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Yemen, Al-Qaeda's Laboratory For 'Invisible' Relaunch

AQAP, the local al-Qaeda branch, is determined to learn from its mistakes. They've learned that they can't go too quickly and spill too much local blood.

A Yemeni security soldier
A Yemeni security soldier
Jean-Philippe Rémy

ADEN — The ink stain that leaked from a pen inside his shirt pocket looks like a Rorschach test on the light-blue fabric. With his jacket tight around the shoulders, the man based in Yemen's port city of Aden could pass for an mid-ranking government officer, except maybe for his large Ferrari sunglasses and his constant whispering. When it's time to deal with money, he doesn't go to the bank.

This man — let's call him Ahmed — sometimes leaves Aden to return to his home region, the Shabwah province in southern Yemen, to talk to some of the leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the local branch of the global jihadist organization.

The last time was during negotiations to obtain the liberation of a Western hostage who had been captured months before. Ahmed comes from the Awlaki tribe, which is very influential in the Shabwah governorate, and includes members who aren't necessarily hostile to the jihadist group's presence. Like the vast majority of his tribe, Ahmed doesn't have the slightest ideological affinity for AQAP. It's just that in this remote region, local officials and their jihadist counterparts often develop personal relations, from man to man.

Yemeni soldiers guard as al-Qaida suspects stand behind bars Photo: Mohammed Mohammed/ZUMA

Yemen has become al-Qaeda's laboratory. This is where the jihadist organization mulls over its past mistakes and tries to reinvent its future: How to adapt, how to triumph? In the Shabwah governorate, as well as in those of Al Bayda, Hadhramaut, or Lahij (just outside Aden), and as far as Marib, in the north, members of AQAP establish themselves and forge ties with tribal chiefs. The more the government is absent, the easier it is to plant roots. But their mission can proceed under one condition: They must carefully avoid formally taking control of the territory. This is the first component of al-Qaeda's new strategy. Its theoreticians call it "invisible hand."

To negotiate with AQAP, Ahmed must travel to far-flung villages and meet with the kidnappers, casually sitting inside some nondescript house. The people he meets might be ordinary-looking, but their ambitions are always high. The last time he came, Ahmed listened to their demands: $3 million. He whispered that it was a bit expensive. But for $5,000, he was still able to purchase proof that the hostage was alive. Finally, the hostage was freed after payment of a $1.8-million ransom by a country in the region, which acts as the middleman in these type of transactions.

This part of the Arabic peninsula should be purged of its infidels.

In the meantime, Ahmed was able to observe how AQAP members were working on the ground to strengthen their position. "Abductions are only one of their activities, and it counts less than oil smuggling. What's more, they continue their propaganda by handing all young people USB sticks with videos on their acts of war in Syria or in Iraq. And it's always free! They manage to appeal to young people, attracted as they are by this heroism..."

This is the meticulous work al-Qaeda's branch in Yemen is currently doing. And for now, it's paying off. "In many areas, AQAP's influence is spreading as its organizations fill up the void left by the government," says Elisabeth Kendall from Oxford University. For years, she's been studying the evolution of jihad in Yemen, where she regularly travels. She explains that in case of a dispute with tribes, al-Qaeda members now "pay blood money when they kill a tribesman by mistake. It's a step forward and it helps their local integration."

Yemen has long been one of the world's biggest exporter of jihadists, starting as early as the 1980s when the mujahideen left for Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets. Then Yemen became a jihadist playground. They decided this part of the Arabic peninsula should be purged of its infidels. So they began abducting tourists and attacking hotels. In 2000, a suicide bomb attack of the USS Cole, an American warship refueling in Aden's harbor, killed 17. As the years go by, the organization's members reorganize, before they're arrested or killed. And then, the cycle starts over.

al-Qaeda inflates and deflates like an accordion. Right now, the organization is in a phase of expansion. The United States tries to stop it using drones, missiles or executions carried out during special forces operations. Washington considers AQAP — an al-Qaeda branch born in 2009 from the merging of its Saudi and Yemeni branches — as a centerpiece, globally, of the organization, led — since Osama Bin Laden's death — by Ayman Al-Zawahiri. It is, first and foremost, the terror group that has the most "American blood on its hands," as Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis recently said.

Soldier guarding a Yemenite city from al-Qaeda Photo: Ibrahim Badawi/ZUMA

AQAP has become a specialist in long-distance jihad, and not only against the U.S. In January 2015, the organization had claimed responsibility for the "battle of Paris," that is to say the terror attack against Charlie Hebdo. The perpetrators, the Kouachi brothers, had received military training in Yemen in 2011, and had then been in contact with the American and Yemeni cleric Anwar Al-Awlaqi, AQAP's preacher-in-chief from Shabwah. Just after their departure, Al-Awlaqi was killed in a drone strike in northern Yemen.

Other terrorists who committed attacks against the U.S. were, at least, inspired by the Yemeni jihadist organization. The Nigerian "Underwear Bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who had attempted to blow up the Northwest Airlines Flight 253, from Amsterdam to Detroit, along with its 279 passengers on Christmas Day 2009, had been trained for his mission in Yemen, where some of al-Qaeda's best munitions specialists work.

Since 2002, the Pentagon and the CIA have thus been carrying out operations, particularly from the U.S. base in Djibouti, to try and eliminate the organization's leaders. This was initially done as part of the "war on terror" launched by George W. Bush. His successor, President Barack Obama, would wind up multiplying by ten the number of people targeted by drones worldwide, with Yemen one of his priority targets. Between January and mid-July 2017, 24 to 37 people were killed in Yemen by the U.S., according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Another historic occasion came for AQAP with the Yemeni civil war. When the Houthi rebels and the troops of the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, attacked the city of Aden in March 2015, a resistance was organized hastily in the city. Among these fighters, gathered under the name "Popular Resistance," were jihadists. And the Houthi rebels were pushed out of Aden.

Winning hearts and minds.

But in the meantime, another approach was taken to "win over the hearts and minds' of Yemenis. AQAP had created, as early as 2011, an offshoot whose purpose was to put up a smokescreen: Ansar al-Sharia. Four years later, this group declared the creation of emirates in Yemen. But instead of talking about jihadism, its leaders focused on public services. Corporal punishment was banned. The immediate and brutal intransigence regarding local customs became a thing of the past. And those who joined Ansar al-Sharia were no longer forced to swear allegiance to al-Qaeda, though the latter uses its affiliate as a recruiting ground for elite jihadists.

"AQAP calls this the "invisible hand" strategy, or sometimes "dark hand"," explains Michael Horton, expert on AQAP at the Jamestown Foundation and author of reports for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. "Unlike other al-Qaeda branches, AQAP is determined to learn from its mistakes. They've learned that they can't go too quickly in Yemen, in terms of application of sharia law. It alienates local leaders, both religious and tribal."

In Aden, in 2016, an organization was created, under the patronage of the United Arab Emirates, to bring order inside the Popular Resistance. It's called Security Belt. Its goal was to put an end to the climate of uprising that dominated at the time in the southern part of Yemen, in the parts controlled by the troops loyal to President Hadi, internationally recognized and supported by the Arab coalition. But, first of all, they had to do some cleaning up among the Popular Resistance troops, whose numbers went from a few thousand at the end of the fighting in Aden to ten times more. In this vast mess, al-Qaeda and ISIS militants were putting their ducks in a row.

Yemeni soldiers Photo: Mohammed Hamoud/ZUMA

Aden was plunging into chaos. Killings, attacks were multiplying in the streets, in shops, in military barracks, even inside the presidential palace. The goal: to eliminate political, military and religious leaders opposed to the jihadists. For example, ISIS militants, who had started gaining control of parts of the city in September 2015, burst inside the University of Aden one day in October and fired shots in the air demanding gender segregation.

Still, despite its efforts and its success elsewhere in the world, ISIS" presence has remained marginal since then in Yemen: 200 to 300 men at best, against several thousand for AQAP. Back in April 2015, al-Qaeda had captured the port city of Mukalla, on the Arabian Sea coast, earning about $100 million in the process with the money taken from bank coffers and taxes, before the Yemeni troops, aided by United Arab Emirates and U.S. forces, officially retook the city a year later.

A reflection on the meaning of the fight.

Once they were masters of Mukalla, al-Qaeda's strategists made use of their "invisible hand." No crucifixions, no black flags. Its leaders did their utmost, with the help of a Salafist sheik, to meet the people's expectations: repair the sewer system, set up a charity, reintroduce a judiciary structure, tolerate the consumption of khat on certain days.

A Yemeni employee at a foreign NGO, who worked alongside al-Qaeda leaders at the time, remembers: "One of their leaders saw us. We were afraid. We talked about the distributions we could organize for the population after we had been hit by a cyclone. He assured us that we would be able to continue our work, and he kept his word. During the interview, there was only one hitch. A colleague had wanted to know how he could check that what would be distributed would actually reach the people it was supposed to benefit. The al-Qaeda leader simply replied: "I think your friend didn't really understand who he was talking to. We are al-Qaeda." We left rather quickly after that. My Western colleague's face turned so pale..."

After Mukalla, Aden was retaken in 2016. The Security Belt entered the fray, establishing groups trained by the United Arab Emirates forces to launch attacks against al-Qaeda and ISIS. The operation was anything but moderate. A well-informed source in Aden told us how it went in the first months. "The 12 main leaders in Aden, as well as two others in Shabwah, were arrested and interrogated, either here or in Abu Dhabi capital city of the United Arab Emirates. They were certainly tortured. They gave the names and details of their organizations. As a result, all major terror attacks had stopped within two months. And two months later, most of the assassinations, too."

The end of attacks, however, may be only temporary. It might even be a strategic choice on the part of the jihadists. "As far as ISIS is concerned, there have been instructions to stop attacks in Aden because they were blurring their message. They were supposed to concentrate their attacks on the Houthis," says Dominique Thomas, researcher at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris. "Concerning AQAP, it was the result of a reflection on the meaning of the fight: They observed that the strategy of permanent confrontation wasn't working."

When the Iraqi forces recently retook the city of Mosul, AQAP's representatives on social networks strongly criticized ISIS and its vow to fight to the death. "Never waste your men in a lost battle!" There will be many more to come.

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