AQAP's Campaign against the Yemeni Military
The rush of events in Iraq, Ukraine, Israel, Syria, and elsewhere has dropped Yemen from the news, but al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) continues its military operations there. AQAP has attacked a number of Yemeni military headquarters over the past year and its military capabilities are growing. It would be premature to expect an AQAP offensive on the scale of what the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham recently conducted in Iraq, but it would also be a mistake to rule out the possibility of a series of significant attacks that could unhinge the Yemeni security forces and, in conjunction with the expanding al Houthi conflict in the north, possibly the Yemeni state.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed credit for a June 26 attack on the military headquarters and the airport in Sayun, Hadramawt, in east Yemen. The attack was the fourth in AQAP’s campaign against what it has identified as drone operations sites—locations where the Yemeni military shares intelligence with the U.S., recruits spies, or otherwise assists in directing American drone strikes. The use of a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) to destroy the entrance to the site in conjunction with a ground assault by 10-20 AQAP militants characterizes these attacks.
The first attack, which targeted the 2nd Military District headquarters in al Mukalla, Hadramawt, was the most effective of the campaign to-date. Militants disguised as security personnel overran the base after detonating a VBIED at the entrance, on September 30, 2013. They seized control of the site and partially held off a counter-assault from Yemeni special forces. The Yemeni military only fully secured the site on October 2. AQAP claimed the attack in an October 6 statement saying, “Such joint security headquarters or participation with the Americans in their war against Muslim people is a legitimate target of our operations anywhere.” AQAP said the target of the attack was an operations room that observed maritime traffic and communications and provided data through American and German intelligence.
The next attack was in Yemen's capital, Sana’a, and targeted the defense ministry complex on December 5, 2013. AQAP used a suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED) to gain access at the entrance near the military hospital inside the complex. Militants wearing army uniforms followed in a second vehicle, opening fire on the soldiers present. AQAP claimed the attack on December 6, saying that it was part of an effort to target “operations rooms of pilotless planes.” CCTV footage released after the brazen attack showed scenes from the hospital, in which a militant is seen killing hospital workers, provoking a public outcry against AQAP. AQAP military commander Qasim al Raymi apologized for the civilian deaths, claiming that a fighter had gone rogue.
The third attack in Aden’s al Tawahi district targeted the 4th Military District headquarters on April 2, 2014. AQAP militants used falsified documents to gain initial access to the base and detonated a SVBIED at the main entrance. They then stormed the base and the fighting went on for hours. AQAP claimed credit for the attack the same day, again noting the target was a joint operations room managing American drones.
The most recent attack hit multiple sites in Sayun, Hadramawt, including the 1st Military District headquarters, the airport, and a third building, on June 26, 2014. AQAP detonated a SVBIED at the main entrance of the base, followed by a ground assault. At the same time, AQAP militants stormed the airport and seized control of the airport’s control tower and communications center. Both were significantly damaged in the attack. A second, smaller attack on the Sayun airport attributed to AQAP occurred on July 3. AQAP claimed credit for the June 26 attack in a July 3 statement, claiming that the targeted sites were used to destroy Yemeni military intelligence capabilities, the drone operations room at the airport, and communications devices.
AQAP’s campaign is ongoing, and in addition to the sites already hit, there are other potential targets. The 3rd Military District headquarters in Ma’rib, for example, is within AQAP’s historic range of operations. Though it is not known whether operations at the base serve to support the drone program, there are local anti-government tribal elements that could provide AQAP with necessary logistics support or manpower. A second potential target is the alleged drone base at an airstrip in southeast Saudi Arabia. The reported site for the base, the recently constructed Umm al Melh Saudi Border Guards Airport, is accessible from Yemen by crossing the border and traveling east along the Saudi road that runs parallel to the border, or by traveling through the Empty Quarter, the desert that spans Yemen’s northeast and Saudi Arabia’s southeast. An attack in Saudi Arabia would be a significant break in AQAP’s attack pattern.
It is nearly impossible to assess how effective this campaign has been in disrupting the drone program or Yemeni intelligence operations. A supporting effort to this campaign has been AQAP's counterintelligence activities focused on trying and executing accused spies. The execution of these individuals is intended to intimidate the population and reduce its willingness to cooperate with or tolerate the presence of the Yemeni military or intelligence services. It is probable that intelligence collected from the military bases feeds into AQAP's counterintelligence operations and vice versa. A video, “Harvest of Spies,” released in full on May 31, 2014, follows the trial and execution of individuals who cooperated with the Yemeni intelligence services. In the video, an AQAP member identified as Abu Islam al Muhajir specifically mentioned the first three attacks—against the 2nd Military District, the defense ministry complex, and the 4th Military District—which ties these counterintelligence efforts to the anti-drone campaign. An assessed campaign objective may be to demonstrate AQAP’s force and to degrade the Yemeni military’s will to fight.
The anti-drone campaign must be seen as nested within a broader effort to disrupt Yemeni counterterrorism operations and weaken the Yemeni security forces overall. Yemeni military units operating in south and east Yemen suffer from regular AQAP attacks on checkpoints or bases. AQAP has employed tactics similar to the ones used in this campaign against Yemeni special forces bases, such as the September 20, 2013, attack targeting three such bases in southern Shabwah. In each attack, there is evidence that the militants operate in squad-sized units with specific tasks, which is slightly more sophisticated than what has occurred in years past, indicating a slow-growing military capability. AQAP is also likely behind many of the assassinations of Yemeni intelligence and political security officers over the past few years. AQAP remains in what appears to be a shaping phase in Yemen and it will continue to target the Yemeni security forces before going on the offensive. We must watch Yemen closely so as to avoid being surprised by the predictable attack of another al Qaeda franchise.