Whether it’s half-a-billion dollars in “lost” weaponry or arms and materiel sold directly to Saudi Arabia, one thing is clear: The U.S. is playing a major role in the chaos unravelling Yemen.
A man stands guard in a street in Sanaa, Yemen, after an al-Qaida attack. Al-Qaida has spread to operate in every province of the country of more than 25 million.
LONDON — President Barack Obama told reporters in January that his administration remains intent on addressing terrorism in Yemen by opposing the threat posed by al-Qaida in the impoverished nation on the Arabian Peninsula. Yet it seems that Saudi Arabia’s declaration of war on March 25 brought that strategy to a screeching halt.
The kingdom could have done more than put the brakes on the global fight against terror in Yemen. Indeed, it now appears as if the United States has been cornered into enabling the very radicals it aims to eradicate.
Speaking on America’s counter-terror strategy in Yemen in light of increased political tensions and instability there, Obama insisted during his January visit to India that, “[O]ur second priority is to maintain our counter-terrorist pressure on Al Qaida in Yemen and we’ve been doing that.”
Calling out reports suggesting that the U.S. has suspended its counter terrorism activity as inaccurate, he asserted, “We continue to go after high value targets in Yemen and will continue to maintain the pressure required to keep American people safe.”
And while U.S. officials’ counter-terror narrative remains superficially unchanged, experts have warned that Riyadh’s unilateral military intervention against the Houthis, a rebel militant group that has taken hold of Yemen, played directly into al-Qaida’s hands, upending America’s anti-terror rhetoric.
“When it comes to the Houthis and whatever sectarian or political prejudice Western media might harbor, it is crucial to understand that no other factions in Yemen desire to destroy al-Qaida more than than they do,” Joaquin Flores, director and geopolitical analyst for the Center for Syncretic Studies – Bosnia, told MintPress News.
He added: “And yet the U.S. has done everything it can to downgrade the Houthis’ pull in Yemen in favor of factions and groups backed by Saudi Arabia — al-Islah, for example, which we know have disturbing ties to Islamic radicalism.”
Islah is a Sunni radical party that serves as an umbrella for several religious-based subgroups, including the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist militants. Since 1994, Islah has benefited from Saudi Arabia’s backing — both politically and financially — to act as a counter-power to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s own political party, the General People’s Congress.
Yemeni military officials also share the view that Saudi Arabia’s grand coalition of the willing — Morocco, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan, Sudan, the U.S. and the European Union — has all but enabled al-Qaida by creating both a security and political vacuum terrorists can use to their advantage.
Speaking to MintPress, Maj. Gen. Abdul Rahman al-Halili, commander of Yemen’s First Military Region, based in the southern province of Hadramawt, noted:
“Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen made it possible for al-Qaida militants to move outside their usual zone of influence. This change in political dynamics and Western nations’ shift in focus from Sunni radical groups to downsizing a perceived Shia threat has acted as a powerful boost for militants’ recruitment strategy and ambitions in Yemen.”
He added: “Al-Qaida today is more dangerous than ever before, as Yemen no longer has the infrastructure or military unity required to thwart its advances.”
The enemy of my enemy
The ugly stepsister of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen pales in comparison to its oil-rich neighbors. Impoverished, unstable and unruly, Yemen has been plagued by pandemic corruption, systemic unrest, widespread poverty and crippling inequality for well over three decades.
“A geostrategic marvel and an opportune breeding ground for wannabe radicals due to a grand lack of government oversight and deep-seated grievances against the state, al-Qaida was quick to recognize Yemen’s terror potential. Just like Afghanistan became terror radicals’ ground zero in the 1980s, Yemen would be al-Qaida’s frontline in Arabia, right on the doorstep of mighty Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of the very ideology which has moved and animated Islamic terrorism.”
Though Yemen has long been al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) playground in the Middle East, serving as a space for the radical arms of several Saudi-supported and -funded groups to run amok, many in Yemen, including the Houthis, have voiced their desire to oppose the rise of radicalism as the new political and institutional paradigm.
Dragged through the mud by the mainstream media for their alleged link to Iran, the Houthis — rather than radical Islamists — have been blamed for Yemen’s descent into chaos.
In a report for the New York Review of Books last month, Robert Worth, a veteran Middle East journalist, wrote: “The Houthis, unlike Hezbollah and other Shia movements, do not take directions from Tehran, and have received relatively small amounts of aid.”
Echoing Worth’s analysis, Adam Baron, a Yemen analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, was quoted in a recent report for The Guardian as saying:
“The reason why we are seeing such language from the supreme leader is that his hands — or rather the Iranian government’s hands — are pretty tied at this point. In terms of providing financial or military support for the Houthis, it’s very hard to see how they would be able to do it. Making these strong statements are almost their only option.”
Speaking to MintPress, Mojtada Mousavi, an Iranian political analyst and editor in chief of Iran’s View, said: “Although the Houthis and the group’s political arm, Ansarallah, quickly positioned themselves as America’s natural allies in counter terrorism, Washington chose instead to side with the very powers which have exploited radicalism to exert control over the greater Middle East region — Saudi Arabia.”
“Let’s be clear about something: Saudi Arabia is part of the terror equation and although the U.S. says it wants to destroy terror its officials are, however, getting in bed with terror’s financiers. Why? Because it makes economic sense to do so — arms dealers are happy and Big Oil is happy. The Houthis were best positioned to oppose the rise of al-Qaida, and this has been jeopardized by this war Riyadh is waging against Yemen. This alone should make you want to reframe your assumptions on why the Houthis have been labelled as an immediate threat to the region. A threat to who?”
An al-Qaida logo is seen on a street sign in the town of Jaar in southern Abyan province, Yemen.
Looking at how quickly Yemen descended into yet another terror spiral in the wake of the Saudi military campaign, several military officials have raised questions about King Salman’s ultimate goals. Maj. Gen. al-Halili told MintPress:
“By seeking to neutralize the Houthis, as the Saudi military leadership has claimed, it is really Yemen’s military power, its very infrastructure, which has been devastated and systematically annihilated. Bearing in mind that it has been our military superiority so far which has enabled us to keep terror militants at arms’ length, Yemen’s ability to fight terror has been dramatically thwarted. It is actually on the back of Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen that we have witnessed a resurgence in al-Qaida-related activities.”
Indeed, al-Qaida managed to seize control of an airport in Mukalla, the capital of the southeastern province of Hadramawt, on April 16. The group now controls nearly the entire city of 200,000 people.
Since March 25, al-Qaida has successfully tightened its hold over southeast Yemen by taking hold of a military base and an airport, as well as maintaining its positions in the eastern province of Shabwa.
The group has also been able to procure high-caliber weapons, tanks, armored vehicles and other key military materiel. Ahmed al-Junaid, a spokesman and leading member of the Houthis, told MintPress:
“Al-Qaida has now access to high-caliber weapons, including missiles and high-value military equipment. Saudi Arabia is not just trying to downgrade our men’s ability to repel terror militants; it is working to empower radicals — and that with the tacit blessing of Washington. Where is the U.S. now, I’m asking? What happened to, we will fight terror wherever it lies? We know where it lies — it is north of our borders in Al Saud’s plushy palaces.”
The Obama administration has been often accused of “leading from behind,” and geopolitical analyst Flores warns that the U.S. could be arming from behind as well. In stark contrast to former President George W. Bush’s bullish foreign policy stance, Obama has enacted a more passive approach, positioning America not as a leader and driver of world policy but as an observer.
“Washington’s failure in keeping track of its military aid in the Middle East, might it be in Yemen, Iraq, Syria or Libya, has proven not just dangerous but reckless, as terror militants have managed to seize, control and grab increasingly key military assets,” Flores told MintPress. “One could actually argue that the U.S. is willingly playing both sides of the river — or rather, those weapons dealers colluding with officials in Washington are.”
On March 17, U.S. officials confirmed to the Washington Post that an estimated $500 million worth of military equipment had vanished in Yemen.
“The Pentagon is unable to account for more than $500 million in U.S. military aid given to Yemen, amid fears that the weaponry, aircraft and equipment is at risk of being seized by Iranian-backed rebels or al-Qaeda, according to U.S. officials,” the Post reported.
With half a billion dollars of weapons on the loose, Washington decided to withhold further military aid to Yemen. “As a result, the Defense Department has halted shipments to Yemen of about $125 million in military hardware that were scheduled for delivery this year, including unarmed ScanEagle drones, other types of aircraft and Jeeps. That equipment will be donated instead to other countries in the Middle East and Africa,” the newspaper continued.
Flores, who has been paying particularly close attention to al-Qaida’s movements in Yemen since late last month, when the Saudi-led military intervention created a power and security vacuum to be exploited, stressed that beyond the loss of $500 million worth of military hardware, militants stand to benefit from additional “military aid air drop-offs.”
“For about two weeks now the Saudis and their allies have parachuted weapons and other supplies to their allies on the ground against the Houthis,” he said. “Since no one is exactly clear on who those allies actually are, it is fair to assume that al-Qaida militants will exploit such chaos and further grab military supplies.”
Al-Junaid echoed Flores’s assertions:
“We know that al-Qaida and members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen are hiding within the ranks of the pro-Hadi militias, and we know that the coalition has been sending military aid to those factions. How much more proof do you need before waking up to the fact that al-Qaida is being sponsored by Saudi Arabia?”
While the U.S. has been labelled careless “at best” by Flores for losing track of its military aid in Yemen, Iran View’s Mousavi warns this may be just the tip of the iceberg.
“Nevermind the $500 million worth of weaponry, what about the billions of dollars Saudi Arabia has spent on buying U.S. weapons?” Mousavi said. “If Saudi Arabia is, as many suspect, the biggest and most direct sponsor of terror in the region, then by association the U.S. is supplying radicals.”
A 2013 report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reveals trends in arms transfers. The group found that Saudi Arabia’s thirst for defense imports has been growing in recent years:
“In 2009–13 the UAE was the world’s fourth largest arms importer and Saudi Arabia the fifth largest, having been the 18th largest in 2004–2008. Both countries have large outstanding orders for arms or advanced procurement plans. In particular, Saudi Arabian imports will increase with additional deliveries of Typhoon combat aircraft from the UK, and deliveries of 154 F-15SA combat aircraft from the USA from 2015. In 2013 Saudi Arabia selected armoured vehicles from Canada worth $10 billion.”
U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia have been heavily scrutinized and challenged by analysts over the past few years as the kingdom’s desire to replenish its military stock has run parallel to militants’ advances in the Middle East. In an October report for the Middle East Eye, Mary Atkinson noted: “Saudi Arabia’s participation in the anti-IS coalition, and now this large-scale new investment in US arms, looks likely to raise eyebrows among many.”
“Saudi Arabia has long voiced fervent opposition to [Syrian President Bashar] Assad’s government, and has been involved in funding rebel groups throughout the drawn-out conflict. Added to the ambiguous outcomes of the current bombing campaign are long-standing allegations that Saudi Arabia has been responsible for funding groups like IS in Syria, or at the very least not doing enough to prevent its citizens from funnelling funds.”
Both Flores and Mousavi argue that Yemen has become Saudi-backed militants’ new frontline in the Middle East, hence the kingdom’s drive to procure more weapons. America is indeed sharing disturbing links to terror, if not by intent, at least by association.