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Senate Panel Witness: Al-Qaeda ‘Building an Emirate’ in Yemen

WASHINGTON— Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remains able to gain territory and position itself as a legitimate ruler in various areas of Yemen, carrying on with its efforts to build an Islamic state, according to congressional testimony.

Despite having recently lost territory in its stronghold in southern Yemen, AQAP continues to capitalize on the chaotic security situation and deteriorating humanitarian condition in the war-ravaged Middle Eastern nation.

In his written testimony prepared for a Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) think tank argues that AQAP is not solely a branch of al-Qaeda, but a branch of the greater international jihadist group, noting that the group houses some senior members with responsibilities beyond Yemen.

Thomas Joscelyn, the FDD expert who also serves as the senior editor for the think tank’s Long War Journal, adds:

Al Qaeda is working to build Islamic emirates in several countries and regions, including Afghanistan, North and West Africa, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. Unlike its rivals in the Islamic State (or ISIS), al Qaeda has adopted a long-term approach for state-building. While AQAP has begun to implement its version of sharia law in Yemen, it has not advertised the most gruesome aspects of its draconian code for fear of alienating the population.

The al-Qaeda “jihadists’ patient approach has clearly borne fruit,” he later adds.

Since March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition receiving assistance from the United States has been primarily fighting the Iran-allied Shiite Houthis and their allies, forces loyal to the former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The Saudi coalition has been fighting to restore the internationally-recognized Yemeni government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, pushed out of power by the Houthis and their allies in late 2014.

“Most of AQAP’s insurgency organization, including its middle management, has not been systematically targeted. Therefore, the organization as a whole has not been systematically degraded,” noted the FDD expert. “AQAP still threatens the West, but most of its resources are devoted to waging the insurgency and building a state inside Yemen.”

“Some tribal leaders are closely allied with AQAP, so much so that they have been integrated into the organization’s infrastructure. This has led to an awkward situation in which some of AQAP’s leaders are also partnered with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Hadi’s government in the war against the Houthis,” he adds.

Although the U.S. has lent support to the Saudi kingdom’s coalition in Yemen, President Donald Trump’s administration has intensified American military airstrikes against the al-Qaeda group this month.

“Those airstrikes are intended, in part, to weaken AQAP’s guerrilla army. But it will require more than bombings to do that,” Joscelyn continued. “Without an effective government representing most of the Sunni tribes and people, AQAP will continue to position itself as the legitimate ruler in many areas of Yemen.”

Dr. Dafna H. Rand, and expert from the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies who also testified before the Senate panel told lawmakers that it is “paramount” for the United States to end the war in Yemen as soon as possible.

“Ending this conflict is the most direct way to secure our priority national security interest in Yemen, which is to counter the threat from Al- Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and other terrorist groups that directly threaten American citizens,” declared Dr. Rand. “We have other interests as well, including protecting Saudi Arabia’s sovereignty, protecting freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, and deterring Iranian aggression.”

By some assessments, AQAP had unprecedented reach in the Yemen at one point.

“AQAP controlled much of southern Yemen from April 2015 to April 2016, including the port city of Mukallah, where it reportedly earned substantial revenues via taxes,” points out Joscelyn. “AQAP’s forces simply melted away when the Arab-led coalition entered Mukallah and other areas. By doing so, AQAP presented itself as a protector of the local population and lived to fight another day. The group is capable of seizing more territory at any time.”

In Yemen, already was the poorest country in the region before the war, at least 10,000 have lost their lives, an estimated 80 percent of the country is in need of humanitarian aid, and the nation close to finding itself the midst of an official famine.

“While there was optimism initially that a Saudi-led Coalition could quickly stabilize the situation in Yemen, this has not been the case,” acknowledges Gerald Feierstein, who served as U.S. ambassador to Yemen under the previous administration. “As the conflict in Yemen draws to the end of its second year, the human toll of the political tragedy continues to mount.”

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