The strategic port city of Aden in southern Yemen has experienced significant instability since the start of 2018. In late January, Aden was the site of increasingly bitter infighting between forces loyal to the government of Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, and forces loyal to the Southern Transitional Council, which is led by Shaykh ‘Aidaroos Qasim Abd al-Aziz al-Zubaydi, and which is seeking independence for South Yemen (YouTube, January 31; see also Militant Leadership Monitor, June 2, 2017). Al-Hizam al-Amni (Security Belt) forces that are closely tied to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) reportedly initiated fighting against the forces loyal to Hadi, which are reportedly closely tied to Saudi Arabia, and displaced the pro-Hadi forces from the city of Aden (al-Jazeera [Doha], February 20; al-Jazeera [Doha], February 3). This fighting, and the instability that it caused, was believed to be severe enough that it triggered an official response from the government of the UAE, which downplayed the tensions in the city. It also prompted the UAE and Saudi Arabia to send a joint delegation to Aden to oversee the de-confliction between their local Yemeni partner forces in the city (Arab 21 [Aden], February 14; Sky News Arabia [Abu Dhabi], February 2).
In the wake of the infighting between local Yemeni partners of the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition in Aden, the Islamic State (IS) claimed credit for a series of attacks in Aden in late February and March, targeting civilian areas, local Yemeni security forces, and Emirati forces deployed in the city (24 [Abu Dhabi], March 28; al-Arabiyya [Dubai], March 13; YouTube, February 24). Responding to IS attacks in Aden, the commander of the UAE-backed Security Belt forces in Aden, Brigadier General Munir Mahmoud Ahmad al-Mashali (a.k.a. Abu al-Yamama al-Yaefi), declared a new offensive against IS in and around the city (24 [Abu Dhabi], March 28; al-Arabiyya [Dubai], March 25; Aden 24, March 6).
Abu al-Yamama, 44, is formally the commander of the First Support Brigade, which is the flag unit of the Security Belt forces that operate in and around the city of Aden and throughout southern Yemen. He is a native of the town of Mashala in the remote and mountainous Yafea district of the southwestern governorate of Lahaj, which borders Aden governorate (YouTube, September 25, 2017). He is a member of the prominent al-Yaefi tribe, which is one of the most powerful Arab tribal confederations in the areas in and around the city of Aden. Additionally, the tribe has provided a significant number of fighters for the Emirati-backed local Yemeni security forces operating in South Yemen (Middle East Eye [Aden], January 30; Anadolu Agency [Ankara], October 17, 2017; Gulf News [Dubai], February 22, 2017; The National [Abu Dhabi], May 7, 2016).  Yafea is a center for operations and recruitment into the Security Belt forces, and those led by Abu al-Yamama (YouTube, October 21, 2016). In April 2017, Abu al-Yamama was elevated to the honorary rank of the shaykh of his family’s tribe in Mashala following the death of the previous shaykh, who was his uncle, reportedly as part of a tribal consensus and in honor of his military achievements in command of forces in South Yemen (Yafa News [Yafae], April 14, 2017).
Abu al-Yamama is a veteran military commander. Throughout his career, he has fought together with, and been closely aligned with, the South Yemen independence movement, including serving as an officer in the South Yemen army prior to unification with northern Yemen in 1990 (al-Omana [Aden]; YouTube, September 25, 2017). He was a leader within the South Yemeni independence movement that fought against the government of former President Ali Abdallah Saleh from 1993-1994. After defeat of the South Yemeni revolutionary forces in 1994, Abu al-Yamama joined other officers from the South Yemeni forces in exile in Oman and Saudi Arabia until 1998 (Al-Omana [Aden]). In the intervening years, he kept a low profile. However, in 2007, Abu al-Yamama joined a movement established by Aidaroos al-Zubaydi, which supported South Yemen’s independence (al-Omana [Aden]; YouTube, September 25, 2017).
As part of this movement, Abu al-Yamama was part of a cadre of former South Yemen military officers that sought to initiate an uprising against the Saleh government in southern Yemen. For these activities, in 2010, Abu al-Yamama was arrested by security forces loyal to Saleh, put on trial and sentenced to death (al-Omana [Aden]; YouTube, September 25, 2017). He escaped from prison and went into hiding, and during the uprising against the Saleh government in 2011-2012, Abu al-Yamama was arrested several times for his political activism against the Saleh government. He led the capture of a military base in the Radfan district of Lahaj province, which was the site of significant revolutionary activity in support of South Yemeni independence during the uprising (al-Omana [Aden]; YouTube, September 25, 2017). Abu al-Yamama also successfully led Southern Resistance forces, which are loyal to ‘Aidaroos al-Zubaydi, against the Ansar Allah (Houthi) movement and its allies loyal to Saleh at Radfan, defending the district, which brought him acclaim from within southern Yemen (al-Omana [Aden]; YouTube, September 25, 2017; see also Militant Leadership Monitor, June 2, 2017).
Commander of the Security Belt
Abu al-Yamama has emerged as a war hero for the South Yemen forces, due both to his long history fighting for South Yemeni independence and his role as the commander of special forces that have been deployed throughout southern Yemen since the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition began operations in March 2015 (YouTube, January 29; YouTube, August 26, 2017; YouTube, October 22, 2016). In February 2017, it is believed that the UAE selected and appointed him to replace his predecessor, the former commander of the Security Belt forces in Aden, Nabil al-Mashoshi, due to al-Mashoshi’s inability to maintain order and security at the important and strategic Aden airport (Yemen Press [Aden], February 17, 2017; al-Mandeb [Aden], February 17). This speaks to the confidence that the Emiratis, which are the power in Aden, reportedly have in Abu al-Yamama.
In his current role, Abu al-Yamama is the day-to-day overseer of the most important security forces in and around the city of Aden, which is both the de facto capital of South Yemen and the hub for Emirati expeditionary operations in the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa (YouTube, October 26, 2017; YouTube, May 9, 2017; The Economist [Berbera], April 6, 2017; YouTube, February 25, 2017). Although he is closely associated with the South Yemen independence movement, in his public statements, Abu al-Yamama is careful to say his command and forces operate under the authority of the Hadi government and a unified Yemen (YouTube, January 20; YouTube, October 26, 2017; YouTube, March 27, 2017). The Saudi and Emirati-led coalition still maintains public support for the reconstitution of a unified Yemeni state led by the Hadi government with a capital in Sana’a, and this position continues to impact the calculations of the southern Yemeni political movements (Rai al-Youm, March 31; al-Jazeera [Doha], March 29).
He has overseen military operations in Aden, Lahaj, Abyan and Ta’iz governorates, both against the Houthi movement and its allies and against IS and al-Qaeda (al-Bayan [Aden], March 22; Aden Time, March 6; Yafa News [Yafea], October 29, 2017; YouTube, September 25, 2017). For his command over operations to capture the city of Mahfad in Abyan governorate, a former stronghold of al-Qaeda, which were completed in October 2017, Abu al-Yamama was decorated by Saudi Arabia and the UAE (al-Mashhad al-Araby, December 16, 2017; Agence France Presse, October 30, 2017). The campaign to seize Mahfad that was led by Abu al-Yamama is an example of how the UAE forces in Yemen could successfully work by, with and through local Yemeni partners to achieve important military objectives for the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition (Reuters, June 28, 2016). His command over the Security Belt forces has brought him into close coordination with Emiratis, which view him as a favorite local Yemeni partner (Twitter, November 24, 2017).
Abu al-Yamama is one of the most important military leaders on the Arabian Peninsula as a result of his role in commanding the United Arab Emirates’ premiere local Yemeni partner force. A battle-hardened, effective commander, he appears to understand the political limitations that the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition currently impose on the South Yemen independence movement. Although he is subordinate to Shaykh Aidaroos al-Zubaydi and the leadership of the Southern Transitional Council, Abu al-Yamama is the key military commander securing the areas in and around Aden, the nominal capital of South Yemen. He is also the commander overseeing operations against IS and al-Qaeda outside of Aden, a position that earned him accolades from the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition for his command over the South Yemeni forces, particularly the Security Belt, which has conducted several successful campaigns against al-Qaeda.
Abu al-Yamama is both an established figure and still a rising star in South Yemeni socio-politics, and his military command could be a springboard to greater political authority within South Yemen. His political flexibility, even while continuing to champion the autonomy or independence of South Yemen, and his close and continuing relationship with the Emirati forces, are the source of his influence over the security dynamics in South Yemen, one of the most strategic areas of the Middle East.