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Saudi-led coalition recruiting, striking deals with al-Qaeda in Yemen

The Saudi-led coalition has recruited AQAP members into its ranks [Getty]

Date of publication: 7 August, 2018

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The Saudi-led coalition, which has boasted of victories against al-Qaeda in Yemen, made secret deals with the militant group, an AP investigation revealed.

The Saudi-led coalition battling Houthi rebels in Yemen made secret deals with local al-Qaeda militants, paying some to leave key cities and towns and allowing others retreat with weapons, equipment and wads of looted cash, an investigation by The Associated Press has revealed.

The coalition recruited hundreds of militants from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP] - the group's most dangerous arm, according to Washington - to fight alongside its own soldiers in a controversial military intervention that has left more than 10,000 dead.

The AP investigation revealed the US - a key Saudi ally - was aware of the arrangements and held off on any drone strikes in the war-torn country where it has conducted a deadly drone programme targeting al-Qaeda militants since 2009.

"Elements of the US military are clearly aware that much of what the US is doing in Yemen is aiding AQAP and there is much angst about that," said Michael Horton, a fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, a US analysis group that tracks terrorism.

"However, supporting the UAE and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia against what the US views as Iranian expansionism takes priority over battling AQAP and even stabilising Yemen," Horton said, referring to the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

Coalition-backed militias actively recruit al-Qaeda militants, or those who were recently members, because they're considered exceptional fighters, the AP found, in an investigation that collected information from two dozen officials, including Yemeni security officers, militia commanders, tribal mediators and four members of al-Qaeda's branch.

In one case, a Yemeni commander who was put on the US terrorism list for ties to the militant group continues to receive money from the UAE to run his militia, his own aide told the AP

Under the terms of the deal, the coalition promised al-Qaeda members financial incentive to leave.

Another commander, recently granted $12 million for his fighting force by Yemen's president, has a known al-Qaeda figure as his closest aide.

Meanwhile, a tribal mediator who brokered a deal between the Emiratis - who control most of the south of Yemen - and al-Qaeda, gave the extremists a farewell dinner.

Horton said much of the war on al-Qaeda by the UAE and its allied militias is a "farce".

"It is now almost impossible to untangle who is AQAP and who is not since so many deals and alliances have been made," he said.

Earlier this year, a senior US official told reporters in Cairo that the US is aware of an al-Qaeda presence among the anti-Houthi ranks. 

Because coalition members back militias with hard-line Islamic commanders, "it's very, very easy for al-Qaeda to insinuate itself into the mix," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity under the terms of the briefing.

The Saudi-led coalition, of which the UAE is a pivotal member, has been fighting the Houthis since March 2015, after the rebels overran the capital city and other major cities. 

The Saudi-led coalition has maintained its sole aim is to help reinstate the internationally-backed government of Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi while halting what it calls as an Iranian takeover of neighbouring Yemen.

But the military intervention has plunged the region's poorest nation into an abyss, prompting the UN to describe it as "the world's worst humanitarian crisis".

According to the investigation, an al-Qaeda commander who helps organise deployments said that the front lines against the Houthis provide fertile ground to recruit new members.

"If we send 20, we come back with 100," he said.

'Organised withdrawals'

Since the 2015 military intervention, the coalition claimed it won decisive victories that drove al-Qaeda militants from their strongholds across Yemen and shattered their ability to attack the West.

But the investigation revealed many of the conquests came without firing a shot. Instead, masked al-Qaeda militants drove out of areas they once controlled, including al-Said in February, unmolested, according to a tribal mediator involved in the deal for their withdrawal.

Under the terms of the deal, the coalition promised al-Qaeda members financial incentive to leave, according to Awad al-Dahboul, the province's security chief, in an account confirmed by the mediator and two Yemeni government officials.

Dahboul said about 200 al-Qaeda militants received payments. He did not learn the exact amounts, but said he knew that 100,000 Saudi rials ($26,000) were paid to one al-Qaeda commander - in the presence of Emiratis.

Under the accord, thousands of local tribal fighters were to be enlisted in the UAE-funded Shabwa Elite Force militia. For every 1,000 fighters, 50 to 70 would be al-Qaeda members, the mediator and two officials said.

But Saleh bin Farid al-Awlaqi, a pro-Emirati tribal leader who was the founder of one Elite Force branch, denied any agreements were made. He said he and others "enticed" young al-Qaeda members in Shabwa to defect, which weakened the group, forcing it to withdraw on its own. He said about 150 fighters who defected were allowed into the Elite Force, but only after they underwent a "repentance" programme.

In Mukalla, deals made in 2016 allowed thousands of al-Qaeda fighters to pull out of Yemen's fifth-largest city and a major port on the Arabian Sea.

The militants were guaranteed a safe route out and allowed to keep weapons and cash looted from the city - up to $100 million by some estimates - according to five sources, including military, security and government officials, AP reported.

“We woke up one day and al-Qaeda had vanished without a fight,” a local journalist said.

"Coalition fighter jets and US drones were idle," said a senior tribal leader who witnessed the convoy leaving. "I was wondering why they didn't strike them."

According to a former senior Yemeni commander, a tribal sheikh shuttled between AQAP leaders in Mukalla and Emirati officials in Aden to seal the deal.

Two days later, coalition-backed forces moved, announcing that hundreds of militants were killed and hailing the capture as "part of joint international efforts to defeat the terrorist organisations in Yemen".

But speculations almost immediately grew after witnesses  denied seeing militants killed. "We woke up one day and al-Qaeda had vanished without a fight," a local journalist said.

Soon after, another accord was struck for AQAP to pull out of six towns in the province of Abyan, including its capital, Zinjibar, according to five tribal mediators involved in the negotiations.

Again, the central provision was that the coalition and US drones cease all bombings as AQAP pulled out with its weapons, the mediators said.

The agreement also included a provision that 10,000 local tribesmen - including 250 al-Qaeda militants - be incorporated into the Security Belt, the UAE-backed Yemeni force controlling the area, four Yemeni officials revealed.

For nearly a week in May 2016, the militants departed in trucks.

Another mediator, Tarek al-Fadhli, a former jihadi once trained by al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, said he was in touch with officials at the US Embassy and in the Saudi-led coalition, keeping them updated on the withdrawal.

"When the last one left, we called the coalition to say they are gone," he said.

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