Al-Qaeda gaining ground in Yemen

NATO success against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan has made Yemen the new stronghold for al-Qaeda internationally

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Al-Qaeda in Yemen struck another bloody blow on Monday
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Ghaffar Hussain
On 22 May 2012 14:53

As world leaders gather at a NATO summit in Chicago to discuss winding down the war in Afghanistan, a spectacular suicide attack in Yemen reminds us where the real frontline in this war is.

On Monday, a Yemeni solider, who had been recruited to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), detonated a bomb hidden in his uniform during a rehearsal for National Day, which commemorates the 1990 unification of North and South Yemen. The bomb managed to kill 96 soldiers and injure another 200. It was the deadliest attack in the Yemeni capital for years and, considering it only involved a single bomber, a huge over-achievement for AQAP.

The Yemeni government and AQAP have been engaged in all-out war since Dec 2009. Thus far, more than 808 Yemeni troops and over 670 AQAP fighters have been killed in the fighting. However, since the uprisings in 2011, which resulted in the deposition of incumbent Abdulllah Ali Saleh, the pendulum has swing in AQAP’s favour.

It has taken control of a key province in the south of the country, Abyan, and declared it an Islamic Emirate. It has successfully ambushed government troops on a number of occasions and taken over 75 captives as well as seizing heavy artillery including tanks. It has fought government troops to stalemate in a number of battles and practically defeated them during the battle for Zanjibar, the capital of Abyan province, last summer.  

AQAP is rumoured to have between 500-1000 fighters in the region who are also supported by around 400 fighters from Somalia’s al-Shabab. A group calling itself Ansar-ul-Shariah (friends of Shariah is also operating in the region and has around 300 fighters. It is not clear if this is an AQAP re-branding exercise or a completely different jihadist group. Either way, morale is high as the Jihadists roll from one victory to another.

Since the war on terror was supposed to focus on primarily on al-Qaeda, efforts in Afghanistan seemed a little misplaced now that the Yemeni front is in full swing. Al-Qaeda in the Af-Pak region, by optimistic estimates, is believed to have between 50-80 fighters left. Most of the senior commanders and leadership figures have either been apprehended or killed in drone attacks.

The local groups that NATO is currently battling, i.e. the Taliban, Haqqani Network etc. don’t have an international focus. They merely want to practise their medievalism in their homeland and, in most cases, are well integrated into the social fabric of that region. 

Also, it’s a problem NATO can’t really affect since these groups, between them, have over 30,000 well trained and armed fighters. They will always be there and always control some territory. It is, therefore, a problem which only the local power brokers can resolve between themselves. A functioning Afghan government and army can’t stop these elements from operating and defeating them militarily will take decades and the full co-operation of Pakistan, a country that is currently alienated.

NATO success against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, however, has made Yemen the new stronghold for al-Qaeda internationally. The US is operating in Yemen, training government troops and launching occasional drone strikes. However, it is going to require more than a few US trainers and a weak and demoralised Yemeni army of 10,000 troops to defeat AQAP. What Yemen needs is the world to recognise that the frontline in the global war against al-Qaeda has now firmly and irreversibly shifted to the Arabian Peninsula. 

Ghaffar Hussain is a counter terrorism expert and Contributing Editor to The Commentator

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