Yemeni militias backed by Saudi Arabia, the United States and the United Arab Emirates are actively paying off al-Qaeda-allied factions to abstain from the fighting, and are recruiting al-Qaeda members to fight against Shiite rebels, according to a new investigative report.
Ever since 2015, when the civil war in Yemen broke out, the US, along with its Arab allies UAE and Saudi Arabia, has supported Sunni troops in their war against Shiite Houthi rebels. The latter are believed to be supported by Iran, and the US-backed coalition is engaged in an effort to curtail what it sees as Iranian expansionism in the Middle East.
But Iranian-supported fighters are just one of the many well-armed factions involved in the Yemeni Civil War, which Washington is ostensibly against. Another such faction is Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Peninsula (AQAP), believed to be the strongest surviving branch of the group that carried out the attacks of September 11, 2001. For several years now, the US-led coalition in Yemen has argued that its forces have severely limited AQAP’s strength and ability to fight, and that the group’s territorial control has been shattered. But a new investigative Text published on Monday by the Associated Press argues that the reason why AQAP’s activities appear to have decreased in Yemen, is that its commanders are being bribed by US-backed Sunni militias and that its fighters are being recruited to fight against the Houthis. As strict Sunni Salafists, AQAP members view the Shiite Houthis as apostates and enemies of Islam. They are therefore “effectively on the same side as the Saudi-led coalition” in Yemen, note the editors of the Associated Press report. Citing “interviews with two dozen officials, including Yemeni security officers, militia commanders, tribal mediators and […] members of al-Qaeda”, the report’s authors say that US-backed Sunni militias “actively recruit al-Qaeda militants […] because they’re considered exceptional fighters”.
The Associated Press report also claims that the Sunni coalition has struck a series of secret agreements with AQAP, under which it paid off its fighters to abandon several Yemeni towns that were under their control. Upon leaving, these AQAP fighters were allowed to take with them tons of military equipment and valuables, including cash. In one case, AQAP was bribed to abandon the port city of Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth-largest urban center, and its fighters were allowed to keep their weapons and up to $100 million in looted cash deposits, said the Associated Press. In another case, AQAP militants were paid off to leave several towns in Yemen’s Abyan province, and 250 of them were incorporated into the so-called Security Belt, a Sunni militia backed by the government of the UAE. The AQAP fighters reportedly told their Security Belt commanders that they would “unite with the devil [himself] in the face of Houthis”.
The Associated Press notes that there is no evidence that funds supplied to Yemeni Sunni militias by the US have ended up into the hands of AQAP. Additionally, the US government has repeatedly denied accusations by Russia, Syria, and others that it supports various al-Qaeda factions. However, the Associated Press argues that the US Pentagon has been privy to the secret agreements between the Sunni militias and AQAP, which some say may end up strengthening al-Qaeda’s most formidable local branch anywhere in the world.