The Challenge Facing Counterterrorism Efforts in Postwar Yemen

The Challenge Facing Counterterrorism Efforts in Postwar Yemen

By Brad Youngblood

While counterterrorism (CT) operations in southern and eastern Yemen have been largely successful, the sustainability of the current CT structure is questionable. The elements that make local CT forces dynamic and effective may undermine postwar operations run by the Republic of Yemen Government (ROYG).

The success of counterterrorism operations in southeast Yemen may be predicated on an unsustainable model. Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the largest violent extremist organization (VEO) in Yemen, is arguably the weakest it has been since its formation in 2009, in large part because of the incorporation of local tribal units into a regional CT strategy. These units brought area-specific knowledge and increased manpower to the hunt for VEO cells hidden in Yemen’s rugged terrain. However, tribal units’ highly localized nature, and reliance on foreign support, may unintentionally hinder the prospect of a cogent, nationwide CT strategy in postwar Yemen. 

Reactive CT Strategy Brings Success

In 2015, VEOs were on the rise in Yemen, filling the security vacuum created by conflict in the south and east of the country. By April of that year, AQAP controlled large swaths of territory in Abyan, Shabwah, and Hadramawt governorates, including the major metropolitan area of Mukalla. The Yemeni national army was so fractured and preoccupied with the civil war that it could not effectively address this threat alone. 

 The Umar Mosque in the city of Mukalla, a former AQAP stronghold where the EHF now patrols. Source: Navanti Group

The Umar Mosque in the city of Mukalla, a former AQAP stronghold where the EHF now patrols. Source: Navanti Group

It was at this point that the Arab Coalition, a collection of states led by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), began to train local CT units to confront AQAP. These forces were tribally based, staffed with Yemeni officers, and provided with modern military hardware, regular pay, and logistical and air support by the Arab Coalition. Once trained, the units were organized into centralized command structures with vaguely geographic delineations, such as an Elite Hadrami Force (EHF) for Hadramawt and a similar Elite Shabwani Force (ESF) for neighboring Shabwah. Arab Coalition members also created the Security Zone Forces (SZF), which took on some CT responsibilities in Abyan, Lahij, al-Dhali’, and Aden. This collection of locally based, comparatively well-trained and equipped units worked with Arab Coalition advisors to push AQAP back.

The current CT strategy is predicated on foreign backing and weakened central Yemeni military and political structures.

Tribal units proved highly successful. By November 2018, AQAP’s area of control was reduced to the rural valleys of sympathetic communities, and its operational capacity had been temporarily restricted to fighting with the Islamic State in Yemen (IS-Y) in al-Bayda governorate. Though VEO militants appear to be mustering some local support by conducting operations against Houthi forces, their recent media releases suggest a leadership fragmented by CT operations. 

The Strategy’s Pitfalls

However, the local CT forces that realized this progress may also be the ones to undermine it. The current CT strategy is predicated on foreign backing and weakened central Yemeni military and political structures, which might change when the civil war ends. 

Perhaps the most immediate issue facing any postwar CT strategy is incorporating operations in southern and eastern Yemen into a unified nationwide plan. Theoretically, this would not be a difficult transition, as local CT forces are intended to fall under a national military structure—for instance, the EHF reports to the national army’s 2nd Military Region Command. However, this hierarchy is far more formal than functional. Virtually none of the local CT forces coordinate their efforts with existing structures, and some, like the ESF, openly clash with national army brigades over control of checkpoints and oil infrastructure. This may be a function of local CT forces receiving the majority of their funding, equipment, and logistical support directly from the Arab Coalition, which allows them to operate relatively independently of Yemeni command structures and report to Arab Coalition advisors. 

This dynamic is not problematic in and of itself. But if the Arab Coalition were to pull out of Yemen or roll back its CT operations and support in the postwar phase, forces like the SZF, EHF, and ESF would likely lose the funding, intelligence, air support, and coordination that the Arab Coalition provides. This could, at least temporarily, weaken CT operations in eastern and southern Yemen and may provide VEOs with an opportunity to reestablish themselves as a new national CT strategy is being reshaped. Therefore, in order to maintain the current success of CT operations, the status quo may need to be upheld.  

The highly local and Arab Coalition-dependent forces like the SZF, ESF, and EHF are both a solution to the proliferation of VEOs in Yemen and a potential problem.

However, while the ROYG is currently appreciative of CT efforts conducted on its behalf, the postwar presence of multiple, largely unresponsive, foreign-funded military forces on Yemeni soil may create tension. Maintaining the CT status quo may invite not only clashes between local CT forces and national army units, but also strain relations between their regional backers and the ROYG.

An Uncertain Path Forward

Thus, the highly local and Arab Coalition-dependent forces like the SZF, ESF, and EHF are both a solution to the proliferation of VEOs in Yemen, and a potential problem. By operating outside the fractious military structure and recruiting locally, these forces were able to mobilize quickly and create a unified sense of purpose in their fight against VEOs. Their relationship to the Arab Coalition has also given them access to air support, training, and funding that played a vital part in their achievements. Yet despite its demonstrated success, this relationship may undermine CT operations by setting up a Catch-22. The efficacy of local CT forces might lapse if direct international support subsides. But allowing this support to continue could precipitate political and military conflict. The success of current Yemeni CT strategy is predicated on a tenuous, potentially unsustainable situation that must be re-envisioned to be maintained.

Brad Youngblood is a Yemen analyst at the Navanti Group. He’s on Twitter as  @BradRYoungblood.

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