Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula mounted a complex assault yesterday in which an army base was overrun, heavy weapons were seized, and 185 Yemeni troops were killed.
AQAP opened the attack against a Yemeni Army base near Al Koud by sending two suicide bombers to attack the gate. The suicide bombings were followed by a mortar and rocket attack, while AQAP foot soldiers stormed the gate.
The AQAP fighters overran the base and seized “armored vehicles, artillery pieces, assault rifles and rockets,” according to Voice of America. The AQAP troops then turned the Yemeni Army’s own weapons against them.
The devastating attack killed 185 Yemeni soldiers, The Guardian reported. According to a Yemeni journalist, another 150 Yemeni soldiers were wounded and an estimated 60 more were captured. The Associated Press reported that “at least” 32 AQAP fighters were killed during the assault.
AQAP has claimed that it captured 70 Yemeni soldiers during attacks in the towns of Dovas and Al Koud, according to a statement that was obtained by Xinhua. AQAP claimed it killed 50 Yemeni soldiers while losing only two.
“We captured 70 soldier after we raided the government elite artillery battalion in Dovas, which was responsible for shelling Zinjibar and Jaar over the past months,” the AQAP statement said. “The Mujahideen also launched a string of attacks, including bombing an explosive-laden vehicle and explosive devices, against several targets of the government military units in Al Koud and Dovas towns, killing more than 50 government soldiers, while we lost two of our fighters and 13 others were injured. During the battles today, we seized from the enemy a large-scale of different heavy weapons, including a tank, anti-aircraft cannons, Katyusha-propelled vehicles, two ambulance cars and three military pick-up vehicles.”
The town of Al Koud is just south of Zinjibar, the provincial capital of Abyan. Al Koud and Zinjibar are among several Yemeni cities and towns that are currently under AQAP control. The cities of Ja’ar, Shaqra, and Rawdah in Abyan are also presently run by AQAP. In addition, the terror group controls Azzan in Shabwa province.
AQAP took control of Zinjibar, the provincial capital of Abyan, in May 2011. The terror group has battled government forces to a standstill in Zinjibar. Three Yemeni Army brigades – one infantry, one mechanized, and one armored – are involved in the fighting in Zinjibar.
AQAP has launched a series of attacks on the Yemeni military and the government since former President Ali Saleh stepped down at the end of February and was replaced by President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who had vowed to battle al Qaeda. On Feb. 26, the day Hadi was sworn in, an AQAP suicide bomber killed 26 people in an attack on the presidential palace in Mukallah, the provincial capital of Hadramout.
Background on AQAP and Ansar al Sharia
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been fighting under the banner of the Ansar al Sharia, or the Army of Islamic law. Ansar al Sharia constitutes “AQAP’s version of the Islamic State of Iraq,” which is al Qaeda’s political and military front in Iraq, a senior US intelligence official told The Long War Journal last year.
“Ansar al Sharia is pulling in allied Islamist groups and sympathetic tribes into its orbit, and seeks to implement an Islamic State much like the Taliban did in Afghanistan and al Qaeda attempted in Iraq,” the official said.
In an official statement released by Ansar al Sharia in May 2011, the group said it wishes to take control of “all administrative, political, economic, cultural, monitoring, and other responsibilities” in Yemen.
AQAP is seeking to build an army to back up its Islamic state. In 2010, Qasim al Raymi, the military commander for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Mohammed Said al Umdah Gharib al T’aizzi, a senior AQAP military commander in southern Yemen, both claimed that the terror group had raised a 12,000-fighter-strong army in the southern Yemeni provinces. Yemeni officials recently told Al Hayah that “al Qaeda fighters in Zinjibar (the capital of Abyan) number in the hundreds, and perhaps exceed 2,000 gunmen.”
The terror group continues to use al Qaeda’s tactic of suicide bombings. In August 2011, Ansar al Sharia released a videotape of a suicide bomber attacking a Yemeni armored column as it traveled from Aden to Zinjibar.
AQAP has taken advantage of the political turmoil in Yemen to seize control of vast areas of the Yemeni south. Since the onset of large anti-government protests in March 2011, AQAP has openly taken control of areas in Abyan, Shabwah, Hadramawt, Marib, and Lahj provinces. Government forces have withdrawn from several major cities in the south, leaving an opening for al Qaeda and allied Islamist groups to seize control of several areas. Yemenis have described the southern port city of Aden as ripe for an AQAP takeover.
The US in turn was taking advantage of the security vacuum in Yemen to step up attacks against AQAP’s top leaders and its network. The US killed two American AQAP propagandists, Anwar al Awlaki and Samir Khan, in a Predator airstrike in September 2011, and targeted AQAP emir Nasir al Wuhayshi and media emir Ibrahim al Bana. Wuhayshi and al Bana are believed to have survived the strikes.
The drone program in Yemen was put on hold in October 2011 after Anwar al Awlaki’s son, Abdul Rahman, was killed in an airstrike that targeted al Bana. Abdul Rahman was a 16-year-old American citizen who had said he hoped “to attain martyrdom as my father attained it” just hours before he was killed, according to a Yemeni journalist.
Note: This article was updated on March 5 and again on March 6 to reflect the increasing casualty totals.