ABU DHABI/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United Arab Emirates, one of Washington’s closest allies in the Middle East, is deploying its military against al Qaeda in Yemen, and in the process providing what some see as a badly-needed new template for counter-terrorism in Arab lands.
UAE special forces are orchestrating the hunt for al Qaeda in remote deserts and mountains, adding the capability of Arab troops seasoned in war zones like Afghanistan and Somalia to a campaign long the preserve of the U.S. and Yemeni militaries.
Suicide attacks killing 38 in Mukalla on Monday show the challenge. While the UAE helped to eject al Qaeda from the southern coastal city in April, militant threats persist - the latest attack was claimed by Islamic State, in Yemen a lesser force than al Qaeda.
The Emiratis deployed initially against a different foe - Yemen’s Houthi group, joining a Saudi-led campaign last year to try to reverse a bid for national power by a group seen by many Gulf Arabs as a proxy for regional arch-rival Iran.
The war weakened the Houthis, but in the resulting turmoil al Qaeda swept across the eastern side of the country, seizing more land than it had ever held and raising tens of millions of dollars from running Mukalla, the country’s third largest port.
The UAE’s al Qaeda push meets a demand made repeatedly by Washington that Gulf Arabs do more to ensure their own security.
But a so-called “Obama Doctrine” of relying on local allies instead of big U.S. military deployments abroad to fight militant jihadis has been seen as stumbling in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, despite funding and training of local partners.
Yemen may prove a happier example, its supporters hope.
The UAE response is to use special forces to try to sharpen a long-running push against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), seen as one of the jihadi network’s most capable.
The Emiratis are working with the United States to train, manage and equip Yemeni fighters in that effort, signaling they have the stamina to stick with a campaign that could last long after the separate confrontation with the Houthis is resolved.
The ability to run combined air, sea and land operations, deploy forces clandestinely and endure scores of troop losses has won acknowledgement from Western states long despairing of the fractured Yemeni army’s ability to tackle al Qaeda.
Retired General Anthony Zinni, former chief of U.S. Central Command, told Reuters the UAE was “a top military” in the region and “exponentially more capable than its size might indicate”.
“It has also shown the ability to hang in there despite casualties ... (The UAE) has proven its willingness to fight alongside the U.S. and coalitions.”
After months of preparation the UAE orchestrated the ousting of al Qaeda from Mukalla by Yemeni allies in a complex operation backed by U.S. intelligence support and aerial refueling.
While al Qaeda said it staged a tactical retreat without losses, it in fact took a beating, coalition sources said. Coalition forces estimate al Qaeda lost 450 fighters, while the coalition lost 54 Yemeni fighters. Al Qaeda fled inland.
“The focus is on not allowing al Qaeda to recover. Our intent is to keep them on the back foot,” said a senior coalition military official, who declined to be named.
“They are the most capable counter-terrorism force on the ground in Yemen,” said a U.S. counter-terrorism official familiar with Yemen, who requested anonymity.
Some in the U.S. government initially doubted the UAE’s sincerity in attacking AQAP, he said, but the Mukalla operation showed that “that’s not the case”.
The UAE’s counter-terrorism gambit comes with risks.
By taking such a central role in Yemen the UAE places itself in the middle of its turbulent politics: In particular its presence mainly in the south risks entanglement in possible unrest arising from a re-energized separatist movement, whose demands for independence for the south are growing louder.
Despite their cultural affinities, UAE officers must take care not to get on the wrong side of tribes for whom short-term alliances with jihadis are a survival tactic. Militants continue to assassinate coalition-backed military officers and stage suicide bombings of Yemeni army and police compounds.
And while the UAE has poured in more than $400 million in humanitarian aid, Yemenis remain impatient for reconstruction.
“Most people still think that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are angels because they saved us from the Houthis,” said Nisma al-Ozebi, a 21-year-old civil engineering student in Aden. “But some people are coming to think they came to Yemen not because they love us and want to help us, but because they have their own interests here.”
For now, Abu Dhabi is undaunted by the challenge and insists its campaign protects the whole region. It suggests it has the Gulf Arab heritage to help navigate complex tribal networks.
“As non-Westerners we’re able to operate with Yemeni fighters and gain their trust,” the coalition official said.
Washington is paying attention. U.S. action against al Qaeda was at first disrupted by the war with the Houthis, which forced the evacuation in early 2015 of the program’s U.S. personnel.
But after the Mukalla operation, the Pentagon said a small number of military personnel were deployed to help UAE counter-terrorism efforts, in a possible sign of increasing U.S. willingness to re-engage on the ground..
The Pentagon said last week that this support mission, initially seen as short term, is being extended.
Michael Morrell, former deputy director of the CIA, wrote in Politico that the UAE’s Mukalla assault was a “textbook solution of dealing with terrorist groups that hold territory”.
From the Yemen war’s outset, the UAE took on a big role.
Days after hostilities began, an eight-person special forces team of forward air controllers landed discreetly in a CH-47 Chinook helicopter on Aden’s Little Aden peninsula on April 13-15, 2015, the senior coalition military official said.
The team linked up with a Yemeni agent on the ground, part of the anti-Houthi southern resistance, the official said.
Within 10 days there was an amphibious landing to insert more troops. In ensuing weeks, 4-to-6 man teams of UAE special forces trained groups of 50 Yemenis and provided leadership, building a 2,000-strong team of resistance fighters in Aden.
In July 2015, after months of preparation and liaison with Saudi-led partners, the force drove the Houthis from Aden and from a big air base nearby. The UAE went on to train 4,000 Yemeni fighters in Assab, Eritrea, as a force to help prevent lawlessness in the sprawling city.
In the autumn the UAE smoothly rotated thousands of its troops in-theater, while planning for the Mukalla operation.
“The Emirates has played an exceptional role,” Mahmoud al-Salmi, a professor at Aden University, said of the UAE’s rebuilding of hospitals and schools. The coalition initially seemed to tolerate jihadis in the south, as they shared its anti-Houthi agenda, but later cracked down on them, he said.
Southern Yemenis were grateful to the coalition because now, “whether there’s secession or not, the south is in the hands of its sons and that was made possible by the coalition countries”.
Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says counter-insurgency in Yemen may last many years. “But the Emiratis are capable of making that commitment,” he said.
Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington, editing by Peter Millership