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Yemen's war against al-Qaeda

Latest offensive against fighters is likely to decide the future of embattled President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi.
Last modified: 13 May 2014 13:33

For the government it's an all out war to defeat al-Qaeda. Military commanders say they're determined this time to continue the onslaught until al-Qaeda operatives surrender or get killed.

But the reality on the ground is totally different. The biggest military offensive is focused on two main al-Qaeda strongholds, Shabwa and Abyan. The army has so far recaptured two major areas, Azzan in Shabwa and Mahfad in Abyan. It's massing troops for a decisive confrontation in Houta, the fighters' last stronghold in Shabwa.

Government officials say they are making huge gains …  But it seems al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) hasn't suffered big losses.

Its fighters are reported to have sneaked into neighbouring provinces like Maarib and Al Baida where they enjoy massive support among sympathetic tribesmen.There, they can regroup, rebuild new bases and wait for an opportune time to hit back.

It's a war that Yemen is not well equipped to fight. It doesn't have the technology to monitor the movements of the armed group, nor can it afford to deploy troops for a long period of time.

Years of instability, internal conflicts and rebellions have left Yemen's security forces weakened and divided along sectarian and tribal lines. Al-Qaeda took advantage, overrunning Abyan province and large swathes of land in Shabwa in 2011.

The US stepped in launching drone attacks against al-Qaeda. While drones killed two al-Qaeda leaders, Anwar Al Awlaki in 2011 and Said Al Shihri in 2012, they also killed dozens of innocent civilians creating a backlash across the country. 

Advocacy groups issued damning reports critical of what they described as "random killing of civilans".

The government is in a delicate position. For Sanaa, drones are an efficient way against al-Qaeda's high-worth targets … but for ordianry people it's a violation of their sovereignty. This is a country where anti-US sentiment has always been high.

Tough choices 

Will president Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi achieve what eluded his predecessor, Ali Abdallah Saleh and defeat al-Qaeda?

Hadi was elected president in 2012 following an uprising that toppled Saleh. The president has inherited a country on the verge collapse.

Half of the population lives under less than $2 a day. Houthi rebels demand more political and religious rights in the north. Southerners threaten to breakaway.

Political leaders recently agreed to establish a federation of six regions, each with independent legislative and executive powers.

Former governments were widely see as using al-Qaeda to squeeze the international community for aid money.

Launching an offensive against al-Qaeda now could be a carefully calculated move. If Hadi wins the war he will get more international support and recognition, and rally popular backing.

But if tribal leaders, fearing massive destructions in their own areas, succeed in brokering deals that guarantee the fighters' safe passage in exchange for them retreating from the areas they hold, that could be disastrous for Hadi who may lose the sympathy as well as the military and financial support of the West.