NAIROBI – Al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen is focusing on expanding its presence in a remote eastern province that is the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden, even as it remains the target of U.S. drone strikes and Yemeni military assaults, according to Yemeni officials.
Last year, a U.S.-backed Yemeni military offensive drove the militants from the southern province of Abyan, which the fighters had seized during the country’s Arab Spring revolt and controlled for more than a year as they sought to create an Islamic emirate from which to attack the Yemeni government and Western targets. But in recent months, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the affiliate is known, has bolstered its presence in Hadramaut, the country’s largest province, whose name some scholars say roughly translates as “Death is among us.” The region abuts Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally.
“After the ousting of al-Qaida from Abyan and the fleeing of the armed militants to different areas, it seems that al-Qaida has shifted its attention toward Hadramaut,” said Ali Alsarari, a political adviser to Yemen Prime Minister Mohammed Basindawa. “They control some areas and are trying to do what they did in Abyan.”
AQAP’s ambition of creating a new safe haven in Yemen was underscored this week by news that the Yemeni government had foiled a plot by the militants to seize Mukalla, the provincial capital of Hadramaut and a vital seaport, and to destroy an oil pipeline and gas facilities. It was the first time, officials said, that AQAP had tried to take over Mukalla. “It surprised us that they would try to seize the city,” said Rajeh Badi, a spokesman for Basindawa.
The group’s new boldness comes as its ties to al-Qaida’s central branch in Pakistan and its profile in jihadist circles are growing. AQAP leader Nasser al-Wahishi, who was once bin Laden’s personal secretary, is now the terrorist network’s No. 2, second only to Ayman al-Zawahri, according to analysts.
The interception last week of a discussion between the two leaders of a potential attack on Western targets prompted the closure of 19 U.S. embassies and consulates in the Middle East and Africa, as well as a global travel alert. In Yemen, the State Department this week evacuated non-emergency personnel from its embassy in Sanaa. Although the raids on the port and pipeline were thwarted, U.S. officials said they remain on alert for other attacks because they believe that plot might have been part of a broader plan.
The U.S. considers AQAP among the greatest threats to American soil. The group sent parcel bombs on flights into the U.S. in 2010 and orchestrated a foiled plot to bomb an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day of 2009. In response, the White House unleashed a campaign of drone strikes across southern and eastern Yemen that has killed AQAP militants but also bred anger and fostered sympathy for the group among many Yemenis.
In light of the growing criticism, the administration has cut back on attacks this year. Recently, however, the pace has intensified. On Thursday, a suspected U.S. drone strike killed six alleged militants in Marib province — the sixth such attack in the past two weeks. Since July 27, drone attacks have killed 31 suspected militants, according to an AP count of the dead provided by Yemeni security officials.
Over the past year, Hadramaut has been a target. From mid-May to December last year, there were seven U.S. drone attacks in the province — about 17 percent of the total drone strikes in Yemen in 2012, according to the Long War Journal, a website that monitors drone attacks. On Aug. 1, a strike in Hadramaut killed five alleged AQAP militants, according to the website.
Portions of Hadramaut have been an AQAP bastion for several years, but what is new is the group’s effort to make it its main stronghold, said Alsarari and other Yemeni officials. The province, which covers a third of Yemen, is one of the poorest and most geographically inhospitable regions in the Arabian Peninsula, and the highly conservative tribal society there practices a strict form of Islam. Such conditions help AQAP win recruits and sympathy.
Moreover, bin Laden’s clan hails from a region of Hadramaut where clan and tribal loyalties trump national identity, allowing greater protection and shelter for AQAP fighters. The province’s proximity to Saudi Arabia also allows for free flows of militants: AQAP was formed from the merger of al-Qaida’s Yemeni and Saudi branches in January 2009.
Yemeni officials insist that AQAP’s takeover of Abyan will not be replicated in Hadramaut, saying that the political and military climate is different now. In 2011, Islamist militants linked to AQAP took advantage of the political turmoil amid the populist uprising and seized control of large swaths of the south, especially Abyan. The ease of that takeover prompted critics of then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh to accuse of him of purposely losing territory as a tactic to convince the U.S., Yemen’s neighbors and other allies that instability would result if he stepped down. Saleh’s government had a mixed record of combating extremist groups, sometimes aligning with them to gain power or leverage aid from the West.
After Saleh left office last year under pressure from the U.S. and neighboring Arab countries, his handpicked successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, launched a major U.S.-backed offensive against the militants and pushed them out of Abyan. Many of the fighters scattered across several provinces, including Hadramaut, while others launched a shadowy insurgency, striking Yemeni military, security and government targets.
Today, Yemeni military officials say they are engaged in a tit-for-tat guerrilla conflict. “As a Yemeni proverb says, ‘One day for you and the other against you,’ “said Brig. Gen. Ali Saeed Obaid, deputy chief of the general staff in the Defense Ministry. Cooperation with the United States, he added, is closer than ever, and the U.S. drones are a key tool for the Yemeni military.