Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) took over a major airport, a sea port, and oil terminal in southern Yemen while forces loyal to Yemen’s exiled president and a Saudi-led air campaign continued to battle Iran-backed Houthi rebels in other parts of the country.
“The latest advance marks a major gain for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemeni affiliate is known, which has been linked to several failed attacks on the U.S. and is widely seen as the global network’s most dangerous franchise,” reports CBS News.
AQAP is benefitting from the larger battle between Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led campaign, seizing territory while the two sides fight each other.
Shiite Houthis are staunch opponents of Sunni AQAP.
The Houthis have joined forces with military units loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and are fighting against armed groups who support Yemen’s internationally recognized President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia by the Houthis and their allies.
During a press conference on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter acknowledged that “the environment created by the turmoil in Yemen” has provided AQAP with new opportunities to overrun territory.
“AQAP, just to remind you, is a branch of al Qaeda that has shown a particular determination to attack us and our homeland, and is therefore of serious concern to us,” noted Carter.
He insisted that the U.S. has been able to maintain its ability to carry out counterterrorism operations against AQAP despite the chaos in the country.
The U.S. has evacuated its military personnel out of Yemen.
Nevertheless, Carter said, “We continue to watch them and take action against AQAP.”
“You know, it’s obvious that it’s easier to do our counter-terrorism operations against AQAP when there’s a settled government in Yemen,” he explained. “There is not that now. We, for that reason and other reasons, hope that there will be and are trying to work with others in that direction. But in the meantime, we need to, and do through other means, protect ourselves against AQAP.”
U.S. troops had been stationed in Yemen to assist their Yemeni counterparts in their fight against AQAP.
By seizing the airport, seaport, and oil terminal on Thursday, AQAP has been able to consolidate its hold on Hadramawt, Yemen’s largest province where the jihadist group still has a presence despite U.S. drone strikes and Yemeni counterterrorism operations.
“Military officials and residents said al Qaeda fighters clashed briefly with members of one of Yemen’s largest brigades outside [provincial capital of Hadramawt] Mukalla, a city the militants overran earlier this month and where they freed prison inmates,” reports CBS News. “The militants then seized control of the Riyan airport and moved to secure their hold on the city’s main sea port, which is also an oil terminal.”
“The security officials, speaking from Sanaa on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the press, said the leaders of the brigade in charge of protecting the entire area fled,” adds the report.
Some Yemeni troops, those guarding the airport, did put up a fight, Nasser Baqazouz, an activist in the city, told CBS News.
AQAP is “consolidating their hold of the city and will paralyze the whole coast of Hadramawt,” he said.
Follow Edwin Mora on Twitter: @EdwinMora83