Once driven to near irrelevance by the rise of ISIS 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 mln in looted bank deposits and revenue from running the country’s third largest port.
If ISIS’ 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 mln from the national oil company and earns up to $2 mln 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 marginalized by the country’s northern elite for years.
By adopting many of the tactics ISIS uses to control its territory in Syria and Iraq, AQAP has expanded its own fiefdom. The danger is that the group, which organized the Charlie Hebdo magazine attack in Paris last year and has repeatedly tried to down US 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.”
A US 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 22, 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.”
نستخدم ملفات الكوكيز لنسهل عليك استخدام مواقعنا الإلكترونية ونكيف المحتوى والإعلانات وفقا لمتطلباتك واحتياجاتك الخاصة، لتوفير ميزات وسائل التواصل الاجتماعية ولتحليل حركة المرور لدينا...اعرف أكثر