Soldiers shout at the media in front of the main gate of the headquarters of a Yemeni army complex, the scene of a bomb blast, in the southern port city of Aden, April 3, 2014.
CNN published a video clip featuring two al Qaeda leaders – Nasser al Wahayshi, al Qaeda’s number two and the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and Ibrahim al Rubaish, a former Guantanamo detainee and AQAP’s shari’a official – speaking to a gathering of over 100 AQAP militants in Yemen. Wahayshi is wanted by the US, and neither Wahayshi nor Rubaish seemed particularly concerned for their safety.
Whether the US missed an opportunity to strike or chose not to act is not clear. (US officials, according to CNN, are not commenting, but acknowledging either way could compromise intelligence collection efforts.)
But the takeaway here is that we’re not winning in Yemen. Leadership attrition through drone strikes has had a limited effect. And a counterterrorism partnership has been unable to actually defeat the group allegedly “ousted” from south Yemen in spring 2012.
There has been no follow-up offensive against AQAP since then. Yemen’s security forces suffer regular casualties at the hands of AQAP fighters. The group’s most recent major attack was on the regional military headquarters in Aden, Yemen’s second-largest city, on April 2. A checkpoint attack credited to AQAP killed a score of Yemeni soldiers the week prior.
The speakers in the video are AQAP militants who had escaped in the February 13, 2014, complex attack on a Sana’a prison. Prisoners were able to obtain explosives and grenades on the inside and then waited for the attack that freed them. At least 19 convicted AQAP militants escaped that day. Five of them spoke in the video, released just six weeks later. There are also faces purposefully obscured in the released footage, which begs the question as to why is protecting their identities so important?
Such an operation to free prisoners is reminiscent of al Qaeda in Iraq’s “Breaking the Walls” campaign in 2012-2013, that allowed it to reconstitute itself there and expand into Syria. This comes at a time when there are rumors of militants returning from the Iraq and Syria battlefield ready to bring their skills to Yemen and a Yemeni who had fought in Iraq was killed in an airstrike. Are we seeing another instance of expertise moving from one al Qaeda group to another?
Wahayshi explicitly threatened the US in this most recent video and his group in Yemen is behind at least three attempts on the US homeland. So tell me, if we’re not winning in Yemen, are we really winning against al Qaeda?