The recent offensive launched by the Yemeni Army in the Rada’a district of al-Baydha governorate marked the second phase of a broad military campaign started last summer to drive al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Ansar al-Shari’a militants out of their strongholds in southern Yemen (Barakish.net, January 28). This extensive effort, backed by an increasing number of American drone airstrikes, has included air and ground operations carried out by the Yemeni Army with support from local militias, preventing AQAP from retaking its former positions and forcing the group to retreat to its traditional sanctuaries in Hadramawt and Shabwah governorates. However, AQAP’s presence extends to other southern provinces. Coupled with the security challenges posed by southern secessionists and the growing local resentment toward the Sana’a government, this presence is turning southern Yemen into a testing ground for the administration of President Abd Rabbu Mansur al–Hadi.
The Second Phase of the Army’s Offensive
On January 28, the Yemeni Defense Ministry ordered an air and ground attack against AQAP positions in Rada’a and al-Manaseh (al-Baydha governorate) after the failure of negotiations to secure the release of three European hostages held by AQAP (Yemen Post, January 29). The three foreigners (two Finns and an Austrian), had been kidnapped in Sana’a on December 21, reportedly by tribesmen who consigned the three hostages to AQAP in Rada’a in January in exchange for approximately $28,000 (al-Masdar Online, January 16).
Yemeni security forces claimed that more than 40 AQAP and Ansar al-Shari’a militants were killed in the fighting, which ceased two days after the tribal leaders mediated a ceasefire between the Army and the militants to allow the resumption of negotiations (Yemen Post, January 30; Saudi Gazette, January 31). Although Yemeni officials stated that securing the liberation of the hostages was the main goal of the attack, an air and ground operation that included the deployment of 7,000 soldiers and 50 tanks suggests that the overall aim was indeed broader (Yemen Post, January 23). Security sources later confirmed that the military escalation against AQAP positions in al-Baydha was part of a global effort to eradicate jihadi militants from Yemen, while a Colonel at the Presidential Palace anticipated similar operations in the coming months, coinciding with “an extensive drone campaign” (Yemen Post, January 29; Yemen Times, January 31).
The al-Baydha offensive represents a strategic move in the Army’s overall campaign against AQAP, since the governorate’s location in the middle of the country and its shared borders with Shabwah and Abyan provinces (where AQAP has a strong presence) would offer AQAP militants a relatively easy passage towards the capital, Sana’a. With the support of U.S. drone strikes, this military pressure has achieved some significant results. Yemeni officials reported that security forces killed approximately 460 AQAP militants in raids, airstrikes and other military operations in 2012, the majority as a consequence of the Army offensive that began last summer (Barakish.net, January 3).
It remains uncertain whether AQAP’s Saudi deputy leader, Sa’id al-Shihri, was among those killed in the government offensive. According to Yemen’s High Military Committee, al-Shihri died from injuries sustained during an operation conducted in November in Sa’ada governorate (Yemen Observer, January 26). Although Saudi sources confirmed al-Shihri’s death, they claimed al-Shihri died in a U.S. airstrike in December 2012 (al-Arabiya, January 22). AQAP has yet to issue a statement regarding these reports, adding some mystery to the fate of a militant who has been declared dead three times previously.
Despite the severe blows inflicted to AQAP so far, the open question remains whether the army is able to consolidate its progress, or whether its military drives are just forcing AQAP militants to relocate to other areas. The group is still displaying resilience even after the loss of its positions in Laji and Zinjibar last summer and in al-Baydha it has not been completely defeated despite suffering a high number of casualties. AQAP militants presented strong resistance during military operations in Rada’a and al-Manaseh, launching retaliatory assaults against military checkpoints with car bombs and suicide bombers, killing 18 soldiers in the process (Barakish.net, January 28). Moreover, security sources stated that several hundred militants arrived in Rada’a from Abyan to reinforce the group’s defenses (Yemen Post, January 29; Barakish.net, January 28).
In Abyan governorate, AQAP militants began relocating from Ma’rib and al-Jawf last December with the alleged support of local tribal shaykhs who sold them arms and ammunition (Aden al-Ghad, December 20, Barakish.net, January 28). The Yemeni Army, in cooperation with the pro-government Popular Resistance Committees, announced its success in expelling jihadists from the governorate in January, but the flow of militants from Abyan to al-Baydha has demonstrated the fragililty of the Army’s claims (Barakish.net, January 6). AQAP’s continued presence in the South has forced military commanders to order another offensive in Abyan just a few weeks after the conclusion of the last one (Saba.net, January 31).
The Security Challenges in the South
The main challenge for the Yemeni government lies precisely in the south, where there is a risk of AQAP exploiting the deteriorating security and political situation in the southern provinces to reinforce its presence there. Regular reports about clashes between armed elements of Yemen’s “Southern Movement” and security forces in the governorates of Lahij, Abyan, Al-Dali, Shabwah and Hadramawt are giving the impression that the so-called “southern question” is turning into a growing security problem for the central government, challenging the unity of the country. Yemen’s Southern Movement (al-Harakat al-Janubiyya, also known as Hirak) is an amorphous umbrella group that includes several southern factions that trace their formation to the 1994 civil war between North and South Yemen that followed Yemen’s 1990 unification. The current southern liberation movement began in 2007, when disenfranchised southern military officers started a protest movement against the government to demand their reinstatement and guaranties for their pensions.  The movement rapidly gained the support of broad segments of southern civil society, canalizing their resentment of the North/South economic and political divide. Gradually, the demands for social change have been replaced by more vocal requests for secession and independence.
Thus far, the Southern Movement has not conducted a violent struggle against the central government and the majority of southern activists have distanced themselves from violent methods in favour of mass demonstrations. The 2011 Yemeni uprising against the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh presented an opportunity to ease secessionist sentiment and create new bonds of solidarity between southerners and northerners who saw a common enemy in the Saleh regime. However, tensions escalated over the last year as discussions over the National Dialogue – a forum intended to include all Yemeni political parties and factions and designed to result in a new constitution prior to the 2014 elections – began to fragment the southern political landscape.
Though all the southern factions generally agree on their desire to see more autonomy for the south, they differ on the shape of this autonomy and on the process needed to achieve it. One faction may call for federalism and self-determination; another may support full secession from the north through participation in the National Dialogue, while yet another may call for complete disengagement from the north and a boycott of the National Dialogue (al-Khaleej, December 17, 2012). These differences prompted Muhammad Ali Ahmad, a prominent leader in the Southern Movement, to convene the first conference for the southern people last December (Yemen Post, December 20, 2012). This move, however, only created a new rift when the faction of Ali Salim al-Beidh, the former general secretary of the Yemen Socialist Party (YSP) and the most important figure of the separatist movement, refused to take part (Yemen Post, January 26).
In mid-January, nearly one million people mobilized in Aden to mark the anniversary of the beginning of the Yemen Civil War of 1994. Many in the crowd called for secession and waved al-Beidh’s picture (al-Masdar Online, January 13). The fact that al-Beidh’s faction is the strongest one in the south today was confirmed in late January, when tens of thousands of protesters demonstrated for two days in Aden, calling for southern secession and refusing to participate in the National Dialogue Conference (Alomanaa.net [Aden], January 28).
After violent clashes between separatists and security forces in al-Dali governorate resulted in 4 soldiers killed, Yemeni politicians accused al-Beidh of supporting armed factions to obstruct the National Dialogue (Yemenfox.net, January 31). Although al-Beidh’s role in supporting such groups is still to be proven, the increasing number of violent incidents involving armed separatists in the southern governorates represents a troubling development. These incidents include armed assaults against army units, such as the attack on a patrol in al-Kibar in which two soldiers were killed, and a number of political assassinations, such as the killing of the deputy security chief of Dhamar governorate, Brigadier General Abdullah al Mushki (Barakish.net, January 11; al-Ahale, January 16). These types of attacks are often indistinguishable from those carried out by jihadi militants.
Those participating in violent attacks against government symbols and targets have often been accused of being affiliated with the faction of Tariq al-Fadhli, the veteran mujahideen who fought in Afghanistan and is today a controversial figure in the Southern Movement due to his militant past (Yemen Observer, July 23, 2009; al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 2, 2010; for al-Fadhli, see Terrorism Monitor, November 10, 2009; Terrorism Monitor Brief, March 19, 2010). Last year, al-Fadhli has also been accused of facilitating the entry of AQAP militants to Abyan (Yemenfox.net, November 6, 2012).
The Yemeni government might have some interest in discrediting al-Fadhli by associating his southern credentials with his supposed AQAP affiliation and there is little, if any, evidence that jihadi militants and armed secessionists are coordinating their efforts against the government. A further deterioration of the security situation in the south could, however, create an environment even more favourable for AQAP, providing the group with the necessary territory to contain future army offensives.
South Yemen is becoming a real testing ground for both the national counter-terrorism strategy and the political future of President Hadi’s administration. The strong presence of jihadi militants in the southern provinces suggests that the army’s offensive, though successful in removing some governorates from the control of AQAP and Ansar al-Shari’a, has yet to consolidate its territorial gains. At the same time, the failure of the National Dialogue in addressing southern grievances and its likely boycott by a strong faction of the Southern Movement risks inciting secessionist sentiments among southerners and endangers Yemen’s political transition, which depends strongly on the conference’s success. These simultaneous developments present new security challenges in the south, most notably by potentially opening a new second front that would facilitate AQAP activities and be difficult for the government to contain.
1. Nicole Stracke and Mohammed Saif Haidar, The Southern Movement in Yemen, Sheba Center for Strategic Studies and Gulf Research Center, October 2010, Available at: https://www.grc.net/data/contents/uploads/The_Southern_Movement_in_Yemen_4796.pdf.