Dispatch

One Yemeni Governor Wants Trump to Know: You’re Fighting al Qaeda All Wrong

It's local forces and economic assistance that will defeat jihadism, Maj. Gen. Ahmed Saeed bin Bourek says, not drone strikes.

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MUKALLA, Yemen — The governor of this southern Yemeni province has some advice for Donald Trump on how to destroy one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist organizations: think beyond the current whack-a-mole strategy of U.S. drone strikes.

Maj. Gen. Ahmed Saeed bin Bourek, the governor of Hadramout province, has overseen the liberation of the provincial capital of Mukalla, and the towns of Sheher and Ghayel Bawazer, from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. He has done so, he said, by employing a two-track strategy that involves “building strong local forces in al Qaeda strongholds and providing people with jobs and basic services.”

The United States, however, has chosen to fight al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen primarily through drone strikes and the rare ground incursion by special operations forces. In March alone, Donald Trump’s administration conducted 70 airstrikes in the country, nearly twice as many as in all of 2016. Trump also greenlit a special operations forces raid of an al Qaeda safe house in January, which resulted in the deaths of a Navy SEAL and as many as two dozen civilians.

Bin Bourek, however, believes that the U.S. military can’t wipe out the terrorist organization by itself. The state-of-the-art Predator drones the U.S. military uses “can achieve 50 percent success in liquidating al Qaeda,” he said. “They are not as effective as trained forces on the ground. The drones can kill leaders but cannot greatly exterminate the militants.”

He urged Trump to help train and arm local forces to confront the militants in their own regions, arguing that the current U.S. policy of filtering aid through officials of Yemen’s internationally recognized government was a mistake. He dismissed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s central government as consigned to exile in “Riyadh’s hotels” (although it is now formally based in the Yemeni port city of Aden) and unaware of conditions in the country. Assistance, he said, should instead be given directly to provincial governors like himself.

Bin Bourek has faced a long battle to wrest control of the province back from al Qaeda. The militant group seized control of Mukalla and other areas in April 2015, after the Yemeni army split between those loyal to the Houthi rebels and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and those who backed President Hadi. A year later, on April 24, 2016, government forces under bin Bourek’s command and backed by massive air support from the UAE recaptured Mukalla and other coastal cities.

“Those forces are attached to the land and know its alleys and topographical nature and weather inside out,” he said, by way of explaining his victory against al Qaeda.

This year, bin Bourek organized a military parade to celebrate the first anniversary of his eviction of jihadis from Mukalla. His photos — along with photos of other army generals and leaders of the Saudi-led military coalition in support of President Hadi — are plastered across the city’s streets. But the U.S. drone war, he fears, might be working to reverse these hard-won gains.

U.S. drones have recently been bombarding a rugged chain of mountains that connects the provinces of Shabwa, Abyan, and Baydha — areas that have long been labeled as al Qaeda safe havens. Intelligence reports from the Saudi-led coalition, however, have shown that hundreds of al Qaeda militants who fled the U.S. drone attacks in Shabwa, Abyan, and Baydha were regrouping on Hadramout’s large plateau — not far from where the governor is based.

“They are as many as 1,500 militants, and we are planning to attack them,” bin Bourek said.

The governor insisted that Yemeni army commanders — with the help of UAE soldiers and Emirati Apache helicopters — would drive out the militants and stabilize the remote areas of Hadramout. But his critics, in and outside the country, wonder whether the Yemeni soldiers bin Bourek has in mind, known as the Hadramout Elite Forces, are up to the task.

“We only have AK-47s and other light arms. We do not know how [we will] confront al Qaeda and other enemies when the coalition leaves,” a Yemeni soldier said angrily as he headed to his office in the Khalef district of Mukalla, locally known as the city’s “green zone.”

In March, al Qaeda militants assaulted a checkpoint manned by government forces in Mukalla’s Dawan district. The militants outgunned the soldiers, who were armed with AK-47s and only a few magazines each, and killed five of them when they ran out of ammunition.

The governor admits that al Qaeda militants have better weaponry than his forces. During their reign in Mukalla, the militants seized huge stashes of heavy weaponry and stole millions of dollars. Now they are using the Yemeni army’s own weaponry against it. “We are in need of better arms and help in securing the coasts,” bin Bourek said. “We sometimes learn that our forces are having AK-47s and light machine guns, while al Qaeda possess anti-aircraft and other heavy weapons.”

The governor is at loggerheads with the Saudi-backed government in Aden. The issue ultimately comes down to money: The central government depends on international donations, and its own disgruntled public servants have not been paid for several months.

Bin Bourek, for his part, refuses to transfer revenues from the seaport under his control in Hadramout province to the central government in Aden. The province produces more than 40,000 barrels of crude oil a day, and the governor collects roughly $3 million monthly from the port and other money-making government bodies.

“This government wants to be centralized, as like Ali Abdullah Saleh,” the governor complained. “They just want to take from us.”

Despite these myriad challenges, bin Bourek’s supporters have grand ambitions for their city. They boast that Mukalla is poised to be Yemen’s Erbil — a haven of stability and economic progress within their war-torn and impoverished country.

But critics say the governor has devoted his time to strengthening his power in Mukalla while neglecting other areas of the province, where assassinations and security incidents happen almost daily, in the process. Hadramout is divided into two administrative entities: Wadi Hadramout and coastal Hadramout, which includes Mukalla. “He focused his efforts on the coastal areas of Hadramout and neglects us,” said a government official from Wadi Hadramout.

Al Qaeda has attempted to exploit this neglect and the corresponding security vacuum. It has worked to build military camps in some rugged areas of Hadramout and trap army soldiers who leave Mukalla to visit their families in the countryside.

Even in Mukalla, concerns remain about both al Qaeda infiltration and the heavy-handed measures required to keep the jihadi organization down. Bin Bourek’s soldiers have been heavily deployed at Mukalla’s entrance, and armed vehicles patrol the city’s streets day and night. The city’s main airport is said to have been turned into a prison, holding hundreds of al Qaeda militants, criminals, and activists. Though the peace in the city has held, its courts are still out of service, with judges refusing to prosecute al Qaeda members for fear of reprisal attacks.

The dangers remain very real, but bin Bourek is convinced that peace will only come at the hands of local forces, not U.S. Predator drones.

Which is not to suggest that Yemen doesn’t want foreign assistance. He concluded our interview with a direct appeal to U.S. President Donald Trump to “help trigger an economic boom in Yemen that would put an end to unemployment and to reinstall basic services like electricity, water, and security.”

SALEH AL-OBEIDI/AFP/Getty Images

Saeed al-Batati is a freelance journalist based in the port city of Mukalla, the capital of Yemen’s Hadramout province

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