Bayoumy, Noah Browning and Mohammed Ghobari
to near irrelevance by the rise of ISIS abroad and security crackdowns at home,
Al Qaeda in Yemen now openly rules a mini-state with a war chest swollen by an
estimated $100 mln in looted bank deposits and revenue from running the country’s
third largest port.
capital is the Syrian city of Raqqa, then Al Qaeda’s is Mukalla, a
south-eastern Yemeni port city of 500,000 people. Al Qaeda fighters there have
abolished taxes for local residents, operate speedboats manned by RPG-wielding
fighters who impose fees on ship traffic, and make propaganda videos in which
they boast about paving local roads and stocking hospitals.
economic empire was described by more than a dozen diplomats, Yemeni security
officials, tribal leaders and residents of Mukalla. Its emergence is the most
striking unintended consequence of the Saudi-led military intervention in
Yemen. The campaign, backed by the United States, has helped Al Qaeda in the
Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to become stronger than at any time since it first
emerged almost 20 years ago.
government officials and local traders estimated the group, as well as seizing
the bank deposits, has extorted $1.4 mln from the national oil company and
earns up to $2 mln every day in taxes on goods and fuel coming into the port.
1,000 fighters in Mukalla alone, controls 600 km (373 miles) of coastline and
is ingratiating itself with southern Yemenis, who have felt marginalized by the
country’s northern elite for years.
many of the tactics ISIS uses to control its territory in Syria and Iraq, AQAP
has expanded its own fiefdom. The danger is that the group, which organized the
Charlie Hebdo magazine attack in Paris last year and has repeatedly tried to
down US airliners, may slowly indoctrinate the local population with its
that Al Qaeda stay here, not for Al Mukalla to be liberated,” said one
47-year-old resident. “The situation is stable, more than any ‘free’ part of
Yemen. The alternative to Al Qaeda is much worse.”
counter-terrorism official said AQAP remained one of Al Qaeda’s “most potent
affiliates.” The United States launched its deadliest air strike yet on the
group on March 22, killing around 50 of its fighters at a military base outside
group’s bomb-making expertise and long-standing ambitions to carry out attacks
using novel or complex tactics underscore (the) threat,” the official said.
Yemeni government official said the war against the Houthis “provided a suitable
environment for the... expansion of Al Qaeda.” The withdrawal of government
army units from their bases in the south, allowed Al Qaeda to acquire “very
large quantities of sophisticated and advanced weapons, including
shoulder-fired missiles and armed vehicles.”
the coalition’s preoccupation with fighting the Houthis “made it easier for Al
Qaeda elements to expand in more than one area,” he said. “And this is why Al
Qaeda has today become stronger and more dangerous and we are working with the
coalition now to go after elements of the group... and will continue until they
of an Economic Empire
week after Saudi Arabia launched “Operation Decisive Storm” against the Houthis
in March last year, Yemeni army forces vanished from Mukalla’s streets and
moved westward to combat zones, security officials and residents said.
residents were left defenceless, allowing a few dozen AQAP fighters to seize
government buildings and free 150 of their comrades from the central jail. The
freed included Khaled Batarfi, a senior Al Qaeda leader. Pictures appeared
online of Batarfi sitting inside the local presidential palace, looking happy
and in control as he held a telephone to his ear.
leaders in neighbouring provinces told Reuters that, in the security vacuum,
army bases were looted and Yemen’s south became awash with advanced weaponry.
C4 explosive and even anti-aircraft missiles were available to the highest
And just as
ISIS seized the central bank in Mosul in northern Iraq, AQAP looted Mukalla’s
central bank branch, netting an estimated $100 mln, according to two senior
Yemeni security officials.
represents their biggest financial gain to date,” one of the officials said.
“That’s enough to fund them at the level they had been operating for at least
another 10 years.”
In a sign
that AQAP not only wants to get rich but also seeks official recognition as a
quasi-state, it unsuccessfully sought permission from the Yemeni government to
export crude oil in October and collect a share of the profits, according to a
tribal leader and two senior officials.
sent a mediator to the government to get them agree to listen to this deal,”
the tribal leader, who is in southern Yemen, told Reuters.
offer was they need the official documents from the government to sell crude
oil, and they would get 25 percent of the profit, and 75 percent for the
government rejected the offer, said both the tribal leader and Badr Basalmah, a
former transport minister in Yemen’s government.
happened,” Basalmah said, speaking by telephone from the Saudi capital of
Riyadh. “The government refused completely to have anything to do with this
deal because it would give authority and legitimacy to Al Qaeda.”
port, a thriving fuel smuggling network enriches AQAP daily.
sources, residents and diplomats told Reuters the militants gained control of
the ports in Mukalla and Ash Shihr when they first stormed the cities in April
last year. The militants began imposing tax and custom tariffs on shippers and
is experiencing a period of obscene, unprecedented wealth and luxury,” one
resident of Mukalla told Reuters.
official in the transport ministry estimate AQAP’s daily revenue at $2 mln a
day. Some local traders put it as high as $5 mln a day from customs duties and
smuggled fuel, according to Basalmah, Yemen’s former transport minister.
find hundreds of oil trucks there smuggling fuel from one area to another where
they are selling it,” said Basalmah.
al-Nasi, governor of neighboring Shabwa province, where AQAP controls some
territory, said the group has become the de facto fuel supplier. “They sell the
fuel to whoever buys it,” Nasi told Reuters by phone “The government-run petrol
stations buy from them and sell it on to the citizens.”
work with Al Qaeda now control much of the country’s oil infrastructure. Six
white oil tanks on a beach between Mukalla and Ash Shihr are linked by pipeline
to the Masila oilfields which are estimated to hold more than 80 percent of
Yemen’s total reserves.
forces withdrew from the area last year, armed local tribes linked to Al Qaeda
took charge. That prompted major companies operating there - state-owned
PetroMasila, Canada’s Nexen Energy and France’s Total - to shut production and
end exports. A PetroMasila official said that small amounts of oil are still
being extracted for use in provincial power generators. Total said it has not
restarted operations. Nexen did not respond to a request for comment.
It is a
dramatic change of fortune for a group that was founded in the late 1990s and
merged with Al Qaeda in 2009. After a campaign of suicide bombings and attacks
against the Yemeni government, and two foiled bomb plots on
airliners, AQAP were forced into retreat by assaults from Yemeni tribes and
troops as well as persistent US drone strikes.
group has embarked on a brazen campaign to shake down state-owned firms,
including the national oil and mobile phone companies. AQAP uses the money it
extorts to win favor among its subjects. Elisabeth Kendall, a Yemen scholar at
Oxford University, calls it a “Robin Hood” strategy.
a copy of a demand issued by AQAP circulated on local media. The notice, on
AQAP letterhead, demanded $4.7 mln from the national oil company’s bank account
in Mukalla. “May God grant that all serve the country and the faithful,” the
government security official said the oil company paid the full $4.7 mln. A
source at the bank said it had paid only $1.4 mln. A representative of the oil
company declined to comment.
at the three biggest national mobile phone companies, MTN, Sabafone and Y
Telecom, said AQAP had also demanded payments of $4.7 million each from them.
The firms all said they refused to pay.
year, AQAP cancelled payroll taxes in areas it controls because it deemed the
practice un-Islamic. In a video posted on YouTube in November, the chief of Al
Qaeda’s Sharia court in Hadramout - the coastal region where Mukalla is capital
- announced it would repay government workers taxes they had paid. In the
video, a bureaucrat is shown counting out wages for a worker from a bulging wad
of Yemeni currency.
have been paying alms to the rich and the rich don’t pay, and it’s the tyrants
and oppressors who are the ones getting this money,” AQAP fighter Ali bin Talib
al-Kathiri said in another video. “Because those oppressors have not implemented
God’s law, they’ve eaten up the people’s money in sin.”
died in January in a gun battle with southern tribesmen. But AQAP’s populist
strategy is paying off, said Oxford University’s Kendall.
regularly posts pictures of its fighters repairing damaged bridges and paving
streets in Hadramout and other cities under its control. It says the money for
the repairs comes from groups such as Guardians of Sharia or Sons of Hadramout,
names AQAP has taken on as part of a rebranding effort to emphasize its local
video posted on Feb. 28, AQAP members deliver free medical supplies and
equipment to the kidney dialysis and cancer wings of a local hospital. The
boxes of supplies are sealed with the tape of a Western pharmaceutical company.
some medicines from your brothers, the Guardians of Sharia, to Al Jamii
hospital which was going to be closed... because of no money,” says one fighter
whose face is blurred out. The video also shows a hospital official saying he
had received money from Al Qaeda to pay workers’ salaries.
has exploited sectarian grievances to brand their state-building project as a
liberation movement. “So many areas fell to us after the Houthis left because
we are the entity that people trust,” AQAP leader Batarfi said.
In the five
coastal provinces stretching from the government’s temporary seat in Aden to
Mukalla, a familiar pattern has recurred in recent months. Al Qaeda forces
storm a town, plant their flags, and then watch as local leaders acquiesce.
say they are tired of moving and would rather live with Al Qaeda’s control.
Qaeda, if you resist, you never know when they could come and assassinate you,”
one Yemeni sheikh said.
also learned to be less cruel than its rival, ISIS, which has struggled to gain
a foothold in a population repelled by its brutality. While AQAP has resorted
to killing suspected “sorcerers,” and carried out stonings of at least one man
and woman accused of adultery, residents and the group’s online media suggest
such incidents are rare.
when AQAP publicizes punishments, their videos and photographs never show the
level of gratuitous gore that ISIS revels in. Rather than resorting to mass
beheadings, AQAP has detained or put under house arrest several dozen army
officers and other figures they see as a threat, activists said.
resident said her life had changed little since AQAP swept through the city.
“We carry out our lives normally, they walk among the people,” she told Reuters
by phone. “Of course they’re trying to create a popular haven.”
diplomat who follows Yemen says that if Al Qaeda manages to successfully root
itself as a political and economic organization, it could become a more
resilient threat, much like Al Shabaab in nearby Somalia.
“We may be
facing a more complicated Al Qaeda,” the diplomat said, “not just a terrorist
organization but a movement controlling territory with happy people inside it.”