US-Backed Saudi-Emirati Coalition Cooperates with Al-Qaeda in Yemen
Story Code : 743476
AP based their findings on reporting from the war-torn nation and interviews with two dozen officials, including Yemeni security officers, militia commanders, tribal mediators and four members of al-Qaeda’s branch. All but a few of those sources spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals. Emirati-backed factions, like most armed groups in Yemen, have been accused of abducting or killing their critics.
For more than two years, a Saudi-led alliance - backed by US logistical and weapons support - claimed it crushed al-Qaeda's ability to carry out attacks from Yemen, but AP's startling revelations showed "many of their conquests came without firing a shot".
"That’s because the coalition cut secret deals with al-Qaida fighters, paying some to leave key cities and towns and letting others retreat with weapons, equipment and wads of looted cash, an investigation by The Associated Press has found. Hundreds more were recruited to join the coalition itself."
Saudi Arabia and its allies, mainly the United Arab Emirates (UAE), launched a deadly aggression on neighboring Yemen in March 2015 in support of Yemen’s resigned Riyadh-friendly government and against the Ansarullah resistance movement.
The Saudi-led offensive has killed and injured over 600,000 civilians, according to the latest figures released by the Yemeni Ministry of Human Rights. Much of the Arabian Peninsula country's infrastructure, including hospitals, schools and factories, has been reduced to rubble due to the war. The devastating war also paved the way for al-Qaeda terrorists to take control of large parts of southern Yemen. AQAP is the most active and dangerous branch of al-Qaeda terror network that carried out the 9/11 attacks in the US.
The report made it clear how sham are US claims of fighting terrorism and proved the theory that Washington's uses the so-called counterterrorism policies as an excuse to interfere in different region's affairs in order to secure its interests. AP cited "Key participants in the pacts" as saying that the US "was aware of the arrangements and held off on any drone strikes."
“Elements of the U.S. military are clearly aware that much of what the U.S. is doing in Yemen is aiding AQAP and there is much angst about that,” said Michael Horton, a fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, a U.S. analysis group that tracks terrorism.
“However, supporting the UAE and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia against what the U.S. views as Iranian expansionism takes priority over battling AQAP and even stabilizing Yemen,” Horton said.
The AP found that Coalition-backed militants actively recruit al-Qaeda terrorists, or those who were recently members, to fight Ansarullah forces because they’re considered exceptional fighters.
"The coalition forces are comprised of a dizzying mix of militias, factions, tribal warlords and tribes with very local interests. And AQAP terrorists are intertwined with many of them," AP reported.
An al-Qaeda commander who helps organize deployments told the AP that the front lines against the Ansarullah fighters "provide fertile ground to recruit new members".
"In some places, militants join battles independently. But in many cases, militia commanders from the ultraconservative Salafi sect and the Muslim Brotherhood bring them directly into their ranks, where they benefit from coalition funding, the AP found. The Brotherhood’s Yemen branch is a powerful hard-line Islamic political organization allied to Hadi," referring Yemen's resigned president that is mow based in Riyadh.
The impact of the intertwining of al-Qaida fighters with the coalition campaign is clearest in Taiz, Yemen’s largest city and center of one of the war’s longest running battles.
In the central highlands, Taiz is Yemen’s cultural capital, a historic source of poets and writers and educated technocrats.
Abdel-Sattar al-Shamiri, a former adviser to Taiz’s governor, said he recognized al-Qaida’s presence from the start and told commanders not to recruit members.
“Their response was, ‘We will unite with the devil in the face of Houthis,’” al-Shamiri said referring to Ansarullah fighters.
One of the main recruiters of al-Qaida fighters is Adnan Rouzek, a Salafi member tapped by Hadi to be a top military commander.
Rouzek’s militia became notorious for kidnappings and street killings, with one online video showing its masked members shooting a kneeling, blindfolded man. Its videos feature al-Qaida-style anthems and banners.
Rouzek’s top aide was a senior al-Qaida figure who escaped from a prison in Aden in 2008 along with other AQAP detainees, according to a Yemeni security official. Multiple photos seen by the AP show Rouzek with known al-Qaida commanders in recent years.
In November, Hadi named Rouzek head of the Taiz Operations Rooms, coordinating the military campaign, and top commander of a new fighting force, the 5th Presidential Protection Battalion. Hadi’s Defense Ministry also gave Rouzek $12 million for a new offensive against the Houthis. The AP obtained copy of a receipt for the $12 million and a Rouzek aide confirmed the figure.
While there is no evidence to suggest that the US itself has given money to AQAP terrorists, partners involved in the Saudi-led coalition have. The aide of one militia commander recently added to Washington's terrorism watch list for al-Qaeda ties told AP that the UAE continues to fund his operation.
Another militia commander who has an al-Qaeda figure as his closest aide was recently given $12 million by Yemen’s President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.
A farewell dinner for al-Qaeda
In February, Emirati troops and their Yemeni militia allies flashed victory signs to TV cameras as they declared the recapture of al-Said, a district of villages running through the mountainous province of Shabwa — an area al-Qaeda had largely dominated for nearly three years.
It was painted as a crowning victory in a months-long offensive, Operation Swift Sword, that the Emirati ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, had proclaimed would “disrupt the terrorist organization’s network and degrade its ability to conduct future attacks.”
The Pentagon, which assisted with a small number of troops, echoed that promise, saying the mission would weaken the group’s ability to use Yemen as a base.
But weeks before those forces’ entry, a string of pickup trucks mounted with machine guns and loaded with masked al-Qaeda terrorists drove out of al-Said unmolested, according to a tribal mediator involved in the deal for their withdrawal.
Under the terms of the deal, the coalition promised al-Qaeda members it would pay them to leave, according to Awad al-Dahboul, the province’s security chief. His account was confirmed by the mediator and two Yemeni government officials.
Al-Dahboul said about 200 al-Qaeda members received payments. He did not learn the exact amounts, but said he knew that 100,000 Saudi rials ($26,000) were paid to one al-Qaeda commander — in the presence of Emiratis.
Under the accord, thousands of local tribal fighters were to be enlisted in the UAE-funded Shabwa Elite Force militia. For every 1,000 fighters, 50 to 70 would be al-Qaida members, the mediator and two officials said.
Saleh bin Farid al-Awlaqi, a pro-Emirati tribal leader who was the founder of one Elite Force branch, denied any agreements were made. He said he and others enticed young al-Qaida members in Shabwa to defect, which weakened the group, forcing it to withdraw on its own. He said about 150 fighters who defected were allowed into the Elite Force, but only after they underwent a “repentance” program.
Overall, deals that took place during both the Obama and Trump administrations have secured al-Qaeda militants’ withdrawal from multiple major towns and cities that the group seized in 2015, the AP found. The earliest pact, in the spring of 2016, allowed thousands of al-Qaeda fighters to pull out of Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth-largest city and a major port on the Arabian Sea.
The terrorists were guaranteed a safe route out and allowed to keep weapons and cash looted from the city — up to $100 million by some estimates — according to five sources, including military, security and government officials.
“Coalition fighter jets and U.S. drones were idle,” said a senior tribal leader who saw the convoy leaving. “I was wondering why they didn’t strike them.”
A tribal sheikh shuttled between AQAP leaders in Mukalla and Emirati officials in Aden to seal the deal, according to a former senior Yemeni commander.
Coalition-backed forces moved in two days later, announcing that hundreds of militants were killed and hailing the capture as “part of joint international efforts to defeat the terrorist organizations in Yemen.”
No witnesses reported militants killed, however. “We woke up one day and al-Qaeda had vanished without a fight,” a local journalist said, speaking to AP on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Soon after, another accord was struck for AQAP to pull out of six towns in the province of Abyan, including its capital, Zinjibar, according to five tribal mediators involved in the negotiations.
Again, the central provision was that the coalition and U.S. drones cease all bombings as AQAP pulled out with its weapons, the mediators said.
The agreement also included a provision that 10,000 local tribesmen — including 250 al-Qaeda militants — be incorporated into the Security Belt, the UAE-backed Yemeni force in the area, four Yemeni officials said.
For nearly a week in May 2016, the terrorists departed in trucks. One of the mediators told the AP that he threw the last of the departing fighters a farewell dinner among his olive and lemon orchards when they stopped at his farm to pay their respects.
Another mediator, Tarek al-Fadhli, a former militant once trained by al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, said he was in touch with officials at the U.S. Embassy and in the Saudi-led coalition, keeping them updated on the withdrawal.
“When the last one left, we called the coalition to say they are gone,” he said.