BRIGADIER DESCRIBES AL-QAEDA OPERATIONS IN YEMEN
As head of the Yemeni Army’s Moral Guidance Directorate and editor-in-chief of the Ministry of Defense’s 26 September Weekly Political Review (www.26september.info), Brigadier General Ali Hasan al-Shatir is one of the most influential figures in Yemen’s security structure. In a recent interview with pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, Brigadier al-Shatir described al-Qaeda infiltration methods and activities in Yemen and the response of the security apparatus (Asharq al-Awsat, March 11).
According to the Brigadier, al-Qaeda members regularly cross the border between Saudi Arabia and northern Yemen, where they are assisted by members of the Zaydi Shiite Huthist rebel group. The accusation appears to be an effort to tie the Huthist rebellion to al-Qaeda, a suggestion that has not been supported by evidence in the past. Al-Shatir, however, now claims that this information was obtained in the interrogation of Muhammad al-Awfi, an alleged al-Qaeda operative who surrendered last year (Marebpress.net, February 17, 2009):
"He revealed that there is cooperation and coordination between the al-Qaeda organization and the Huthists, because both sides know they are united by one goal and that is to undermine the stability and security of Yemen and [carry] out their destructive sabotage plans."
The Brigadier says the cooperation between al-Qaeda and the Huthists has also been confirmed by Tariq al-Fadhli, whom he describes as “one of the main members of the al-Qaeda organization who now leads part of [Southern] Mobility in the south” (al-Thawra, July 31, 2009; Yemen Post, August 2, 2009; see also Terrorism Monitor, November 19, 2009). Al-Fadhli, a son of the former Sultan of Abyan, fought in Afghanistan’s anti-communist jihad in the 1980s but has long been a close ally of Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and a member of the ruling General People’s Congress party. Their close relationship was recently severed when al-Fadhli joined the Southern Mobility secessionist movement—an act that landed the former jihadi on the government’s list of al-Qaeda activists and led to an assault on his compound by security forces earlier this month (Alflojaweb.com, April 18, 2009; Yemen Post, March 2). In early February, al-Fadhli raised the American flag over his compound while blaring the “Star Spangled Banner” from a sound system. A relative told reporters al-Fadhli was indicating his opposition to terrorism and had been approached by the U.S. embassy in his role as a leader of the southern secessionist movement. The latter information remains unconfirmed (Adenpress, February 5). Al-Shatir also accuses al-Fadhli of agitating for the return of British occupation (which ended in 1967) to southern Yemen. “Is it rational for a Yemeni national to ask for the occupation to return to his country?”
The size of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been greatly exaggerated by the European and American media, according to Brigadier al-Shatir, who believes this is part of a deliberate effort to prepare “international public opinion that Yemen will be the third front after Afghanistan and Iraq in the war against al-Qaeda.” When pressed for an estimate of the actual size of AQAP, al-Shatir responded: “They may be in the dozens; there is no exact figure.”
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE SOMALI GOVERNMENT OFFENSIVE?
Despite expectations since early February of an imminent offensive by Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) against the Islamist militias that control most of Mogadishu and southern Somalia, such an offensive may still be weeks away, at best. TFG Interior Minister Shaykh Abdulkadir Ali Omar announced the offensive was in its “final stage” of preparation on March 6, but there are few indications on the ground that it is about to start any time soon (Shabelle Media Network, March 7).
Ministers of the TFG, including Minister of State for Defense Shaykh Yusuf Si’ad Indha Adde, have expressed concerns that the government has only enough money to sustain a few days of fighting, rather than the months it is expected to take to drive the Islamists from Mogadishu and south Somalia (AllPuntland.com, February 8). Appeals have been made for further financing, but the alleged corruption of the TFG has dissuaded foreign donors from making further commitments.
While newly trained TFG fighters have begun to return to Mogadishu from Djibouti, their deployment has run into problems. When they arrived on the frontlines to replace poorly armed and trained clan militias, the militias refused to withdraw without financial “compensation.” Plans to train the militias to a professional level have thus fallen through and there is no confidence in the TFG military staff that the militias can be counted on to follow orders. Meanwhile the newly trained troops of the TFG have returned to barracks (Jowhar, February 8).
Continuing defections of TFG troops (including those newly trained) to the Islamist militias pose another problem. Though this is a two-way street, with Islamist fighters frequently defecting to the TFG, it is yet another indication of instability and unreliability within the TFG forces (Shabelle Media Networks, February 9; Dayniile February 8). TFG Minister of Information Dahir Mahmud Gelle recently remarked that the TFG lags far behind the Islamist groups opposing it in terms of military skills and intelligence capability (AllPuntland, March 1).
Leadership is also in question, with TFG president Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmad rarely emerging from his quarters at the Villa Somalia presidential palace. Most of the TFG parliament remains in Kenya, awaiting a successful outcome to the fighting before returning to Mogadishu.
Possibly sensing that there is little chance for a successful offensive at this time (and every chance of a disastrous outcome that could bring the downfall of the TFG), the government negotiated an agreement on March 15 with the Sufi-dominated Ahlu Sunna wa’l-Jama’a (ASJ) militia to unite militarily with TFG forces, though the agreement will not come into effect for another month (Mareeg, March 15).
The offensive is expected to include the participation of the armor, artillery and troops of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a 5,300-man contingent drawn from Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti. With troops trained by French, Belgian and American instructors, AMISOM is far stronger than the combined forces of the TFG and would play an essential role in the success of any government offensive. Though AMISOM was initially conceived as a peacekeeping force, it has gradually abandoned this mandate to play an active role in the preservation of the beleaguered TFG.
A New York Times report based on anonymous sources claimed the United States was prepared to assist the expected offensive with Special Forces teams and aerial strikes (New York Times, March 5). U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson refuted the report in a March 12 statement:
"The United States does not plan, does not direct, and does not coordinate the military operations of the TFG, and we have not and will not be providing direct support for any potential military offensives. Further, we are not providing nor paying for military advisors for the TFG. There is no desire to Americanize the conflict in Somalia (U.S. AFRICOM Public Affairs, March 13). "
Nonetheless, the New York Times report is now being used in the Middle East and Africa as “proof” the offensive is being planned and directed by the United States, much like the disastrous “anti-terrorist” offensive carried out by U.S.-supported Somali warlords in 2006 (see Terrorism Focus, May 31, 2006). The United States has acknowledged it is training AMISOM troops and providing logistical support to African nations providing military training to TFG recruits. AFRICOM commander General William Ward recently told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that TFG plans to retake southern Somalia are a “work in progress” (U.S. AFRICOM Public Affairs, March 9).