Saudi Failures Spurred Al Qaeda in Yemen to Sharpen Its Battle Tactics
AQAP has ‘dramatically’ improved its warfighting skills
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
U.S. Navy SEALs met tougher than expected resistance when they descended on an Al Qaeda village in central Yemen on Jan. 29, 2017. A 50-minute firefight left the village destroyed, 14 Al Qaeda fighters dead and several civilians killed including the eight-year-old daughter of slain terrorist leader Anwar Al Awlaki.
The operation, approved less than a week after U.S. president Donald Trump entered the White House, resulted in the death of Chief Petty Officer William Owens, a Navy SEAL. Three U.S. troops were injured and a $75 million MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor crashed and was deliberately blown up on the ground.
The SEALs also collided with an AQAP force — short for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — that has become increasingly battle hardened. The SEALs were reportedly surprised when women in the village picked up rifles and shot back, multiplying the terror group’s firepower, according to The New York Times. With the SEALs in an intense firefight, helicopter gunships and Harrier jump jets raced toward the village and destroyed it.
This is a deadlier Al Qaeda than before. Indeed, AQAP has taken advantage of the struggling Saudi-led — and U.S. assisted — war on Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi militias. Anti-Houthi tribes seeking food, weapons and ammunition have turned to Al Qaeda, which is more than willing and able to provide it.
In turn, AQAP has grown tougher, bolstering its firepower and improving how it fights, according to a recent report in CTC Sentinel, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point’s monthly counter-terrorism newsletter.
“The Saudi-led coalition has struggled to motivate newly created and reconstituted pro-government forces to consistently support frontline fighters in fiercely contested areas,” CTC Sentinel’s Michael Horton wrote.
“The failure by Saudi- and Emirati-backed forces to consistently support frontline fighters has allowed AQAP to fill the void by providing relatively well-trained and well-equipped operatives. AQAP views this as an opportunity and has enmeshed its fighters among the anti-Houthi militias fighting in these areas.”
This description of AQAP’s evolving role echoes that of a special operations group that can fight, but places a premium on building alliances and augmenting its combat strength with the support of local groups.
AQAP has also relaxed on demands that allies adhere to the terror group’s strict political and religious ideology — a tactic to keep local tribes in the fold. For instance, AQAP has loosened up on the practice of chewing qat, a popular narcotic which is important to local economies.
Anti-Houthi tribes in central Yemen, struggling on the front line and without adequate support from Saudi- and Emirates-backed government in the south, have taken up the group’s offer. According to Horton:
AQAP’s enmeshment within anti-Houthi forces has also allowed AQAP to enhance its war fighting capabilities in multiple areas. The civil war has acted as a catalyst for AQAP’s understanding of and ability to fuse irregular warfare tactics with conventional tactics reliant on heavy weaponry. Due to its seizure of stockpiles of weapons in 2015, AQAP now has access to a range of heavy weaponry. It initially had little experience with using such weapons systems, but this has changed over the last year as AQAP has fought set piece battles against Houthi-allied forces. AQAP, much like the Houthis and the Islamic State, has dramatically increased its ability to engage in semi-conventional warfare.
Drone strikes targeting AQAP’s leadership, accelerated under the Obama administration, may have also contributed to the terror group enhancing its skills. For instance, AQAP has grown to emphasize gathering intelligence, and has recruited Yemeni government spies into its ranks.
Counter-intelligence — in some fashion — allowed AQAP to prepare for the SEAL assault, blowing the commandos’ element of surprise. One possibility, the Times noted, is that the AQAP militants may have detected a drone monitoring the village.
A separate CTC Sentinel article from January detailed how online jihadi forums regularly discuss how to avoid, spot and otherwise counteract American drones through GPS spoofing, jamming and camouflage.
“The drone attacks may well be acting as a kind of artificial form of ‘natural selection’ whereby those operatives who are sloppy and break protocols are killed, leaving behind operatives who are more careful and disciplined,” Horton wrote.
Al Qaeda terrorists who make mistakes, die. Those who are smarter and take greater precautions live and go on to train new recruits.
And as time passes, AQAP’s members become deadlier — helped along in part by the very same methods used to try and kill them.