No one knows who today controls the strategic Yemeni island of Socotra in the Gulf of Aden, 984 kilometers from Aden harbor, 240 kilometers east of the Horn of Africa, and in the Cold War a partially submerged Soviet submarine hub for the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean.
There is no competent authority on the island to prevent Somali pirates using it as a refueling stop and so, maritime sources say, enabling their assault craft to stay afloat longer and menace more ships. The international armada for fighting piracy has not interfered with the seaborne mobsters taking advantage of the turmoil in Yemen to restock on fuel and other supplies including food on Socotra.
On Wednesday, June 6, the Liberian-flagged Marshall Islands oil tanker caught fire off the Gulf of Aden coast of south Yemen. Pirates coming from Socotra were reported to have fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the ship about 30 kilometers from Aden.
This was the second time in a year that an oil tanker was attacked on the world's premier oil route. On July 28, 2010, the Japanese supertanker M Star was attacked near the Straits of Hormuz by a sea-to-sea missile of a kind used only by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (as reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly 456 of August 6, 2010: Iranian-US Tit for Tat – Covered up: It was an Iranian Sub which Struck the Japanese Supertanker in Hormuz).
Al Qaeda digs in and expands its base of operations
Socotra's abandonment is symbolic of the situation of Yemen.
Washington and Riyadh are staying out of the free-for-all among multiple warring factions tearing the country limb for limb. President Barack Obama and Saudi King Abdullah have decided separately not to involve US and Saudi forces in the civil war there. As a result, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counter-terror sources report, the Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula network is claiming the south and the pro-Iranian insurgent Zaydi Houthis are seizing the northwest.
Al Qaeda is carving out a spacious base of operations, while Saudi and Gulf undercover agents are tracking an increasing number of Iranian officers, members of the Revolutionary Guards Al Qods external arm, arriving in Yemen.
As Al Qaeda operatives dig in and begin to establish local councils to administer south Yemen, the potential terror threat from that part of the world is exacerbated.
Wednesday, July 6, the US Transport Security Administration warned airlines and airports worldwide that terrorist tacticians have gone back to considering surgically implanting explosives in people as human bombs for attacks. This device is almost impossible to detect in normal screening procedures.
The advisory stressed that the danger comes from overseas rather than the homeland and passengers to the United States may face extra screening at random. But precautions are needed on both sides of the Atlantic.
In this context, US intelligence sources cited the attacks on American cargo planes staged by the Yemen-based Al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki on October 29, 2010.
Aden port also under threat
Our sources report the Yemeni military has been unable to throw al Qaeda out of its newly-gained territory. Islamist forces have surrounded a military base in Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan governorate. A commander of the 25th Mechanized Brigade, based outside of the capital city, reported 50 soldiers were missing after clashes with "Ansar al Sharia," or Supporters of Islamic Law, and accused the defense ministry in Sanaa of abandoning Yemeni troops to their fate.
The big strategic port of Aden is also under threat, our military sources report.
Al Qaeda jihadis are moving in on the city, setting up a training facility and storing munitions in rented apartments. Yemeni government officials say youth militias have been established to fight in defense of Aden. The defense ministry has promised to deploy military units to defend the port city. But nothing has been done.
Meanwhile, resumed negotiations taking place in Sanaa between the government and opposition factions have reached an impasse. Gen. Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, who defected to the opposition, rejected a new deal for a transition administration that would leave President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is recuperating in Riyadh from an attempt on his life, in office until a new president can be found that meets with his approval.
The general responded with a counter-proposal for Acting President, Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi, to oversee an election for a new government. But a Yemeni cabinet official announced that Saleh would not step down on any account until a transition process was in motion under his supervision.