The spread of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) throughout Iraq, Syria, and Libya illustrates how insurgent groups often thrive in areas where government authority and legitimate institutions are absent. In these ungoverned spaces, insurgent groups often provide security and basic services to the local population, thus serving as an alternative to the government for those services. Rooting out these groups is therefore dependent on establishing and sustaining local governance, and denying the insurgents the legitimacy that can be won by meeting the basic needs of the population.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been able to capture and hold significant amounts of territory in southern Yemen in 2015 and 2016 as the Yemeni government and Saudi-led Arab coalition continue to fight Houthi rebels allied with former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The conflict has substantially eroded the government’s institutions and governance capacity, allowing AQAP to establish itself as a local authority in remote or contested areas in the south of the country. In recent months, however, particularly as the now suspended peace talks in Kuwait were taking place, the United Arab Emirates has increasingly shifted its focus to counterinsurgency operations in Yemen’s south to combat AQAP.
The primary goal of counterinsurgency is to protect and provide for the population to obtain its support and deny such support to the insurgents. The UAE has executed simultaneous military, economic, and humanitarian policies designed to achieve these objectives. The UAE’s campaign is intended to lay the groundwork for the restoration of legitimate authority but, crucially, its strategy relies on the Yemeni government to implement the most important step, the re-establishment of legitimate institutions of governance. The conundrum facing any counterinsurgency program by external forces is how to foster local government institutions that can continue to function effectively after the outside power pulls away. It remains unclear if or when the Yemeni government will be able to establish and sustain governance in the war-torn regions of the south.
The Expansion of AQAP in Southern Yemen
Although AQAP seized and held territory in Abyan and Shabwah governorates in 2012, it failed to govern effectively, and a popular uprising ensued. Soon after the uprising, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the former AQAP leader, wrote to the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb about the lessons of the importance of building local support by providing services. This, he argued, “will make them [the local people] sympathize with us and feel that their fate is tied to ours.”
AQAP appears to have learned from this and has become more adept at administering law and order and providing basic services for the populations in areas they rule. During its period of control of Al Mukalla (capital of Yemen’s oil-rich Hadramout governorate) from April 2015 to April 2016, some residents said AQAP introduced a level of stability previously lacking and provided electricity, water, waste disposal, and civil justice.
During the conflict, the Arab coalition’s single-minded focus on the Houthis and their allies has allowed AQAP to occupy large portions of Hadramout, Abyan, and Shabwah governorates. In comments in February, Saudi Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri, spokesman for the Arab coalition, could not cite any airstrike in the campaign that hit an AQAP or ISIL target in Yemen.
AQAP’s unchecked growth has alarmed U.S. military and counterterrorism officials who consider the Yemen-based group al-Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate because of its willingness and ability to conduct terrorist attacks in the West. In February, Lisa Monaco, President Barack Obama’s top counterterrorism official, met with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the UAE Armed Forces, to discuss the AQAP threat and the need for the coalition to refocus its efforts against the militant group. These discussions, combined with growing concerns in Abu Dhabi and Washington about AQAP’s rise in Yemen, led to the UAE’s renewed emphasis on counterinsurgency.
The UAE-Tribal Collaboration against AQAP
As part of the Arab coalition against the Houthis, UAE forces have operated primarily in Yemen’s south while the Saudi and pro-government forces have managed the northern anti-Houthi campaign. The UAE has a special relationship with the tribes of southern Yemen due to the large numbers of emigrants who fled Yemen’s civil war of the 1960-70s. Many of those migrants are members of the UAE security forces and still have relatives in southern Yemen.
On April 13, 2015, the Emiratis began to insert small teams of UAE Special Forces in Aden to train and advise southern Yemeni fighters, assembling a regiment of 2,000 troops in weeks. Emirati Special Forces working alongside these southern Yemeni fighters drove the Houthis from Aden in July 2015 and AQAP from its stronghold in the Al Mansoura neighborhood of Aden in March 2016.
In Hadramout, the UAE consulted with militia leaders who required military support to arm their fighters. The UAE trained, equipped, and paid the salaries of these southern Yemeni fighters, eventually overseeing a force of 12,000 troops from the various southern militia groups including the Hadrami Elite, a unit of Hadramout tribal fighters. The Hadrami Elite also receive tactical and technical anti-terrorism support from the United States, including trained police dogs.
This technical intelligence (mostly overhead surveillance) complemented by human intelligence provided by local informants prepared the ground for the offensive on Al Mukalla. The UAE targeted key AQAP installations with aerial and naval gunfire followed by southern Yemeni ground troops supported by UAE Special Forces. Michael Morell, former acting director of the CIA, described the operation as a “textbook solution of dealing with terrorist groups that hold territory.” Another April offensive by UAE-backed southern Yemeni forces attacked AQAP targets in Abyan and Lahij governorates. AQAP forces withdrew from the Abyan governorate cities of Zinjibar and Jaar in May as Yemeni troops declared that Lahij governorate was fully under government control.
Despite these tactical victories, the UAE and Yemeni governments have been unable to fully establish security in many of the reclaimed areas. In recent months, AQAP and ISIL have separately carried out suicide bombings and assassinations killing Yemeni army and police recruits, the governor of Aden, and the head of the Aden anti-terrorism court.
Prior to the operation to retake Al Mukalla, AQAP negotiated a “tactical retreat” with some local tribal leaders. Though the losses of the cities of Al Mukalla, Zinjibar, and Jaar, as well as Lahij governorate dealt a significant blow to AQAP’s power, it retains the capacity to fight a low-intensity, but still highly-destabilizing, insurgency from Yemen’s less-populated mountain, desert, and forest regions.
The Long-Term Battle for Popular Support and Governance
A significant challenge for the Yemeni government and the Arab coalition is to build on their military victories by re-establishing authority, legitimacy, and functioning institutions in southern Yemen. They can accomplish this by providing humanitarian aid, making a long-term investment in the region’s physical infrastructure, which has been devastated by years of civil war and government neglect, integrating the UAE-trained southern Yemeni forces into the Yemeni military and police, and maintaining support for the country long after the cessation of hostilities. These programs will build trust with the beleaguered population, strengthen the capacity of the Yemeni government, and counter AQAP’s popular appeal and its recruitment. Speaking to Reuters, Michael Knights of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy said “the Emiratis are capable of making that commitment.” The UAE has extensive experience in post-conflict reconstruction from its 12-year mission in Afghanistan as well as numerous projects in Lebanon, Somalia, Kosovo, and the Sinai Peninsula.
The UAE has already begun this effort, delivering about $1.2 billion in aid to Yemen in the past 16 months. Following the operation in Al Mukalla, the Emirates Red Crescent (ERC), a UAE government-sponsored humanitarian organization, provided generators and distributed food to civilians. In June, a UAE oil tanker arrived in Yemen, the first of several promised deliveries, restoring power and ending a blackout in some sections of Aden. The ERC coordinated with local communities in Abyan governorate’s Rasd district, an area with severe water shortages, on the construction of 50 dams; it also oversaw the renovation of the sewage network in Aden and the rebuilding of 212 schools across the country. The Hadrami Elite and other local forces are being absorbed into the security forces in Al Mukalla and other parts of Hadramout.
As important as such efforts are, as April Longley Alley, a Yemen analyst at the International Crisis Group, noted, maintaining control of these areas “will require a political strategy to address local grievances and provide a minimally effective government.” The Emiratis have indicated they understand the importance of restoring legitimate local governance. In June, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan hosted a lecture at his Ramadan majlis delivered by Anwar Gargash, UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, entitled “The UAE, the Coalition and the Yemen Crisis: The Necessary Decision.” Gargash stated, “The solution is in the hands of the Yemenis, but the UAE, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf states will help … exert all efforts toward a political solution.” Sheikh Mohammed added, “Our political role now is to empower the Yemenis in the liberated areas.”
The UAE’s humanitarian, military, and economic aid demonstrates its support for short-term stability in Yemen, while the statements by Sheikh Mohammed and Gargash indicate the UAE’s objective to leave the longer-term political organization to the Yemenis. However, it is uncertain whether the Yemeni government has the ability to restore security and provide services on its own. For the foreseeable future, it may require direct, on the ground assistance to accomplish this essential task.
The conundrum the UAE faces is that it doesn’t want to govern Yemen, but it wants to avoid any repetition of the failure of governance that allowed AQAP to take root in Yemen in the first place. One of the greatest challenges facing any power that has attempted a counterinsurgency strategy beyond its borders is fostering viable and effective local governance in areas in which institutional authority has completely broken down. The success of counterinsurgency and the broader policies it is intended to support ultimately depends on the ability to create local governance institutions that can function independently. This is the most important, and the most difficult, task facing the UAE and its allies in Yemen as it seeks to contain and ultimately defeat AQAP.