Wadi Oemran, Abyan governorate, September 2022 (South24 Center - Youssef Thabet)

After Abyan’s Defeat: Where is the Next Destination for AQAP?


Wed, 26-10-2022 04:56 PM, Aden

Ibrahim Ali* (South24) 

The latest military operations against AQAP in Abyan in South Yemen have deepened the group’s crisis regarding the shelter or the stronghold as it became more trapped inside the governorate which was considered its most important historical bastion. The "Arrows of the East" operation launched by the Southern forces weeks ago succeeded in driving AQAP out Wadi Oemran in Mudiyah district in the east of Abyan governorate which has been its most important fortified location during the past period. 

By this military and security success, these forces were able to reduce the AQAP’s areas of influence within the governorate significantly. For AQAP, this is considered an important development as its options regarding moving between the governorate’s areas and other provinces became limited after losing most of its areas of clout during the past years. 
Loss of strongholds 

Over the recent years, AQAP intensified its presence in South Yemen’s governorates such as Hadramout, Abyan, Shabwa and Lahj. It exploited the developments related to the anti-Houthi war. In the midst of the Southern Resistance’s preoccupation with the war against the Houthis, AQAP exploited the vacuum in these governorates and controlled main cities including Mukalla, Azzan, Al-Hawtah and a number of Abyan’s cities. 
It can be said that the circumstances of this period helped the group to win unprecedented gains, especially in the financial field through the revenues generated from the ports of Mukalla and As-Shihr. 
This is in addition to the freedom of moving and mingling with people which means more ability to recruit and normalize its presence. However, these gains didn’t last for a long time as the Coalition, led by Saudi Arabia and UAE, quickly restored the normal conditions in the aforementioned governorates and established forces from locals to undertake the counterterrorism war. In a matter of months, these forces, backed by the Coalition were able to drive the group out of its main bastions in the four governorates apart from some areas. 
Along with the aforementioned governorates, Al-Bayda became one of the most important AQAP’s bulwarks in Yemen over the past years for several reasons, especially its success to recruit some powerful tribal leaders. Thus, it managed to consolidate its presence and influence under their protection. They allied with Al-Aldhahab tribal leaders in Qifah which is part of Rada’a in the governorate. 
The group had a significant presence in the districts of Al-Sawma'ah, Al-Zahir and Mukayras (The latter is historically affiliated with Abyan). Additionally, its presence was extended to parts of Wald Rabi' district which was partially controlled by ISIS. AQAP pulled out many of its armed elements from Abyan, Shabwa and the Coast of Hadramout to Al-Bayda following the Coalition-backed operations in 2016-2017. 
However, the AQAP’s intensified presence in Al-Bayda after 2017 tempted the Americans to go after and target the group. The areas in which it was based witnessed a huge number of raids in addition to a major deployment operation in the district of Wald Rabi'. Along with the American raids, the presence of ISIS in the governorate constituted a new challenge to AQAP because of the disputes between the two groups which quickly developed into confrontations and mutual targeting operations that led to the killing of many elements in both sides. That's not everything as most parts of the central governorate have been controlled by the Houthis. This means that AQAP is exposed in its areas at the security level and there are no longer safe havens outside them except for some areas in Marib. 

Aden events 

At the peak of AQAP’s crisis in Al-Bayda, violent confrontations erupted between the Southern forces and forces affiliated with the "legitimate" government whose most elements belong to the Islah party (the Muslim Brotherhood branch in Yemen). These developments gave AQAP an important room to breathe as it employed a large number of its elements to support forces affiliated with the legitimate government who fully controlled Shabwa again and large parts of Abyan. 
It can be said that the group experienced a situation similar to the pre-2017 conditions as it became able to move freely between Abyan, Shabwa, Al-Bayda and Hadramout governorates. This means that the Aden developments significantly reduced the pressure against its elements in Al-Bayda. Although it lost its clout in Al-Bayda in 2021 due to a Houthi military operation, this was not a big loss for it because of its other safe havens in the nearby governorates. 
Exclusive sources told "South24 Center" that the group significantly participated in fighting against the Southern forces in the Abyan fronts during that period along with forces affiliated with the Islah party. 

Shabwa events 

Prior to the latest confrontations in the city of Ataq in Shabwa between the Southern forces and forces affiliated with the government whose members are Islah affiliate, a Presidential decision was issued to sack the then governor Mohammed Saleh Bin Adyo and to appoint Sheikh Awad Bin Al-Wazir Al-Awlaki as his successor. 
As a result of this decision, the group felt the danger around it and began to implement quick-paced operations against the Shabwa Defense forces that came to secure the governorate concurrently with the military battles by the Giants Brigades against the Houthis in Beihan, Usaylan and Ain districts which drove the AQAP forces out of them. 
The AQAP operations were one of the reasons that led to the latest Ataq events after detecting a sort of collusion by the Special Forces towards its operations in some areas of the governorate. This was not clear in the beginning but it has been largely obvious after expelling the Special Forces from Ataq and Shabwa completely as AQAP issued a statement in which it lambasted the Coalition, the Giants Brigades and Shabwa Defense forces and declared war against them. 
After the Ataq events, AQAP felt that it lost its safe presence in Shabwa. Thus, it moved its members to areas in Abyan which is its last safe governorate along with Wadi Hadramout and began to carry out quick-paced operations to cause turmoil in Abyan and Shabwa. However, the group's operations required expanding the Shabwa pattern to Abyan. Immediately, the Southern forces launched the "Arrows of the East" operation in Abyan and sent campaigns to the areas in which AQAP is believed to be there, latest of which was Wadi Oemran in Mudiyah district in the east of the governorate. They also chased it in Al-Mahfad district which borders Shabwa. 

It can be said that the AQAP’s operations have not confused these forces like what they made within the group itself. This is because these operations were met by quick reactions which have tightened the noose around its moves inside the governorate. After being trapped in Abyan which is the last bastion to which it resorted, many ask about the next destination of AQAP after previously losing strongholds in Shabwa and Al-Bayda. 
Why Abyan? 

Before talking about the next destination, there is a need to mention the reason of the AQAP’s selection of Abyan as a main and historical bastion and about the group's keenness to be there. 
Contrary to what many believe, there are reasons apart from what the group deems as “a matter of existence”. This is based upon the Hadith “12,000 will come out of Aden-Abyan to support Allah and His Messenger.” It can be said that the former regime largely exploited this Hadith to render Abyan into a terrorism quagmire in order to stay in South Yemen under the pretext of fighting terrorism and to intimidate the forces against it by targeting them with terrorism attacks or by fabricating accusations against them related to terrorism. 
Parallel to that, the former regime was keen on securing a strong AQAP presence in these governorates to receive financial gains from the West as well as achieving political gains against its rivals. It significantly succeeded in making this as it was able to guarantee Western solidarity, especially the American one along with controlling the terrorism file. Thus, Saleh said, during the protests in Sanaa and a number of Yemeni governorates demanding overthrowing him, that the end of his regime means that AQAP will dominate 5 Yemeni governorates, foremost of which is Abyan. 

Practically, the Saleh regime during that period pulled out military brigades from Zinjibar and Ja’ar to pave the way for AQAP to control and to declare it an Islamic emirate. However, the bombing operation that targeted Ali Abdullah Saleh in the presidential mosque put an end to his exploitation of the terrorism issue but after he transformed Abyan and other governorates into an AQAP hotbed. 
The next destination

Amid tightening the noose around AQAP in Abyan after being expelled from Wadi Oemran, Al-Mahfad and other places which served as important bastions for it, AQAP will find big difficulty in finding other sanctuaries. It is important to say that AQAP lost its big strongholds in the governorate but it still has a smaller presence in some of its areas. This was confirmed by its latest operations such as Al-Mahfad operation on Saturday October 22nd which killed 4 soldiers and AQAP claimed its responsibility of carrying out it. However, this presence will weaken if the pursuit and chasing operations continue. 
Back to the last two-year events, we will find that the areas controlled by the Islah party represented the group’s most important safe havens, especially in Abyan and Shabwa. However, the party finally lost what it had controlled in both governorates. Moreover, AQAP still has presence in unknown areas in Abyan and Shabwa and may be in border areas between Al-Bayda and Lahj. Wadi Hadramout is considered one of the most important upcoming destinations for it in addition to Marib but it is hard to reach it.
Furthermore, Wadi Hadramout and a large part of Marib are controlled by forces with which AQAP dealt with during the confrontations against the Houthis. By its own admission on more than one occasion, it had previously had a large presence in them. This is something revealed by the operations against it, especially the airstrikes by US drones. Marib was one of the provinces that witnessed a large number of American raids. 
It is important to note here that the AQAP’s departure from Abyan or weakening its presence there significantly are related to the continuity of security, military and intelligence momentum against it. Without that, the current operations won’t ultimately differ from the previous ones. 
AQAP’s clout areas since founded in Yemen: 
2009-2012: Abyan, Shabwa, Marib, Lahj and Hadramout 
2013-2016: Abyan, Shabwa, Hadramout, Al-Bayda, Marib and Aden 
2017-208: Al-Bayda, Marib and Wadi Hadramout 
2019-2021: Abyan, Shabwa, Al-Bayda, Wadi Hadramout and Marib 
2022: Wadi Hadramout and Marib.

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

South YemenAbyanAQAPCounter-terrorismSTCSecurity BeltSouthern ForcesISISShabwa