WASHINGTON – The jihadist group Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is benefitting from the Saudi Arabian-led coalition’s bombing of the Iranian-backed al-Houthi rebels in northern Yemen, according to Middle East experts.
While the Sunni Saudi aerial bombardment under Operation Decisive Storm is meant to restore to power the Sunni-led government of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is the “early winner in Yemen,” said Middle East expert Bruce Riedel, director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution and a contributor to the Middle East newssite Al-Monitor.
“We’re watching very carefully at the moment, with all the security failures in Yemen, that the opportunity AQAP has right now may allow them to expand and will enable their activities,” according to a U.S. State Department official.
AQAP conceded as much by announcing through its media outlet that “large numbers of Sunni Yemenis will fight along with AQAP against Houthis, even though [Sunni tribes] could disagree with us.”
One Sunni tribal leader said that while he isn’t for AQAP, they share the same enemy.
In addition to Saudi aerial bombardment of Houthi sites, which began in late March, the Saudis with the help of the Egyptians have mounted a sea blockade that has cut off critical food, water, medical supplies and assistance to residents of the country.
Civilians on the ground stand to suffer the most from the blockade, bolstering the argument by observers that it offers AQAP a new reservoir for recruitment among the Sunnis, which comprise two-thirds of the country’s population.
Hadi came to power after the Saudis forced the resignation of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh after 33 years in power. Saleh and his supporters are allied with the Houthis, who control the northern part of the country.
The United States backed the Hadi government and had major counter-terrorism operations there in cooperation with Yemeni security authorities. After the Houthis took over the Yemeni capital of Sanaa and other parts of the country last month, however, the U.S. suspended all of those operations.
In taking over the capital, the Houthis said they are not out to overthrow the existing government but to seek further representation in it, since the Shiites comprise a third of the country’s population.
However, they now say they don’t want to work with Hadi, who had fled to neighboring Saudi Arabia following the Houthi takeover of the capital.
“The Yemen war has profound implications for the stability of the Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia and the broader region,” Riedel said. “It is simultaneously a sectarian conflict, the unfinished business of the Arab Spring and part of the broader Saudi-Iranian struggle for regional hegemony.
“It is likely to draw in more players as it goes on and spill out of Yemen to other countries,” he said. “For now, al-Qaida is the only clear winner.”
Disintegrating into chaos
Clare Lopez, vice president for research and analysis at the Washington-based Center for Security Policy agrees.
Yemen, she said, has disintegrated into “chaos where gunmen, factions and tribes run amok, but the central governance has collapsed, and is not likely soon to be re-established.”
“AQAP is likely to hold onto a swath of northern Yemen, but Iran and its Houthi proxies, bolstered by the (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) Quds Force and surely the MOIS (Iranian intelligence), will continue their assault on the south, including Aden,” Lopez told WND in an interview.
“They may be prevented by the Saudi alliance from achieving control of the Bab al-Mandab, but almost certainly will be in a position to threaten it, much like the Strait of Hormuz.”
Bab al-Mandab is a strategic strait between Yemen and Africa that provides access to the Red Sea and onward to the Mediterranean Sea.
The Saudis also are concerned that the Houthis could threaten to come into the neighboring Saudi kingdom and create unrest among the Shiites, who are a majority of the population in the province where much of Saudi Arabia’s oil is produced.
While the Saudis seek to prevent further expansion of Iranian influence through the Houthis in Yemen, they are helping al-Qaida and ISIS fighters – both radical Sunni Muslim groups – even though Riyadh now claims it opposes ISIS after helping finance its rise.
“With its hated enemies Saudi Arabia and the Zaydi Houthi rebels engaged in what may well be a protracted war, AQAP is flourishing in eastern Yemen and under less pressure than at any time since its founding in 2009,” Riedel said.
Eastern Yemen, which never has been under the complete control of the Yemeni government, is primarily Sunni and has been a main al-Qaida recruiting region.
Yemen is the home of AQAP, which is capable of attacking targets in the United States.
AQAP in December 2009 attempted to blow up a passenger plane flying from Amsterdam to Detroit. Until he was killed by a Hellfire strike from a U.S. drone on Sep. 30, 2011, Yemen also was home to Anwar al-Awlaki, a native-born U.S. citizen who also was instrumental in radicalizing U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan, a psychiatrist who fatally shot 13 people Nov. 5, 2009 at Ft. Hood in Texas.
“All this leaves al-Qaida increasingly free to recruit and train in the chaos,” Riedel said. “Al-Qaida has more freedom of operation, which means it is more dangerous.”
In pointing out that the long war in Yemen could go on much longer, Riedel said it will benefit AQAP.
“(AQAP) will carry out terror attacks on the Zaydis (Houthis) and the Saudis both,” he said. “It has underground cadres in the kingdom that (Saudi) Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef tries to unmask. He has been very success in doing so, but it’s a constant battle.”
Riedel said Yemen will help AQAP to strike targets in Europe and the U.S. He said AQAP’s leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, is a disciple of al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden and is a “firm believer” in taking jihad to faraway enemies.
Riedel pointed out that Yemen also serves as a critical base for AQAP to launch military operations against Oman, a neighbor of Yemen.
Like Saudi Arabia, the Omani government is headed by a Sunni monarchy, although it has close economic ties with Iran. It has chosen not to be included among the 10 Gulf Arab countries in the coalition against the Houthis.