. U.S. Spe­cial Forces are on the ground here ad­vis­ing the anti-al-Qaeda fight­ers and call­ing in Amer­i­can airstrikes, a role that has grown as the air cam­paign has es­ca­lated.

Pen­tagon of­fi­cials have said this ef­fort is suc­cess­fully rolling back al-Qaeda’s fran­chise in Ye­men, con­sid­ered to be the mil­i­tant group’s most lethal af­fil­i­ate.

But while the mil­i­tants have been ex­pelled from some of their strongholds, Ye­meni forces ac­knowl­edge that their re­cent gains against al-Qaeda are pre­car­i­ous. Ye­meni fight­ers com­bat­ing the group in the hin­ter­lands of Shabwa and Abyan prov­inces say al-Qaeda has weath­ered this pound­ing and re­mains a fierce op­po­nent. In re­cent months, mil­i­tants have pressed their cam­paign of hit-and-run at­tacks and strate­gic re­treats, and have car­ried out a wave of bomb­ings and as­sas­si­na­tions, tar­get­ing gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, se­cu­rity forces and oth­ers.

The in­tense clashes that lasted two days in the east­ern Al Khabr moun­tains of Abyan prov­ince in May pit­ted some 500 lo­cal fight­ers against three dozen mil­i­tants, wit­nesses said.

Five lo­cal fight­ers died and 19 were in­jured, ac­cord­ing to hos­pi­tal of­fi­cials. Four mil­i­tants were killed. The rest es­caped af­ter they left be­hind two snipers on a sui­cide mis­sion to fend off their en­e­mies.

Al-Qaeda has lost about half the Ye­meni ter­ri­tory it con­trolled at the peak in late 2015, sev­eral se­cu­rity an­a­lysts said. But the mil­i­tants re­main ac­tive in por­tions of at least seven prov­inces, in­clud­ing Shabwa, Abyan, Al Bayda and Hadra­mawt, ac­cord­ing to anti-al-Qaeda fight­ers, and at times op­er­ate else­where in the south of the coun­try.

“Now they are more dan­ger­ous,” said Rami Ali, 25, an anti-al-Qaeda fighter who par­tic­i­pated in the bat­tle. “They are not lo­cated in one spe­cific place or area, so it is dif­fi­cult to find them. And they try to find any op­por­tu­nity to carry out their at­tacks.”

Most dan­ger­ous of all

The wind­ing road from east­ern Abyan to Shabwa is pep­pered with signs glo­ri­fy­ing al-Qaeda. Graf­fiti praises Osama bin Laden and urges rule by Is­lamic sharia law. Near a green-and-cream-col­ored mosque, a mes­sage is scrawled on a wall: “Ji­had is the so­lu­tion.” On a craggy moun­tain­side flies a black-and-white al-Qaeda ban­ner.

For nearly a decade, U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials have con­sid­ered al-Qaeda’s Ye­men branch, known as al-Qaeda in the Ara­bian Penin­sula or AQAP, as the most dan­ger­ous of all its af­fil­i­ates. In 2009, AQAP tried to bomb an air­liner headed to Detroit and send par­cel bombs via cargo planes to Chicago the fol­low­ing year. AQAP also took credit for the 2015 as­sault on the Paris of­fice of the French satir­i­cal news­pa­per Char­lie Hebdo that killed 11 peo­ple.

In 2011, AQAP took ad­van­tage of the po­lit­i­cal chaos that fol­lowed the Arab Spring pop­ulist re­volt that even­tu­ally ousted Pres­i­dent Ali Ab­dul­lah Saleh. Within months, AQAP seized large swaths of south­ern Ye­men.

A U.S.-backed Ye­meni gov­ern­ment of­fen­sive in the mid­dle of 2012 drove the mil­i­tants from many towns.

But three years later, the civil war erupted, draw­ing in a U.S.-backed Sunni re­gional coali­tion led by Saudi Ara­bia and the United Arab Emi­rates that is try­ing to re­store the gov­ern­ment and weaken the in­flu­ence of Iran, which is sup­port­ing the Shi­ite rebels. AQAP ex­ploited the vac­uum cre­ated by the civil war to seize ter­ri­tory, weapons and money. Al-Qaeda mil­i­tants re­took con­trol over Jaar and Abyan’s pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal, Zin­jibar, and swept into Mukalla, Ye­men’s fifth-largest city and a ma­jor port. Mean­while, over the past four years, the ri­val Is­lamic State has spawned its own mod­est af­fil­i­ate in Ye­men with at most a few hun­dred mem­bers, mostly al-Qaeda de­fec­tors.

Against this back­drop, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has given the U.S. mil­i­tary more lat­i­tude to launch air and ground at­tacks with­out White House ap­proval. The week af­ter Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion, a U.S. Navy SEAL was killed in a botched raid north of Abyan that was an­tic­i­pated by al-Qaeda.

Last year, the U.S. mil­i­tary car­ried out 131 airstrikes, more than six times the tally in 2016, ac­cord­ing to the Pen­tagon’s data. The vast ma­jor­ity tar­geted AQAP, although 13 of the airstrikes were against the nascent Is­lamic State af­fil­i­ate. So far this year, there have been at least 30 airstrikes, all but one tar­get­ing AQAP.

In De­cem­ber, Army Lt. Col. Earl Brown, a spokesman for the Pen­tagon’s Cen­tral Com­mand, said U.S. coun­tert­er­ror­ism ef­forts had de­graded AQAP’s pro­pa­ganda ap­pa­ra­tus, en­hanced in­tel­li­gence gather­ing about the group and im­proved the tar­get­ing of mil­i­tants. AQAP’s foot­print and in­flu­ence was “di­min­ished,” and the goal now was to pre­vent the Is­lamic State from “fill­ing the vac­uum.”

While the airstrikes have helped U.S.-backed Ye­meni forces and their al­lies from the UAE re­gain ter­ri­tory, some 4,000 AQAP fight­ers re­main in Ye­men, ac­cord­ing to a study by the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions ear­lier this year.

‘The most dif­fi­cult ob­sta­cles we face’

At the east­ern en­trance to the town of Az­zan, which al-Qaeda once ruled, build­ings are pocked with shell craters the size of can­taloupes, and graf­fiti glo­ri­fy­ing the ex­trem­ists re­mains.

The bat­tle for Az­zan last Au­gust be­gan with airstrikes, driv­ing out many of the mil­i­tants, wit­nesses re­called. When U.S. and Emi­rati-backed Ye­meni forces en­tered the town three days later, the re­main­ing AQAP fight­ers put up lit­tle re­sis­tance. Two al-Qaeda snipers sta­tioned at the en­trance to Az­zan fired away un­til their deaths. The rest fled.

“That’s how they fight,” said Mo­hammed Salim al-Buhar, the slen­der 31-year-old com­man­der of the anti-AQAP forces that now con­trol Az­zan and Hota, once an­other mil­i­tant strong­hold. “They try to pre­vent you from mov­ing for­ward, to buy time for their fight­ers to es­cape.”

The mil­i­tants adopted a sim­i­lar strat­egy when Emi­rati and Ye­meni forces re­took Mukalla in 2016, with­draw­ing with­out blood­shed. AQAP waged a fierce 72-hour bat­tle in try­ing to de­fend Hota but even­tu­ally melted away af­ter a month of hid­ing and de­ploy­ing snipers.

Buhar nearly died in the bat­tle for Hota af­ter snipers shot him twice in the hip. Dozens of his men per­ished in the fight­ing.

Buhar, who wears cam­ou­flage and a scarf around his neck, leads the Shab­wani Elite Forces, a home­grown pro­vin­cial mili­tia that claims to have more than 3,000 fight­ers.

In­side a spa­cious car­peted tent on his mil­iary base hangs a large por­trait of the UAE’s leader, Sheikh Khal­ifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan. The UAE sup­plies Buhar’s men with weapons, train­ing and salaries. While UAE troops fight along­side his men, he said, U.S. Spe­cial Forces sol­diers are there to call in airstrikes that he re­quests.

“There’s usu­ally a group of four or five Amer­i­cans in ar­mored ve­hi­cles at the back,” Buhar said.

When asked about the U.S. role on the ground, Capt. Bill Ur­ban, a spokesman for the Pen­tagon’s Cen­tral Com­mand, said he could not pro­vide specifics due to “op­er­a­tional se­cu­rity and the safety of our forces” in Ye­men.

To­day, Buhar’s men stand guard at dozens of check­points and out­posts in for­mer AQAP strongholds. But large con­tin­gents of al-Qaeda fight­ers still con­trol four re­mote dis­tricts where moun­tains and caves serve as hide­outs or train­ing camps and main­tain sleeper cells in­side “lib­er­ated” ar­eas.

But the mil­i­tants’ use of mines and so­phis­ti­cated ex­plo­sives has slowed Buhar’s ef­forts to pur­sue AQAP. In one house in Hota, Buhar’s fight­ers found 80 bombs and C4 ex­plo­sives. It was a lab that Buhar thinks may have been run by Ibrahim al-Asiri, AQAP’s in­fa­mous bomb maker, who has eluded U.S. airstrikes for years.

“The traps they plant for us, and the am­bushes, are the most dif­fi­cult ob­sta­cles we face,” he said. “They use ex­plo­sives in dan­ger­ous and in­no­va­tive ways.”

‘We are not to­gether’

Dur­ing the year that the mil­i­tants con­trolled Zin­jibar and Jaar, they set up what they dubbed the “Is­lamic Emi­rate of Waqar.” They ran the courts and the po­lice, ap­pre­hended thieves and meted out swift jus­tice, and pro­vided ser­vices in ways that the coun­try’s weak and frac­tured gov­ern­ment sel­dom did.

In the towns of Az­zan and Hota, res­i­dents said that the mil­i­tants tar­geted gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees but treated the rest of the pop­u­la­tion well.

In ru­ral Ye­men, the largely con­ser­va­tive pop­u­la­tion be­came a source of re­cruits and sym­pa­thiz­ers. Hun­dreds, if not thou­sands, of AQAP fight­ers hailed from lo­cal tribes and fam­i­lies.

For those who bat­tled al-Qaeda fight­ers in the Al Khabr moun­tains in May, there was a sus­pi­cion that they had been be­trayed, quite pos­si­bly by peo­ple they knew.

“They ex­pected our at­tack be­cause there are peo­ple that feed them in­tel­li­gence,” said Yasser Saleh, an anti-al-Qaeda fighter who took part in the bat­tle. “And so they were ready.”

Both Abyan and Shabwa prov­inces have long been breed­ing grounds for an­tiAmer­i­can sen­ti­ment. The United States’ sup­port for Is­rael, as well as its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have fu­eled anger and re­sent­ment, as have al­le­ga­tions of hun­dreds of civil­ian deaths in at­tacks by U.S. drones and fighter planes over the past decade.

“There are peo­ple who sym­pa­thize with al-Qaeda and sup­port them,” Saleh con­tin­ued. “They don’t like Amer­i­cans. And they don’t like any of the forces work­ing with them.”

Nasser al-Has­sani, 26, un­der­stands. He was an al-Qaeda mem­ber in Az­zan. But he be­came dis­il­lu­sioned with the mil­i­tants and fled to Jaar, where he joined the lo­cal tribal forces fight­ing AQAP. In his na­tive town, his fam­ily and neigh­bors dis­owned him.

“I can’t go back to my vil­lage,” Has­sani said. “To them, I am a non-Mus­lim be­cause I de­fected.”

Even in­side the mili­tias fight­ing al-Qaeda, there is a fear of dou­ble agents who rou­tinely tip off the mil­i­tants. One se­nior leader ar­rived for an in­ter­view wear­ing a pis­tol on his right hip and car­ry­ing an AK-47 ri­fle for added pro­tec­tion. He spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity and of not be­ing pho­tographed be­cause he feared be­ing as­sas­si­nated.

“We caught many of the dou­ble agents, but there are still some around,” said the leader, who was wiry with a thin mus­tache. “Only Al­lah knows what’s in a man’s heart.”

Among those glad to see the mil­i­tants gone, there’s a fear that the coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal vac­uum would open the way for their re­turn. “If the gov­ern­ment sta­bi­lizes, they can’t come back,” said Younous Ajudum, a shop­keeper in Hota.

For Ahmed, the wounded fighter in the hos­pi­tal bed, as long as south­ern Ye­men’s tan­gled loy­al­ties to AQAP per­sist, a mil­i­tary vic­tory over the mil­i­tants could prove elu­sive.

“If we are all work­ing to­gether, we can get rid of al-Qaeda,” Ahmed said. “But un­til now, we are not to­gether.”


ABOVE, FROM LEFT: The town of Jaar was lib­er­ated from al-Qaeda’s Ye­men branch — al-Qaeda in the Ara­bian Penin­sula (AQAP) — in 2014, but there are a num­ber of sym­pa­thiz­ers in the area. Raoof Salim Ahmed, 28, re­cov­ers at the mil­i­tary hos­pi­tal in Jaar; the fighter was shot by an al-Qaeda sniper. Mo­hammed Salim alBuhar, com­man­der of the Shab­wani Elite Forces, walks out­side in lib­er­ated Az­zan.


The vil­lage of Hota was the main strong­hold of al-Qaeda in the area. The Shab­wani Elite Forces, a home­grown pro­vin­cial mili­tia that claims to have more than 3,000 fight­ers, lib­er­ated the area in De­cem­ber 2017. This armed group is aligned with a coali­tion led by Saudi Ara­bia and the United Arab Emi­rates, and is op­er­at­ing in the area in the fight against AQAP. It con­tin­ues to pa­trol in the vil­lage, which still shows signs of the in­tense fight­ing there against AQAP forces. Its mem­bers, such as these fight­ers, stand guard at dozens of check­points and out­posts in for­mer AQAP strongholds.

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