It has been a bad week for new Yemeni President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi and a good week for the jihadists. The military suffered severe losses to Ansar al-Sharia, a group closely linked to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, over the weekend. Ansar attacked an army base near Zinjibar (capital of the Abyan province), a southern town they already largely control.
The group drew the fire of the troops by attacking the base from the east, before launching further attacks from the north. The militants attacked shot some soldiers in their sleep, mutilating or beheading their bodies, which were then dumped in the desert. They also deployed suicide bombers. Sandstorms slowed the reinforcement response from the military and led to what one Yemeni security official called a ‘slaughter’. A Yemeni military official stated that troop morale is on the floor following the viciousness of the attack. A Yemeni government spokesman said the ‘ruthless and barbaric’ events were a ‘major blow…we have a serious problem now’. The soldiers’ death toll is currently 184 and 55 captured. Militant deaths stand at 32. Ansar was also able to acquire large amounts of weapons – including rocket launchers, armoured vehicles and tanks.
Three things about this attack are particularly worrying strategically. Firstly, Yemeni officials fear that those within the domestic security apparatus aided the militant group. Tens of thousands are protesting across Yemen, demanding that Hadi prosecute army commanders for either collaboration or military incompetence.
Secondly, Yemen appears to be drawing more and more foreign fighters. Amongst the bodies found at the army base were Saudis, Egyptians, Algerians, Chechens, Pakistanis and Libyans. Some of those previously heading for Pakistan and Afghanistan are now seeing Yemen as more fertile terrain. Furthermore, al-Shabaab fighters in Somalia have also increasingly been travelling to Yemen to support the jihadist movement there. This convergence of foreign fighters is clearly a worrying sign.
Thirdly, the US has stepped aside in Abyan province because of confusion over who were militants and who were allies. This is possibly a temporary intel lag caused by the disruption in counterterrorism operations after the domestic unrest in Yemen over the last year. However, it needs urgently fixing. US hard power in the forms of drones and missiles are essentially called in for high value targets (such as Anwar al-Awlaki) – however they are also a fallback option to tip the scales against jihadist groups if the regime desperately needs it. Control of parts of Yemen is truly up for grabs if the US loses that option.
Some good news is that the US and Yemeni officials have agreed to restart their military training program. US Special Operations forces are already based in Yemen, and will now resume counterterrorism training which was basically halted because of the political turmoil in Yemen over the last few months. Hadi has talked tough on crushing terrorist networks in Yemen. What is now needed is for capacity to match good intentions.