With U.S. Help, Yemen Intensifies Assault on Al Qaeda Stronghold
Yemen’s government has intensified a campaign of air and ground strikes in the south of the country this week in an effort to recapture towns from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) — the branch in Yemen behind the recently foiled plot to smuggle a suicide bomber on a U.S.-bound plane — and affiliated insurgents.
And for the first time, dozens of U.S. troops are now helping to direct Yemen’s offensive by coordinating assaults and strikes and providing information from an air base 45 miles away from the battleground, according to Yemeni military officials.
Though Al Qaeda has operated in parts of the southern region for years, until 12 months ago, the group had been mainly confined to hideouts in nearby mountainous areas. But as The Guardian‘s Ghaith Abdul-Ahad has been reporting first-hand from Yemen, AQAP and its affiliates have taken control of several cities and towns, implementing sharia law and attempting to win over the local population by providing security and administering scarce resources.
In the southern city of Jaar, which AQAP declared an “Islamic emirate” more than a year ago, Abdul-Ahad witnessed how Ansar al-Shariah, a close AQAP affiliate, has “abolished taxes, provided free water and electricity and installed sewage pipes.”
Jaar has seen the most intense fighting in the government’s current assault. According to The New York Times, at least a dozen people were killed there early Tuesday, “including about six civilians who went to the site of the first bombing to help victims, witnesses said.”
Yemen’s military has conducted various raids in the south before, says Yemen expert Gregory D. Johnsen, but he told FRONTLINE that “AQAP wasn’t really operating in the open there before, so it’s unclear what’s going to happen.” Johnsen says the question now is: “Is Al Qaeda going to fight or pull back into the mountains and let the government take nominal control?”
The current assault comes as the U.S. and Yemen escalate a more secretive war on Al Qaeda-linked insurgents across Yemen that has included drone strikes carried out by both the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) as well as more conventional air strikes.
But the full picture of the war on Al Qaeda in Yemen is murky. Wired recently called attention to the work of aviation blogger David Cenciotti, who has pieced together information that sheds light on some of the secret operations:
Evidence the jets are bombing Yemen is more circumstantial: Cenciotti notes that the pro-U.S. Yemeni air force was on strike at the time of one widely reported air raid in the country, meaning another nation was likely responsible for the hit.
President Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan visited Sana on Sunday to meet with Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, in a sign of increased cooperation between the Obama administration and the new president, who came to power in February under a U.S.-backed peace plan pushed by the country’s Gulf Arab neighbors.
Today President Obama signed an executive order that would allow the Treasury Department to freeze the American assets of individuals who “threaten the peace, security and stability” of Yemen, in what is seen as a tool to allow President Hadi to remove the relatives and friends of the former President Ali Abdullah Saleh who have refused to give up political or military posts.
“It’s one more in a series of warnings to former President Saleh’s family that if there are more obstructions or delays in stepping down,” says Johnsen, “there will be serious repercussions on the U.S. side.”