The Western mass media recently ran stories about how al Qaeda members in Yemen often took bribes to abandon territory and sometimes al Qaeda members switched sides and fought in pro-government militias. The implication was that the United States provided some of the bribe money and quietly condoned or encouraged the use of bribes as well as former al Qaeda members fighting for the government. The reality was that these practices are local customs, have been reported on for decades and known by American Special Forces troops and intel agencies since the 1970s. It was no secret. It was simply the way things were done in Yemen. It’s actually worse than the recent headline stories imply and gotten worse since 2008 when many survivors of the al Qaeda defeat in Iraq fled to Yemen, where Arab Islamic terrorists could always find some sanctuary among the Sunni Arab tribes of southern and eastern Yemen. The bin Laden family came from Yemen as did many recent Islamic terrorists. Yemeni sanctuary is easier to obtain and sustain if the Islamic terrorists have the cash to share with their hosts. If a Sunni Arab dominated government later comes along with more cash and other gifts the Islamic terrorists, especially local tribesmen serving al Qaeda, will take the money and disperse or even join government forces.
American involvement in Yemen has been limited (to UAV attacks and intel gathering) since 2014 and mainly directed at areas where Islamic terrorists were most active. This has often been in central Yemen, especially Baida province. Most of Baida province is controlled by Sunni tribes, many of them hospitable to Islamic terrorists (or anyone with a lot of cash). Baida is where most of the American UAV attacks on AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) members take place. The American UAV attacks continue in Yemen and many of the attacks are not announced. So far in 2018, there have been about 30 attacks. As in 2017 (when there were 131 attacks), the ones in 2018 have been mainly against AQAP and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) camps and key personnel in central Yemen (especially Baida province). This greatly reduces Islamic terrorist capabilities in Baida, which had long been an Islamic terrorist stronghold. East of Baida province are Shabwa and Hadramawt provinces. The later stretches from the sea to the Saudi border and is largely desert. Along with Baida, these two provinces used to host most AQAP personnel and base areas. But since 2017 AQAP has been under heavy attack by the Americans and the Arab coalition and the Islamic terrorists have responded by shifting more of their attacks to the government and Arab coalition forces. AQAP took credit for 273 attacks in 2017 and in the first six months of that year, some 75 percent of these attacks were against the Shia rebels. But in the second half of 2017 half, the attacks were against fellow Sunnis (government and coalition forces). In 2018 the remaining AQAP are mainly fighting for survival against the government and coalition forces.
All this is taking place in the midst of a civil war in Yemen which began in 2014 as Iran backed Shia tribes from the north seized the capital (Sanaa). The Yemen government is backed (often reluctantly) by the majority Sunni Arabs. That is why Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states in the region oppose the Shia rebels. These Arab states intervened during 2015, first with air power followed by ground troops. The Shia rebels have been losing, slowly, ever since and while Arab air power performed well Arab cash was key to achieving victories on the ground,
By 2017 the war in Yemen had morphed into two separate conflicts. In the northwest and along the Red Sea coast it is Iran-backed Shia rebels versus the Yemeni government backed by Saudi Arabia (and their local allies plus the United States). The rest of Yemen is a fight between Yemeni government (backed by the Saudi coalition) and Yemeni tribal separatists who often host AQAP factions. In the past Yemen was rarely united and that separatism divides the country between the north (where most of the Shia are) and the south (mostly Sunni Arab tribes. The current civil war is not unique, the last one was in the 1990s.
At the same time Yemen has serious economic and social problems that are getting worse because of all the unrest since the 2011 Arab Spring (and outright civil war since 2015). Before the civil war began in 2011 the Yemeni GDP was $37 billion. Now it is less than half that and falling. Hunger and disease are increasing as are associated deaths. Foreign aid efforts are often plundered by locals. Yemen has long been considered one of the most corrupt nations on the planet. In 2016 Yemen ranked 170th out of 176 countries. Most Yemenis will agree that corruption is a major problem. Yet most Yemenis are less willing to admit that Yemen is not a country but rather a collection of tribes that don’t get along and cannot agree on how to work together to make a united Yemen work.
Poverty and hunger are nothing new for Yemen and the primary causes, in addition to corruption, have been around for a long time. The population problem is the result of a high birth rate, which is made possible by modern technology and encouraged by ancient customs and religious beliefs. The impact of conservative forms of Islam also means there has been little economic or educational improvements, at least compared to the non-Islamic world, for a long time. The economy is primitive and unproductive. Even before the unrest escalated in 2011 water, food and power shortages, as well as growing unemployment made life miserable for most Yemenis. Because of all these pre-existing problems and all the unrest since 2011 Yemen is now broke, disorganized, desperate and still fighting itself.
While most adult males in Yemen are armed (it’s an ancient tradition) few of those armed men are trained soldiers or even members of some kind of organized combat unit. What does exist is a lot of local tribal leaders who can quickly organize a few dozens to a few hundred armed men to oppose someone they fear or simply don’t like. This means, and has always meant, that Yemen never had sufficient security forces (reliable soldiers or police) to impose order if large segments of the population disagreed with the central government. This has long been a problem with the Shia tribes of the north and many of the Sunni tribes in the south and southeast. Since 2011 both these groups have been very unhappy and since early 2017 the separatist Sunni tribes in the south have become more hostile to the government and more willing to tolerate the presence of Islamic terrorists, especially if these groups contain some locals and know how to behave themselves.
Because of this inability to occupy and police much of the country there are large areas where armed groups can freely move (sometimes only at night) and thus threaten government claims that the area is under government rule because it is no longer occupied by Shia rebels or Islamic terror groups. This is most evident in the southwest where the Shia rebels and local allies can still wander about. A similar situation is evident in the southeast where large areas along the coast between the two largest ports in the country (Aden and Mukalla) are home to separatist tribes who are not only hostile to the government but often willing to tolerate the presence of AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) groups. Because of this until April 2016 AQAP controlled more territory than the Shia rebels. This included the southeastern port of Mukalla, about 600 kilometers of coastline and much of the surrounding Hadramawt province. AQAP took control of Mukalla in April 2015. For over a year AQAP controlled most of the roads near the southeastern coast. As a result, government forces or anyone else was subject to attack or, if armed, a request for a contribution of cash or goods before passing without violence. As a result of this government forces had to move in heavily armed convoys to avoid ambushes or extortion attempts. Aid convoys are also subject to demands for “taxes.” AQAP was trying to operate like a government in the southeast but was hampered by a shortage of money and regular air attacks by Arab warplanes and American UAVs. AQAP obtained most of the cash needed to run its “government” by taxing everything (commercial goods and aid supplies) coming through Mukalla. This income enabled AQAP to pay most of its “government” workers on a regular basis. By the end of April 2016, AQAP lost control of Mukulla and with it a major source of income. After that AQAP was scattered to the countryside and actively seeking allies. These were found among separatist-minded tribal leaders. For this reason, AQAP can still travel regularly from the areas north of Mukulla all the way north to the Saudi border or all the way west to the outskirts of Aden.
Since early 2017 American UAVs have been more active in these areas, monitoring the traffic and carrying out more missile attacks on AQAP personnel. But it most cases the local tribesmen and the AQAP look identical from the air. It requires electronic eavesdropping and some informants on the ground to identify vehicles carrying just AQAP members who are worth a missile or two.
Between the rebel west and the separatist tribes in the east, there is a large area from the coast north to the Saudi border that is under government control. This is largely because of friendly (and often well compensated) local tribal leaders. Because of that government forces are now within 20 kilometers of the rebel-held national capital Saana and even closer to the remaining Red Sea ports the rebels hold and use to raise money and through which Iran smuggles military supplies. This includes, so far, components for over a hundred ballistic missiles which are assembled in Yemen with the help of Iranian advisors and then fired at targets in Saudi Arabia. All of these missiles have either landed in the empty desert or been intercepted by Saudi operated American Patriot anti-missile missiles. But in most of Yemen, the most potent weapon has been cash. If you want to get AQAP camps away from important roads or oil facilities (Yemen has much less of that that the other Arabian states) large cash payments are more effective, and unlike smart bombs, avoid any civilian casualties. This use of bribes instead of bloodshed is an ancient tradition worldwide and especially in Arabia.