Thursday, 17 May 2012

Yemen engages Al Qaeda in fresh fighting

Backed by local tribesmen, Yemeni troops killed 45 militants in the Dovas and al Harour regions of Abyan province, Yemen's Defense Ministry said May 16, Xinhua reported. A military official in Aden said 15 soldiers were killed in militant battles near Yasouf Mountain.

Two militants and eight civilians were killed in two strikes in Jaar in southern Yemen on May 15, witnesses said, AFP reported. Two al Qaeda militants died in the first strike and residents who had gathered around the scene were killed by a second strike, unnamed witnesses said. Twenty-five civilians were wounded. It is not clear whether the Yemeni air force or U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles carried out the attacks. Meanwhile, two soldiers were killed in clashes between the Yemeni army and al Qaeda militants around Loder, an unnamed army official said, adding that 13 members of the Popular Resistance Committees fighting jihadists alongside the army were also wounded.

The on-going military operations in southern Yemen are part of a concerted effort by the transitional government to quell unrest as it tries to stabilise the government. Military reports suggest that perhaps 20,000 Yemen troops have participated in five days of coordinated assaults in the province of Abyan. The offensive has left at least 144 dead, including 98 Islamist fighters, 20 soldiers and 16 civilians.

Beginning on May 12, the new Yemeni president Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi ordered government troops to confront the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), also known as Ansar al-Sharia, a militant group that has made southern Yemen a stronghold. According to western diplomats in Sanaa, the US is supplying advisors to the Yemen military operations. Those US troops are deployed in an air base near al-Anad, Al Bawaba reported May 16.

U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order that will give the Treasury Department power to impose sanctions on those who obstruct a November 2011 power transition agreement in Yemen, The Wall Street Journal reported May 16. The sanctions will freeze U.S. assets and property of the individuals and will not allow U.S. citizens to engage in transactions with them.

The order did not name any individuals who could be hit with the sanctions. A Treasury Department official said the order allows the government to target individuals and entities inside and outside of Yemen who threaten Yemeni peace, security or stability.This executive order effectively makes the policy of past few years of US drone strikes in Yemen perfectly legal going into the future. And there is no sign of the Americans backing down any time soon, with unconfirmed reports of US naval units involved in this week’s fighting.

The US has conducted drone strikes in Yemen since 2002 when an RQ-1 Predator fired a missile striking a vehicle containing AQAP leader Qaed Senyan Abu Ali al-Harithi. Since then, hundreds of AQAP members have been targeted including the American editor of the Jihadist magazine ‘Inspire’ and AQAP member Anwar al-Awlaki. His death was significant as it was Awlaki who was the main force behind the Al Qaeda nodes efforts to become a transnational terrorist group. And it was Awlaki who was the single most effective jihadist advisor in the region.

Because of this, both US-Yemen forces and AQAP have played cat and mouse, with the terrorist group sustaining heavy losses. However, the group has been the most active of the Al Qaeda franchises, deploying the so-called ‘Underwear Bomber’ Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to the United States in 2009. This and other significant attacks focused the attention of US intelligence agencies on Yemen, the CIA using the nearby Djibouti air base, Camp Lemonier, to launch airstrikes and command drones against AQAP.

But Yemen, a country without properly defined borders, has found it difficult to abrogate the threat from al Qaeda. During 2011 and into 2012, the country underwent drastic civil unrest spurred on by militant groups against the then president Ali Abdullah Saleh. As Yemen quickly fell into uncontrollable militancy, Saudi Arabia launched its own strikes on Yemeni rebels in the nebulous border region of northern Yemen. But up until this week, Yemen government troops have not conducted military strikes of division strength due to the political uncertainty in Sanaa as the Saleh government transitions to a successor government.

The addition of US advisors in Yemen amongst this week’s operations is expected. The US has injected a lot of resources into countering the AQAP threat in Yemen; this includes supporting the government in Sanaa. US drone strikes and advisors will be only part of the military package promised to Yemeni president Hadi. Usually, any Special Forces presence is indirectly indicated by the admission of advisors or experts working with local forces. Two US aircraft carrier groups are currently stationed in the 5th fleet area of responsibility (AOR), along with a Big-deck amphibious warfare ship loitering off the southern coast of Yemen. Conventional strike aircraft can be launched from these platforms to assist Yemeni ground troops therefore it is very likely that US Special Forces teams are on the ground in Yemen directing airstrikes. Some reports suggest US Special Forces are directing Yemeni strike aircraft and artillery.

It is difficult to see a decisive end to the current military engagements. AQAP have shown remarkable resilience in the past few years fortifying themselves in Yemen’s southern tribal areas, the true Yemen demographic core, apparently even marrying into local tribes. US-Yemen forces are attempting to engage the remaining Al Qaeda fighters to keep them occupied in the south while the transitional government consolidates in the north. The buffer being created should give Sanaa ample time to craft a position of legitimate power as the country tries to recuperate from the unrest.

The Yemeni government faces uncertainty in the coming months and is trying to intensify the battle against AQAP and other militants. Al Qaeda has fed on the chaos in Yemen and the inherent political problem of maintaining such a vast, almost deserted interior in which resident Yemenis feel little affiliation with the government in Sanaa. US interests in the region are currently being managed with drones, Special Forces, and aid, so it is unlikely any further military assistance will be allocated. For the time being, Sanaa appears to have made a significant dent in AQAP operational ability. But this will only be confirmed when the dust settles in a few days and both sides return to lick their wounds and count their dead.

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