The land mines had been planted. As hundreds of U.S.-backed forces approached in pickup trucks mounted with machine guns, the al-Qaeda militants watched and waited in their redoubt, tucked into the jagged mountains of southern Yemen.
The first explosion shattered one vehicle, but the convoy pushed forward. Then came a second blast. Within minutes, five trucks were destroyed and the militants began firing with heavy weapons from their perches, recalled five witnesses to the May 10 ambush.
“There were many traps,” said Raoof Salim Ahmed, 28, a fighter who was shot by an al-Qaeda sniper in the thigh and testicles, and spoke from a hospital bed. “They weren’t afraid. If they were, they wouldn’t have fought so ferociously.”
Over the past year, the shadow war between al-Qaeda and local Yemeni fighters has intensified, largely out of sight and out of the headlines. While much attention has been paid to a separate Yemeni civil war pitting northern rebels against the internationally recognized government, the battle being waged by U.S.-backed Yemeni forces against al-Qaeda militants has escalated.
In the first year of President Trump’s term, the United States conducted far more airstrikes against al-Qaeda militants in Yemen than it had in previous years. While the pace so far this year has slowed significantly, it remains well above the rate of President Barack Obama’s administration. U.S. Special Forces are on the ground here advising the anti-al-Qaeda fighters and calling in American airstrikes, a role that has grown as the air campaign has escalated.
Pentagon officials have said this effort is successfully rolling back al-Qaeda’s franchise in Yemen, considered to be the militant group’s most lethal affiliate.
But while the militants have been expelled from some of their strongholds, Yemeni forces acknowledge that their recent gains against al-Qaeda are precarious. Yemeni fighters combating the group in the hinterlands of Shabwa and Abyan provinces say al-Qaeda has weathered this pounding and remains a fierce opponent. In recent months, militants have pressed their campaign of hit-and-run attacks and strategic retreats, and have carried out a wave of bombings and assassinations, targeting government officials, security forces and others.
The intense clashes that lasted two days in the eastern Al Khabr mountains of Abyan province in May pitted some 500 local fighters against three dozen militants, witnesses said.
Five local fighters died and 19 were injured, according to hospital officials. Four militants were killed. The rest escaped after they left behind two snipers on a suicide mission to fend off their enemies.
Al-Qaeda has lost about half the Yemeni territory it controlled at the peak in late 2015, several security analysts said. But the militants remain active in portions of at least seven provinces, including Shabwa, Abyan, Al Bayda and Hadramawt, according to anti-al-Qaeda fighters, and at times operate elsewhere in the south of the country.
“Now they are more dangerous,” said Rami Ali, 25, an anti-al-Qaeda fighter who participated in the battle. “They are not located in one specific place or area, so it is difficult to find them. And they try to find any opportunity to carry out their attacks.”
Most dangerous of all
The winding road from eastern Abyan to Shabwa is peppered with signs glorifying al-Qaeda. Graffiti praises Osama bin Laden and urges rule by Islamic sharia law. Near a green-and-cream-colored mosque, a message is scrawled on a wall: “Jihad is the solution.” On a craggy mountainside flies a black-and-white al-Qaeda banner.
For nearly a decade, U.S. intelligence officials have considered al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch, known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP, as the most dangerous of all its affiliates. In 2009, AQAP tried to bomb an airliner headed to Detroit and send parcel bombs via cargo planes to Chicago the following year. AQAP also took credit for the 2015 assault on the Paris office of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that killed 11 people.
In 2011, AQAP took advantage of the political chaos that followed the Arab Spring populist revolt that eventually ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Within months, AQAP seized large swaths of southern Yemen.
A U.S.-backed Yemeni government offensive in the middle of 2012 drove the militants from many towns.
But three years later, the civil war erupted, drawing in a U.S.-backed Sunni regional coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that is trying to restore the government and weaken the influence of Iran, which is supporting the Shiite rebels. AQAP exploited the vacuum created by the civil war to seize territory, weapons and money. Al-Qaeda militants retook control over Jaar and Abyan’s provincial capital, Zinjibar, and swept into Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth-largest city and a major port. Meanwhile, over the past four years, the rival Islamic State has spawned its own modest affiliate in Yemen with at most a few hundred members, mostly al-Qaeda defectors.
Against this backdrop, the Trump administration has given the U.S. military more latitude to launch air and ground attacks without White House approval. The week after Trump’s inauguration, a U.S. Navy SEAL was killed in a botched raid north of Abyan that was anticipated by al-Qaeda.
Last year, the U.S. military carried out 131 airstrikes, more than six times the tally in 2016, according to the Pentagon’s data. The vast majority targeted AQAP, although 13 of the airstrikes were against the nascent Islamic State affiliate. So far this year, there have been at least 30 airstrikes, all but one targeting AQAP.
In December, Army Lt. Col. Earl Brown, a spokesman for the Pentagon’s Central Command, said U.S. counterterrorism efforts had degraded AQAP’s propaganda apparatus, enhanced intelligence gathering about the group and improved the targeting of militants. AQAP’s footprint and influence was “diminished,” and the goal now was to prevent the Islamic State from “filling the vacuum.”
While the airstrikes have helped U.S.-backed Yemeni forces and their allies from the UAE regain territory, some 4,000 AQAP fighters remain in Yemen, according to a study by the Council on Foreign Relations earlier this year.
‘The most difficult obstacles we face’
At the eastern entrance to the town of Azzan, which al-Qaeda once ruled, buildings are pocked with shell craters the size of cantaloupes, and graffiti glorifying the extremists remains.
The battle for Azzan last August began with airstrikes, driving out many of the militants, witnesses recalled. When U.S. and Emirati-backed Yemeni forces entered the town three days later, the remaining AQAP fighters put up little resistance. Two al-Qaeda snipers stationed at the entrance to Azzan fired away until their deaths. The rest fled.
“That’s how they fight,” said Mohammed Salim al-Buhar, the slender 31-year-old commander of the anti-AQAP forces that now control Azzan and Hota, once another militant stronghold. “They try to prevent you from moving forward, to buy time for their fighters to escape.”
The militants adopted a similar strategy when Emirati and Yemeni forces retook Mukalla in 2016, withdrawing without bloodshed. AQAP waged a fierce 72-hour battle in trying to defend Hota but eventually melted away after a month of hiding and deploying snipers.
Buhar nearly died in the battle for Hota after snipers shot him twice in the hip. Dozens of his men perished in the fighting.
Buhar, who wears camouflage and a scarf around his neck, leads the Shabwani Elite Forces, a homegrown provincial militia that claims to have more than 3,000 fighters.
Inside a spacious carpeted tent on his miliary base hangs a large portrait of the UAE’s leader, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan. The UAE supplies Buhar’s men with weapons, training and salaries. While UAE troops fight alongside his men, he said, U.S. Special Forces soldiers are there to call in airstrikes that he requests.
“There’s usually a group of four or five Americans in armored vehicles at the back,” Buhar said.
When asked about the U.S. role on the ground, Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesman for the Pentagon’s Central Command, said he could not provide specifics due to “operational security and the safety of our forces” in Yemen.
Today, Buhar’s men stand guard at dozens of checkpoints and outposts in former AQAP strongholds. But large contingents of al-Qaeda fighters still control four remote districts where mountains and caves serve as hideouts or training camps and maintain sleeper cells inside “liberated” areas.
But the militants’ use of mines and sophisticated explosives has slowed Buhar’s efforts to pursue AQAP. In one house in Hota, Buhar’s fighters found 80 bombs and C4 explosives. It was a lab that Buhar thinks may have been run by Ibrahim al-Asiri, AQAP’s infamous bomb maker, who has eluded U.S. airstrikes for years.
“The traps they plant for us, and the ambushes, are the most difficult obstacles we face,” he said. “They use explosives in dangerous and innovative ways.”
‘We are not together’
During the year that the militants controlled Zinjibar and Jaar, they set up what they dubbed the “Islamic Emirate of Waqar.” They ran the courts and the police, apprehended thieves and meted out swift justice, and provided services in ways that the country’s weak and fractured government seldom did.
In the towns of Azzan and Hota, residents said that the militants targeted government employees but treated the rest of the population well.
In rural Yemen, the largely conservative population became a source of recruits and sympathizers. Hundreds, if not thousands, of AQAP fighters hailed from local tribes and families.
For those who battled al-Qaeda fighters in the Al Khabr mountains in May, there was a suspicion that they had been betrayed, quite possibly by people they knew.
“They expected our attack because there are people that feed them intelligence,” said Yasser Saleh, an anti-al-Qaeda fighter who took part in the battle. “And so they were ready.”
Both Abyan and Shabwa provinces have long been breeding grounds for antiAmerican sentiment. The United States’ support for Israel, as well as its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have fueled anger and resentment, as have allegations of hundreds of civilian deaths in attacks by U.S. drones and fighter planes over the past decade.
“There are people who sympathize with al-Qaeda and support them,” Saleh continued. “They don’t like Americans. And they don’t like any of the forces working with them.”
Nasser al-Hassani, 26, understands. He was an al-Qaeda member in Azzan. But he became disillusioned with the militants and fled to Jaar, where he joined the local tribal forces fighting AQAP. In his native town, his family and neighbors disowned him.
“I can’t go back to my village,” Hassani said. “To them, I am a non-Muslim because I defected.”
Even inside the militias fighting
al-Qaeda, there is a fear of double agents who routinely tip off the militants. One senior leader arrived for an interview wearing a pistol on his right hip and carrying an AK-47 rifle for added protection. He spoke on the condition of anonymity and of not being photographed because he feared being assassinated.
“We caught many of the double agents, but there are still some around,” said the leader, who was wiry with a thin mustache. “Only Allah knows what’s in a man’s heart.”
Among those glad to see the militants gone, there’s a fear that the country’s political vacuum would open the way for their return. “If the government stabilizes, they can’t come back,” said Younous Ajudum, a shopkeeper in Hota.
For Ahmed, the wounded fighter in the hospital bed, as long as southern Yemen’s tangled loyalties to AQAP persist, a military victory over the militants could prove elusive.
“If we are all working together, we can get rid of al-Qaeda,” Ahmed said. “But until now, we are not together.”
Ali Almujahed contributed to this report.