On the eve of the national holiday marking the the 22nd anniversary of Yemen's unification, the country was in a sad state. The prevailing scene was one of bloodshed and chaos. Over the span of just a few seconds, hundreds of corpses and body parts littered the square, and hundreds of survivors lay across the blood-filled square — ill-prepared for war. In that moment of shock, nothing could be heard except for the moans and cries for help from the wounded laying helpless among the dead and the body parts.
On that summer morning, May 21st, a few thousand Yemeni soldiers and central security force members lined up in Sabeen Square in Sanaa for the final rehearsal in front of the defense minister and senior army and security commanders. The Yemeni military servicemen were preparing for the military parade that was scheduled to take place in the square the following day to celebrate the 22nd anniversary of Yemeni unification in front of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, senior government officials and ambassadors.
The marching band had just begun to play when a violent explosion ripped through the ranks. An al-Qaeda suicide bomber wearing a military uniform and a belt containing more than seven kilograms of explosives and nails had infiltrated the parade and blown himself up amidst companies of central security officers and military academy students. He left over one hundred dead and more than three hundred wounded in al-Qaeda’s most destructive terrorist attack to date on the Yemeni military.
The suicide attack in Sabeen Square was not exceptional, nor was it even unexpected given al-Qaeda’s history. It came ten days after the beginning of the army’s extensive campaign in the southern province of Abyan to rid the region of al-Qaeda and its associates, and recapture towns and areas that had been under the control of the organization’s armed groups since March 2011. Months after the start of the military’s campaign against al-Qaeda, army units, positions and barracks in Abyan and neighboring provinces fell victim one by one to attacks by armed groups belonging to Ansar al Sharia (Defenders of Sharia Law), the military wing of al-Qaeda whose aim has been to exhaust the army by retaliating after every strike launched by US spy drones on al-Qaeda targets in Yemen.
The Army Pays the Price
After every air strike carried out by US planes on al-Qaeda’s leaders and positions in Yemen, the Yemeni army fell into a state of confusion. The US was very careful to keep the timing and targets of their raids a secret, and there was nothing forcing Washington to coordinate its military operations with the authorities of this troubled country. As a result of the current crisis, Yemen is on the verge of sliding into total chaos; it has led to divisions within its military, and the multiplication of loyalties.
Since early last year, the Yemeni army’s failure in a number of southern provinces has not been limited to its inability to strike at al-Qaeda’s positions or prevent extremist militants from expanding their reach in these areas; the army had, in fact, become incapable of defending itself. It had become an easy target for the organization’s militants and supporters. The latter took revenge for US strikes by conducting fierce attacks targeting army barracks, especially in the province of Abyan. The province came under the quasi-control of al-Qaeda and its military wing — known as Ansar al-Sharia —which possesses weapons (seized during its more than 30 “revenge” and “Jihadi” operations since the beginning of March 2011) , which enable it to conduct offensive operations against military units.
Army officers connected with military operations against al-Qaeda confirmed that the US had not sought official permission from the Yemeni government to conduct spy sorties above Yemeni territory, nor to strike specific “terrorist” targets since the current crisis took hold of the country early last year, leading to divisions within the army and the weakening of the state’s security apparatus in all regions.
These same officers said that Washington had secured concessions from Yemen to facilitate its direct involvement in the war against al-Qaeda following the September 11 attacks, and the attack perpetrated by al-Qaeda in Yemen against the American destroyer USS Cole off the coast of Aden in late 2001. This attack led to the death of 16 Marines [Al-Monitor editor's note: this is incorrect. The attack killed 17 American sailors]. The officers also pointed out that former President Ali Abdullah Saleh had acquiesced to US pressure and agreed to facilitate Washington’s aerial spy sorties and strikes against al-Qaeda positions and leadership in return for limited US military aid and the training of elite Republican Guard troops in the context of bilateral cooperation to combat terrorism and in the war against al-Qaeda.
The United States is playing a pivotal role in sponsoring the transitional period and the implementation of the Gulf Initiative’s terms by all political parties through the efforts of US ambassador to Sanaa, Gerald Feierstein. In light of the divisions within the army, all political and military factions are racing to appease Washington’s ambassador, for he possesses the tools necessary to implement the “Accord” agreement built on a political settlement of the crisis. It is therefore not in any party’s interest to upset the ambassador, a man who finds no qualms in threatening to impose international sanctions on any faction that does not fulfill its commitments.
Not all parties have adequately cooperated in implementing the mechanisms of the Gulf Initiative meant to save the country from its crisis. What's more, every faction still proposes its own conditions to participate in the National Dialogue Conference, thereby hampering Hadi’s plan to restructure the armed forces and unify the army under one command, which would allow the country to overcome the danger of infighting erupting between the divided army’s units, especially in Sanaa.
The most important and best armed and trained army units are stationed on the capital’s outskirts, at the vanguard of which lies the Republican Guard led by the former president’s son, General Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, in addition to units loyal to the ex-president and troops of the First Armored Brigade and units loyal to General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar who announced, in March 2011, that he would support the protest movement against the former president’s regime, a movement that demanded Ali Saleh’s ouster.
President Hadi (who was elected by consensus on Februray 21) pledged in his first speech as president to put an end to the divisions plaguing the military and security institutions. He promised to restructure them and to prepare them for their national duties, include decisively ending the confrontation with al-Qaeda. [Hadi said the war] had not started yet and would not end until the organization was eradicated from Yemen. Hadi also pledged to restore the state’s control over all regions that fell under the rule of extremist militants in the south, especially Abyan province, the president’s birthplace, as well as the birthplace of Defense Minister General Mohammed Nasser Ahmed and the commander of the southern military region, General Salem al-Kotn.
Washington still relies on information provided by Yemeni intelligence services for its operations against al-Qaeda’s leadership and positions in Yemen. However, US intelligence services have also succeeded, through offices set up in Yemen over the past several years, to recruit hundreds of tribesmen, army and security agency officers, to enhance their abilities to gather information on al-Qaeda and the whereabouts of its leadership. They also succeeded in infiltrating the organization’s ranks through members affiliated with it or who supported it and belonged to Ansar al-Sharia and were specifically recruited for this purpose.
Late last year and early this year, in the cities of Jaar in Abyan province and Azan in Shabwa province, the organization executed a number of members that it accused of spying for US intelligence services, recruiting spies who aided US aerial strikes and delivering phone SIM cards to them so that they may be placed on militant vehicles to facilitate targeting by US missiles.
Despite the fact that the organization discovered that it had been infiltrated by US intelligence operatives — subsequently executing those it suspected of being spies — the US air strikes succeeded in killing dozens of al-Qaeda leaders over the past few years.
Since the US started targeting al-Qaeda leaders in Yemen for assassination, revenge attacks by al-Qaeda on Yemeni army units and security forces have led to the death of more than two thousand soldiers and officers. More than 3,000 others have been wounded, according to unofficial estimates.
The US assassination campaign targeted an al-Qaeda commander Abu Ali al-Harithi and five of his guards in the desert region of Marib province in mid-October 2002 (with a missile fired by a drone on his car), Anwar al-Awlaki last September in the desert of Jouf province in the north and Fahd al-Qaseh, one of al-Qaeda’s most prominent leaders in Jaar (Abyan province) just a few weeks ago, who was one of the prime suspects in the attack on the destroyer Cole.
It has become apparent that US anti-terrorist agencies have relied, in the past few years, on sources recruited in Yemen to collect information that permit them to track their targets and pinpoint the geographic location in which they operate in remote areas inaccessible to Yemeni security forces. The US conducts air strikes based on credible information, while information received from Yemeni intelligence sources is relegated to a secondary position. The goal has been to prevent the type of mistakes that occurred with the use of aerial drones beginning at the end of 2009 which led to the death of dozens of civilians and the destruction of houses and villages in a number of targeted areas. These mistakes embarrassed the Yemeni government and reinforced the tribes people’s sympathy for al-Qaeda and led to hundreds of armed militants, who oppose the government and are angry about the US air strikes on their homeland, to join the organization.
Yemeni military and security sources have confirmed that the country’s security agencies are providing intelligence to US agencies and services in Washington responsible for conducting the fight against al-Qaeda. [Yemeni security agencies send] a huge amounts of reports and information pertaining to the activity of al-Qaeda, its leadership’s movements, and its “terrorist” plans in Yemen and beyond, in addition to providing them with hard copies of interrogation sessions with detainees and suspected al-Qaeda members.
These sources mentioned that Ali Abdullah Saleh had given US agencies a wide range of movement since the year 2000, which permitted them to establish tracking and observation posts in a number of provinces, as well as offices at the US Embassy in Sanaa manned by hundreds of agents that these agencies brought into the country, under the pretext of coordinating efforts with Yemeni agencies and cooperation in combating terrorism.
Sources confirmed that Washington exercised a great deal of pressure on the former president to impose a cooperation program with US agencies to combat terrorism in Yemen. In return, the Yemeni government would receive added economic aid, donor countries would be urged to intensify their assistance programs to finance development in Yemen. [The Yemeni government would also receive money for] supplying Yemeni troops responsible for fighting al-Qaeda and combating terrorism with military aid, as well as millions of dollars to support the Yemeni National Security Agency’s activities, in addition to training high ranking intelligence officers in Sanaa and Washington.
The sources pointed out that most US promises never materialized, further adding that “America takes what it wants without giving anything in return. This is its way of dealing with Yemen.”
They also said that Ambassador Feierstein put a lot of pressure on the parties to the Yemen crisis in order to prevent a direct military confrontation from erupting, and to avoid a war between army units loyal to the ex-president and those that defected, so that al-Qaeda would be deprived from benefiting from the collapse of the military.
They further mentioned that the ambassador was still pushing to restructure the army according to a plan that does not necessarily guarantee its reunification, as much as it assures its continued existence to fight a decisive war against al-Qaeda.
They believed that Washington benefits from the state of insecurity in Yemen, the government’s weakness there, as well as the collapse of its military, security and governmental institutions, and uses that as a pretext to conduct strikes against al-Qaeda and its leadership in Yemen through aircraft that take off from fleets in the Arabian and Red seas without Yemeni government approval, and without yielding to what Washington described as “extortion” by Ali Saleh in return for his cooperation with and facilitation of Washington’s operations against al-Qaeda.
American Military Operations and the “Deal”
American Apache gunships entered the fray of direct American military action against al-Qaeda in Yemen, while, in recent years, these operations were limited to spy drone sorties aimed at giving the Americans information necessary to track al-Qaeda targets and launch air strikes against them with full support from the Yemeni government.
The government had to deal with the repercussion of those strikes by hastening to announce that they were carried out by the Yemeni air force, and described them as preemptive strikes against terrorist strongholds, all the while being forced to deal with their consequences whenever civilian casualties ensued. Sanaa went even further in confirming its support for the American air strikes when it claimed that they were carried out by Yemeni drone spy planes.
If information is confirmed that Apache helicopters took part in American military operations against al-Qaeda in Abyan province where intense battles rage between the Yemeni army and the organization’s militants, then that would mean that Washington was successful in pressuring the Yemeni government and military to commit army troops to fighting the decisive battle against al-Qaeda, in return for promises that these troops would be supplied with weapons and assistance necessary to eradicate al-Qaeda’s presence in the areas under the organization’s control in the south.
Former and current Yemeni ministers confirmed that the Yemeni government was not kept abreast of the agreement reached between former president Ali Saleh and Washington. They further added that the current government had not discussed or officially deliberated any request to facilitate American military activities on Yemeni soil. They clarified that similar agreements to those reached within the confines of the president’s office and military and security circles very close to Ali Saleh, might be taking place presently within the same strict confines, this time under the purview of Hadi’s office and the military institutions with close ties to the presidency.