Amid chaos, Al-Qaida consolidates control over southern Yemen
province, forges alliances
BY AHMED AL-HAJ AND SARAH EL DEEB, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ON APRIL 16, 2015.
SANAA, Yemen – Al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen consolidated control over
much of the country’s largest province on Thursday, capturing a major
airport, an oil terminal and the area’s main military base, and
striking an alliance with local tribal leaders to administer the
The gains highlight how al-Qaida has exploited the chaos in Yemen,
where Shiite rebels are battling forces loyal to exiled President Abed
Rabbo Mansour Hadi. A 3-week-old Saudi-led air campaign in support of
Hadi has so far failed to halt the rebels’ advance.
Military officials and residents said al-Qaida fighters clashed
briefly with members of one of Yemen’s largest brigades outside
Mukalla, the capital of Hadramawt province, which the militants
overran earlier this month. The militants then seized control of Riyan
airport and moved to secure their hold on the city’s main seaport,
which is also an oil terminal.
The security officials, speaking from Sanaa on condition of anonymity
because they were not authorized to brief the press, said the leaders
of the brigade in charge of protecting the entire area fled.
Nasser Baqazouz, an activist in the city, said the troops guarding the
airport put up little resistance to al-Qaida fighters. “They are
consolidating their hold of the city and will paralyze the whole coast
of Hadramawt,” he said.
Since March 26, the Saudi-led coalition has been striking the Shiite
rebels, known as Houthis, and allied military units loyal to ousted
President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
But the strikes have not targeted areas with an al-Qaida presence,
including Hadramawt province, where al-Qaida has long maintained a
presence despite U.S. drone strikes and Yemeni counterterrorism
A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, Ahmed Asiri, said the air
campaign is against the Shiite rebels’ power grab – not al-Qaida.
“The goals of the (operation) are clear, which is to support the
legitimacy of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, support efforts to
restore peace and stability and prevent the Houthi militia from
harming Yemenis and neighbouring countries,” Asiri told journalists in
Fighting al-Qaida requires different strategies than that of the
current operation, Asiri said, suggesting that such a fight could come
“Once there is a secure and stable Yemen that is able to impose order,
there will be no room for al-Qaida,” he told the Saudi-owned
Al-Arabiya Al-Hadath TV station.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemeni affiliate is known,
is widely seen as the global network’s most dangerous franchise and
has been linked to several failed attacks on the U.S. The group
claimed responsibility for the attack on a French satirical magazine
in Paris earlier this year.
The al-Qaida affiliate has strengthened its hold on Mukalla,
negotiating the formation of a 51-member local council to act as
nominal administrators of the provincial capital, a local politician,
Ali al-Kathiri told The Associated Press.
He said local tribal leaders approved the council only to avoid
bloodshed and that non-religious parties like his were kept out of the
“This is dangerous. We know what their orientation is,” al-Kathiri
said, adding that the council negotiated with local commanders of the
military base in Mukalla to ensure a peaceful handover of their bases.
Baqazouz, the local activist, said control of the bases means the
militants now have free rein over the long Hadrawmawt coast, which
stretches along the Arabian Sea in the east.
In Mukalla, al-Qaida fighters have turned a cultural centre into an
Islamic religious court and set up squads to keep law and order,
according to Baqazouz and al-Kathiri. The squads have arrested several
local politicians loyal to Saleh, they said.
Meanwhile, Yemen’s exiled vice-president, Khaled Bahah, called on the
Houthis and pro-Saleh military units to end their offensive on the
southern port city of Aden, saying that ground fighting must halt
ahead of any peace initiative.
Speaking in Riyadh, Bahah said the rebels and Saleh loyalists should
adhere to the U.N. Security Council resolution passed earlier this
week that calls on Yemen’s rivals to end the violence and return to
U.N.-led peace talks. He called on military units loyal to Saleh to
return to the fold of the legitimate government.
The U.N. resolution makes no mention of an end to the airstrikes.
“We consider Aden to be the key to peace, the key to the solution,”
Bahah said of the port city, Yemen’s second-largest, where Hadi had
set up a temporary capital before fleeing to Saudi Arabia.
Bahah said Hadi will return to Aden when the security and political
situation improves. For now, he said a small government will operate
out of Riyadh, focusing on organizing and co-ordinating humanitarian
The Houthis swept down from their northern strongholds and seized the
capital, Sanaa, in September. Iran supports the Shiite rebels, but
both Tehran and the rebels deny it has armed them.
Meanwhile, Saleh troops and Houthi fighters made new gains in Taiz,
north of Aden, encircling the command centre of a major brigade loyal
to Hadi amid heavy clashes.
Asiri, the coalition spokesman, said the air campaign has left the
Houthi rebels in disarray and severed their contacts and alliance with
the Saleh military units. He said fighting units on the ground are
isolated from their leaders and targeting their weapons depots has
limited their capabilities.
Ground fighting has been fiercest in Aden, where rebels and pro-Saleh
military units are trying to take control of the city.
Humanitarian groups have struggled to meet the needs of a population
that was already struggling with food security, water scarcity and
The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said that at
least 364 civilians are reported to have been killed since the start
of the airstrikes on March 26, including at least 84 children and 25
women. This is in addition to hundreds of fighters killed.
El Deeb reported from Cairo. Aya Batrawy contributed to this report
from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Received on Thu Apr 16 2015 - 21:26:33 EDT