Al-Qaida is winning the war in Yemen - and the Saudis seem oddly unconcerned, a leading Middle East analyst and former advisor to U.S. President Barack Obama has claimed.
Highlighting the dire situation in the Gulf of Aden, Bruce Riedel, who retired from the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) in 2006 after 30 years of service and was a former senior advisor on South Asia and the Middle East to the last four U.S. presidents, reported Sunday that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has controlled Yemen’s fifth largest city, Mukkalla, since April and has built up strongholds in much of the surrounding Hadramawt territory.
From its base in Hadramawt, which prior to the civil war was home to approximately one-third of Yemen’s oil production, AQAP launches deadly terrorist attacks on Houthi leaders and patrols, Shia mosques, and other targets across the country.
Although most AQAP-backed attacks have occurred inside Yemen, the group’s willingness to strike beyond the country’s borders is well known.
According to Brookings Institution senior fellow Daniel Byman, “U.S. officials have tied it to sophisticated attempts to bomb U.S. airliners in 2009 and 2010, and the group produces Inspire, a stylish English-language online magazine that regularly features anti-Western propaganda, including calls for lone wolves to attack in the United States and instructions for how to make or acquire weapons to do so.”
But, since the start of the Yemen war, the Royal Saudi Air Force and its coalition partners have not bombed AQAP positions inside the territory.
“[Hadramawt] has not been subjected at all to the bombing other Yemeni cities are enduring,” Riedel reports. “As a consequence, Yemeni internally displaced persons [refugees] have sought shelter and protection in Mukkalla.”
Riedel states that this has led some within Yemen to theorize that Riyadh is implicitly welcoming AQAP as an ally against the Shiite militias, known as the Houthis, who seized the presidential palace of Western-backed President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and key government buildings in Yemen’s capital Sanaa on January 22.
It has long been suspected that Saudi Arabia, which is dominated by Sunni Muslims, is engaged in a proxy-war with Shiite-led Iran; the Houthis are allegedly receiving arms shipments, training and money from Tehran; however, implying the Kingdom has other ulterior motives regarding its involvement in the war, Riedel said: “There are also longstanding suspicions that [Riyadh] would like to annex Hadramawt to give it access to the Indian Ocean and a route for an oil pipeline to Mukkalla that would allow oil to reach the sea without transiting the Straits of Hormuz [one of the world’s most strategically important ‘choke points’, flanked on the north coast by Iran, and on the south by Saudi Arabia]”.
Suggesting the Saudis are playing a dangerous game, Riedel concludes: “[AQAP] has not abandoned its global jihadist agenda, however, nor its animus toward Saudi Arabia. It is a safe assumption that AQAP's master bomb maker Ibrahim Al Asiri has his lab somewhere in the Hadramawt preparing more attacks on America and the Kingdom.”