There has been a lot of noise in recent weeks from the Trump administration about increasing US military involvement in the ongoing gang-fight in Yemen, and helping Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the Hadi regime in their war against the Saleh-Houthi alliance. Any such escalation will very likely bolster the position of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), notwithstanding America’s own ongoing military campaign against them.
This contradiction became hilariously and horrifically apparent in the aftermath of the US special forces raid against an alleged AQAP compound back in January, shortly after the transfer of power in the US to the Trump administration. The raid targeted important leaders of the al-Dhahab family, which is a key backer of AQAP, and is related by marriage to Anwar al-Awlaki, the infamous Yemeni-American preacher and al-Qaeda recruiter. But the family is also closely linked with the Hadi regime; Sheikh Abdel-Raouf al-Dhahab, one of the key figures killed in the raid, had met with Hadi’s military chief of staff just a couple of days prior and had received a nice sack of money to help him and his tribal militia fight the Houthis in a nearby city.
This fits in with the larger pattern of more or less overt cooperation between the Hadi regime and AQAP — which, oddly, enough, the US government itself appears aware of, although it does not appear to be influencing the overall military strategy. Some key connections include:
- Nayif al-Qaysi, one of Hadi’s provincial governors, who is accused of both the US and the UN of being a senior AQAP official
- Abdul Wahab Al-Homayqani, the head of a powerful Salafist political party and an advisor to Hadi, who is accused by the US of being an AQAP official and helping mediate financing between Saudi donors and AQAP
- Al-Hasan Ali Abkar, a pro-Hadi militia commander who is accused by the US of funneling money and weapons to AQAP
Connections between the “official” regime in Yemen and al-Qaeda isn’t new, either. The ex-dictator Saleh maintained links with al-Qaeda and other Salafi-jihadist groups for decades, right up until he linked up with the Houthis and went to war against Hadi, his old vice president, and his former allies among AQAP. Saleh encouraged Salafi-jihadists to fight against his enemies in the socialist south during the 1994 Civil War, including a few prominent militants like Jamal al-Nahdi, who planned al-Qaeda’s first attack against the US, and who would go on to join Saleh’s political party and become an important member of the state security apparatus. Saleh continued to exploit AQAP militants against political rivals (including the Houthis) even as he took in hundreds of millions of dollars from the US to fight AQAP throughout the 2000s. Now, Saleh and his loyalists in the military have jumped sides to the Houthis, while the security establishment that Hadi took over are still deeply intertwined with AQAP and other Salafi paramilitary groups.
So what is the US plan for all of this? Pushing the Saleh-Houthi alliance back will almost certainly mean a de-facto alliance with AQAP, which has already demonstrated its ability to take over areas “liberated” by the pro-Hadi coalition. On the flip side, attacking AQAP means undermining the regime that the US is backing, and letting the Houthis consolidate their gains. At this point, it seems like the US is content to simply shoot at everybody, strategy be damned. A drone strike here, a refueling mission there, and so on, until…well, who knows. At least the defense industry creeps will be happy.