A troubling report from the UK Independent says that al-Qaeda has acquired sophisticated surface-to-air missiles from battlefields like Syria, Iraq, and Yemen and used a battle-tested Russian missile system to shoot down a French-made Mirage fighter jet, flown by the United Arab Emirates over Yemen.
According to the Independent, the shoot-down happened on March 14, sending the crippled Mirage into the side of a mountain near the port city (and capital-in-exile) of Aden.
Official reports claim the fighter crashed due to a “technical malfunction,” but the Independent’s source dismisses that cover story and says the jet was taken out by al-Qaeda, which is busy firming up its grip on rural Yemen while the legal government, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, and the Iran-backed Houthi insurgents blast away at each other.
The source says the weapon involved was a Russian-made SA-7 “Strela” shoulder-launched heat-seeking missile, which can hit targets up to 1,500 meters in altitude. This would suggest “the Mirage was flying low in a strafing run on the AQAP positions when it was hit,” according to the Independent.
This account was backed up by a second source with “close links with the Saudi intelligence service,” which suggested al-Qaeda picked up the SA-7 by raiding military bases in Yemen.
This source warned that al-Qaeda is “smarter than the Islamic State” and has been “playing the long game” by forming alliances with local tribes, rather than terrorizing them into submission as ISIS does.
Using such methods, al-Qaeda has effectively taken control of “the oil-rich governate of Hadhramaut, together with the coastal city of Mukalla,” plus much of the southern governate of Shabwah, where well-stocked military bases can be found.
The growing al-Qaeda inventory is not limited to Russian weapons, either, as the Saudi-linked intelligence source claimed “co-operative army officers” in Yemen were “making it easy for the jihadists to get weapons, many of them supplied by the Americans to the Yemeni army during the presidency of Ali Abdullah Saleh.” Saleh was deposed in 2012, and is aligned with the Houthi rebels and Iran.
As if that were not bad enough, the source claimed al-Qaeda has been able to poach weapons from both sides in the Yemeni civil war, because corrupt troops loyal to the current Saudi-backed president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, are also willing to sell their equipment to terrorists.
Opinions are divided on what a cease-fire between the Hadi government and Houthi insurgents would mean for al-Qaeda in Yemen. The U.S. has been steadily picking off al-Qaeda camps with drone strikes for years, with the latest round of drone attacks reportedly killing at least 14 suspected militants over the weekend.
Ominously, International Business Times notes that one of the drone targets was a government intelligence headquarters in the provincial capital of Zinjibar that was being used as a base by al-Qaeda, adding credence to the Independent’s assertions that the terrorist organization has been raiding military and government facilities.