Pro-STC forces (Reuters)

The Expected Abyan Operation: Different Battle against AQAP in Its Last Bastion


Thu, 07-07-2022 09:51 PM, Aden

Ibrahim Ali* (South24) 

On Tuesday, the Anti-terrorism Unit Command in Abyan announced launching a large-scale military operation against AQAP in the Southern governorate. The announcement came after AQAP carried out a series of bloody operations in the governorates of Shabwa, Abyan, and Hadramout over the past days. 

Although AQAP carried out most of its latest operations in Shabwa, the operation against the organization was launched from Abyan. However, the operation has not yet approached the AQAP’s possible bulwark areas. Al Mahfad district, and large parts of the central area in Abyan constitute historical AQAP's strongholds but their importance for it has been recently doubled.

Why Abyan?

Over past years, AQAP's influence in Yemen witnessed a significant decline due to military and security operations against its most important bastions in Hadramout, Shabwa and Abyan. The operations backed by the Arab Coalition's forces between 2016-2017 forced AQAP to focus its presence on Al-Baida, and Marib governorates. Due to its limited narrow geographical scope, AQAP lost many of its militants and commanders through airstrikes carried out by American drones, and through confrontations against ISIS.

It can be said that this period was the worst for AQAP before the confrontations between the STC's forces and forces affiliated with the Yemeni government and the Muslim Brotherhood in Abyan, Shabwa and Aden in 2019. The MB's control on Shabwa and large parts of Abyan constituted an important AQAP's outlet. In return for AQAP's need for new areas, these forces needed special combat support.

Due to the long battles in Abyan, AQAP managed to rearrange its ranks inside the governorate and to make up for what it had lost. Moreover, targeting AQAP by airstrikes became a very difficult task because of its militants' overlap with forces affiliated with the government. The same thing happened in Shabwa which became relatively far from the confrontation areas. 

In late 2021, AQAP withdrew from Al-Zahir, and Al-Sawmaah districts, its last influence areas in Al-Baida in the center of Yemen, as a result of a military operation implemented by the Houthis. AQAP withdrew to governorates which were fully or partially subjected to the Islah's control including Shabwa, Abyan and Marib.

For AQAP, Marib was a necessity option and not a typical choice because of its soft geographical nature that does not give it sufficient protection against pursuit and targeting in comparison with Abyan and Shabwa. For this reason, AQAP kept there a limited number of its members. It can be said that Wadi Obeida (the Obeida valley) is the most important AQAP's stronghold in Marib in regard to the number of raids carried out by American drones. 

Although Shabwa was the most typical choice for AQAP in light of several aspects, incidents like the entry of the Giants and the Southern Resistance to restore Beihan, Usaylan and Ain districts from the Houthi grip and sacking the Islah-affiliated governor, Mohammed Saleh Bin Adyo alienated Shabwa from AQAP's safe options. 

Accordingly, it can be said that Abyan recently became the most important AQAP's stronghold and a starting point to carry out operations in other governorates. 

Another plan

AQAP realizes the hardships related to engaging in direct confrontations to defend its last and most important bastion in light of its current status. However, it may probably resort to other methods. 

Last Wednesday, an explosive vehicle targeted Lahj Security Chief Major General Saleh Al-Sayed in Khormaksar in the Southern city of Aden. Hours after the Aden operation, security sources confirmed thwarting a "terrorist operation" by a bomb car in the city of Seiyun in Hadramout. If the AQAP actually stands behind the last two operations, its message then would be that "the organization began to be able to hit everywhere". AQAP more likely intended to assert such an impression after finding itself a target of a comprehensive military, and security imminent operation in Abyan.

Prior to the Aden and Hadramout incidents, AQAP sent a message to Abyan’s tribes following the announcement by the Abyan police about its readiness to launch an all-out operation in the governorate to expel AQAP's militants.

AQAP message tried to alienate these forces from any future military operation. It included what was like an apology for an attack that targeted soldiers of the Abyan Axis affiliated with the government. It also included an implicit threat of possible response and deterrence. 

AQAP most likely realized that the message was not sufficient to prevent or obstruct the first operation against it in Abyan and Shabwa and that there is an inevitable forthcoming operation. Therefore, it resorted to another plan to distract the focus on the two governorates. It can be said that the latest Aden and Hadramout operations came as part of this plan. 

Non-innocent synchronization 

Contrary to the Aden bomb explosion, Seiyun security forces in Wadi Hadramout were able to thwart another bomb car attack. Although AQAP may be behind the two bomb cars for the reason we previously mentioned, the explosion of one of them in a STC's controlled area while thwarting the other in an area controlled by the 1st Military Region affiliated with the former Yemeni Vice President raises a big question. What enhances the idea of a non-Innocent synchronization is the e-campaign which followed the two operations which claimed the existence of security chaos in the STC's areas against the security success elsewhere. 

What stirred more doubts is that the special security forces in Shabwa announced, on the same day (last Wednesday), the arrest of members of a "terrorist cell" in the Qarn Al-Sawdaa security checkpoint while they were carrying a high explosive device to plant it in one of Habban district's roads. It is worth mentioning here that this announcement followed information about a collusion between these forces and AQAP's elements in the operation that targeted Shabwa Defense forces in the city of Ataq in late of May. 

The last bastion battle 

Back to talks about the expected Abyan operation, it can be said that this will be different from its predecessors as it will be launched against AQAP in its last stronghold. 

In this regard, AQAP will unlikely risk a costly confrontation although it declared its readiness to fight in response to the Abyan police announcement.

It is worth mentioning that the battle against AQAP in the governorate won't achieve success if implemented in the form of military campaigns against possible AQAP's strongholds and then leaving these areas after declaring that they cleared them. 

The battle against AQAP requires a long-term strategy represented in permanent military and security presence in these areas. This also requires depriving forces affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood of controlling any area in the governorate of Abyan and others.

Ibrahim Ali is a pseudonym of a researcher specialized in the armed groups affairs. He demanded anonymity for personal reasons.

South YemenSecurity chaosAbyanTerrorist cellsAQAPHouthisISIS