Thursday and Friday, April 16-17, two branches of Al Qaeda took the lead in violent conflicts, catapulting key areas of the Middle East into greater peril than ever. In Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and in Iraq, the Islamist State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), launched new offensives 3.050 kilometer apart.
debkafile’s military sources report that both branches of the Islamist terror movement used the absence of professional adversarial troops on the ground – American and Saudi – to push forward in the two arenas. Washington and Riyadh alike had decided to trust local forces to carry the battle – Iran-backed Shiite militias alongside Iraqi troops against ISIS in Iraq, and the Yemeni army against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
This gave Al Qaeda a free passage to carry on, especially when offered the further benefit of contradictions in the Obama administration’s attitude toward its foe, Tehran: On the one hand, Iran was offered lead role in the region for the sake of a nuclear deal; on the other, it faced US opposition for its support of rebel forces in Yemen.
The conflict in Yemen is no longer a straight sectarian proxy war between Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran (that also stretches to Iraq and Syria.), as a result of what happened Thursday, April 16.
AQAP embarked on a broad offensive in southern Yemen’s Hadhramaut region on the shore of the Gulf of Aden and captured the important seaport of Mukalla as well as the coatal towns of Shibam and Ash-Shirh. The group also overran Yemen’s Ryan air base in the absence of real resistance from the Yemen army’s 27th Brigade and 190th Air Defense Brigade – both of which are loyal to the escaped president Mansour Hadi.
This winning AQAP offensive was instructive in four ways:
1. For the first time in two decades, Al Qaeda in Arabia is operating on professional military lines. Its sweep across Yemen’s southern coastland showed the Islamists to be plentifully armed with antiair missiles and other air defense systems.
2. AQAP’s smuggling rings run a large fleet of vessels which collaborate with Somali pirates. This fleet is now preparing to seize control of the strategic Socotra archipelago of four islands opposite Hadhramaut and only 80 kilometers from the Horn of Africa. Socotra sits in the bottleneck for shipping from the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Aden and on to the Suez Canal.
On one of the Socotra islands, the US set up an air base and deployed special forces in 2011, in readiness for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. AQAP does not have enough strength to capture this island, but is capable of holding it siege and under barrage from sea and land.
3. The Arabian branch of Al Qaeda has for the first time gained control of a large sweep of territory in Yemen, a feat analogous to its fellow branch’s advances in Iraq since last June.
4. Hadramauth is bounded to the north and the east by the Saudi Arabian Rub’ al Khali or Empty Quarter, which is the world’s second largest desert region. AQAP has therefore gained proximity to the oil kingdom through its desolate back door.
Our military sources note that Saudi Arabian and United Arab Emirate air forces have controlled Yemeni air space since March 26, supported by US intelligence assistance. They might have been expected to bomb AQAP units and stall their advance through Hadhramaut.
But they refrained from doing so for a simple reason: Both Riyadh and its Gulf ally are unwilling to throw their own ground forces into the war against the Shiite Houthi rebels. Still in proxy mode, they expect Al Qaeda’s Arabian jihadis to save them the trouble of putting their troops on the ground to vanquish the Shiite rebels.
The same principle guides Washington in Iraq – albeit with different players. There, the Americans rely increasingly on the pro-Iranian Iraqi Shiite militias, under the command of Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers, rather than the Iraq army, to cleanse the ground of ISIS conquests.
Two weeks after Western publications trumpeted the militias’ success in liberating the Iraqi town of Tikrit from its ISIS conquerors, it turns out that the fighting is still ongoing and the jihadis are still in control of some of the town’s districts.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, while on a visit to Washington this week, told reporters that, after the Tikrit “victory,” his army was to launch an offensive to recapture the western province of Anbar on the Syrian border from the grip of ISIS.
The situation on the ground is a lot less promising. As Abadi and President Barack Obama discussed future plans for the war to rid Iraq of the Islamists, ISIS launched fresh offensives for its next goals, Ramadi, a town of half a million inhabitants 130 kilometers west of Baghdad, and the oil refinery town of Baiji
The jihadis have already moved in on Ramadi’s outskirts after the Iraqi army defenders started falling back.