Over the course of May, the Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE)-led coalition, working with local Yemeni partner forces commanded by Tariq Saleh, have advanced close to the strategic, Ansar Allah- (Partisans of God-Houthi) controlled port city of al-Hudaydah on Yemen’s Red Sea coast (see Militant Leadership Monitor, February 7; Akhbar Yemen [Aden], May 31; Sky News Arabia [Abu Dhabi], May 28). Al-Hudaydah, located approximately 230 kilometers southwest of the capital of Sana’a, is the key port of entry for humanitarian assistance entering Yemen and is believed to be the most important site of resupply for the Houthi movement from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (Middle East Eye [Aden], May 31).
The opening stages of this recent campaign led by Saleh against al-Hudaydah were conducted in the neighboring Taiz governorate in cooperation with the Saudi and Emirati coalition’s local partner militia, Kata’ib Abu al-Abbas (Father of Al-Abbas Brigades), also referred to as the 35th Armored Brigade, an official branch of the Yemeni security forces (al-Quds al-Arabi, April 21; al-Jazeera [Doha], April 21; Akhbar Yemen [Aden], April 19; Facebook). Kata’ib Abu al-Abbas is led by Adil Abduh Fari Uthman al-Dhubhani (a.k.a. Abu al-Abbas), who was designated as a terrorist leader with connections to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State (IS) by the United States and Saudi Arabia in October 2017 (U.S. Department of the Treasury, October 25, 2017; al-Omana, October 25, 2017). The U.S. government estimates that Kata’ib Abu al-Abbas has 2,000 fighters, although reporting from Taiz states that the organization has only 300 full-time fighters but is well-equipped with heavy weapons mostly procured from the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition (Yemen Talk [Aden], October 26, 2017; al-Arabi [Taiz], May 27, 2017).
Abu al-Abbas, 47, is a native of the Old City district of Taiz, the country’s third largest city. Situated in the strategic highlands of southwestern Yemen, Taiz has been the site of fierce fighting and large-scale destruction mainly as a result of the fighting between the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition and the Houthi movement and its allies (al-Jazeera [Doha], May 31; CNN, May 16; see Militant Leadership Monitor, August 31, 2015). Born in humble circumstances, Abu al-Abbas from an early age was educated in Islamic sciences from the Salafist perspective at schools in his home area of Taiz. Throughout his youth and into his early adult years, he and his family split time between Taiz and the northern Yemeni city of Dammaj, famous for Dar al-Hadith (House of the Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), one of the leading centers for learning Islamic sciences in the Salafist tradition in the Arab world (Yemen Press [Taiz], October 23, 2016). His opponents allege that as a youth in the late 1980s and early 1990s he traveled to Afghanistan for jihad (Khabar Agency [Taiz], October 20, 2015).
Following the outbreak of the revolution against the Saleh government in 2011, the Houthi movement moved rapidly to seize large areas of northern Yemen, including Dammaj, which led to clashes between Houthi forces and the residents of Dammaj, who raised their own local militias. Over the course of this conflict, which lasted from October 2011 to January 2014, the Houthis were able to impose a partial siege on Dammaj. Abu al-Abbas became a local leader in the Salafist armed movement fighting against the Houthis, and was responsible for looking after and mobilizing the students at Dar al-Hadith who were natives of Taiz (Yemen Press [Taiz], October 23, 2016). In this role, he became connected with Saudi interlocutors who asked him to oversee the distribution of money and weapons that were being used to mobilize the Salafist militias in Dammaj. Accordingly, he earned a reputation for trustworthiness among both the Dammaj militias and the Saudis, who provided him with the bona fides he would later use to become a powerbroker in Taiz. He accomplished that by becoming the main official responsible for distributing Saudi and Emirati coalition funding for the local armed groups allied in the fight against the Houthis in and around Taiz (Yemen Press [Taiz], October 23, 2016; al-Murasel Net [Taiz], October 23, 2016; Facebook).
Ascent to Militant Leadership
Following the evacuation of most of the population of Dar al-Hadith from Dammaj in January 2014 as part of a Yemeni government-brokered deal, Abu al-Abbas returned to Taiz. After the Houthis began a campaign against the city in March 2015, he began to mobilize a fighting group from the Old City and surrounding neighborhoods, leading to the establishment of Hama al-Aqida (Creed of Hama), a militant Salafist fighting group (Yemen Press [Taiz], October 23, 2016; News Yemen [Taiz], November 10, 2015). The Hama al-Aqida organization was one of the first groups to resist the Houthi campaign against Taiz in 2015. Through Hama al-Aqida’s recruitment efforts to mobilize a force against the Houthis, it developed a broad network and power base in the city and from the areas surrounding the city, building a socio-political organization to govern the city in the absence of authority from the Yemeni government (Yemen Press [Taiz], October 23, 2016; News Yemen [Taiz], November 10, 2015; al-Arabi al-Jadid [Taiz], September 29, 2015). Through the Hama al-Aqida organization, Abu al-Abbas became the commander of the Eastern Front of the Popular Resistance forces in Taiz governorate, and began receiving support from the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition (Yemen Press [Taiz], October 23, 2016; News Yemen [Taiz], November 10, 2015). It is believed that Hama al-Aqida and Abu al-Abbas convinced the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition that it could be the group that not only fought the Houthis effectively, but also could be used to limit the power of extremist groups such as AQAP and IS in Taiz (Arabi 21 [Taiz], November 9, 2015). Hama al-Aqida would become the Kata’ib Abu al-Abbas organization. Over the course of the subsequent three years, Kata’ib Abu al-Abbas would also attract fighters from militant Salafist madrasas throughout southwest Yemen beyond Taiz, including Aden, Lahij, Hadramawt, and Abyan governorates. Abu al-Abbas therefore commands a military and socio-political organization that draws from multiple regions of Yemen, providing him with a wide and important network of committed militant Salafist associations from which to draw strength and support.
Abu Abbas’ rise to power inside Taiz has not gone unchallenged, especially from the Islah (Reform) Party, which is tied to the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, a competitor against the Salafist current that is associated with Kata’ib Abu al-Abbas. Inside Taiz, clashes continue between Kata’ib Abu al-Abbas and Islah militias that are technically incorporated into the “formal” security organs of the Hadi-led government (News Yemen [Taiz], May 22; News Yemen [Taiz], May 21). These clashes are the latest in several months of skirmishes and tit-for-tat assassination attempts between Kata’ib Abu al-Abbas and competing armed groups, including those affiliated with the Islah party, over who will dominate the city of Taiz and its surrounding areas (Masa Press [Taiz], April 24; Sahafah 24 [Taiz], February 23; al-Arabi[Taiz], January 9). Kata’ib Abu al-Abbas reportedly receives full Emirati backing in its conflict against Islah in Taiz. This is believed to put the UAE at odds with its Saudi ally, which reportedly maintains a strong working relationship with Islah in and around the city (al-Jazeera [Doha], April 21; al-Arabi [Taiz], May 27, 2017).
Despite Abu al-Abbas’ terrorist designation in October 2017, his organization reportedly continues to receive military and political support from the UAE, including close coordination with the Emirati military based in southern Yemen. The relationship between Kata’ib Abu al-Abbas and the UAE is controversial among local Yemeni actors who are partners of the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition (al-Sharq, May 31; YouTube, April 29; al-Marsd Post, January 21). Abu al-Abbas has been a public proponent of the Emirati role in Yemen, and he has spoken out against Yemeni actors that have criticized the UAE and tried to call for the withdrawal of Emirati forces from Yemen (Yemen Saeed [Aden], August 9, 2017). Abu al-Abbas’ opponents assert that without the continued largesse and support he and his organization receive from the Emiratis, Abu al-Abbas would not remain an important player in and around the city of Taiz (al-Akhbar al-Yemen [Taiz], December 14, 2017).
One of the factors driving these complaints are multiple reports from Taiz and other areas of southern Yemen, particularly Aden, that the Emiratis are seeking to incorporate Taiz into the al-Hizam al-Amni (Security Belt) system that would protect and stabilize the expanding UAE protectorate in southern Yemen (al-Jazeera [Doha], April 21; al-Sharq, November 29, 2017; YouTube, October 29, 2017; see Militant Leadership Monitor, April 4). Kata’ib Abu al-Abbas’ cooperation with Tariq Saleh and his forces, which are underwritten by the UAE, in staging operations supporting the al-Hudaydah campaign is viewed as part of a larger Emirati strategy to bring the Yemen War closer to conclusion and further establish Emirati-backed local partners as the power brokers in southern Yemen (Emarat al-Youm [Dubai], May 17).
Adil Abduh Fari Uthman al-Dhubhani continues to be the most powerful local actor in one of the more important and strategic cities in Yemen. He is noteworthy, beyond the terrorist designation that he received from the United States and Saudi Arabia, because he has been able to meet and overcome challenges from a range of competitors seeking dominance in Taiz, including some associated with his former foreign patron Saudi Arabia. His continued association with the UAE, which is the kingmaker in southern Yemen, is another indicator of his power on the ground in Taiz. The Emiratis are in the process of remodeling the security infrastructure and local political dynamics in southern Yemen, and the Security Belt organization is a featured part of this process. The UAE, as part of this effort, is seeking to work with and empower Yemeni partners that are authentically powerful in their localities, and who therefore would be credible and sustainable partners to oversee the Emirati security project in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula.
If the reporting is accurate that Abu al-Abbas has continued to receive support from the Emiratis even after his terrorist designation by the United States and Saudi Arabia, this would demonstrate that Abu al-Abbas is an authentically powerful actor in Taiz, and considered to be a worthwhile investment for the UAE and its project in Yemen. It would also indicate that his terrorist designation may possibly have been executed as a way for Saudi Arabia to try to undercut the power and influence of a former local proxy commander in southern Yemen who has been troublesome for the Hadi government. This situation, in which he has become the focus of Saudi antipathy and continues to be opposed by aggressive local competitors, demonstrates how vital Abu al-Abbas’ relationship with the Emiratis is to his continuing role as a powerbroker in this important region of southern Yemen. Although Abu al-Abbas’ status as a powerful actor in his own right in and around Taiz predates when he first attracted Saudi and Emirati support, without continued support from the United Arab Emirates, both materially and in the context of local southern Yemeni politics, Abu al-Abbas would be weaker and likely be waging a losing battle against his opponents. So long as he and his organization continue to be a core component of the Emirati-built Security Belt structure, Abu al-Abbas will continue to be a powerbroker in Taiz and in wider southern Yemen.