Commentary by Fahd Omer
Editor’s note: The author, a Yemeni researcher, is writing under a pseudonym for security reasons.
The replacement of President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi with an eight-man presidential council was long-awaited by Yemenis both inside the country and in the diaspora. Bringing together the main factions within the anti-Houthi camp, the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) quickly garnered international support – the US, UK and United Nations Security Council welcomed the creation of the PLC, while the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, along with a number of European and Arab ambassadors, attended the swearing-in of the council in Aden on April 19.
However, in this new political landscape, the PLC’s path to restoring peace and stability in Yemen is far from certain. In particular, the recent rise in suspected activity by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) portends a looming battle against terror and radicalism in the interim capital Aden. Meeting this challenge will be one of the first major tests for the PLC.
In public appearances, members of the PLC have sought to reiterate two main points: the forces represented in the council are in agreement on working toward a unified political vision for the post-Hadi era, and that its top priority must be pursuing a resolution to the conflict with the armed Houthi movement, either through negotiation or force of arms. In a televised address to the nation on the occasion of Eid, PLC President Rashad al-Alimi pledged that he will lead from inside the country and put Aden on the path to stability, development and renewed investment. Tareq Saleh, commander of the National Resistance Forces and a member of the PLC, reiterated a similar message on May 8, noting that the executive body is working “in full harmony” to restore state institutions, including a plan to rebuild infrastructure in Aden, and that the interim capital will serve as a model for security and stability to government-held areas.
The upcoming anniversary of Yemen’s unification on May 22 will be an early test of the message of unity put forward by the PLC. The Ministry of Civil Service and Insurance, headed by Abdelnasser al-Waly, has yet to declare the day a national holiday. Al-Waly, a member of the secessionist Southern Transitional Council, stirred controversy in 2021 when he described the anniversary as marking the conquest of the south. The STC remains the most dominant military force in Aden, and the pro-STC local authorities have, in the past, rejected resolutions issued by other ministers. STC head Aiderous al-Zubaidi is now on the PLC. The ability of the council to avoid internal conflict and act toward a unified purpose will depend on whether its members and their respective backers in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are able to reconcile divergent interests.
Even if the members of the PLC remain united and work in harmony, the recent uptick in suspected AQAP activity in Aden and southern Yemen represents a major threat to stability in the interim capital and the ability of the PLC to fulfill its early promises of security and development. Local media reports have documented increased AQAP recruitment and mobilization in neighboring Abyan governorate. On May 6, fighting between AQAP militants and Security Belt forces in Al-Dhalea resulted in the death of several high-ranking counter-terrorism officers. In Aden’s Mualla district, a car bomb targeted the convoy of Major General Saleh Ali al-Dahrani on May 15.
AQAP’s budding resurgence invokes memories of the years after Hadi first assumed power. In the period from 2012 to the start of the conflict, the group attacked military and security forces in Sana’a and other governorates, stormed and held entire cities, and carried out dozens of assassinations of military and security officers, even targeting President Hadi. The recurrence of similar levels of activity would undermine the PLC’s ability to bring about much-needed reform. Recently reported acts of sabotage targeting power generation and distribution infrastructure in Aden and neighboring cities and a key oil pipeline in Shabwa may anticipate the battle that awaits the PLC, even before it can move to resolve the conflict with the Houthis.
The armed Houthi movement has struck deals with AQAP in the past, releasing most of its detained fighters when they took Sana’a in September 2014. While reports of such deals may seem surprising given their conflicting ideologies, ُthe relationship between the Houthis and northern tribes with AQAP was established long before 2014. The spike in AQAP activity after Hadi became president, and its current resurgence, suggests that the Houthis, and perhaps the northern Zaidi tribes, may have provided it with support. The Houthis and the political elites of the northern tribes have a long history of refusing to relinquish power to authorities from what they call “Lower Yemen,” vowing, “Either we rule, or we destroy the unity of this country.” AQAP seems intent to reassert itself, as it did between 2012 and 2014. As this would, once again, serve the interests of the Houthis and their allies, it suggests the probability of collaboration is quite high.
Southern voices have also sought to link AQAP activities to the now-former vice president Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and the Islah party. After the signing of the Riyadh agreement in November 2019, the STC became a nominal partner in Hadi’s government, but continued to place responsibility for suspected extremist attacks on their rivals, Islah and Al-Ahmar. This shifted somewhat following the STC’s inclusion in the new leadership council: Al-Zubaidi accused the Houthis of supporting recent suspected AQAP attacks. However, an STC-appointed commander of counter-terrorism forces in Aden later blamed Islah as well. If such contradictory rhetoric continues, it may indicate that the GCC-led talks in Riyadh that led to the formation of the presidential council have ushered in a fragile, even cosmetic, alliance in the anti-Houthi camp.
There are other attempts to undermine the new council as well. The PLC needs to monitor and react to baseless campaigns that accuse local and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) of exploiting Yemeni women and girls. Such disinformation campaigns are a common tactic of insurgent groups, as they serve multiple purposes in undermining state authority. First, the campaign provides a pretext for retaliatory extremist activity in Aden and its environs. Second, successfully targeting NGOs and civil society organizations would cast the PLC as weak and ineffective, and incapable of protecting its constituents. Third, if the PLC is unable to provide adequate protection, it could be blamed for this failure, and its supporters could seek protection elsewhere. Lastly, the targeting of NGOs could limit their ability to operate effectively or even drive them from the area. The outsize impact of humanitarian aid to Yemen’s wartime economy would make such a retreat especially damaging. The PLC might then be blamed for an intensification of the country’s humanitarian crisis. NGOs have already tightened their security measures and informed their employees to remain alert, but the PLC must not underestimate the consequences of inaction. The knock-on effects of an insufficient response could be extremely serious.
It is difficult to conceptualize what options the PLC has to deal with such a predicament. Instead of waiting for AQAP to undertake operations in Aden, it should show it has the power to stand firm against such threats. This is easier said than done. In Abyan, the deep divisions between the STC forces in Sheikh Salem and pro-Hadi presidential guards in Shoqra may undermine coordination against AQAP. It may not even be possible to incentivize the presidential guards to abide by the commands of the PLC or Ministry of Defense without Hadi’s support. Another option for the PLC would be relying on the Giants Brigades, which successfully pushed Houthi forces out of Shabwa in early January. However, deploying them on multiple fronts risks exhausting these forces and exposing them to heavy losses. It may be more prudent to save the Giants Brigades to defend against the Houthis as the current truce expires, should efforts to end the conflict through negotiation fail.
The pressing need to restructure and unite its various military and security forces puts PLC in a precarious position. PLC President Rashad al-Alimi has stated that the unification of these forces is the base that will enable the government to overcome current challenges and threats and restore the state and its institutions. To realize this, Al-Alimi will need the full backing of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Otherwise, efforts at reorganization could devolve into recrimination and defection, as occurred after the signing of the Riyadh agreement in November 2019. If the PLC fails to sense the danger from an active AQAP and proactively counter the group, the consequences for the new leadership will be dire.
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