Early April 2, a convoy of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters descended on Mukalla, Yemen's fifth-largest city and the capital of Yemen's Hadramawt province. The gunmen stormed the central prison on the northern outskirts of the city and reportedly released some 300 inmates, many of who were AQAP members, including senior military commander Khalid Bartafi. AQAP fighters then moved into the city and seized control of the port, the central bank and several government buildings, including the presidential palace. Bartafi later posted photos of himself in the presidential palace to Twitter.
The next day, the militants turned their attention to nearby military facilities. The soldiers defending the headquarters of Yemen's second military zone and a Special Security Forces base fled after putting up minimal resistance, and AQAP fighters were able to loot weapons stores.
Such raids are not new to Mukalla: AQAP captured the second military zone's headquarters in September 2013. During the group's period of rapid expansion in 2011, it also attacked the central prison and released some 40 AQAP fighters. The jihadist group is continuing to capitalize on Yemen's power vacuum to expand its reach in the country.
A Much Needed Boost
The raid on Mukalla scored AQAP a terrorist trifecta — fighters, weapons and cash — that will greatly benefit its efforts to expand its power base in Yemen. On the manpower front, in addition to releasing foot soldiers, the group recovered Bartafi, a senior military commander who was instrumental in the group's 2011-2012 campaign that captured large chunks of the country. The group also seized large quantities of small arms, light weapons, ammunition and heavy weapons such as armored vehicles and artillery pieces. The New York Times cited a Yemeni official who said the amount of cash looted from the central bank was in the tens of millions of dollars. The windfall will go a long way in paying salaries, buying weapons and purchasing good will from some Yemeni tribes.
Some reports indicated that tribal leaders in Hadramawt were assembling a force to push AQAP out of Mukalla, but the group still controls much of the city. Also, despite the large concentration of AQAP fighters and vehicles in and around Mukalla, coalition aircraft have completely ignored AQAP targets. Instead, coalition aircraft continue to focus on hitting Yemeni military units loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and al-Houthi militias, a decision that benefits AQAP because it weakens its two most dangerous enemies. In fact, several media outlets reported that AQAP militants stormed and captured a Yemeni border post near Zamakh wa Manwakh on April 6, indicating that the group may again be attempting to seize and control a large portion of Yemen as it did in 2011.
The bounty and publicity that came with the capture of Mukalla could not have come at a better time for AQAP. The group has suffered heavy losses on the battlefield and from airstrikes launched by U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles since January 2012. Also, the Islamic State had begun to supplant AQAP as the most sensational jihadist group in the country. A wave of Islamic State suicide bombings targeting three mosques frequented by al-Houthis in Sanaa and a government building in Saada killed at least 137 people and wounded hundreds more, garnering worldwide attention. More important, the attacks demonstrated that Islamic State members were willing to take deadly action against the al-Houthis, while AQAP fighters were mostly on the defensive. Many younger AQAP fighters were beginning to grumble about the group's lack of success compared to the Islamic State's gains in Iraq and Syria. Some of them even defected, pledging their allegiance to the Islamic State.
In this context, AQAP's capture of Mukalla and nearby military installations was a much needed boost for the group. Battlefield success combined with the release of jihadist prisoners and the infusion of cash and weapons should help AQAP leader Nasir al-Wahayshi and his deputies stem dissent and defections of rank-and-file members.
The Saudi Calculus
Few have benefitted from the bloody and destructive war destroying most of the infrastructure of Yemen's western cities from Saada in the north to Aden in the south — except for AQAP. When Riyadh chose to attack AQAP's enemies on the ground in Yemen, they certainly knew the jihadist group would benefit. Indeed, while AQAP also opposes the various factions of the southern secessionist movement and the forces loyal to embattled President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi, none of these groups have been as effective in fighting AQAP as the al-Houthi militias and the Saleh-loyalist units, many of which were trained by the United States.
Why, then, did Saudi Arabia choose to intervene in Yemen's civil war? First of all, this is not the first time it has done so. Following the 1962 Nasserite coup that overthrew the Zaidi Mutawakkilite Kingdom, the Saudis feared they would be the next country the Nasserites targeted. So they intervened on the side of the monarchists, ensuring that the war would be long and bloody, but stay south of the border.
Also, besides military incursions, Riyadh has long meddled in the affairs of its impoverished neighbor by providing money and weapons to tribes and other political actors supportive of Saudi interests. Quite often, such payments went to or through Saleh, who ruled north Yemen from 1978 to 1990 and the united Yemen from 1990 until 2012. Saudi Arabia also intervened on Saleh's side in the 2009-2010 war against the al-Houthis (the sixth such flare-up since 2004).
However, the real driver of Saudi Arabia's involvement in Yemen is its need to strike back against Iran — or at least appear to strike back against Iran — after Tehran and Washington agreed on the framework of a nuclear deal, which is the first step in a broader rapprochement between the two countries. Saudi Arabia sees the improving relationship as a substantial threat to its geopolitical situation, which is based on the promise of U.S. protection. The United States is again pursuing a balance of power strategy in the region. With Iran involved militarily in Syria and Iraq, Saudi Arabia believes it needs to do something to flex its growing strength and showcase its military power.
The Saudi solution was to a select the weakest target: Yemen, which is far easier for Saudi Arabia to attack than Hezbollah, the Syrian government or Iran itself. Intervening in Yemen also provided an opportunity for Riyadh to display its ability to build a pro-Saudi regional coalition. However, Saleh and the al-Houthis proved resilient, standing up to two weeks of airstrikes and showing no sign of capitulating.
As we've previously noted, however, the Yemeni conflict is not sectarian in nature, nor is it a regional one. It is really more of an internal power struggle for control of the country. Nonetheless, forces have worked to make Yemen's struggle appear sectarian. Ironically, one of the first to cast the fight against the al-Houthis as a sectarian struggle was Saleh, who is now aligned with the al-Houthis.
Following his first conflict with the al-Houthis in 2004, Saleh repeatedly attempted to convince the U.S. and Saudi governments that Iran was backing the al-Houthis and that they should respond by supporting Yemen's efforts to destroy the rebels. Saleh even asked U.S. officials for intelligence he could use to kill al-Houthi leader Abdel Malik al-Houthi. However, as numerous State Department cables from 2004 to 2010 demonstrated, the United States was not convinced by the claims of Iranian support, and Saleh and his ministers were unable to show proof of Iranian or Hezbollah connections.
In addition to Saleh, Iran also attempted to portray the al-Houthi conflict as a sectarian struggle to increase the perception of their regional reach and clout in the hopes of intimidating rivals. In fact, Iranian sources in the region even provided Stratfor with false information inflating Tehran and Hezbollah's involvement with the al-Houthis.
It is impossible to be sure whether Saudi Arabia really believes Saleh and Iran's false claims, or if they are merely using them to justify flexing their muscles in Yemen. Either way, Saudi Arabia's destruction of weapons depots it gave to Yemen to help Saleh fight the al-Houthis is an ironic turn of events.
A Dangerous Snake
In the end, Saleh cannot win in Yemen. A man who was once known as being able to "dance on the heads of snakes" because of his prodigious and precarious efforts to balance all of Yemen's competing interests against one another is seeing everything come crashing down around him. Still, Saleh pursues only his own interests and will quickly turn on an ally if doing so benefits him. He has used the conservative tribes and the jihadists against his enemies in the south — for example, during the civil war in 1993-1994 — but also repeatedly against the al-Houthis during the six wars he fought against them. In addition to using the jihadists to attack his enemies, Saleh also used them as a boogeyman to secure funding, weapons and training from the United States.
Since being deposed in 2011, Saleh has been deeply bitter, using his old enemy, the al-Houthis, to lash out against the al-Ahmars, a powerful family that leads the Hashid tribal confederation that started the civil war that ultimately forced Saleh to step down. He has also sought revenge on those he believes are responsible for his misfortune, including Hadi and the interests of the foreign powers. Furthermore, like some sort of comic book villain, Saleh is also seeking vengeance over the June 2011 assassination attempt that nearly killed him and left him scarred.
Yemen continues to deal with a resurgent jihadist group, a vitriolic and manipulative former president, and a wide array of miscellaneous tribal leaders and warlords. Airstrikes and intense urban combat compound the situation. For the past several decades, Yemen has teetered on the precipice of disaster because of endless civil wars, tribal insurrections, jihadist movements, a failing economy, overpopulation, hunger and water shortages. Now the Saudi-led coalition appears to have finally pushed Yemen over the edge and into the void. Like Somalia, Iraq, Libya and Syria, putting Yemen back together again will be difficult and take time. In the instability, AQAP will thrive.