A Yemeni soldier checks vehicles near Sana’a International Airport, on Aug. 6, 2013. Yemeni officials says al-Qaeda’s branch in the country is focusing on expanding its presence in a remote eastern province that is the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden. (MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen is focusing on expanding its presence in a remote eastern province that is the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden, even as the group remains the target of U.S. drone strikes and Yemeni military assaults, according to Yemeni officials.

Last year, a U.S.-backed Yemeni military offensive drove the militants from the southern province of Abyan, which the fighters had seized during the Arab Spring revolt in the country and controlled for more than a year as they sought to create an Islamic emirate from which to attack the Yemeni government and Western targets.

But in recent months, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, as the affiliate is known, has bolstered its presence in Hadramaut, the country’s largest province. Hadramaut — which some scholars say roughly translates as “Death is among us” — abuts Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally.

“After the ousting of al-Qaeda from Abyan and the fleeing of the armed militants to different areas, it seems that al-Qaeda has shifted its attention toward Hadramaut,” said Ali Alsarari, a political adviser to Yemen’s prime minister, Mohammed Basindwa. “They control some areas and are trying to do what they did in Abyan.”

AQAP’s ambition of creating a new haven in Yemen was underscored this week as the Yemeni government announced that it had foiled a plot by the group to seize Mukalla, the capital of Hadramaut and a vital seaport, and to destroy an oil pipeline and gas facilities. It was the first time, officials said, that AQAP had tried to take over Mukalla.

“It surprised us that they would try to seize the city,” said Rajeh Badi, a spokesman for Basindwa.

The group’s new boldness comes as its ties to al-Qaeda’s central branch in Pakistan and its profile in jihadist circles are growing. AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi, once bin Laden’s personal secretary, is the terrorist network’s No. 2 leader, after Ayman al-Zawahiri, according to analysts.

The interception last week of a discussion between the two al-Qaeda leaders of a potential attack on Western targets prompted the closure of 19 U.S. embassies and consulates in the Middle East and Africa, as well as a global travel alert. The State Department this week evacuated non-emergency personnel from its embassy in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. Although the port and pipeline raids were thwarted, U.S. officials said they remain on alert because they think the plot might have been part of a broader plan.

“It’s possible that the plot has been delayed, but the concern remains that AQAP has something in the works,” said a U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Drone campaign

The Obama administration considers AQAP among the greatest threats to the United States. The group sent parcel bombs on flights into the United States in 2010 and orchestrated a foiled plot to bomb an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. In response, the administration unleashed a campaign of drone strikes across southern and eastern Yemen that has killed AQAP militants but also bred anger and fostered sympathy for the group among many Yemenis.

In light of the growing criticism, the administration had cut back on drone attacks this year. Recently, however, the pace has intensified. On Thursday, two U.S. drone strikes killed nine suspected militants, the Associated Press quoted Yemeni military officials as saying. They were the sixth and seventh such attacks in less than two weeks. Since July 27, drone attacks have killed 31 suspected militants, according to an AP count of the dead based on details provided by Yemeni security officials.

Over the past year, Hadramaut has been a target of airstrikes. From mid-May to December last year, there were seven U.S. drone strikes in the province — about 17 percent of the total such raids in Yemen in 2012, according to the Long War Journal, a Web site that monitors drone attacks. Before May 2012, there were no strikes in Hadramaut. Last week, a strike in the province killed five alleged AQAP militants, according to the Web site.

Portions of Hadramaut have been AQAP bastions for several years, but what is new is the group’s effort to make the province its main stronghold, said Alsarari and other Yemeni officials. Hadramaut, which covers a third of Yemen, is one of the poorest and most geographically inhospitable regions in the Arabian Peninsula, and the highly conservative tribal society there practices a strict form of Islam. Such conditions help AQAP win recruits and sympathy.

Moreover, bin Laden’s clan hails from a region of Hadramaut where clan and tribal loyalties trump national identity, allowing greater protection and shelter for AQAP fighters. The province’s proximity to Saudi Arabia also allows for free flows of militants: AQAP was formed from the merger of al-Qaeda’s Yemeni and Saudi branches in January 2009.

Saleh’s shadow

Yemeni officials insist that AQAP’s takeover of Abyan will not be replicated in Hadramaut, saying that the political and military climate is different now. In 2011, Islamist militants linked to AQAP took advantage of the country’s political turmoil amid the populist uprising and seized control of large swaths of the south, especially Abyan.

The ease of that takeover prompted critics of then-
President Ali Abdullah Saleh to accuse him of purposely losing territory as a tactic to convince the United States, neighboring countries and other allies that instability would result if he stepped down. Saleh’s government had a mixed record on combating extremist groups, sometimes aligning with them to gain power or leverage aid from the West.

After Saleh left office last year under pressure from the United States and neighboring Arab countries, his handpicked successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, launched a major U.S.-backed offensive against the militants and pushed them out of Abyan. Many of the fighters scattered across several provinces, including Hadramaut, while others launched a shadowy insurgency, striking Yemeni military, security and government targets.

Today, Yemeni military officials say they are engaged in a tit-for-tat guerrilla conflict. “As a Yemeni proverb says, ‘One day for you and the other against you,’ ” said Brig. Gen. Ali Saeed Obaid, deputy chief of the general staff in the Defense Ministry. Cooperation with the United States, he added, is closer than ever, and the U.S. drones are a key tool for the Yemeni military.

Last week, Hadi visited the White House to discuss the U.S.-Yemeni efforts to combat the militants, as well as other bilateral issues. But even as the counterterrorism relationship deepens, Alsarari said, his government is concerned about AQAP receiving support “from some of the figures in the former regime” as the group extends its reach in Hadramaut.

Saleh remains in Sanaa, and his loyalists control significant ministries in the coalition government. His critics say he is still a political force, meddling in governmental affairs and fomenting instability. The relationship between Saleh and Hadi is growing tense, Alsarari said. But he added that the fight against AQAP will not be affected.

“The government is now committed for real to fight terrorism,” Alsarari said. “Unlike the former regime, the government now does not see that it has to build any form of relationship with al-
Qaeda to use it to fight any other sides.”

Almujahed reported from Sanaa. Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.