Abyan and Shabwa: the Military and Security Theatre of Fighting Against AQAP


Tue, 15-06-2021 08:46 AM, Aden Time

Badr Mohammed (South24)

Since the establishment of “Security Belts” as well as Shabwani and Hadrami Elite forces in South, the attacks of radical groups targeting them and their bases have not stopped. In general, the national agenda of the Southern Forces has created a strong motive to fight Al-Qaeda which in turn depends on its ideological agenda to target these forces. [1]

On the other hand, fighting Al Qaeda and combating terrorism is not one of the Yemeni Presidential Forces' priorities which is under the control of the Al-Islah Party, the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Maybe, it was natural for Al-Qaeda to fight those who fight it due to its well-known pragmatist political methodology.

However, it is not natural for the Al-Islah Party to trade the same methodology with Al-Qaeda. Thus, fighting the group has been confined to the military and security forces affiliated with the Southern Transitional Council (STC).

Equally, these troops have become a legitimate target for Al-Qaeda whose ideological legislation accuses the forces of apostasy and being agents to “infidels”. Consequently, the blood of these forces and their affiliates is permissible for Al-Qaeda in light of its concept which excludes the “Legitimacy forces” of similar operations.

There are similar political dynamics behind the crisis in South which uniformly affect the ideological dynamics of those radical groups.

The Yemeni crisis turned to another level in August 2019 when the presidential troops, loyal to Al-Islah party, fought the STC in Abyan and Aden after driving the Shabwani Elite out of Shabwah.

Those UAE trained and backed security forces have established a more sophisticated military scene in Shabwa than Al-Qaeda enhancing their loyalty to the national cause in South. However, Al Islah party and some Yemeni forces deem such developments as a step that pushes South back to the pre-unity era with the North in May 1990.

The security and military theater of the Shabwani Elite in Shabwa

It is important to note that the Shabwani Elite Forces came at the head of a military and security campaign backed by the “International Coalition to Combat Terrorism in Yemen”. The chaos of the Yemeni crisis justified the presence of a strong local ally fighting al-Qaeda in Shabwa. For that, the Shabwani Elite imposed its national agenda through a direct theater of operations to fight al-Qaeda.

In late April 2016, the Hadrami Elite Forces carried out the operation to liberate the city of Mukalla, the capital of Hadramaut, from the grip of Al-Qaeda. In this context, the need increased to secure some vital facilities in Shabwa governorate, such as the Balhaf’s gas facility, in addition to chasing the group’s members who fled from Mukalla to safe havens in Shabwa, Abyan, and Hadramaut.

In late 2017, the Shabwani Elite forces were deployed to secure the Balhaf’s gas facility. The military plans don’t oblige the consumption of forces in pursuing tasks in mountains and distant valleys rather than securing civilian cities. Meanwhile, the districts of southern Shabwa were still a stronghold of Al-Qaeda, especially the areas of Azzan, al-Hawtah, al-Rawda, and Haban, some of which the radical organization turned into Islamic emirates. 

As a result, the Shabwani Elite had to turn focus after securing the Balhaf Facility, to control and secure these areas in the southern border of the governorate, in what was known as the “Azzan axis operations”.This came concurrently with the Shabwa Elite securing the southern and eastern parts of Ataq, the capital of Shabwa, in addition to deploying security points along the international line "Ataq - Al-Abar".

By 2018, the Shabwani Elite changed its strategy in tracking and prosecuting al-Qaeda, moving from securing civilian cities to remote centers and villages, to scour the mountains, reefs, and valleys in the western and northern western locations that are connected to the province of Al-Bayda, Abyan and Marib.

On February 26, 2018, the Shabwani Elite Forces carried out Operation Decisive Sword [2] to secure the Assaid District west of Shabwa. It began with a security deployment in Wadi Yashbom and extended to pursue al-Qaeda members who fled to Wadi Sa`ra in the Musaina area, and ended with scouring the hills adjacent to the Al-Mahfad district in Abyan.

On the other hand, on March 7, 2018, the security belt in Abyan governorate carried out Operation "Sweeping Torrent"[3], the scene of which was the eastern districts adjacent to Shabwa in conjunction with Operation Decisive Sword.

On September 22, 2018, the Shabwani Elite Forces raided a camp for al-Qaeda in Amazifa in Khora of Markha district, adjacent to al-Bayda governorate, and killed the leader of the organization, Nayef al-Sayari al-Diyani (banned by Russia) and arrested three members.

On March 26, 2019, the Shabwa Elite Forces, with Arab and international support, carried out the "White Mountains" operation[4], intending to secure the eastern districts of Shabwa, Markah, and Nisab from al-Qaeda.

The Shabwa Elite was able to deepen its influence over large parts of Shabwa as control and security was an important factor in paralyzing the movement of al-Qaeda. 

The fight against smuggling, drug trafficking, organized crime, and even against the phenomenon of revenge has been listed in a security context related to combating Al-Qaeda. This has quickly resulted in resolving these challenges revealing their close link to Al-Qaeda.

So that the role of the Shabwani Elite in fighting al-Qaeda does not seem like a picnic, the Shabwani Elite and all the military forces in South have been subjected to an endless series of attacks and suicide and bombing operations carried out by Al-Qaeda during its period of political lethargy since the beginning of 2015.

The military and security theater after the Shabwani Elite was expelled 

The Shabwani Elite Forces attempted in August 2019 to assume their military control over the entire city of Ataq, where the northwestern part of Ataq was under the control of the government forces of the Islah party. The conflict between the two sides was subject to a temporary truce, during which the Islah party forces, backed by military reinforcements from the northern governorate of Ma'rib, attacked the Shabwani Elite Forces prompting their withdrawal, under Saudi pressure.

The German Deutsche Channel reported about the participation of al-Qaeda elements in the fighting alongside the forces that came from Marib. [5] Consequently, Shabwa returned to security chaos with the return of al-Qaeda to its former strongholds to retaliate against the Shabwa Elite, in particular, and the security formations affiliated with the Southern Transitional Council in general.

Returning to the scene of the organization’s operations in Abyan governorate before the Elite Forces left Shabwa, the last operation carried out by al-Qaeda on a Security Belt point in the Ahwar district, east of Abyan, occurred on August 28, 2018. [6] On the following day, August 29, Al-Qaeda attacked the Al-Qurna checkpoint in the Al-Ain area in Lawdar, with no casualties reported. [7]

The first operation carried out by Al-Qaeda after returning to its former bastions, targeted the same security belt forces in Ahwar on March 18, 2021. On the following day, March 19, 2021, the organization targeted a point of the Security Belt in the Al-Wade’a District.

The two operations of August 2018 are similar to the two operations of March 2021, in terms of repeating the same track that starts from Shabwa to Ahwar in the Abyan governorate and leading to the next day’s attack from the coastline to the mountainous areas towards the districts of Al-Wadea’ and Lawdar. This “copy-paste” congruence reveals the same strategy adopted by Al-Qaeda, the same path before and after, and the same goals.

Moreover, the organization’s missile attack targeting Balhaf’s gas facility in early April was closer to Al Qaeda's emergence locations. The organization took a fortress within the same areas where the governmental camps of the Islamic Al Islah Party are located. Surprisingly, the security authorities that control Shabwa did not comment about the attack on the Balhaf gas facility, even out of responsibility.

Many analysts and experts go too far to explain al-Qaeda's latency strategy. Some attribute this to the organization’s weakness and internal cracks while others talk about the organization’s adoption of a pragmatic approach, whereas some believe that the organization has been infiltrated.

Perhaps all of these interpretations are correct, but the latency of al-Qaeda in Yemen can’t be separated from the interest of Yemeni groups and parties and their political goals in controlling South. This is not just a matter of the day. The Arab jihadists returning from East Asia were used in the war to invade South Yemen in 1994 proceeded by the liquidation of cadres and southern leaders.

Some also attribute the lethargy of al-Qaeda in early 2015 to the weak character of its "leader" Qassem al-Rimi, which facilitated the Houthi group's attempt to impose its control over the southern parts at the time. 

In light of these explanations, many vague and undisclosed attacks occurred, although they bear Al-Qaeda’s fingerprints, giving STC’s opponents such as Al Islah party and parties within the Hadi government, the opportunity to benefit from these attacks, whose perpetrators move from within the lands they control, regardless the extent of coordination between these parties.

Finally, we should not ignore what is happening in Shabwa, where assassinations of members of the Shabwa Elite Forces are still occurring individually and regularly.  Everything indicates that even the extremist elements no longer operate within their limits and ideological regulations at least.

In one of her articles about al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen, British researcher Elizabeth Kendall indicated that they have turned into “hired killers” or mercenaries.

Commenting on the Al-Qaeda-related Zinjibar attack [8], which resulted in the killing and wounding of more than 30 soldiers and civilians from the Security Belt Forces, Kendall noted that "Abyan province is a traditional Al Qaeda stronghold."

“The recent spate of attacks against Security Belt forces there bear the hallmarks of Al Qaeda operations” She added to "The National News".

According to Kendall, this reflects that "elements of Al Qaeda have blended with more mainstream militias who are hostile to those forces loyal to the STC."

She concluded that “the unusually long intervals between each operation and its adoption by al-Qaeda mean that the organization"may be following, rather than leading."[9]

Resident fellow with South24 Center for News and Studies, researcher on Yemeni political affairs

- PHOTO: Fighters from of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in the southern Abyan province on 12 May 2020 [SALEH AL-OBEIDI/AFP/Getty Images]
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