Many were initially ‘surprised’ at the news of a US raid in Yemen in late January, while thousands became outraged at news of the aftermath. Estimates from media outlets and local sources put civilian casualties at 30, with possibly 10 children dead. A US SEAL was also killed, while 4 other Americans were reportedly injured. Even with such reports, Trump’s administration has gone out of its way to claim significant success, while critics question the definition of success and the direction US counter-terrorism policy in Yemen. The implications of the success or failure from Trump’s first CT Operation are numerous, not just in relation to his critics at home. Reactions may be highly premature, but the administration has brought about the attention by choosing this operation as its first act outside the US. Has the US gone at it alone without Hadi’s government?
The raid, conducted early morning on 29 January, by US troops in Yakla (يكلا), al-Baydha was only the second reported operation in Yemen involving US troops, the other was the 2014 botched attempt to rescue US journalist Luke Somers, held hostage by AQAP. Until now, reports of US troops in Yemen spoke only of advisers working with local authorities or troops from the Saudi-led coalition backing president Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi against Houthi rebels and loyalist of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Since 2002 the US has primarily utilized UAVs to target AQ and AQAP elements in Yemen.
The raid was bold, and undoubtedly planned at the end of the Obama administration, but the execution was all Trump’s. The target was a well-known AQAP leader that rose up the ranks of the global jihadist organization amid the fog of the ongoing civil war. Abd al-Rawuf and Sultan Ali Nasser al-Dhahab should not be considered ‘senior’ AQAP leaders as some reports indicate, but undoubtedly had become mid-level actors among local elements of Ansar al-Sharia (AAS ) in al-Baydha since Ma’moun Abd al-Hamid Hatem arrived to rally local tribes against Zaydis and Houthi rebels.
Initial discussions following the raid in Yakla speculated on the reason for such urgency on the part of US officials. Without much evidence, sources speculate the relationship between al-Dhahab’s younger generation and the global jihadist organization (AQAP) evolved beyond a local partnership against Houthis. Nabil and Tareq Ahmed al-Dhahab, uncles to Abd al-Rawuf and Sultan, developed close relations with AQAP during the era of Nasser al-Wuhayshi (d.2015). Others collaborated with Ma’moun Hatim, leader of Ansar al-Sharia, along two fronts; against the government in Sana’a and Houthis/Zaydis in the Central Region. But the ongoing civil war had undoubtedly contributed to the evolution of AQAP and its local allies, especially following the take-over of Mukalla by UAE allied forces in 2016. With cooperation rom allies, the US has indeed contained AQAP’s international operations and cannot afford to grant the group any breathing room. The presence of foreign elements at al-Dhahab’s compound add credibility to speculation over the possible role played by some Yemeni actors looking to advance their position in the armed conflict.
The Al Dhahab clan of Qayfa tribe remains a well-known source of AQAP sympathizers, even as a number of them were also loyal members of the regime under former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Some clan members, like Hizam Ahmed al-Dhahab, worked in Saleh’s government. The connection to AQAP, which raised the story’s profile, extend further than al-Dhahab links with Anwar Nasser al-Awlaqi (who began his relationship with Nabil while both were in jail in Sana’a), as his 8-year old daughter was among the children killed during the raid. Anwar’s wife, Nawar’s mother, was Abd al-Rawuf’s sister, and by custom would have been part of those living in the compound with her relatives. Sources in Sana’a speculate the area where Nawar and her mother lived might have been targeted in order to extract some of Anwar’s old belongings, especially a computer.
There are two primary dimensions to consequences from the raid. First, to do with speculation over what this incident tells us about Trump’s approach to counter-terrorism. Even though his campaign rhetoric focused on ISIS (in Iraq and Syria), the first military operation of his term, against AQAP, seems in-line with US intelligence community’s focus. It provided early indications of continuity in the area of counter-terrorism, and a higher degree of influence from institutions than was initially expected. Second, the political chaos that ensued also says there may be some unintended shifts in US relations with Yemen’s government and its sponsors. It is highly unlikely US troops will again engage such operations any time soon, but it is also uncertain the operation marks the beginning of a new role for the US in the protracted armed conflict.
The raid in late January raised some eyebrows in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Even if this operation was in partnership with UAE troops, Riyadh clearly saw it as overstepping into their sphere of influence. All reactions from regional actors seem to indicate a lack of knowledge of operation plans, which Saudi Arabia is uncomfortable with. It may be pure coincidence, but the award given to Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (KSA Minister of Defense) by the Director of Central Intelligence may have washed away any resentment arising from the lack of communication. Sources in Yemen also indicate the US raid may have disrupted operations against Houthi rebels in al-Baydha, as the local governor, Nayef al-Qaysi, had recently negotiated weapons’ deliveries for al-Dhahab from government forces in Mareb province under the command of Vice President Ali Muhsin. Observers also noted how some Arabic language media referred to al-Dhahab as a ‘resistance fighter’ assisting president Hadi’s government, while English language media from the same countries associated al-Dhahab with AQAP.
The Emirates on the other hand, may have intended to draw the US deeper into the conflict, which failed as badly as the operation. Even though widespread criticism of the operation in the US continues to obstruct an expanded role for the US in southern Yemen alongside UAE troops, Yemeni sources are fueling rumors of US mercenaries recruited for operations in southern provinces. This may be a consequence of outside observers reading the relationship between Trump and Blackwater’s Erik Prince through Education Secretary Elizabeth DeVos, Prince’s sister.
Some even claim information of the raid might have been leaked to Ansar al-Sharia, leading to al-Dhahab and his allies being prepared for the raid. Clear consequences of the raid include the alleged failure to detain or kill AQAP’s leader Qassem al-Raimi, who instantly published a video statement about the raid, calling local tribes to rally against the US, while claiming the US is a partner of Houthi rebels. Second, was the fact that Abdulillah al-Dhahab, Abd al-Rawuf’s brother, survived the raid as well and is said to have mobilized dozens of men from al-Baydha to Mareb province to join the war front against Houthis.
As the US president rages on with his mistrust of America’s intelligence establishment, and his National Security team muddles through the forth week in Office (new NSA appointed ), security in the Arabian Peninsula continues to deteriorate. The firing of NSA Michael Flynn is less consequential than the absence of a DNI and the reported uproar within CIA’s ranks. The chaos and indecisiveness is diminishing trust on US security commitments, allowing actors to take new positions, not to mention jeopardizing intelligence sharing among allies.
At home, Trump is caught amid rebellious bureaucrats, nervous legislators, civilian appointees and his White House staff. The spat between Senator John McCain and the White House over the raid in al-Baydha renewed the campaign wedge within the Republican party, adding to Trump’s troubles as confirmation hearings stall for a couple of his Cabinet picks. Democrats also raised issues and demanded a briefing on the operation and its outcome. Reports continue to emerge on intelligence agencies possibly withholding information designated for intelligence briefings, creating an image at home of spies mistrusting the Commander in Chief, and abroad allies questioning the sharing of information with US partners. Trump’s Secretary of Defense is trying to mend fences with NATO allies, but falling short with European partners. While Rex Tillerson, US Secretary of State, is dealing with the fallout from a number of spats with Russia. One is said to have involved a Russian draft proposal for a deal in Yemen. GPC sources indicate the US rejected a Russian proposal to restart talks on Yemen. Tillerson also met with foreign ministers from Britain, Oman and Saudi Arabia on the sidelines of the G20 summit to discuss the situation in Yemen. Observers have speculated over a visit by UN Special Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed to Moscow in coming days.
Saudi Arabia continues to lead the Coalition supporting president Hadi against Houthis and Saleh, while the UAE has exerted supremacy over the situation throughout southern provinces. In public, both governments present a united front and agreement on the approach to the two-year old conflict, but behind the scenes there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. As operations in the port city of Mokha (Taiz) began to evolve early this year, Saudi and UAE leaders didn’t initially see eye to eye on the strategy. Saudi Arabia was reportedly furious as hundreds of southern soldiers allegedly trained in Eritrea refused to join the fight in Mokha, claiming they had only committed to fighting on the southern side of the old north-south border. Differences and competing spheres of influence among Coalition leaders surfaced as rival client units clashed for control of Aden’s international airport earlier in February. Consequences continue to reverberate.
Tillerson’s meeting with Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister came nearly three weeks after the raid in al-Baydha, as does Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’ visit to the UAE. So far, comments and actions by the administration have signaled a departure from campaign rhetoric, and hint at continuing the same policy approach with Gulf monarchies as president Obama. For Yemeni parties, this translates to more of the same; continued support of the Saudi-led coalition, tacit support of Hadi’s legitimacy, engagement through the UN, and continued weapons’ sales to regional allies. But, as opposed to the Obama administration, which aimed at balancing relations with Gulf states to secure the Iran nuclear deal, Trump’s aim is to sustain the alliance with Arab states to preserve intelligence cooperation (see VICE: Enemies at the Gates & Global Jihad S3 E12), and to contain Iran, whom Trump now directly blames for nonexistent attacks on US ships in the Red Sea. According to sources, attacks on Coalition vessels by Houthis did not utilize Iranian unmanned vessels, but rather a vessel modeled after the UAE’s al-Marakeb boats made in Yemen.
Unintended Consequences from Chaos
While Trump remains on full campaign mode for 2020, his words as president of the United States begin to produce consequences worldwide. Observers agree this White House lacks a coherent foreign policy, and the ‘unintended consequences’ we see in the Middle East do not extend from the near permanent campaign rhetoric to keep their base fired up. Adding to the fog have been visits to the UAE and Saudi Arabia by Trump’s two sons, as the Secretary of State met with KSA’s foreign minister and the Secretary of Defense lands in Abu Dhabi, contributing to the confusion among regional and international actors. The confusion also serves to enflame rhetoric from rebel groups, other non-state actors and states like Iran and Russia, which are points of gravity for actors like Houthis and former president Saleh. Appearances of chaos contribute to a lack of will among actors refusing new peace talks to solve Yemen’s two-year old civil war.
Saudi spokesman, Gen. Asiri, may continue to assure an imminent victory in Yemen, as he’s done every month since April 2015, but reality on the ground cannot be portrayed through alternative facts any longer. Operations in Mokha since the end of December 2016 continue to illustrate the shortcomings of the coalition’s strategy and capabilities even as the air campaign pounds Sana’a and other areas controlled by Houthis and Saleh. The Coalition has failed to advance into the Capital, even though they claimed forces were 30km outside Sana’a in mid-Summer 2016, and continue unable to control areas like Serwah district in Mareb, can’t advance in al-Jawf, sustain heavy losses in Taiz and no longer claim momentum in Sadah province or Hodaidah. Dhamar seems to surface as a new front as well. While the UAE claims success in Aden, daily reports indicate AQAP and AAS continue to delivery heavy casualties among southern government elements trying to control Abyan and Lahj provinces.
The Obama administration definitely dropped the ball in late December 2016. Kerry’s visit to Oman was more an expression of gratitude for its role in the Iran nuclear deal than to pressure parties on new peace talks under UN auspices. Trump’s team has shown zero creativity on the Yemen file, since the Baydha operation was hatched under Obama, weapons sales were planned in 2016, neither Tillerson nor Mattis have announced any new commitments to humanitarian aid for Yemen, or made a single substantive statement since US Ambassador Matthew Tueller met with president Hadi on 2 February 2016, or since Yemen’s Embassy in Washington issued a statement on the Baydha raid.
If anything is indeed clear, it’s the fact that chaos and uncertainty are directly exacerbating the situation in Yemen. Many Yemeni-Americans and people in Sana’a expressed high hopes for Trump’s term, and even pledged their votes during the campaign expecting the candidate to live up to his anti-Saudi rhetoric as president, only to be disappointed by new weapons sales and friendly relations since 20 January 2017. Among regional actors, the situation in Yemen deflects from domestic problems faced by each government. For the US administration, the war provides materiel to claim a stance against Iran, it provides regional support to its travel ban, and it deflects from the lack of action against ISIS. Four weeks into the administration may be too soon for a verdict on Trump, especially since Yemen has not feature prominently on US priorities, but the administration brought about the attention when it chose to make the Baydha raid its first major move outside the US.
We don’t know the exact details of plans for the raid, or even the precise aim of the operation itself, but al-Raimi made it abundantly clear in his video statement that al-Dhahab’s residence hosted a number of AAS elements (i.e. Abd al-Rawuf and Sultan) and AQAP operatives, as well as confirmed presence of foreign AQ elements (Arwa and Anas/Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and one Somali), and advanced evidence once again of links between AQAP elements and Resistance elements supported by the Arab Coalition. The ‘success’ of the operation has been overshadowed not only by the criticism at home, but mostly by the civilian casualties. Compared to the SEAL operation on Bin Laden’s home, this operation resulted in a high number of civilian casualties. Critics see no difference between the operation in al-Baydha and drone strikes resulting in numerous civilian deaths. As with drone strikes on ‘suspected’ AQAP elements during the Obama administration, the new president has yet to detail the legality of the operation in Baydha, especially since a possible joint operation with UAE troops would mean an expanded role in Yemen, as the operation was not approved by Yemen’s own ‘legitimate government’.
On the surface, the raid on al-Dhahab’s compound indeed influenced battles in al-Baydha, and disrupted AQAP plans. While the US has in no way partnered with Houthis, eliminating leaders among groups allied with elements loyal to Hadi’s government resisting Houthi advances represents a set-back for the Coalition. Baydha’s governor, a US Global Designated Terrorist has yet to return according to sources. Abdulillah al-Dhahab’s move into Mareb with his men would also leave Baydha vulnerable to Houthi gains close to the southern line protected by the UAE. Furthermore, if al-Raimi was in fact a target, it places increasing pressure on AQAP/Ansar al-Sharia elements in Abyan province trying to hold on to territory as a safe-haven for the leadership. The raid confirms Yemen remains a ‘refuge’ for AQ elements from other Arab countries on the run, which may serve to sustain relations with the wider global network.
The UAE has been clear about who it supports in this fight, Hirak and Dammaj salafis. Both of these parties are no friends of AQAP or AAS, but other elements have no problem collaborating with known terrorists to counter Houthis and Saleh loyalists, or simply rebalance political relations on the ground. US military and intelligence agencies have the difficult task of weeding out elements simply advancing their own with no regard to empowering potential threats to the US Homeland and those sharing US interests.