While War Rages Nearby, Al-Qaeda Quietly Builds a Yemeni Emirate

While Saudi Arabia fights a bloody war against the Shi’ites of western Yemen, Al-Qaeda has quietly established an ‘emirate’ in the vast, but sparsely populated eastern region of Hadramaut. Al-Akhbar’s Adnan Bawzir surveys this Sunni “Emirate,” uncontested by the Saudis, and largely ignored by the rest of the world, and concludes that it is a product of a different form of Saudi expansionism.

The Hadramout coastal region in Yemen is an ideal location for a terrorist organization like al-Qaeda. This is due to the region’s distance from the central government; it is located 700 kilometers away from Yemen’s capital city, San’a. Additionally, “safe” areas—outside central government control– surround Hadramout. The geographical location of the region makes it a perfect base for al-Qaeda. It shares a long desert northern frontier with Saudi Arabia, and it overlooks the Arabian Sea in the south. The geographically vast and scarcely populated Al-Muhala governorate lies in the region’s eastern borders. And the vast Shabwa governorate, an old al-Qaeda stronghold, is located in the west. The two desert governorates of al-Jawf and Mi’rib are situated in the region’s north-western bounds. The region’s geographical parameters thus allow for the potential expansion of al-Qaeda’s influence inside and outside of Yemen.

Hadramout is Yemen’s largest governorate spanning 190,000 square kilometers, which makes up 38 percent of Yemen’s size. According to the latest census, Hadramout’s population is less than one million people. It also has a diverse terrain: mountains, highlands, coastal plans, valleys, and deserts.

Given how sparse its population is compared to its size, the region has vast unpopulated areas and remote valleys. This creates the perfect environment for the un-monitored movement of al-Qaeda members. It is also suitable for setting up training camps and other activities. This is in addition to having open access to a 450 km long, mostly unpopulated, coastal frontier overlooking the Arabian Sea. The coastline is valuable for receiving new recruits, logistical supplies, and arms. Hadramout has three official ports and two international airports (one of which is currently under al-Qaeda’s control). The region is additionally among the richest in Yemen. Most of the country’s oil industry is concentrated in the region’s southern highland, where oil producing foreign companies such as Total, Cavalli, Dove Energy and others operate. This is in addition to other economic resources that are also available in the region.

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Tarim, Hadramout. Yemen. Photo: Hussein Al Khateeb.

The region is of a particular importance to neighboring Saudi Arabia, which is leading the interventionist Arab coalition forces in Yemen. Saudi Arabia is also the primary player that controls and finances al-Qaeda. Hadramout shares the longest border with the Kingdom—compared to other regions in Yemen. When it comes to demographics, Saudi Arabia and Hadramout share tribes and customs. Members of the same tribe would often live on the two sides of the border. There is a significant Hadramouti community residing in Saudi Arabia. It includes prominent traders and businessmen who have played an important role in the economy and were granted Saudi citizenship.

Saudi Arabia has long had an expansionist agenda in Yemen [and the Hadramout region in particular]. It previously annexed the Sharurah and al-Wadiah regions in the late 1960s. The Kingdom has ever since been discreetly encroaching on Yemeni territory, gradually and steadily annexing parts of Hadramout’s desert, while granting the Saudi citizenship to territories that fall under its influence. The Kingdom aims to fulfill its dream of expanding its area of influence farther to the south in order to have direct access to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean to facilitate its oil exports. The Arabian Sea would open up new frontiers for Saudi oil exports, compared to the current more restricted Saudi Arabian ports on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Arabia.

There are reports of the availability of oil reserves in Hadramout’s northern plateau, adjacent to the Empty Quarter and the Saudi border. The operation of oil companies is, however, confined to the southern highland region. The Yemeni central government in San’a has not generally granted oil concessions in the northern plateau. The very few companies who were granted such concessions have abruptly aborted their work in the region. This restriction imposed on the northern plateau oil reserves could only be explained by the existence of special arrangements between the Yemeni central governments and Saudi Arabia.

Falling under al-Qaeda’s control

Many analysts have inquired into the timing of al-Qaeda’s capture of Hadramout’s port city of Al Mukalla in April, only one week after Saudi Arabia had announced the end of its Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen. Some have argued that Saudi Arabia wanted to block the ascending influence of the Houthis. [The Zaidi Shia movement known as Houthis and its militant group “Ansar Allah” took over the government in Sana’a last year, overthrowing the Saudi-backed Yemeni government of Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi]. The Houthis were, however, far from this geographical location of Hadramout at the time of the capture of Al Mukalla; they were at the borders of Aden at the time. Others have argued that al-Qaeda’s capture of Al Mukalla was meant to divert the fight with the Houthis to the Hadramout region, to ease the pressure on other locations. The more obvious reason, however, is that Saudi Arabia aims to bestow its control on this strategic region, and place it on standby for future “battles” with the Houthis, when the timing is right for the Kingdom.

In order to understand how al-Qaeda was able to capture this vibrant Yemeni port city, which ranks third in importance after San’a and Aden, we need to talk about General Mohsen Nasser. He is the commander of the Second Military District and known for his loyalty to the fleeing President, Hadi. Around a week before the capture of al-Mukalla, Nasser had changed all personnel serving at the military posts of the city’s entrance following rumors of a Houthi infiltration. Nasser made strong announcements at the time ensuring that the city was secure and prepared to curb any threats. He also stated that the region will remain loyal to the legitimate president [in reference to Hadi]. This was followed by a series of concocted skirmishes with al-Qaeda on the border. One of Nasser’s choppers then bombed a number of empty government buildings, such as Al Mukalla’s Radio Station which was burned to the ground. The neighboring Central Bank local branch—where many al-Qaeda members gathered in an attempt to break in its vault—was untouched by Nasser’s forces. Similar incidents occurred before the dramatic collapse of Nasser’s forces, which is unreasonable and militarily unjustifiable. It is hard to believe that a limited number of al-Qaeda members could engage in, and win, such a military battle on multiple fronts concurrently. They had to raid fortified establishments and military zones, which were guarded by highly trained and equipped military personnel that far outnumber al-Qaeda fighters. The fighters had to then secure those establishments in the midst of intermittent fighting that took place in the course of two nights. This includes the presidential palace, the central prison, the second military district, the local Central Bank branch, and other military posts in addition to state security and intelligence headquarters.

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Old windows in Shibam city, Hadramout. Photo: Hussein Al Khateeb.

At any rate, Al-Qaeda’s capture of Al Mukalla is now a reality. This calm city has consequently fallen into a state of frightening chaos. The state is nowhere to be seen, which led to looting of public and private property, the burning down of government agencies, while al-Qaeda focused on breaking open the vault of the local Central Bank’s branch. They succeeded in opening it after three days using grenades. Al-Qaeda put its hands on more than 20 billion Yemeni ryals [around 93 million US dollars], in addition to foreign currency, which mostly constitute the salaries of the governorate’s employees.

Al-Qaeda militants then moved to looting the remaining local private banks one after the other, securing immense cash for the organization to finance its activities, on top of which is the recruitment and training of Hadramout’s youth who were sent to fight in other locations in Yemen. It is no secret that al-Qaeda’s militants are fighting in various locations across Yemen. Al-Qaeda’s leader [in Al Mukalla]has told the press that the group is fighting all across the country from San’a to Aden, passing by Lahaj, Ta’iz, Al Bayda, Mi’rib and other locations. Al-Qaeda militants fight under the umbrella of “the popular resistance” in the northern governorates; and “the southern resistance” in the south. They undertake suicide attacks—whether through car bombs or explosive belts—most especially in San’a. We have seen how those “resistance” groups had previously denied their association with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Yet the first man in [what has become]“The Islamic Principality of Al Mukalla” has exposed the fallaciousness of these earlier allegations.

It is worth noting, however, how al-Qaeda’s behavior was suspicious in the beginning of its capture of Al Mukalla. They acted as if they were on one of their quick incursions, similar to what happened two years ago in Hadramout’s second largest city, Say’un. That incursion lasted only one night; they engaged in skirmishes with the military, looted the banks, then took their bounties and left. This begs the question of why would they break open the Central Banks’ vaults in Al Mukalla, if they were there to stay to establish a principality and rule?

Al Mukalla was never known to have any significant al-Qaeda presence prior to its capture in April. There had been only a few terrorist attacks committed by al-Qaeda members, who would then quickly withdraw from the city. Al Mukalla residents are far from being subscribers to al-Qaeda’s views—be it on the level of religious ideology or social norms. Al Mukalla is after all a relatively open port city, and any radical elements—arriving from other Yemeni governorates or foreign countries–would easily stand out. Al-Qaeda [in Yemen]includes many foreigners among its members. Members of al-Qaeda are more likely to assimilate in Hadramout’s hinterland in the midst of the rural and Bedouin communities residing in remote valleys—not the coast.

This is exactly why observers were surprised by al-Qaeda’s decision to capture Al Mukalla. The common belief was that if the organization was to take advantage of Operation Decisive Storm in order to expand its sphere of influence in Yemen, it would opt to control the inner valley region. Yet, the choice of Al Mukalla makes sense only if we are to consider the hypothesis that the city’s military keepers have willingly surrendered to al-Qaeda. The organization had its eyes initially on the city of Say’un in the Hadramout valley, but it proved to be a difficult target. General Rahman al-Halili is the commander of Yemen’s First Military District in Say’un. Both al-Qaeda and the Ikhwani “Islah” party consider al-Halili to be a Houthi sympathizer. This is because he attended the Houthi’s constitution declaration meeting following their control of the government in San’a. Al-Halili had, however, announced his allegiance to Hadi, and credit goes to him for saving his district from the scourges of war. He has, however, stood his grounds under immense pressure to send his troops to fight alongside Hadi’s militias and al-Qaeda. Eventually, al-Qaeda realized that it will not be able to control Say’un so long as al-Halili is commanding this district. This is simply because al-Qaeda is incapable of winning a military battle against al-Halili’s forces, who will not willingly surrender their city. Al-Qaeda then moved to the easier target in the southern coast where Al Mukalla’s military keepers have either offered, or accepted the offer, to surrender to al-Qaeda.

The Principality of Al Mukalla

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Al Mukalla city, Hadramout. Yemen. Photo: Hussein Al Khateeb.

After taking control of Al Mukalla, al-Qaeda announced that it would leave the administration of the city to a committee of local residents. A local group known as “Hadramout Tribal Coalition” offered to send tribal men to secure the city, and agree on a governing arrangement in the transitional period. Nevertheless, al-Qaeda has recoiled under the pretext that the coalition is not representative of all local tribes. It seems, however, that al-Qaeda had in fact realized that the local tribal coalition is capable of governing, and will not be a mere façade or a puppet to the organization.
Al-Qaeda also seems to have been uneasy about the coalition’s political stances. The coalition had generally assumed a neutral position in the conflict. Some of its members and leaders are also considered to be loyal to Former President Ali Abdallah Saleh. In the lead up to the Riyadh Conference on Yemen last May, however, Saudi Arabia had pressured and enticed the tribal coalition to support Hadi. The leader of the tribal coalition and some of its members attended the unsuccessful conference in Riyadh, and never returned back.

In order sidestep local and international stigma, al-Qaeda ruled the city under a new name: “The Children of Hadramout”. This is while many of its members are in fact from outside the region, the country, and some are not even Arabs. Al-Qaeda’s new tacky name has not appealed to its adherents and has not been circulated in Arab or foreign media—albeit a few Saudi media outlets when quoting members of Hadi’s government. This is telling of how Saudi Arabia is vested in supporting and polishing the image of al-Qaeda in Yemen.

Hadramout is now divided into three areas of influence: 1) the coastal region under al-Qaeda; 2) the southern plateau, where the “Hadramout Tribal Coalition” protects oil companies following an agreement between the coalition and the commander of the First Military District in Say’un; 3) the Hadramout hinterland under the commandment of the First Military District, and which includes the great valley region, urban and rural settlements, in addition to the deserts of al-Ubur and Thumud.

In Al Mukalla, al-Qaeda established a number of governing agencies. This includes the “House of the Principality”, which took the presidential palace as its headquarters. It is also where al-Qaeda leader resides and governs. It is worth noting here that it is the only presidential palace in the country that was not attacked. It houses the residence of the amir (leader of al-Qaeda), in addition to the security administration, the “hisba” (which monitors the community’s social behavior), the “fatwa” agency (for legal opinion) and others. The “fatwa” agency was established under the auspices of “The Council of Senior Scholars” [Saud Arabia’s highest religious body]. The “fatwa” agency acquires its religious legitimacy from its association with the Saudi council whose members have called on al-Qaeda to occupy the city and administer the treasury (bayt al mal), and other bodies.

Members of al-Qaeda roam around the city to preach via microphones around prayer times. They restrict women’s movement and monitor their behavior in markets and other public spaces. They apply some “hudud” [harsh medieval Islamic punishments], such as the lashing of alcohol consumers and fornicators in public squares. They also harass young men who sport “weird” haircuts and the like. Al-Qaeda has additionally publically executed some of its members accused of treason, and cracked down on locals for various reasons. It has established a number of make-shift courts to handle misdemeanors (in accordance to Islamic law). Al-Qaeda has, however, generally focused on rituals, neglecting other major aspects of religious and quotidian affairs on purpose. It has, for example, imposed heavy taxes on “qat” [a plant that is traditionally chewed on and acts as a stimulant], which was eventually banned and its consumers heavily fined. Al-Qaeda has mostly focused on such cosmetic issues and rituals, while launching campaigns to destroy historically and religiously valuable shrines and domes. It aims to destroy any traces of diversity and freedom of religion. It now threatens to blow up Al Mukalla museum, claiming it is prohibited to house idol [gods].

Administration of the city was delegated to a sham “municipal council” whose duties were confined to granting oil import licenses to some traders. The imposed taxes varied from one shipment to the other, and revenues were supplied to al-Qaeda. The council also worked on securing fuel oil for the city’s power station. Yet, fuel shortages remained acute, as power cuts exceeded 24 hours at a time during last summer’s unprecedentedly hot and humid weather. Locals struggled accordingly and many have left the city, relocating to the towns of the inner valley region of Hadramout. This is in addition to a shared belief among the residents that war is imminent. Despite its efforts to appeal to the locals, the “municipal council” was disregarded and perceived as a political cover for al-Qaeda. The council has tried to return things the way they were before al-Qaeda’s conquest, but it has mostly failed. Only few public utilities in the departments of health, education, and other services are functioning. The head of the council has recently paid a visit to Saudi Arabia, where he was welcomed and granted some financial aid that he brought back to the city.

Militarized Hadramout

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Al Mukalla city, Hadramout. Yemen. Photo: Hussein Al Khateeb.

One of the country’s six military districts, specifically the Second Military District, is stationed in Hadramout. Its military formation is composed of six major divisions (four of which within the Hadramout coastal areas captured by al-Qaeda: the 27th mechanized, 123rd infantry, 190th air defense, and the “oil companies protection” division). This is in addition to a number of highly skilled combat brigades: the presidential guard, special forces, missiles, coastal defense, and armored response. These military units are equipped with heavy artillery, armored vehicles and troop carriers, in addition to tanks, howitzers, navy boats, air defense systems and anti-aircraft missiles. The military formation additionally includes thousands of soldiers and officers. How then can an organization like al-Qaeda whose members do not exceed 200 or 300 individuals, equipped with just some machine guns, RPGs, and mortars, defeat the Second Military District’s strike force in only two days of “supposed skirmishes”? The official narrative of the capture of Al Mukallah is as farcical as the scenario of how the Iraqi city of al-Musul fell under the Islamic State’s control.

Al Mukalla’s Future

The general mood among the people of Hadramout is one of apprehension, as they live in anticipation of turmoil so long as they are under al-Qaeda’s rule. Not so long ago, Hadramoutis had mostly followed Sufism. The towns and cities of the Hadramout Valley, such as Say’un, Tarim, Harida and others, are widely acknowledged as the historic centers of Sufism in South Arabia, home for Sufi educational institutes, shrines, and mosques. In recent decades, however, Hadramout’s Sufism was crushed by a strong tide of heavily financed exclusionary Wahabi thought arriving from neighboring Saudi Arabia. Wahabi schools and mosques were established in the region by Saudi money. In addition, most educational missions were sent to the Kingdom. A new generation of young Hadramoutis have thus been reared and educated in Saudi schools and universities. This has led to the domination of Wahabi thought, while the popularity of Sufism dropped.

The region has recently witnessed three forms of militant recruitment. The first is by al-Qaeda, as the organization drafts the young unemployed Hadramouti youth. It trains, arms and stations them in alleged battle fronts. It also has a reserve of militant recruits for future battles. Al-Qaeda additionally works on creating a rapprochement with some local tribes that it arms either by supplying, or selling, weapons. The second form of recruitment is by the “National Defense Agency” where Hadramout’s veteran officers train recruits, preparing them for an anticipated battle. The third more alarming form of recruitment is done by the United Arab Emirates in coordination with the “Hadramout Tribal Coalition”. The UAE has financed three recruitment and training camps, paying handsome monthly salaries—taking into consideration the strength of the UAE dirham compared to the Yemeni rial. One of those Emirati sponsored camps in the Abar desert was accidently bombed by the Saudi-led coalition forces, leaving tens of people dead. The Abar camp welcomes recruits from all across Yemen, while the other two Emirati camps are exclusively for Hadramoutis. The bigger of those two camps lies in the Ramat region deep in the Thumud desert.

Adnan Bawzir Translated from Arabic by International Boulevard