The Resiliency of Yemen’s Aden-Abyan Islamic Army

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 14

Yemen has had a long reputation of producing fighters for foreign wars. This tradition, as the current trial of a number of Yemenis for traveling to Iraq to fight illustrates, is still intact (al-Hayat, June 4). The 1980s were no exception, as Yemen contributed a number of young men to the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Like most of the other “Afghan Arabs,” the Yemenis returned home in the late 1980s and early 1990s eager to replicate their successes from abroad. Yemen, unlike most Arab countries, proved to be a hospitable environment for the returned fighters. Training camps were established, some with quasi-official support from government officials, and the men were kept well-supplied and content.

Many of these men gravitated toward leaders who they had fought under in Afghanistan. In the early 1990s, Abu Hasan Zayn al-Abadin al-Mihdhar, a Yemeni commander from Shabwah, organized a group of such men into what would eventually become known as the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army (AAIA) (al-Hayat, October 10, 2005). The group took its name from an apocryphal hadith that claims that in the last days an army will arise from Aden-Abyan to fight for victory in God’s name, and that God will grant them success.

The unification of the communist south with the tribal north in 1990 created a unique environment that allowed the AAIA to flourish. Despite the official agreement, the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) and the General People’s Congress, the ruling party in the north, remained wary of each other. Northern officials welcomed the influx of Afghan Arabs into the south, many of whom were returning to family lands, and used them as a proxy to fight a low-level and unofficial war against the communists.

For its part, the AAIA was eager to combat the YSP, which it considered a party of “godless communists.” There was also an element of revenge in the conflict. Many of the members of the AAIA, such as Tariq al-Fadhli, had witnessed the nationalization of their family lands and estates by the communists. Al-Fadhli’s father had been sultan of the Abyan governorate under the British, but was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia along with his three-month old son when the communists came to power in 1967. It was not until after unification that al-Fadhli was finally able to return to his birthplace.

Northern officials kept some semblance of control over the Afghan Arabs through Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, the shadowy commander of the 1st Armored Division and a close relative of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is also married to al-Fadhli’s sister. Al-Ahmar made sure the AAIA was well-equipped in its struggle. Other prominent men such as Sheikh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, who had himself helped to recruit a number of Yemenis to fight in Afghanistan, helped to provide the religious cover for combating the communists. Outside figures, such as Osama bin Laden, whom al-Fadhli had met in Afghanistan, helped to provide financial support.

It has since emerged that many of the members of the AAIA drew military and government salaries. Al-Fadhli, for instance, is an adviser to the Yemeni Ministry of the Interior and a colonel in the Yemeni army (al-Quds al-Arabi, November 8, 2001). All of this support eventually paid dividends for the government in the north when in 1994 the south attempted to secede under the leadership of its former president and then vice president, Ali Salim al-Bidh. Al-Fadhli, the AAIA as well as a number of other Afghan Arabs played a key role in defeating the south’s secession bid. Yet, much like U.S. support for the Afghan Arabs in the 1980s, Yemen’s use of them to destroy its own communist threat produced unanticipated blowback.

In 1998, the group kidnapped a number of Western tourists, some of whom were killed in a botched rescue attempt. Officially at least, this event marked the end of the AAIA. The Yemeni government executed al-Mihdhar for his role in the kidnappings. Yemeni Prime Minister Abd al-Qadir Bajammal told al-Hayat in 2005 that this was the battle that destroyed the AAIA (al-Hayat, October 11, 2005). His views were similar to those expressed by al-Fadhli in an interview with Khaled al-Hammadi of al-Quds al-Arabi in 2001. “I believe,” al-Fadhli said, “that the idea of the army was linked to the person himself, that is Abu Hasan al-Mihdhar, and when he died that army ended as well” (al-Quds al-Arabi, November 8, 2001).

Since the clash of 1998, al-Fadhli has consistently denied that he was ever a member of the AAIA. He instead insists that he led a group focused on the destruction of the communists in Yemen. Once that task was completed with the end of the civil war in 1994, he claims to have dismantled his organization (al-Quds al-Arabi, November 8, 2001). Al-Fadhli has also gone to great lengths since 1998 to distance himself from his former colleague.

Despite both the government and al-Fadhli’s insistence that the AAIA was destroyed in 1998, it has since been linked to a number of major terrorist attacks in Yemen, such as the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and the attack on the French oil tanker Limburg in 2002. Al-Fadhli has even tacitly acknowledged the link, despite his earlier comments that the AAIA had not survived the death of al-Mihdhar (al-Quds al-Arabi, November 8, 2001).

One journalist, Arafat Mudabish of al-Sharq al-Awsat, even hinted on March 31 that the group may have been behind the 1992 attacks aimed at U.S. Marines in Aden. Indeed, al-Fadhli was arrested in the aftermath of that attack, although he was released from prison to participate in the 1994 civil war (al-Quds al-Arabi, November 8, 2001).

The links between the AAIA, al-Fadhli and bin Laden in the early 1990s have raised questions as to whether or not the group is in any way affiliated with al-Qaeda. Al-Fadhli, of course, maintains that there is no link between the two groups. “Osama bin Laden provided me with funding as a person and not as a leader,” he said. “I have only heard about al-Qaeda recently because there was no such thing when I was in Afghanistan” (al-Quds al-Arabi, November 8, 2001).

Other, more neutral sources seem to agree with him. Nabi al-Sufi, the editor of the News Yemen website, told al-Hayat in 2005 that the AAIA was a local organization that had no roots outside of Yemen (al-Hayat, October 11, 2005). Yet, local or not, most independent sources appear convinced that the group was not destroyed in 1998.

Following the execution of al-Mihdhar in 1998, the leadership of AAIA was taken over by one of his former soldiers, Khalid Abd al-Nabi (al-Hayat, October 11, 2005). Like al-Fadhli, al-Nabi was born in Yemen but moved to Saudi Arabia in the mid-1980s due to poor living conditions before traveling to Afghanistan to fight. He returned to Yemen in time to take part in the 1994 civil war as part of the AAIA (al-Hayat, October 11, 2005).

Despite numerous promises and sporadic crackdowns during the past few years, the government has been unable to completely eradicate the group, largely due to a lack of concentrated effort. The running battles and jail sentences seem to have had little impact on the group’s fortunes. This failure, however, has not stopped the government from claiming that the AAIA no longer exists.

Most recently, a government official reiterated this claim to al-Sharq al-Awsat following reports of a failed assassination attempt against al-Nabi in May (al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 16). The security official, who refused to be named, would only say: “The Aden-Abyan Army does not exist. Khalid Abd al-Nabi turned himself in [to authorities] in the past, and was then pardoned by President Ali Abdullah Saleh. He now lives as an average citizen and owns a farm.”

Following his pardon last year, al-Nabi has been officially known in Yemen as the former leader of the AAIA, but his actions seem closer to those of the current leader. In late June, he warned the government that its security sources were overbearing while at the same time pleading with President Saleh to commute the prison sentences of AAIA members still being held (al-Wasat, June 28). This is something that Salih has done numerous times before, such as in 2003 when he released Salih Mansur Haydarah (al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 24, 2003). Saleh’s catch-and-release method of dealing with the AAIA has certainly contributed to the group’s longevity. Yet in a country where the line between allies and enemies is constantly being blurred, Saleh prefers to play off the many competing actors against each other in an effort to maintain a delicate balance of power. This attitude—despite official government claims—helps to explain why the AAIA has been one of the more resilient groups in the region.