In April, an exclusive report published on Mintpress News laid bare an "unholy alliance" between al-Qaeda and the displaced government of Abdurabbuh Mansur Hadi that a coalition led by Sunni Gulf monarchies has been unsuccessfully seeking to reinstall with the help of the West since 2015. These revelations come on top of previous investigations that have further exposed how the relentless Western-backed war in Yemen has emboldened al-Qaeda militants responsible for multiple terrorist attacks on Western targets in the last two decades. Even if the war is drawing to a close, a strengthened al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) will be the result.
Two desert towns unmask a global alliance of terror
Khazaf and al-Marwan are but little villages unmarked on the map on the edge of the Arabian peninsula’s gigantic Rub’ al-Khali desert, which not coincidentally translates to the "Empty Quarter." Separating Yemen’s more densely populated northwest from the remote east, the towns find themselves on the frontline of the war between the insurgent Shiite Houthi government – yes, government – and the forces nominally under control of Abdurabbuh Mansur Hadi. After being driven from power in 2015, when his mandate to democratize the country in the wake of the Arab Spring had long expired, the deposed president fled to Saudi Arabia. There, defense minister turned de factor ruler Mohamed bin Salman set up a ten Sunni countries-strong coalition that kicked off a brutal war on Hadi’s behalf, ostensibly to reinstate the powerless president who from his comfortable quarters in Riyadh has long since lost any control over the situation. Five years later, the coalition, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has failed to dislodge the Houthis, who are now again on the march in the Ma’rib and al-Jawf governorates bordering the desert.
After Houthi fighters took over the desert villages, a tunnel complex underneath two houses revealed secret prisons which the militants fighting under Hadi’s banner had used to keep prisoners, including innocent women for who knows what purposes. Following their speedy retreat, left behind in the rubble were documents bearing the al-Qaeda logo, while graffiti-sprayed ISIS flags on the wall unveiled the true allegiances of the militants. Long rumored to house AQAP militants, the towns and cities of al-Jawf province are hundreds of kilometers away from the isolated pockets in the east to where the coalition claims the terrorists were driven in previous years with the help of American drown warfare. Yet, videos made by Houthi fighters shared by Mintpress News reveal a strong AQAP presence right on the frontline. This strongly suggests that terrorists filled the ranks of the Saudi-led forces during their vain attempts to hold back the months-long Houthi military operation to seize al-Jawf.
Appalling as this may sound, collusion between al-Qaeda and NATO- and Gulf-backed forces is no exception in the Middle East. During my 2018 trip to Eastern Ghouta in Syria, I myself heard testimony of horrific crimes, including random imprisonment and rape of women, at the hands of fighters from Faylaq ar-Rahman. The media at the time attempted to portray this group as the most moderate of the "moderate rebels" in order to try to draw an imaginary line between alleged democratic revolutionaries supported by the West on the one hand and hardcore Islamist terrorists that constitute the raison d’être of the West’s "war on terror" on the other. Now, even high-level spokespersons of the American-led anti-ISIS coalition have repeatedly acknowledged that the Syrian Idlib province, where these and other militants have flocked to in recent years, is "a magnet for terrorist groups" and "the largest al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11."
In these battleground places, far removed from the prying eyes of journalists, it is difficult to ascertain the true nature of the forces waging Western-backed wars in the Middle East. Yet, in Yemen, like Syria, it is clear that these recent revelations are not an isolated case. Previous investigations by prestigious publications back up the existence of this "unholy alliance" between AQAP and the Gulf coalition.
From war on terror to war of terror
In August 2018, the Associated Press revealed that "again and again," the coalition’s "decisive victories" against AQAP were entirely deceitful, for it often cut secret deals with al-Qaeda militants instead of fighting them. Sometimes, they even paid terrorists to leave cities and towns, while at other times they were allowed to retreat with their weapons, equipment and enormous amounts of looted cash. In the central Shabwa province, for instance, the Emiratis offered one al-Qaeda commander $26.000 and an additional $13.000 for every one of his 200 foot soldiers who retreated. Other al-Qaeda militants were allowed to keep up to $100 million in stolen cash when they agreed to leave Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth largest city in neighboring Hadramawt governorate. Key participants in these agreements told the investigators that the United States was well aware of the arrangements and held off drone strikes as part of the deal.
Despite their sinister character, these deals might nevertheless give the impression that there is a strict boundary between AQAP and the coalition. If you alter a well-known investigative dictum somewhat into "follow the weapons," however, it becomes clear that these boundaries are much more fluid. Leaning largely on the in-depth research of Egyptian journalist Mohamed Abu al-Gheit, investigations conducted by Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism and CNN have exposed a flourishing arms channel which has emboldened terror groups. As part of multi-billion-dollar arms sales between the West and the Gulf, weapons manufactured in the US and at least eight European countries have ended up with AQAP as well as ISIS. These weapons are usually sold to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who pass them on to warlords who are often not only loyal to Hadi but harness cozy relationships with known terrorists and their sympathizers as well.
Further attesting to these fluid boundaries, the Associated Press revealed that hundreds of AQAP militiamen were co-opted and recruited into the fight against the Houthis, a fact that has since been corroborated by UAE officials. In Yemen’s historic southwestern city of Taiz, Adnan Rouzek, one of Hadi’s top military commanders, even recruited a senior al-Qaeda figure as his top aide after he escaped from prison in 2008. The underlying idea on which this policy is predicated is that these terrorists help to fight the bigger evil. This, of course, is the Houthis, whom Gulf propaganda and compliant Western media tend to depict as Iranian proxies part of a regional axis of terror. Yet, the most mainstream of publications have by now admitted that Iran’s power over the Houthis is marginal at best, if not largely imaginary, and that the Houthis’ rise to power can be explained mostly by their successful fight against foreign interference. When Rouzek’s militia became notorious for kidnappings and execution-style street killings, it provided a stark reminder of who the actual terrorists are.
Another warlord who received millions to fight the Houthis, Shaykh Abu al-Abbas, ordered his forces to attack Taiz’ security headquarters in 2017, freeing a number of al-Qaeda members. In spite of city officials notifying the incident to the coalition, the Emiratis went on to provide al-Abbas with 40 more pickup trucks. The Americans have since put him on its list of designated terrorists, yet the UAE continued to fund him as late as January 2019. Unsurprisingly, Abu al-Gheit’s research team found that many of the weapons that ended up in the hands of AQAP and ISIS were funneled through Rouzek and al-Abbas.
Commenting on the revelations first reported by the Associated Press, Jamestown Foundation fellow Michael Horton said that "elements of the U.S. military are clearly aware that much of what the US is doing in Yemen is aiding AQAP." Calling much of the war against the terror group a "farce," he stated that "it is now almost impossible to untangle who is AQAP and who is not since so many deals and alliances have been made." An anonymous senior American official agreed, telling reporters in Cairo that "it’s very, very easy for al-Qaeda to insinuate itself into the mix." In conclusion, as the Associated Press put it concisely, in the fight against the Houthis, "al-Qaeda militants are effectively on the same side as the Saudi-led coalition – and, by extension, the United States." As such, compounding the genocidal Saudi-led war on the Yemeni people, the Obama and Trump administrations have turned the so-called war on terror into a war of terror.
Misconceptions about al-Qaeda
Al-Qaeda is often misunderstood as a strictly hierarchal organization globally controlled from the top down. This myth, put together by establishment "counterterrorist" analysts in the wake of 9/11 in order to build support for American militarism in the Middle East, was busted most emphatically by British journalist Jason Burke in his book Al-Qaeda: the true story of radical Islam. Burke demonstrates that, contrary to common belief, Osama bin Laden and his cohorts in the 1990s referred to "al-Qaeda" – a very common word in Arabic – to mean nothing more than a vanguard, foundation or network of radical Islamists. Next to the "al-Qaeda hardcore," local groups and ideology are as – if not more – important elements of the al-Qaeda phenomenon, Burke argues. That is why the destructive war on terror has failed to dislodge violent and radical Islam. Indeed, creating hundreds of ground zeros in the Middle East has only expanded the breathing grounds on which al-Qaeda and like-minded organizations foster in spite of the destruction of its hardcore.
Only between 1996 and 2001 could the group around bin Laden boast leadership of a global organized network. Still, terrorist attacks in this period and thereafter were often concocted and carried out by local militants and groups on their own accord rather than being tightly coordinated from the top. One such attack was the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen’s port city of Aden in October 2000, in which two suicide bombers crashed a small C4-laden boat into the Cole, killing 17 American sailors and injuring 39.
Six years after the 1994 civil war and ten years after unification, much of Yemen remained an anarchic place ruled by tribal shaykhs. Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, two founding groups of al-Qaeda, both had a presence in the country. The combined elements of aggressive American foreign policy in the region and decades of proxy wars leaving the country impoverished created an ideal recruiting ground to channel hundreds of disgruntled Yemenis to Afghanistan each year to train in jihadi camps or fight alongside the Taliban. Indeed, all six men arrested by Yemeni police in the wake of the Cole bombing were veterans of the Afghan war, and so was one of the alleged masterminds, Fahd al-Quso. The other, Jamal al-Badawi, was killed in an American drone strike in January 2019 in Ma’rib governorate, which borders the al-Jawf province were the "unholy alliance" was discovered in April.
In spite of the Yemeni government capturing and sentencing him to death in 2004, al-Badawi has incredibly escaped two different maximum-security prisons and afterwards cut a deal with Yemeni authorities to be set free in 2008, supposedly in return for helping to hunt down other al-Qaeda operatives. Illustrative of the corrupt government’s faux war on terror, Al-Quso was freed in a similar offer the year before, only to be killed by a US drone strike in 2012.
Mopping up the floor without turning off the faucet
That was before the current civil war dislodged the failing Hadi government from power. When the Houthis took over Sana’a in January 2015, US officials saw in the Houthis a potentially better partner to fight a common enemy, since the Shiite insurgents for ideological and religious reasons were naturally more averse to Sunni terrorism. Indeed, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers admitted the existence of an ongoing "intelligence relationship" with the Houthis to fight AQAP. After the formation of the Saudi-led coalition, however, Washington, always receptive to anti-Iran propaganda, bought into the Gulf narrative of Iranian control over the Houthis, presumably ended the intelligence relationship and unconditionally backed the coalition’s devastating war effort. While it continues its drone warfare against AQAP sporadically, American support for the Saudis and Emiratis clearly nullifies those efforts. The fact that a number of politicians working with the Saudi-backed government are until this very day on the official US Treasury list of sanctioned terrorists demonstrates that the Americans are mopping up the floor without turning off the faucet.
For one, both Hadi and his predecessor have always maintained cozy relations with Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen and a leading member of its affiliated Islah Party. Describing him as a "loyalist" to bin Laden and one of his "spiritual leaders," the US put al-Zindani on its global terrorist list in 2004 for his connections to al-Qaeda. In 2011, Anwar al-Awlaqi, an al-Qaeda-linked US citizen, sheltered at al-Zindani’s farm house in al-Jawf before being extrajudicially executed by an American drone according to the Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram. Although Washington views him as one of the main leaders of AQAP, the Saudis have refused to defund his activities. What’s more, Hadi met al-Zindani in Riyadh in 2018 and praised his efforts to "unite" Yemen behind his "legitimate" government. Only when he doubted to call for jihad against the Houthis in 2019 did the Saudis place him under house arrest.
Another radical Salafi preacher, Abd al-Wahhab al-Humayqani, was put on the US Treasury’s terrorist list in December 2013. Once affiliated with the Islah Party, he founded his own party after Saleh’s resignation in 2012 and participated in the Gulf Cooperation Council-backed national dialogue conferences. At the March 2013 conference that inaugurated the second phase of Yemen’s transition of power (after Hadi’s (s)election) al-Humayqani was one of the most prominent participants. Months later, however, the Americans designated him as a global terrorist because he was "funneling financial support to AQAP and has frequently traveled throughout the Arabian Peninsula while conducting business for AQAP." The designation statement did not only accuse him of issuing "religious guidance in support of AQAP" like al-Zindani, it claimed that al-Humayqani is "an important figure within AQAP" responsible for recruiting terrorists and orchestrating terrorist attacks within Yemen. While still on the list, al-Humayqani participated in the 2015 UN Geneva peace talks and shook hands with Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. He did so as part of the delegation of the Hadi government in exile.
Finally, the fluid boundaries between al-Qaeda and the Hadi government are visible on the local level, too. The US designated two local politicians as global terrorists in 2016 for funneling money and weapons to AQAP forces. The governor of al-Bayda, Nayif al-Qaysi, has received monthly salaries from Saudi Arabia through the Hadi government as recent as 2019, leaked documents published in local media show. The other designated terrorist, al-Hasan Ali Ali Abkar, is a tribal leader and chief of the Islah Party in al-Jawf, like al-Bayda a frontline province in the battle against the Houthis. The US calls Abkar "an AQAP commander" who directs al-Qaeda militants in both Ma’rib and al-Jawf. This once again goes to show how the Saudi- and Western-backed Hadi relies on al-Qaeda fighters to wage war in Yemen. Since the governor of al-Jawf himself directs al-Qaeda forces according to the US government, the recent revelations of Mintpress News are perhaps not surprising after all.
It should be noted that most of the US designated terrorists deny involvement with al-Qaeda. Seen as a tight organization with a strict hierarchy, there is a point to be made that many of the above-mentioned figures are not literally al-Qaeda commanders. Yet, through their preaching, recruiting, deal-making and funneling of weapons and money, they are clearly part of the al-Qaeda phenomenon in Burke’s sense of the word. More importantly, it is the US government that perceives all of these politicians, commanders and preachers as fundamental members of AQAP. From its own perspective, then, it is crystal clear that in its policy in Yemen and the Gulf, the US is, to loan from George W. Bush, harboring terrorists.
Thanks to the help of governments in the Arabian Peninsula allied to the West, AQAP has grown so strong since the onset of the war on/of terror that as of 2010, the CIA as well as other American counterterrorist officials view AQAP as the most dangerous and active branch of al-Qaeda. Indeed, the organization is considered responsible for some of the most gruesome terrorist attacks of the last decade around the world, such as the 2009 shooting of two US soldiers in Little Rock, Arkansas; the failed "underwear bomber" assault on Northwest Airlines flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas day of the same year; a 2012 suicide attack on Yemeni military personnel in preparation of Unity Day, which killed 120 people; and the attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January 2015, which left 11 French citizens dead.
In the last five years, AQAP has been preoccupied with the civil war. But now that the Houthi government’s steadfastness and the growing opprobrium at the address of the Saudi- and UAE-led coalition is finally showing signs that the war on the Yemeni people is coming to an end, we can be sure that al-Qaeda will come out of the war unscathed. The genocidal bombing and blockading campaign of the Saudis and the notorious secret prisons of the Emiratis – not to mention the deliberate impoverishment of Yemenis – have provided ample recruiting ground for al-Qaeda to foster after the war. Moreover, endless flows of cash and Western-produced weapons have fallen into the hands of terrorists via Gulf monarchies, while fighting alongside Hadi government forces has reinforced AQAP’s battleground experience. Judging from the record of the Yemeni government, there will unlikely be a strong effort to round up al-Qaeda suspects. In short, after the war, al-Qaeda will be emboldened with endless money, weapons, battleground experience and ideological claims of jihad to revenge the ruined state of the country.
In 2018, an unnamed spokesperson of the US Defense Department told the Independent that "AQAP is attempting to exploit the situation in Yemen to plot, launch and inspire terror attacks against Americans and our regional partners." If push comes to shelve and new terrorist attacks orchestrated by AQAP cadres take place, remember who is ultimately responsible.
I would like to extend my gratitude to Nasser Arrabyee, director of Yemen al-An (Yemen Now), for his invaluable contributions in doing research for this report.
Bas Spliet is a master student History and Arabic Studies at the University of Ghent, Belgium, where he researches the anti-nuclear weapons movement in Europe of the early 1980s. He is proficient in Arabic, travelled to Syria in 2018 and lived in Cairo in 2019. He aspires to become an investigative journalist after graduation. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @BSpliet.