In late March, AQAP held a large rally in Mukalla to protest American airstrikes.
A coalition led by Saudi Arabia has entered the southern Yemeni port city of Mukalla, which has been a major hub of operations for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) since early April 2015. Airstrikes helped pave the way for ground forces from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Yemeni government to enter Mukalla in the past 24 hours.
Citing Yemeni officials and “local residents,” Reuters reports that “2,000 Yemeni and Emirati troops” have taken control of the “port and airport” and are “setting up checkpoints throughout” Mukalla, which is the capital of Yemen’s Hadramout province.
Some of the reports coming out of Mukalla are highly questionable. For example, Saudi Arabia’s official press agency claims that “the operation resulted in its first hours in the killing of more than 800 elements of Al Qaeda and a number of their leaders and that the rest of them fled.”
However, it is unlikely that AQAP lost 800 fighters in the battle. The Yemen Post reports that the casualty figure is far lower, totaling less than 100 jihadists.
Indeed, the Saudis’ claim was immediately met with skepticism in the press. AQAP was apparently expecting the assault and began to withdraw its forces from parts of Mukalla well in advance. Reuters cites local residents as saying that AQAP had negotiated with “local clerics and tribesmen” to “exit quietly” towards “the neighbouring province of Shabwa.”
Still, AQAP’s retreat from Mukalla, which is estimated to have 500,000 residents, is a blow to the group. The city is a key part of AQAP’s plan to build an Islamic emirate in southern Yemen. AQAP has earned lucrative revenues via taxes on goods entering through the city’s port and by looting local banks, according to Reuters.
Files recovered from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Mali show that al Qaeda has long discussed how to best accomplish this goal. AQAP controlled significant ground in Yemen throughout 2011 and into 2012, but was ultimately forced to retreat in the face of Yemeni forces, which were backed by the US. The group simply melted away and began laying the groundwork for its comeback in 2015.
Two letters written by Nasir al Wuhayshi, the deceased leader of AQAP, are especially informative. The Associated Press first reported on the communications, which were recovered in Mali. Wuhayshi addressed the missives to AQIM emir’s, Abdelmalek Droukdel, and recounted AQAP’s experiences in governing territory in Yemen in 2011 and 2012. [See LWJ report, Wuhayshi imparted lessons of AQAP operations in Yemen to AQIM.]
“As soon as we took control of the areas, we were advised by [Al Qaeda’s] General Command here not to declare the establishment of an Islamic principality, or state for a number of reasons,” Wuhayshi wrote on Aug. 6, 2012, referring to the advice he received from al Qaeda’s management team.
Wuhayshi enumerated the reasons why al Qaeda’s general command didn’t want AQAP to declare its control over an Islamic emirate. “We wouldnʼt be able to treat people on the basis of a state since we would not be able to provide for all their needs, mainly because our state is vulnerable,” the AQAP head explained to Droukdel. “Second: Fear of failure, in the event that the world conspires against us. If this were to happen, people may start to despair and believe that jihad is fruitless.” Due to “these reasons and others, we deemed that their [al Qaeda’s general command] advice was wise and decided not to declare a state,” Wuhayshi concluded. He also noted that “our bothers in Somalia,” meaning Shabaab (al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa), had decided not to declare “a state despite the fact that they control most of the areas of the country.”
Even though AQAP did not declare an Islamic emirate in southern Yemen during Wuhayshi’s reign, it was clearly working to establish one. Wuhayshi explained his group was gradually implementing sharia law in a manner that would be understood by the people. Because the Yemeni people had not lived under a truly Islamic government in some time, Wuhayshi reasoned, they needed to be reintroduced to al Qaeda-style sharia law.
Wuhayshi also explained that the jihadists needed to build popular support. “Try to win them over through the conveniences of life and by taking care of their daily needs like food, electricity and water,” Wuhayshi wrote to Droukdel on May 21, 2012. “Providing these necessities will have a great effect on people, and will make them sympathize with us and feel that their fate is tied to ours. This is what weʼve observed during our short experience.”
AQAP followed this same strategy throughout 2015 and the first three and a half months of 2016. The group did not declare an Islamic emirate in southern Yemen, despite controlling a large area of contiguous territory. AQAP did begin to implement sharia law, but avoided graphic images of the punishments being meted out according to its draconian code. And AQAP set up social media accounts to advertise its provision of basic government services, such as repairing roads, running electrical lines, and ensuring a steady supply of water.
Wuhayshi’s advice in 2012 also provides clues as to how AQAP will respond in the wake of its withdrawal this time.
Wuhayshi believed that AQAP’s “position” was “far better” as a result of its territorial gains, even if the jihadists were ultimately forced to pull back. The “parties” that led the fight against AQAP on the ground “turned against each other, which gave us a rare opportunity for guerrilla warfare and liquidations.”
“We embarked on that [a guerrilla warfare campaign] as soon as we withdrew,” Wuhayshi wrote. He noted the importance of holding onto the group’s “previous bases in the mountains, forests and deserts,” so that the jihadists could live to fight another day.
AQAP will likely wage an insurgency against the Arab forces that have entered Mukalla. The jihadists are already striking coalition positions elsewhere in response to the new offensive.
The Saudi-led coalition’s campaign in Mukalla marks a change in strategy. Since early 2015, AQAP has taken advantage of the coalition’s focus on Shiite Houthi rebels and grabbed territory along Yemen’s southern coast. In general, the Arab alliance did not target AQAP, which allowed the group to reclaim the ground it previously lost.
The Arab alliance has switched gears in recent days and so AQAP will now as well, just as Wuhayshi advised nearly four years ago.