Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula took control of Mukallah, the capital of Yemen’s eastern province of Hadramout, just one day after storming several government buildings and freeing hundreds of prisoners, including a senior commander.
Yemeni troops abandoned two military bases in the city, “leaving behind American-made Humvee vehicles and other equipment to be seized by looters or the advancing fighters,” The New York Times reported.
The fall of Mukallah took place just one day after AQAP assault teams fanned out across the city and seized key facilities, including Hadramout province’s security headquarters, the local police station, provincial administrative offices, the Central Prison, and a branch of the central bank. AQAP is reported to have looted the bank.
Officials estimated that more than 300 prisoners, including a commander known as Khaled al Batarfi, escaped during AQAP’s assault on the Central Prison. Batarfi was an AQAP military operations chief for Abyan and Baydah provinces when he was captured in 2011. [See LWJ report, AQAP storms Yemeni prison, frees jihadist leader.]
Hadramout is the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, and the province has become an AQAP bastion over the past several years. The jihadist group regrouped in Hadramout and other provinces after losing control of major cities in Abyan and Shabwa provinces to government forces starting in late spring 2012. In May 2013, the Yemeni government claimed it foiled a plot by AQAP to establish an Islamic emirate in the Ghayl Bawazir area of the province.
AQAP has launched numerous attacks against Yemeni security forces in Mukallah over the past three years. In one assault, in June 2013, a platoon-sized AQAP assault team overran a base run by the Interior Ministry’s paramilitary Central Security Organization. Several soldiers were killed and the base was held by AQAP for days before it was retaken by commandos.
It is unclear if Yemeni security forces, which have been in disarray since Iranian-backed Shiite Houthi rebels took control of the capital of Sana’a last summer, will be able to regroup to drive AQAP from Mukallah this time.
Yemeni troops loyal to President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who has fled the country, are fighting to maintain a foothold in the southern city of Aden, Yemen’s second largest. Houthi rebels have advanced from the north and besieged Aden. The Houthi’s southward push, which began 10 days ago, led Saudi Arabia to organize a military intervention by a coalition of 10 Arab countries. The coalition has launched numerous airstrikes against the Houthis, and have killed scores of civilians.
The chaos in Yemen has forces the US to withdraw all military and diplomatic personnel from the country. The US had relied on the Hadi government as a partner in its counterterrorism strategy against al Qaeda. The US launched a series of drone and conventional airstrikes against AQAP from 2009 until earlier this year.
President Barack Obama had described the US strategy of partnering with local Yemeni forces as “one that we have successfully pursued … for years” when announcing the commencement of airstrikes agains the Islamic State in Iraq last summer. While the US has killed some senior AQAP leaders, the group’s leadership cadre has remained intact, and its emir, Nasir al Wuhayshi, was promoted to serve as al Qaeda’s general manager during the air campaign.