Yemeni president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was elected on February 21, 2012 to succeed former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, has finally decided to eliminate Al-Qaeda. He is breaking its control over the governorate of Abyan and other areas in southern Yemen, and rooting out its influence and activities in remote regions throughout Yemen. He is doing so with a divided army in a troubled country still threatened with total chaos. When it comes to security, politics and geography, Yemen’s unity continues to be seriously challenged. The state has been unable to exert its authority in most of the southern provinces because of the growing Al-Qaeda presence there. Additionally, there is the separatist Southern Movement’s war on national unity that demands the restoration of the southern state, which was united with the northern part of the country in 1990. Moreover, there is turmoil in some northern provinces under tribal and Houthi influence.
President Hadi has the trust of Washington, the EU and neighboring Gulf countries that supported his ascension to power following Saleh. As a way to end the crisis, Hadi announced earlier this month his intention to eradicate Al-Qaeda from Yemen and to wage a decisive military campaign to completely clear the country of “terror” nests. He is showing his determination to achieve a decisive victory over the militants, something that his predecessor failed to accomplish despite pledging to do so to international and regional partners for years.
President Hadi seems to want to impose his control in the southern provinces by achieving a military victory over Al-Qaeda militants in that troubled region. Most of that area slipped out of the former president’s control in the last few years as a result of the sweeping protests for an end to injustices stemming from the 1994 civil war. Those protests then evolved into an organized and popular armed movement called the Southern Movement. That movement raised its demands, and asked for the restoration of the southern state. The Southern Movement received moral and material support from southern leaders who fled Yemen during the summer of 1994. Among them is former vice president Ali Salim al-Bayd and former prime minister Haider Abu Bakr al-Attas. They were later joined by the former leader of the Southern Movement Ali Nasser Mohammed.
In the last few years, the movement was able to turn things around in the south. It confused President Saleh and his aides when the “southern cause” became a political, security and military challenge which threatened to undermine Yemen’s unity. The “southern cause” set off regional and international pressures to respond to the protestors’ just demands. Their demands included development and a genuine partnership in the nation’s wealth and power. Regional and international actors obliged in order to prevent the country from sliding into chaos and another civil war, which would threaten their interests in Yemen and transform the country, especially in the south, into a safe haven for Al-Qaeda. If this were to take place, the group would be bestowed with the ability to implement terrorist plans targeting the security and stability of the neighboring Gulf area, as well as US and international interests.
It seems that Hadi has accepted the challenge and is determined to root out Al-Qaeda from the southern provinces and from Yemen in general. Being the first president of a unified Yemen to hail from the region, he is working to regain its loyalty to the central state. It is not acceptable for the country to have a southern president, elected by the people, while the south continues to call for the restoration of the former secessionist state, the right of self-determination or other similar demands. These are separatist slogans. The new president seeks to restore control over the restless south and the northern provinces, which are under tribal, military, partisan and regional influences that were formed by Saleh’s alliances during his 30-year reign.
The new president also seeks to send a clear message to the Houthi movement - which controls Saada and a number of areas in neighboring provinces: The hand of the state is able to break all armed rebel movements just as it is able to exclude the corrupt from state, military and security institutions.
However, Hadi also wants to show the Houthis that the state can implement economic, administrative and constitutional reforms that will lead to the civil state that the Yemenis seek. He wants to prove that the state can also achieve their aspirations for change, stability and confidence in a secure future.
Further than being an elected president with popular legitimacy, Hadi has the confidence and the support of countries in the region, especially Saudi Arabia. He also has support among the major powers, particularly the US, as well as a relatively unprecedented amount of international legitimacy for a Yemeni president. This international backing is represented by support from the UN and the UN Security Council (in accordance with resolution 2014) to resolve the crisis in Yemen. The UN also granted Hadi a mandate to manage the transitional phase using absolute constitutional powers, which all Yemeni parties are obliged to obey.
In this context, on May 16, President Barack Obama signed an executive order to impose US sanctions on any party that had signed the political settlement and any government side if they are involved in acts that threaten the security and stability of Yemen. This includes obstructing the November 23, 2011 agreement that was signed between the Yemeni government and opposition parties.
A Clear Message
Obama’s executive order affirms Washington’s support for the new Yemeni president, and confirms that the US is directly concerned with the developments in the country. The order also sends a clear message not only to former president Saleh, the army leaders still loyal to him and his General People’s Congress, it is also meant to address the opposition parties, the army leaders who split from the former president, the separatist Southern Movement, the Houthi movement, and the various military, political and tribal figures in Yemen.
Western diplomatic observers believe the executive order gives US Ambassador Gerald Firestein full authority to directly pursue counter-terrorism activities in Yemen. This intervention will help the US achieve its goal of eliminating Al-Qaeda in the country and the threat that terrorism poses to the region. Obama’s order also gives Hadi powers that will help the central state reinforce its control over the whole of Yemen. It will enable him to stand up to Al-Qaeda and confront any Iranian scheme that supports the rebel Houthi movement in the north, or the “separatist” groups in the south. These powers also relieve Hadi from the political, military and tribal pressures standing in the way of a national dialog conference and hindering the transitional process.
Sources confirm that the continued political tensions between the parties involved in the current crisis and the continued split in the army may reflect Washington’s undeclared desire to ensure the loyalty of the parties contending for power. Washington is trying to gain their support in its war against Al-Qaeda. All of those parties were quick to support Obama's latest executive order, believing that it is in their interest. Not only does it serve Washington’s interests, it represents a veiled threat to those particular parties.
In a related point, sources close to Yemen’s presidential circles indicate that Washington had an agreement with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh between 2009 and 2010 to lure Al-Qaeda militants in Yemen to the troubled southern regions. This movement was to be under the context of the popular anti-regime protests, specifically in Abyan province. Al-Qaeda wishes to turn Abyan into an Islamic “mujahedeen” state, where it can control the most important sea ports and international shipping lanes in the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Bab el Mandeb Strait. From there, Al-Qaeda would be able to extend its influence to neighboring countries. However, concentrating their forces in Abyan would make it easier for the US to eliminate them through air strikes and large-scale Yemeni military attacks. Otherwise, the US and Yemen would have had to disperse their forces to pursue Al-Qaeda across Yemen into areas where government gaffes have increased the terrorist group’s influence and support.
Sources say that Washington had pressured Saleh to accept the plan to make it easier for the Yemeni army and the US fleet in the region to strike Al-Qaeda at specific geographic locations. Beyond avoiding the spread of their efforts throughout most Yemeni provinces in their pursuit of Al-Qaeda elements, this strategy has another benefit. With the concentration of Al-Qaeda forces, US drones can avoid striking civilian targets and thus avoid embarrassing Saleh’s government.
The sources indicated that the first phase of the plan succeeded in luring most Al-Qaeda militants in Yemen to Abyan and to its neighboring areas in the south. But the outbreak of the current crisis, the anti-Saleh protests and the demands to bring down his regime as part of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, prevented the implementation of the more important part of the plan — joint military and air operations. Before these operations could begin, the Yemeni army was split between supporters of Saleh and his opponents. The elite forces were then withdrawn from the areas of confrontation with Al-Qaeda in order to pressure Washington to oversee a crisis settlement that involved a secure departure for Saleh that didn’t entail handing over the country to his opponents.
Those sources add that after President Hadi was elected, Saleh thought that his successor would be unable to implement the plan to eliminate Al-Qaeda in the south because he did not control the elite army units. But Hadi, who seems to have been familiar with the contents of the agreement between Saleh in Washington, was able to gain Washington’s confidence, the support of the neighboring Gulf countries and that of the international community. This was made possible through his balanced positions during the crisis, keeping an equal distance from all parties. He thus became seen by all parties in the conflict as the savior and they agreed to make him the consensus president in the transitional phase.
The sources add that Hadi is determined to achieve a military, moral and political victory over Al-Qaeda in the southern provinces. Such a victory is something that his predecessor failed to achieve because the Saleh-Washington agreement’s implementation was delayed by the crisis, the army’s split and Saleh’s delaying tactics. It is thought that Washington gave Hadi the green light to implement the plan to eliminate Al-Qaeda in a massive military campaign that includes joint units from the divided army and direct US military support. He also has logistical and intelligence support from several other countries. The operation is aided by US and Saudi pressure, and the efforts of the UN envoy to Yemen Jamal Bin Omar, to exclude a number of military leaders who are associated with Saleh, and to force those remaining to fight a decisive battle against Al-Qaeda in the south. Contributing to this battle are joint units (from the divided army) under the leadership of the Ministry of Defense. They are also under the direct and indirect supervision of the US ambassador and US military and civilian experts who are overseeing their operations and coordinating US air raids on specific Al-Qaeda targets in Abyan and other provinces.