Yesterday evening, Tareq al Fadhli officially announced that he has joined al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and begun taking up arms against the central Yemeni government in Sana’a. Fadhli is the leader of the prominent al Fadhli tribe in Abyan province in southern Yemen, where the Yemeni military has been carrying out operations targeting AQAP since late April.
In 2012, the Yemeni government labeled Fadhli a terrorist, and he has been living under house arrest in the southern port city of Aden ever since. Fadhli openly admitted yesterday that he had broken the terms of his house arrest and relocated to the al Maraqsha mountains in Abyan province, leaving his family behind in Aden in order to take up arms against the government.
In 2010, Fadli told the New York Times that he was labeled a terrorist by the Yemeni regime because he had joined the southern succession movement, al Hirak al Janoubi, in 2009 and had expressed opposition to then Yemeni president Ali Abdallah Saleh. At the time, Fadhli alleged that the Yemeni government had smeared its domestic rivals by accusing them of membership in AQAP, and he denied being part of the terrorist organization.
Fadhli comes from an influential southern Yemeni family that had a close relationship with the British who ruled southern Yemen from 1839 to 1967. Born in 1967, Fadhli joined the jihad against the Soviet Union at the age of 19 in Afghanistan, where he befriended Osama Bin Laden. He later assisted Ali Abdallah Saleh’s regime in fighting the southern socialists in the 1990s by reaching out to the jihadi contacts he had created while fighting in Afghanistan. Fadhli was well rewarded for supporting Saleh and even became a close ally of the Yemeni president, before defecting to the southern movement in 2009.
In the New York Times article from 2010, Fadhli defended his relationship with bin Laden and al Qaeda, and claimed: “When I fought with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, there were no bombings of civilians, and I would never have supported them … the Americans were our allies back then.” Fadhli presented himself not as a terrorist but as a potential mediator between the US and al Qaeda, saying, “We can be allied with the United States against terrorism, and we will achieve the interests of the United States, not those of the regime.”
Yesterday, however, Fadhli officially broke from this narrative and joined AQAP amid large-scale military operations targeting the terrorist group in southern and central Yemen.