A military vehicle of forces from South Yemen. Photo - Al-Jazeera Channel - Archive

The UAE and «Counterterrorism» in Yemen: A Realistic Strategy


Thu, 02-03-2023 12:46 AM, Aden Time

Ibrahim Ali* (South24) 

Although the UAE was the most prominent KSA's ally in the “Decisive Storm" operation against the Houthi militia in Yemen declared on March 26th 2015, it took a different path in the field of counterterrorism since the beginning of the operation. This path has prevented AQAP and ISIS from exploiting the war's circumstances in Yemen to expand their influence.

Such circumstances always constitute an opportunity for the extremist groups to achieve a lot of gains but this has not occurred in Yemen. Over the past years, the ongoing decline of the two groups in the Southern governorates has been remarkable. While ISIS suffers from an almost complete demise, AQAP’s presence is limited to a small geographical scope in comparison to its status before the beginning of “Decisive Storm”. 

During the first weeks of the “Decisive Storm” operation, AQAP members participated in fighting the Houthis-Saleh alliance. Moreover, AQAP took part in groups affiliated with the Islah Party in the city of Aden. [1] Turning a blind eye towards the presence of the group’s members within the ranks of some factions in Aden led to a subsequent disaster as the group managed to control main cities in Aden, Abyan, Lahj, Hadramout and Shabwa governorates. This forced the UAE to adopt another strategy to deal with the new reality. 

Urgent task

The UAE realized the danger of leaving these governorates to AQAP which was keen not to draw attention to its control and presence inside them. Therefore, the UAE took responsibility for normalizing the security situation within the aforementioned governorates. Militarily, the security forces, top of which are the “Security Belt Forces” established by UAE support, began operations to expel AQAP members from Aden. They quickly succeeded in this task which forced the group’s members to leave Aden to Abyan, Shabwa, Al-Bayda and other governorates. [2]

At the security level, the mission was hard as sleeping cells affiliated with AQAP and ISIS in Aden were very active between 2016-2018. They carried out a huge number of assassination, blast and storming operations. However, their activities began to decline before they almost completely stopped. The two groups faced different security actions despite the recent formation of the forces in charge of security tasks. 

A new stage

After the success of the military task in Aden, the newly-formed forces headed to Al-Hawtah in Lahj and to Abyan and Shabwa where they achieved the same success. However, AQAP’s members left the main cities and headed to the strongholds as they used to do. The group probably thought that the mission of the operations were limited to driving it out of the centers of the cities. This belief was enhanced after announcing a new operation against it in the cities of the coast of Hadramout. However, this operation led to expelling AQAP from the cities of Hadramout’s coast. Its expulsion from these cities was a beginning of a new and different stage.

After liberating the Hadrami coast cities, big security and military operations were launched in Abyan, Shabwa and Hadramout. These operations aimed at expelling the group from its strongholds. [3] This was the first time in which AQAP was attacked within its mountainous bastions. The group realized that there are no invincible strongholds which can provide protection for it. Thus, its members escaped to Al-Bayda, Wadi Hadramout and Marib. 

More than others, the group realized that the UAE is behind the new counterterrorism strategy. Therefore, AQAP has attacked and targeted the UAE in particular. After being driven out from the city of Al-Mukalla, the group issued a statement in which it lambasted the UAE [4] and threatened to response. This happened despite the operation being launched under the umbrella of the Saudi-led Coalition. The group didn’t totally mention Saudi Arabia in its statement about Mukalla operations. Moreover, the group carried out operations inside Aden and others which targeted leaders in the newly-formed forces under the pretext that they are affiliated with the UAE.

From the Islah’s windows

In spite of AQAP’s unprecedented defeat which led to its full expulsion from a number of Southern governorates, the group was able to make a comeback in 2019. The Islah Party was involved in the battles that allowed AQAP’s return. The latter participated along with the Islah Party in the confrontations against the Southern forces in Abyan and Shabwa and was able to rearrange its ranks. 

During that stage, the Islah anti-UAE discourse reached its peak via its media arms and even through official state platforms. This demonstrates that the Islah Party is part of counterterrorism problems in Yemen. After that, AQAP continued to move freely in Abyan and Shabwa areas controlled by forces affiliated with the Islah Party. Its presence within forces affiliated with the Yemeni government provided an unprecedented protection for the group which complicated the task of targeting or chasing it. 

The Islah areas of influence served as a starting point for AQAP’s operations against other governorates and cities such as Aden during that period. This indicated that the war against terrorism can't achieve any success amid the Islah Party’s control on these areas. 

As part of “counterterrorism” operations, the Southern forces began a military operation to expel the Special Forces (most of their elements are affiliated with the Islah party) from the city of Ataq in Shabwa. Before this operation, Ataq and Shabwa witnessed several AQAP attacks which targeted Shabwa Defense Forces). Information reveals that some members of AQAP carried out the operations exited from the Special Forces headquarters. 

After expelling the Special Forces affiliated with the Islah party from Ataq, forces which was formed, supported and trained with the UAE help, headed to the outskirts of the nearby Abyan governorate. This came after AQAP elements resorted to these areas. As for the forces affiliated with the Islah Party, they handed over their controlled areas with no resistance. For this reason, the Southern forces achieved unprecedented success in the subsequent operations against AQAP in Abyan through the “Arrows of the East” operation which targeted the group’s historical bastions in Abyan. Recently, AQAP admitted its decline and the scarcity of its capabilities. It called for the tribes to support the group. [5]

It can be said that these counterterrorism successes would not have been achieved if the Islah Party had kept its control over these areas. The forces affiliated with the Islah Party have enjoyed generous support from KSA. It is important to notice that AQAP has criticized the Arab Coalition, especially the UAE, at the backstage of the anti-Islah military and security operations in Abyan and Shabwa. Furthermore, the group denounced the dismissal of former Governor Mohammed Saleh Bin Adyo and mentioned him by name in a speech by leader Abu Ali Al-Hadrami. 


The UAE’s role has not been limited to establishing, training, funding “counterterrorism” special forces as well as active security and military units across South Yemen. Its role has been extended towards a comprehensive strategy in order to uproot the “terrorist” groups and others which constitute an intellectual incubator for them from the Southern governorates. However, all that has been achieved over the past period faces unprecedented threats as a result of the policies which seek to undermine the influence of Southern forces.

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


1- According to exclusive sources and others who has close ties with the group

2- According to confirmations by exclusive sources to the writer

3- The first operation began in Wadi Al-Masini in the coast of Hadramout

4- A statement issued by Al-Malahim Foundation seen by the writer at that time

5- What is Behind Batarfi’s Admission of AQAP's Decline? (south24.net)

South YemenSTCYemenUAEAdenShabwaAbyanHadramoutAQAPArrows of the EastSouthern ForcesSaudi ArabiaISISHouthis