The U.A.E. Approach to Counterinsurgency in Yemen


The conflict in Yemen cannot fairly be described as a singular war. The main war is being fought between a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states who back the Sunni-dominated internationally recognized government against Shia clans called the Houthis. But amid this, another war is being fought against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemeni-based terrorist group responsible for two efforts to destroy U.S.-bound airliners and ostensibly the January 2015 Charlie Hedbo attack in Paris. This specific conflict, led by the United Arab Emirates and its other Arab partners, is an interesting case study of how a Muslim nation has adapted U.S. counterinsurgency and civil-military approaches to the fight against AQAP.

The scale of the Arab (and predominately Gulf) military intervention in Yemen is surprising to some observers. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates lead the 10-nation Arab coalition, with Riyadh focusing its efforts in northern Yemen and the United Arab Emirates leading in Yemen’s south and east. The objective of the Arab coalition is to help the U.N.-recognized Hadi government return to power in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a. Bolstered by quiet American support in the form of munitions, intelligence, and fuel tankers, the coalition worked with government forces and pro-government tribes to push the Houthi rebels out of the southern port of Aden, the country’s second-largest city. Thereafter, the Arab coalition launched ground forces from Aden and Saudi Arabia to push the Houthis back from a range of other Red Sea ports and cities in the Yemeni interior. Currently, the anti-Houthi campaign is on pause as international peace talks continue.

One unintended consequence of the Yemeni civil war was the expansion of AQAP influence over the past year. How is the war against AQAP being fought? A recent two-month blitz against AQAP carried out by the coalition during the lull in the ant-Houthi campaign gives us some indications. The coalition and its Yemeni allies disrupted the development of a contiguous AQAP zone of control that included Yemen’s second- and fifth-largest cities (Aden and Mukalla), along with its two major Indian Ocean ports and energy installations.

Though these achievements represent a major contribution to the global effort against AQAP, questions remain. Can tactical victories can be converted into long-term remission of the terrorist organization? AQAP has faced defeat on a number of occasions, only to bide its time and resurface. It surely plans to do so again. Can a Yemen aided by the Arab coalition do any better at defeating AQAP than previous U.S.-backed Yemeni governments? What does the Arab coalition plan to do to help Yemen’s government provide security, governance, and services long enough to overcome AQAP in the long battle for legitimacy in southern and eastern Yemen?  The answer to these questions seems to be that the coalition has made a promising start and may have the right mindset and approaches to deal a serious blow to AQAP’s expansion plans, but only if both military and economic support can be sustained over the long term.

The Target: AQAP’s Mini-State in Yemen

AQAP has deep roots in southern Yemen, particularly the provinces of Aden, Abyan, and Shabwa, which encompass most of the territory between the port cities of Aden and Mukalla. The group began to indicate overt territorial ambitions even before the Yemeni state critically weakened during the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. By the end of that year, AQAP had provided enough military assistance to enable its tribal allies to besiege a Yemeni Army brigade inside Zinjibar, the provincial capital of Abyan, necessitating a major U.S.-backed division-scale relief effort by the Yemeni military.

However, the 2011 fighting was merely AQAP’s dress rehearsal. The movement’s overrun of southern governorates during the Houthi attack on the Hadi government in April 2015 was the real deal. Since 2011, AQAP has recruited strongly and steadily from rural tribes, drawing in individuals rather than entire tribal units en masse. New quasi-military units of 30 to 100 men emerged, sporting names such as the “Sons of Abyan.” After April 2015, these movements overran and looted Yemeni Army bases and became the key behind-the-scenes actors in many neighborhoods in Aden and a range of other southern cities. Though notionally leaving local administrators in place and ordering populist social welfare measures, AQAP in fact began policing universities and began setting up extortion rackets in ports and along highways. AQAP also began hitting the Hadi government and, more recently, the Arab coalition’s headquarters in Aden and threatening the supply routes underpinning the coalition’s war against the Houthis.

In Mukalla, AQAP exploited the Yemeni Army’s collapse in 2014 to mount jailbreaks, one of which freed a cadre of 270 fighters that included its local leader Khaled Bartafi. They next raided the Mukalla central bank branch, netting an estimated $100 million in cash according to a Reuters investigation. As in Aden, AQAP ostensibly left local civilian administrators in place under the moniker of the “Hadramaut National Council” (HNC), but made numerous changes to local arrangements. AQAP abolished personal taxation of civilians and announced rebates . At the same time, AQAP mobilized boat patrols and extortion teams to extract fees from fuel and food importers at the ports, recycling some of the proceeds into well-publicized public works. Reuters reported that AQAP even sought to negotiate with the Yemeni government to authorize the export oil via AQAP-controlled ports at Mukalla and nearby Ash Shihr, with the government getting 75 percent of the take and the AQAP-led HNC pocketing the rest. The government refused, but the offer underlined the stark reality: AQAP was on the verge of developing an emirate at least as resilient and economically viable as anything the Islamic State had managed to build in Iraq, Syria, or Libya.

Clearing AQAP’s Militias out of Southern Cities

Destroying AQAP was clearly not the main aim in the Arab coalition’s intervention in Yemen —  the priority was to prevent a Houthi military victory over the Hadi government — but the coalition did launch its anti-AQAP campaign at the earliest moment possible when the anti-Houthi war settled into a lull in February 2016 in anticipation of peace talks. In particular, the United Arab Emirates took responsibility for disrupting AQAP’s unsettling growth in Aden’s neighborhoods, ports, and universities, in effect vouchsafing the seat of Hadi’s government. Denying AQAP’s lucrative control of Mukalla’s ports and related oilfields was a second aim.

AQAP had shown itself adept at building coalitions; it would take a rival coalition to shake loose emerging AQAP control of the south. One factor that allowed rapid action against AQAP — and which hints at the yearlong preparation for such a move — was the major train and equip effort undertaken in Aden and Hadramaut. Emiratis have strong connections to southern Yemen, partly driven by the exodus of southern tribal members to the Trucial States (forerunner to the United Arab Emirates) during the socialist takeover of southern Yemen in the late 1960s. These include trading ties between families and the widespread absorption of Yemeni-born personnel into the UAE police and security forces. When tribal leaders relocated away from Aden and Mukalla in April 2015, many went to the Emirates. These factors aided the Arab coalition in undertaking patient key leader engagements with Yemeni Army leaders and tribal councils from southern Yemen throughout 2015.

According to interviews I conducted with contacts in Yemen, the coalition worked from April 2015 onward to build a large force (eventually boasting 12,000 men) to undertake the liberation of Mukalla and the oilfields in Masila. This included courting the generals leading the 1st and 2nd Military Regional Commands (MRCs) in northern Hadramaut and Mukalla, which netted 6,500 Yemeni troops in need of ammunition but otherwise combat-ready. The coalition also armed the 1,500-strong Hadramaut Tribal Confederation (HTC), a rural tribal force that the United Arab Emirates mounted in Caiman and Reva mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles and armed with disposable anti-tank rockets to provide anti-armor protection. Finally, the coalition also developed a patchwork of nearly 4,000 tribal rebels from within Mukalla proper known as the “inside resistance,” some of whom remained in the city until launching uprisings, some of which left Mukalla to be armed before reinsertion into the city. A flotilla of 10 armed patrol boats was also sponsored by the U.A.E. Navy and given offshore support by surface ships. In all these cases, the coalition focused less on building highly proficient or well-armed forces than on working with determined allies who would follow simple instructions that accorded to a loose U.A.E.-developed plan.

The coalition’s train-and-equip effort took a different approach in Aden, where the challenge was smaller in scale and closer to a traditional urban counter-terrorism mission. Contacts in Aden told me that the coalition first focused on incorporating Aden fighters into new Yemeni Army units to participate in the anti-Houthi battles north of the city. Rear area security in Aden was partly overlooked to meet the exigencies of the desperate battles against the Houthis. Local Aden residents were underused as the coalition hunkered down in its fortified headquarters in Aden. This changed in February 2016, when the coalition chose to develop a rudimentary Yemeni counter-terrorism force in Aden comprised of six 100-man units mounted in U.A.E.-provided Nimr armored trucks.  This force was cued onto targeting packets produced by the coalition and Yemeni military in Aden. The U.A.E. provision of armored vehicles was intended to give the force a high local status and the confidence to work in tough neighborhoods.

Find, Fix, and Finish?

The “find and fix” aspect of the intelligence war remains appropriately shrouded in secrecy, but it appears that the process used against AQAP in Yemen is both effective and worthy of future study. The coalition has significant organic intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets dedicated to the anti-AQAP effort. In addition to helicopters and turboprop surveillance aircraft, the coalition executes numerous daily sorties using fixed-wing forward air controllers using advanced optical pods and ground-search radar, and it also deploys a number of types of unmanned aerial vehicles capable of operating 200 to 250 kilometers from their ground control stations. U.S. and international signals intelligence and other remote sensing is likely to be shared with the coalition as well. But aside from these technical intelligence collection assets, my conversations with contacts in the Gulf suggest the coalition routinely develops granular human intelligence to complement technical intelligence.

Detailed targeting lists were compiled ahead of raids and strikes in both the Aden and Mukalla efforts. In the former city, the coalition mounted a range of airstrikes and naval gunfire missions against specific urban locations, then launched coordinated raids undertaken by the six 100-man local units operating alongside U.A.E. special forces and Apache gunships. In Mukalla, a similar “shock and awe” aerial and naval gunfire targeting effort against key AQAP locations preceded the main ground operation to clear the city. Thereafter, the port city was attacked by motorized infantry forces along three land axes, subjected to close blockade by the U.A.E.-backed patrol boat flotilla, and attacked from seaward by a company-sized U.A.E. marine unit mounted in amphibious infantry fighting vehicles. These operations were detailed in a recent article published by Alex Mello and myself for the Washington Institute.

In addition to dislodging AQAP-backed forces from key towns, ports, oilfields, and roads, the coalition claims to have killed 450 enemy troops in Mukalla, 120 in Aden, and 220 in other operations along the southern coast between February and May 2016. AQAP claims to have dispersed its forces without suffering much damage, and many indications exist that intact AQAP cadres escaped from Aden and Mukalla to rally in nearby rural redoubts. Even if AQAP did slip away, and even if coalition casualty estimates are halved or quartered, the key point is that AQAP tried and failed to defend Mukalla, thereby losing the prestige and riches of controlling major ports and oilfields.

Holding and Building Better than AQAP

Disrupting AQAP’s ability to openly control areas of Aden or Mukalla are worthy achievements, but such operations cannot permanently clear these areas of the enemy. The Yemeni government will only be able to reduce AQAP’s ability to recruit tribesmen and operate freely if local people see the government as a more powerful, beneficial partner. Continuing on from clearance operations, the next challenges will be to hold liberated areas and to build new alliances and infrastructure for basic services.

The “hold forces” for liberated areas comprise military forces from the Military Regional Commands and the Hadramaut Tribal Confederation in rural areas, plus “inside resistance” forces from the cities that are being absorbed into new roughly hewn police forces in Aden and Mukalla. As AQAP drew relatively little support from the cities, the numbers of local people killed by the liberating forces was low, reducing the need for local reconciliation. The civilian administrators left in place by AQAP can also stay in place under restored Yemeni government authority.

The Gulf coalition has noted AQAP’s focus on winning over the locals through well-publicized (but not necessarily widespread) jobs, social services, and financial inducements. This is one of the many areas in which the United Arab Emirates can draw on its operational experiences in Lebanon, Somalia, Kosovo, Libya, Sinai, and Afghanistan (where a U.A.E. task force operated for over twelve years). Since the summer of 2015, the Emiratis have been preparing the ground for civil-military operations in areas liberated from AQAP, most notably in Mukalla. According to my contacts, U.A.E. special operators and civilians have been used to covertly survey gaps in stocks of food and medicine in local warehouses and hospitals. This has allowed the coalition to immediately begin meeting local needs in terms of food security, medical and teaching support, and replacements for damaged infrastructure.

In Aden, this allowed the coalition to support the reopening of numerous schools in time for the autumn 2015 term, with school furniture and uniforms sourced locally from Yemeni manufacturers to maximize the local economic impact of aid provision. Civil-military operations teams quickly got to work on installing diesel generators and maintaining water pumps and sewage facilities. In Mukalla, the coalition prepositioned humanitarian support onshore and aboard the U.A.E. naval flotilla off the coast, and new supplies are now being flown in. Food, medicines and water purification materials were surged ashore. The Emirates also followed up the liberation of Mukalla by deploying military bridges into the city. If they follow patterns set in other conflict areas, road-building will likely follow, using local contractors. U.A.E. telecommunication companies may throw up new cellphone towers as they did in Afghanistan. The Gulf states will probably support development of local schools, clinics and mosques, and may also invest more broadly in boosting the local economy as a strategic investor, as the Emirates did in Khost province in Afghanistan.

Can the Arab Coalition Seriously Damage AQAP?

Given AQAP’s resilience and Yemen’s fractiousness, it would clearly be unwise to the group off at this stage. Military clearance operations are necessary but not sufficient to break AQAP’s firm base in southern Yemen, a critical base for the movement at a moment when the Islamic State seems to be out-recruiting Al-Qaeda almost everywhere. AQAP will actively seek to disrupt any stabilization of Yemeni government rule, as will the Islamic State’s fledgling operation in Yemen, which seeks to supplant Al-Qaeda in the country. Successful counterinsurgency campaigns are almost always lengthy. They can take more than a decade, even in the best of scenarios. This will test the endurance of even determined regional actors. Reconstruction is notoriously difficult in Yemen, often drawing aid providers into working with non-local or poor quality-vendors in ways that do more harm than good.  It is therefore much too early to forecast the outcome of this campaign.

That being said, AQAP did suffer multiple defeats this spring at the hands of local actors backed by the Gulf coalition. The group was denied further space to expand their grip on key cities and economic infrastructure. The fight against AQAP will continue to be dynamic: AQAP’s tribal coalitions against Yemen’s equivalents, AQAP’s civil-military operations against the government’s version. On May 17, AQAP signaled its chagrin at the U.A.E. role in southern Yemen by issuing a video  directly threatening the Emiratis to cease involvement in the area.  This is probably as good a signal as any that the Gulf coalition is doing something right against AQAP.

In this fight the coalition, especially the United Arab Emirates, has shown itself to have certain characteristics, ideas, and experiences that have allowed it to be effective at fighting AQAP, at least so far. The Gulf States share language, culture, and religion with the Yemenis —  they have a similar mindset, and this matters a lot when undertaking tribal engagement and building coalitions. The United Arab Emirates has a particularly tight societal connection to the southern Yemenis and carries less historical baggage than the strained Saudi-Yemeni relationship. The coalition builds rough-and-ready proxy forces that are “good enough” to do the simple military tasks set for them. These forces are not over-engineered; they are built to be ready roughly on time and to do roughly what they’re told. After the fighting, they are put in charge of liberated areas. It remains to be seen how sustainable such solutions are, but they have proven effective at clearance and could be good enough for holding terrain.

Alongside their soft skills, the coalition — again mainly the Emirates — has made effective use of a cadre of special operators with high-end military skills and useful real-world experience in stability operations. These forces appear capable of planning operations, developing intelligence, training and directing proxy forces effectively, leading them into battle, and undertaking the range of military-technical tasks needed, up to and including joint terminal attack controller functions. From my canvassing, many of these special operators consider civil-military operations and humanitarian needs assessments to be as important as kinetic operations. AQAP is used to being the smartest player around with the deepest local ties, but a partnership between the Gulf coalition, Yemen, and the United States could present Al-Qaeda and the emergent Islamic State in Yemen with a much tougher set of opponents.


Michael Knights is the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He has worked in the Gulf States and Yemen as an advisor to local security forces and as an analyst of regional conflicts including Yemen’s wars against the Houthis, southern secessionists and AQAP.