Saturday, April 9, 2016

Al-Qaeda now runs a mini-state in Yemen due to the power vacuum caused by the Saudi/Houthi war.

A map of what AQAP controls in Yemen. Reuters graphic. 

Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen has created a mini-state in the region, taking advantage of the war between the Houthi minority and the Yemeni government and their Saudi allies. Reuters. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, has taken over several cities in Yemen, including the new de-facto capital of their mini-state, the port city of Mukalla. AQAP is making millions of dollars, not only from looting captured banks and extorting major companies in the area, but also from port tariffs and the sale of oil captured from the Yemeni government.  All told AQAP has looted $100 million from the banks in Mukalla and is making a further $2 million a day in taxes and tariffs. AQAP holds almost 400 miles of coastline and beginning to integrate with Yemeni society. 

Yemeni civilians are happy that AQAP provides some semblance of order and the fact that the group is handing out money. AQAP is investing in infrastructure and is also keeping hospitals open. Compared to ISIS, AQAP's occupation of its captured territory is much less brutal, with executions and stonings being the exception, not the rule. All of this does not bode well for the rest of the world because AQAP has a long history of terrorist attacks, the most recent notable one being the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France. 

Social media propaganda originating from AQAP. Reuters. 

My Comment:
Excellent report from Reuters. Read it all if you get the chance. It isn't a surprise at all that AQAP was able to expand in Yemen. As so often happens recently, when a civil war happens, it gives Islamic extremism a chance to grow. It happened in Iraq. It happened in Syria. It's beginning in Libya and it's even starting to happen in Afghanistan as well. 

In all those cases the main benefactor has been ISIS. That's not the case in Yemen. Though ISIS has a toehold in the country as well, the reason they aren't a major factor is that AQAP has already taken over. The fact that AQAP are much better rulers then ISIS is a big reason for their success there. ISIS doesn't do nearly as much as AQAP appears to be doing when it comes to winning hearts and minds. ISIS rules through terror and from this report it seems like AQAP rules through wealth redistribution. 

Nobody seems all that interested in stopping AQAP either. The Yemeni government and their Saudi allies are too busy fighting the Houthis to do much, and vise versa. Neither side is going to risk losing the war by starting a campaign to kick AQAP out from the coast. The United States occasionally sends in airstrikes but they are for the most part ineffective. With ISIS rampaging throughout the Middle East, there are too many targets to hit everyone, and AQAP is falling through the cracks. 

If we really wanted to we could stop, or at least cripple, AQAP very quickly, and it wouldn't even require ground troops. All we would need to do is blow up oil facilities and wreck the ports in the area so they could no longer ship things in and out of Mukall and the other port cities they have captured. They would still have troops but they wouldn't be able to pay them or keep their hold on the Yemeni civilians in the area. 

That won't ever happen though. First of all, I doubt Yemen would be very happy with us destroying much of their infrastructure. Second it would cause severe environmental damage with oil spilling and burning. Third, it would be a humanitarian disaster. It's rarely reported but Yemen has been having issues with food and medicine throughout this war, and destroying a few port cities would only add to the suffering. 

It's clear to me at least that nothing meaningful will be done in Yemen against AQAP until the war between the Yemeni government and the Houthis ends. Since that war is really a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, that isn't going to happen soon. There isn't going to be much in the way of foreign intervention, other then a few minor air and drone strikes, for the reasons I listed above, so AQAP is going to rule unopposed for the foreseeable future. 

Why is this a problem? Well the obvious threat is terrorism. After all AQAP were the ones that pulled off the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France. That attack has been overshadowed by the Paris attacks and the Brussels bombings, but it was a huge terrorist attack and it accomplished pretty much every single one of its goals. And AQAP has tried to pull off other major terrorist attacks, and may follow up with more attacks in the region and perhaps in Europe as well. 

And AQAP now has millions of dollars to spend on funding these attacks. And they will continue to gain even more money as time goes on. Mukall is a major port and they are making a killing smuggling oil and other goods out of the country. And they don't even need to buy weapons because they managed to capture plenty of weapons from Yemeni military bases. 

I would not be surprised if  AQAP pulls off another major European terrorist attack. AQAP seems to be a bit more specific in their targets then ISIS is. Instead of rampage attacks or indiscriminate bombings like ISIS has pulled off, expect assassination attempts or attacks with less collateral damage. AQAP claims to not kill civilians, but their definition of civilian obviously differs from what civilized people define it as. So I don't see them pulling off attacks as brutal as the Paris attacks. However, they seem to have no problem in bombing airplanes out of the sky, which they have tried to do a couple of times and failed, so maybe I am reading too much into it.

One thing is for sure. AQAP is doing a pretty good job on the hearts and minds front. Not only are they providing some much needed security, they are doing a good job of reinvesting their money into their people. Keeping hospitals open and cutting payroll taxes are going to be very popular and will inspire loyalty in the Yemeni people.

I always like to point out just how socialist Islamic terrorist groups are when they gain power. Both AQAP and ISIS use wealth redistribution as a major perk for the people living in their territory. AQAP seems to be taking it to another level. Indeed, taking money from big companies, heavily taxing oil and telecom companies and, most importantly, punishing banks and taking their money, sounds like the rhetoric out of a Bernie Sanders rally. 

Of course, for the Yemeni civilians caught up in this mess, it's a fools bargain. Though the war with the Houthis will not end anytime soon, it will end eventually. And when it does, there is going to be a major reckoning. It may even happen sooner then that if AQAP pulls off a spectacular 9/11 style terror attack with thousands of casualties. Hopefully, it will be the end of the Houthi war that ends AQAP's hold on this area and not another major war caused by a huge terrorist attack pulled off by al-Qaeda...  

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