For the past two years, the civil war in Yemen has gone almost unnoticed in the US. Yemen is currently one of the most dangerous countries in the world, suffering from violence, starvation, and now an outbreak of cholera. The focus of the news media in the US has been elsewhere. Case in point, out that in the past year MSNBC has hardly mentioned Yemen but has had 455 segments about Stormy Daniels. But with the recent discovery of how al-Qaeda has been involved with the US-supported, Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen, there may be a few more eyes turned towards the fray.
A Saudi-led coalition, that is predominantly Sunni, has been sweeping through Yemen fighting the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels and driving al-Qaeda out of some of its strongholds throughout the country. , the coalition has been bargaining with al-Qaeda militants, paying them to leave cities, or letting them retreat with weapons, money, and equipment. In addition, the coalition has been recruiting al-Qaeda fighters to join them in the bigger fight against the Shiite Houthis.
Though this discovery is rather recent, it appears as though the quid pro quo has been going on for some time. In February 2018, Emirati forces (which are part of the bigger Saudi-led, Arab coalition) reclaimed al-Said, a region that has been largely under al-Qaeda control. It was recognized as quite a victory. But a tribal mediator who was involved said that the al-Qaeda forces left weeks before the Emirati forces and their Yemeni counterparts even arrived. And they left peacefully. Al Jazeera reported that “under the terms of the agreement, the coalition promised al-Qaeda members it would pay them up to 100,000 Saudi riyals ($26,000) to leave, according to Awad al-Dahboul, the province’s security chief.” And the recruitment of al-Qaeda fighters was part of the agreement. Two officials and a mediator estimated that for every 1,000 fighters recruited into the Emirati forces to fight the Houthis, 50 to 70 would be al-Qaeda.
Part of the reason that the US could justify its support of the Saudi-led coalition and its involvement in Yemen was that it was fighting not only Iran-supported Houthis, but also targeting and weakening al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the strongest branch of America’s constant enemy. But the coalition’s dealings with al-Qaeda mean that the US is actually supporting al-Qaeda fighters instead of defeating them. As the AP reported, “the larger mission is to win the civil war against the Houthis, Iranian-backed Shiite rebels. And in that fight, al-Qaeda militants are effectively on the same side as the Saudi-led coalition—and, by extension, the United States.” This would explain the decrease in US airstrikes in Yemen during 2018.
Michael Horton from the Jamestown Foundation said that the war against al-Qaeda has been a “farce.” “However, supporting the UAE and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia against what the U.S. views as Iranian expansionism takes priority over battling AQAP and even stabilizing Yemen,” he said.
There have been so many al-Qaeda fighters recruited by the coalition that it has become difficult to even recognize who’s who anymore. “It is now almost impossible to untangle who is AQAP and who is not since so many deals and alliances have been made,” Horton said.
Naturally, the Pentagon vehemently denied any connections to or dealings with al-Qaeda fighters. Al Jazeera reported that Navy Commander Sean Robertson, a Pentagon spokesman, wrote in an email, “Since the beginning of 2017, we have conducted more than 140 strikes to remove key AQAP leaders and disrupt its ability to use ungoverned spaces to recruit, train and plan operations against the US and our partners across the region.” A Saudi official was not as forthcoming in his remarks as Robertson but said that the coalition “continues its commitment to combat extremism and terrorism.”
The real focus in Yemen is not on al-Qaeda and it never has been. The real concern is the Shiite Houthis who are supported by Iran and have been taking over Yemen. The Arab coalition, the US, and al-Qaeda all see this as a move by Iran to expand its influence and create chaos in the Arab, Sunni region. With the US’s financial, weapons, and intelligence support, the Arab coalition is willing to do just about anything to defeat the Houthis and get Iran’s long arm out of the neighborhood. Al-Qaeda wants the same thing. They are all fighting a common enemy. As one activist who battled side by side with al-Qaeda fighters against the Houthis in Taiz said, “There is no filtering in the war. We are all together.” They are applying the idea that their enemy’s enemy is their friend. Some military commanders, when warned not to recruit from al-Qaeda, articulated this sentiment saying, “We will unite with the devil in the face of Houthis.”
This reasoning may be dangerous, though, because dealing with terrorist organizations is dealing with fire. Al-Qaeda claims that its numbers are growing thanks to the chaos. The battlefields against the Houthis are ripe for al-Qaeda’s recruitment. One al-Qaeda commander said that “if we send 20, we come back with 100.” So now the Arab coalition and the US find themselves in the awkward position of directly and indirectly supporting a terrorist organization. But they are backed into a corner because they are also desperate to defeat the Houthis and stabilize Yemen so that Iran is not strengthened.
There is no good or immediate solution to the situation that the US and Arab coalition have gotten themselves into with al-Qaeda. The only hope is to defeat the Houthis quickly and then deal with al-Qaeda later. But next time it would be wise to remember that a common enemy should not always unite forces together. As Benjamin Netanyahu once said, “the enemy of your enemy is your enemy.”
Abigail Liebing is an intern at Providence and a student at Hillsdale College, pursuing a B.A. in History and a minor in Journalism.
Photo Credit: Fighters holding al-Qaeda flags via The Baghdad Post.