Why al-Qa’ida found hotbed in Yemen?

On Saturday, Human Rights Watch released a report indicating that Yemeni government soldiers raided some hospitals in the southern port city of Aden in search of suspected Al-Qa’ida terrorists.

The report further stated that army troops have stormed hospitals and medical facilities in Aden at least five times since the beginning of this year, saying the raids led one hospital in the city to suspend its operations and others to turn patients away in fear of violence.

Human rights activist Mosa Al-Nimrani told The Media Line that, “Arresting wounded people is a crime that violates human rights conventions. The government can arrest the suspected terrorists, but it has first to make sure they avail of medical services.”

The HRW report was released one day after Al-Qa'ida loyalists launched an attack on a military base in the southern town of Shuqra, killing at least 15 soldiers and wounding scores of others. Shuqra, a town in Abyan province, had been taken over by Ansar Al-Sharia, the Yemeni Al-Qa’ida franchise, in 2011, but was retaken by the army earlier this year.

After the Ansar Al-Sharia members were kicked out of strongholds they had seized last year, the terrorist group resorted to carrying out deadly suicide attacks targeting high-ranking army commanders and sometimes launching surprise attacks against army posts.

In May, with American backing, the Yemeni army initiated a comprehensive offensive against the Al-Qa’ida-aligned terrorists at the behest of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, driving them out from their strongholds in the southern part of the country.

The victory was viewed as significant progress in the fight against the group, but its proven capability to continue to launch deadly attacks leaves many to wonder how Al-Qa'ida operatives are able to successfully hide from government and what makes them so dangerous.

Speaking with The Medial Line on condition of anonymity, one high-ranking security official who participated in the offensive against the terrorists in Abyan, theorized that, “Terrorists thrive and gain strength in areas of conflicts.”

“The terrorists found a sanctuary in Yemen because of the constant conflicts in the country,” he elaborated. “When they saw the 2011 unrest — the biggest conflict– they expanded their presence and attempted to establish ‘Islamic Emirates,’” he said.

Abdusalam Mohammed, the chairman of Abaad Studies and Research Center, told The Media Line that, “Al-Qa'ida, as well as any other militant group, exists where the governments are weak and unable to establish their authority.”

“Al-Qa'ida found a hotbed in Yemen because the central government is too weak to establish its authority in cities, let alone in distant and remote areas,” he said. “Yemen has rugged mountainous areas and vast deserts where Al-Qa’ida-linked fighters can hide from the government. It has also a coastline of about 2,200km (1,367 miles) on both the Arab and Red seas, through which terrorists can get supplies of weapons because the government can't protect it.”

Al-Nimrani shared Mohammed's thinking that the main factor behind the existence of Al-Qa'ida in Yemen is the fact that the government is too weak to establish its authority in every part of the country.

Gailan Abdulmalik, a resident of Abyan, where Al-Qa'ida is most active, told The Media Line that, “Al-Qa'ida members live normally. Some of them work in public offices; others work in trade and other businesses.”

Representing another way of looking at Al-Qa'ida in Yemen, Ali Al-Amad, a leader in the Houthi Movement, a Shiite group backed by Tehran, told The Media Line that Al-Qa'ida has been established in Yemen at the desire of some regional and international powers (referring to the U.S and its regional backers).

“Earlier this year, it was announced that Al-Qa'ida has a great number of fighters in some Yemeni cities and towns like Rada. Then they disappeared at once,” he cited as evidence that Al-Qa'ida in Yemen is the creation of regional and international powers and their local agents in the country. “They make it appear and disappear according to their will,” he said.

Al-Amad believes that “What has been attributed to Al-Qa'ida in the context  of the recent terrorist attacks and bombings comes within the framework of political conflicts between the war lords in the country,” an understanding that almost all Houthi followers share.

Al-Amad described President Hadi's inauguration speech, in which he pledged to make fighting terrorism in Yemen his priority, as a way of declaring that he would implement external powers' agendas in the country.

“He [Hadi] came to power via a US-backed, Gulf monarchies-drawn initiative. And this tells you the whole story.” Al-Amad said.

According to Mohammed, Al-Qa'ida in Yemen has been greatly weakened after the recent offensive against its operatives in the south.

Al-Qa'ida is currently practicing guerrilla war against army troops in which it depends largely on collaboration inside these military institutions as well as on the element of surprise, Mohammed said.

“Yemen, as well as the US, should not focus primarily on the Al-Qa'ida threat because it's no longer the biggest challenge facing the country. Currently, the biggest threats to Yemen's security as well as to the regional security are the expansion of the Houthi Group and the former regime which tries to sew chaos,” he concluded.