Excellent article on the factions, motivations and regions of various “Al Qaeda” groups in Yemen including identifying which groups are primarily mercenaries (murtasaqat).
Yemen’s Mounting Challenges: Fractured militant groups & Post-Conflict reconstruction
By Fernando Carvajal Analyst at University of Exeter
While many praise recent victories by Yemen’s army over militant groups in Abyan and Shebwa, some warn of the coming chaos. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leader Nasser al-Wuhayshi warned governments of Yemen and the US of planned operations in a video published in late March. This warning came as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) published its intention to join the fight in Yemen. These announcements also coincided with the creation of Ansar al-Sharia Central Region.
US-led drone campaign Easter weekend was interpreted as a delayed, but brazen response to events in March. Drones targeted camps in Abyan and individual militants in al-Baydha and Shebwa provinces, where initial media reports claimed top leaders were targets. Yemen’s government also claimed Special Forces had participated in raids by helicopter incursion and recovered a number of bodies. No further information has been provided with regard to the operations in late April.
As heightened security warnings lead to closing of four western embassies, observers highlight not only threats made by AQAP but also fears of rifts within the organization. Local analysts have indicated growing divisions within AQAP over the past six months extend from differing visions of its future. Some argue the rift between al-Wuhayshi and second tier leaders over priorities has also led to individuals like Makmun Abdul Hamid Hatim and Ibrahim al-Rubaish praising ISIS, challenging al-Wuhayshi’s allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s successor, who formally denounced ISIS early this year. Intensions by ISIS in the Arabian Peninsula remain obscure, but contact with Somalia’s al-Shabab and AQAP in 2013 raised concerns over an expansionist agenda beyond Syria in attempt to wrestle the jihadist movement from al-Zawahiri.
The rift has also affected relations with Ansar al-Sharia (AAS), which is led by Emir Jalal Bil’ayd al-Maraqashi. Since the murder of shaykh Ali Bin Salem Ba’wazir in February, the so-called insurgency group has exhibited signs of widening divisions. The conflict within AAS is said to extend primarily from prioritizing political assassinations over the establishment of emirates in the eastern province of Hadhramawt. Observers in Aden and Sana’a insist this rift has damaged the group’s capabilities and role vis-à-vis AQAP.
Western analysts still see AAS as a natural extension of AQAP, but many in Yemen’s military insist the group is simply a mercenary arm rather than an ideological ally. Evidence lies on the priority given to Ahwar, Abyan during the current military offensive. By securing Ahwar the army has managed to eliminate a major strategic supply line that allowed AAS to deliver services for AQAP from the coast of Abyan to the mountains of Mayfah in Shebwa. The area in Ahwar was previously protected by government supported Popular Committees, but the resignation of its leader in late April illustrated the difficulty of securing the area and the troubled relations between the Committees and the government of president Hadi.
The fact Jalal Bil’ayd has now appeared in a number of videos by al-Malahem, AQAP’s media wing, served to assure analysts of the relationship between AAS and AQAP. Al-Malahem identifies Bil’ayd as ‘commander’ in videos, but has yet to officially announce his place in the hierarchy. Military officials in Sana’a have often referred to AAS as mercenaries (murtasaqat) and dismiss labeling Bil’ayd AQAP due to his obscure background and role within AAS following the death of Khaled Abdulnabi in 2011, and the split with shaykh Abdul-Latif Saeed in 2012. The relationship has simply been explained as one of mutual interest, where one looks for financial gains, while the other requires a strategic force multiplier.
The rise of AAS Central Region (AAS-CR) has also generated much concern among Yemeni analysts. The group was announced in typical AAS form, rather than by any AQAP related media source. Yet, Bil’ayd has not commented on the new wing. It is believed this wing of AAS is not only gathering some of the militants who dispersed from Abyan in June 2012, but also incorporating a large number of Yemenis and foreigners returning from Syria. The main evidence cited is the role played by those previously in charge of logistical support for Yemenis joining the fight in Syria, along side al-Nusrah Front or ISIS. Those identified as responsible for the fighters in Ibb, Taiz and al-Dhale also happen to be high profile figures with roots in each of those provinces in the Central Region. The area not only covers access to Bab al-Mandab, as opposed to the Gulf of Aden, but it is also a strong hold for Salafi elements.
The Central Region was identified as an area of priority for AAS to counter Houthi expansion, but the group had not previously expressed such interests. In contrast, ISIS has expressed fighting Iranian influence as a priority, along with its antagonism of Gulf monarchies. If indeed ISIS is responsible for AAS-CR as Yemeni analysts indicate, it would suggest ISIS is using a known brand, Ansar al-Sharia, to gain a foothold in the Peninsula and aims to take advantage of rifts within AQAP to cement that presence. It would also imply ISIS is taking the battle with al-Zawahiri out of Syria and challenging the leadership of the global jihad movement. Blogs now boast of the number of jihadist groups in Central Asia and Southeast Asia pledging allegiance to ISIS, providing further evidence of ambitions by ISIS.
Recent incidents in Sana’a have taken many by surprise, but the opening of new fronts by AQAP, as the army intensified its offensive in Abyan and Shebwa, was expected. This has renewed a lack of confidence in the government even as president Hadi and the armed forces gain support from a growing section of the population, from Sana’a to the conflict areas. The government and its international partners clearly have to gain the confidence of those affected at this time and assure people they will not be abandoned once victory comes, and that funds will be available to rebuild and help displaced people return home. Also, concerns remain over military and security capabilities to contain AQAP’s expected reaction when defeated in Abyan and Shebwa, as well as the ability of AAS to create more chaos in Aden, Lahj and Hadhramawt.
Weeks to come will be a great test to president Hadi’s resolve, international partners, and the people. Without a clear post-conflict strategy for the affected areas, people fear a vengeful return by AQAP and AAS. To prevent this will require access to funds for long-term troop presence, and perhaps new Popular Committees, as well as economic opportunities. Fighting a versatile enemy of the State in multiple fronts is a major challenge. Assuring long term security before discontented grows once again will be a monumental challenge.