One unintended consequence of the war in Yemen: Al Qaeda now runs its own mini-state, flush with funds from raiding the local central bank and levying taxes at the local port.
DUBAI/CAIRO – Once driven to near irrelevance by the rise of Islamic State abroad and security crackdowns at home, al Qaeda in Yemen now openly rules a mini-state with a war chest swollen by an estimated $100 million in looted bank deposits and revenue from running the country’s third largest port.
If Islamic State’s capital is the Syrian city of Raqqa, then al Qaeda’s is Mukalla, a southeastern Yemeni port city of 500,000 people. Al Qaeda fighters there have abolished taxes for local residents, operate speedboats manned by RPG-wielding fighters who impose fees on ship traffic, and make propaganda videos in which they boast about paving local roads and stocking hospitals.
The economic empire was described by more than a dozen diplomats, Yemeni security officials, tribal leaders and residents of Mukalla. Its emergence is the most striking unintended consequence of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. The campaign, backed by the United States, has helped Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to become stronger than at any time since it first emerged almost 20 years ago.
Yemeni government officials and local traders estimated the group, as well as seizing the bank deposits, has extorted $1.4 million from the national oil company and earns up to $2 million every day in taxes on goods and fuel coming into the port.
AQAP boasts 1,000 fighters in Mukalla alone, controls 600 km (373 miles) of coastline and is ingratiating itself with southern Yemenis, who have felt marginalised by the country’s northern elite for years.
By adopting many of the tactics Islamic State uses to control its territory in Syria and Iraq, AQAP has expanded its own fiefdom. The danger is that the group, which organised the Charlie Hebdo magazine attack in Paris last year and has repeatedly tried to down U.S. airliners, may slowly indoctrinate the local population with its hardline ideology.
“I prefer that al Qaeda stay here, not for Al Mukalla to be liberated,” said one 47-year-old resident. “The situation is stable, more than any ‘free’ part of Yemen. The alternative to al Qaeda is much worse.”
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is struggling to extricate itself from the Yemeni quagmire a year after intervening in the country’s civil war. Riyadh is determined to deny bitter rival Iran sway over another Arab capital. It has focused on attacking the Houthis who have seized parts of northern Yemen and who are allied to Iran.
But despite thousands of aerial bombings, the Saudis and their Gulf allies have failed to push the Houthis from the capital Sanaa. An estimated 6,000 people, half of them civilians, have been killed. A temporary ceasefire between the internationally recognised government, which is backed by the Saudis, and the Houthis is due to begin on April 10.
PARIS: Gunmen return to their car after the attack on the offices of French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in January 2015. REUTERS/Reuters TV
In a recent statement issued by the Saudi embassy in Washington, Saudi officials said that their campaign had “denied terrorists a safe haven in Yemen.”
And yet, AQAP’s strength is growing.
A U.S. counter-terrorism official said AQAP remained one of al Qaeda’s “most potent affiliates.” The United States launched its deadliest air strike yet on the group on March 22nd, killing around 50 of its fighters at a military base outside Mukalla.
“The group’s bomb-making expertise and long-standing ambitions to carry out attacks using novel or complex tactics underscore (the) threat,” the official said.
A senior Yemeni government official said the war against the Houthis “provided a suitable environment for the … expansion of al Qaeda.” The withdrawal of government army units from their bases in the south, allowed al Qaeda to acquire “very large quantities of sophisticated and advanced weapons, including shoulder-fired missiles and armed vehicles.”
As well, the coalition’s preoccupation with fighting the Houthis “made it easier for al Qaeda elements to expand in more than one area,” he said. “And this is why al Qaeda has today become stronger and more dangerous and we are working with the coalition now to go after elements of the group … and will continue until they are destroyed.”
ANATOMY OF AN ECONOMIC EMPIRE
Barely a week after Saudi Arabia launched “Operation Decisive Storm” against the Houthis in March last year, Yemeni army forces vanished from Mukalla’s streets and moved westward to combat zones, security officials and residents said.
The city’s residents were left defenceless, allowing a few dozen AQAP fighters to seize government buildings and free 150 of their comrades from the central jail. The freed included Khaled Batarfi, a senior al Qaeda leader. Pictures appeared online of Batarfi sitting inside the local presidential palace, looking happy and in control as he held a telephone to his ear.
Tribal leaders in neighbouring provinces told Reuters that, in the security vacuum, army bases were looted and Yemen’s south became awash with advanced weaponry. C4 explosive and even anti-aircraft missiles were available to the highest bidder.