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Jihad at Sea – Al Qaeda’s Maritime Front in Yemen

Yemen’s state weakness due to fragmentation and ongoing conflicts allowed Al Qaeda and affiliates to take and hold territory, possibly enabling them to seize the Port of Aden. If Al Qaeda establishes safe havens in the southern Abyan province, supported by local Yemeni inhabitants, attacks at sea or in near by ports similar to the “USS Cole bombing” in 2000 could become a threat, increasing the danger to Red Sea shipping. Yet Al Qaeda is of secondary concern for the Yemeni government, with secessionist insurgencies in the north and the south threatening the state’s unity. Only a stable Yemen can effectively deny Al Qaeda a stable base in the long run.

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(Source: Stratfor)

In recent years, international shippers taking the Red Sea route have been primarily concerned with attacks by Somali pirates. Those attacks went down from 237 in 2011 to 15 in 2013 due to the Somali governments’ increased ability to fight and deter piracy, among other causes. However, another threat to international shipping in the Gulf of Aden looms. Yemen’s southern coastline is on the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb which links the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, a critical maritime choke point where roughly 8.2% of global oil supply passed through in 2009. Its oil exports, accounting for 70% of Yemeni government revenue, make the country highly dependent on its declining reserves. Yemen is an Al Qaeda stronghold, second only to Pakistan (and possibly Syria more recently). It was a target of the U.S. “drone campaign,” with 94 strikes between 2002 and 2013 (Pakistan: 368). Al Qaeda aims to enforce rigid Islamic legislation in Muslim countries and establish a global Islamic Caliphate. According to its 20-year plan, Al Qaeda aims to subdue “apostate” Muslim regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen. It hosts a franchise in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), establishing safe havens in the governorates of Al Bayda’, Ma’rib, Shabwah, Lahji and Abyan, where it exerts considerable influence.

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2002 – Bombing of M/V LIMBURG

Yemen’s weak central state
Yet the Yemeni government, headed by Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi since February 2012 after the 33-year rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh came to an end, has to deal with more than Al Qaeda. In 1990, the Yemen Arab Republic in the north united with the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south. United in name, Yemen, however, remained a fragmented entity rife with internal divisions. In 1994, a civil war between Saleh’s north and the secessionist south broke out. In 1997, a group called “Ansar Allah”, emerging from a Zaidi Shia religious organization, confronted the Yemeni government leading to armed uprisings and several rounds of fighting between 2004 and 2010. In late March 2011, the defection of General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, the chief military commander in north Yemen, led to a security vacuum in the northwest that Ansar Allah seized to take control of Saada city where it continues fighting Sunni-Salafist tribes. His defection may, however, only be a symptom of the Yemeni state’s retreat to Sana’a, neglecting the north and the south. As a consequence, Hadi has to cope with internal struggles and two rebel movements, constraining his ability to fight AQAP.

Al Qaeda’s terrorism at sea
Al Qaeda’s terrorism at sea emanating from Yemen has a tradition and method. Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, an eminent jihadi strategist, defined several choke points as a target and outlined methods for disruption: blocking the passages using mines or sinking ships in them, threatening movement at sea through piracy, martyrdom operations and weapons.

On the Earth, there are five (5) important straits, four of them are in the countries of the Arabs and the Muslims. The fifth one is in America, and it is the Panama Canal. These straits are: 1. The Strait of Hormuz, the oil gate in the Persian Gulf. 2. The Suez Canal in Egypt. 3. The Bab el Mandib between Yemen and the African continent. 4. The Gibraltar Strait in Morocco. Most of the Western world’s economy, in terms of trade and oil, passes through these sea passages. Also passing through them are the military fleets, aircraft carriers and the deadly missiles hitting our women and children … It is necessary to shut these passages until the invader campaigns have left our countries. […]. — Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, “The Global Islamic Resistance Call“.

On January 3, 2000, members of Al Qaeda attempted an attack on the USS The Sullivans (DDG-68), an Arleigh Burke-class Aegis guided missile destroyer, while in the Port of Aden. Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi of Yemeni descent, called “the Prince of the Sea”, was its mastermind. He learned boat-handling and other skills from seafarers in western Yemen, adopted the tactics of the LTTE Sea Tigers, an Islamist insurgency in Sri Lanka, and developed plans to attack in the choke points of the Straits of Hormuz and Gibraltar. He discussed the idea to attack U.S. vessels with Osama bin Laden who sent him to Aden in southern Yemen where he organized the attack on USS The Sullivans. A small group loaded a boat with explosives near USS The Sullivans, however overloading the boat so that it sank, before it could launch the attack. Nine days later on October 12, Al Qaeda avoided mistakes, successfully bombing the USS Cole. The USS Cole (DDG-67), same model as USS The Sullivans, was being refueled in the harbor at Aden when it was attacked, killing 17 sailors and injuring 39. On October 6, 2002, the same tactic worked again. A small suicide vessel rammed the MV Limburg, a French 157,000-ton crude oil tanker, in the Arabian Sea near the southern Yemeni coastal town of Al-Mukalla. On November 22, 2002, al-Nashiri was captured, and he has been held in Guantanamo ever since. Nevertheless, Al Qaeda-aligned groups remain able to attack ships. In July 2010, the “Abdullah Azzam Brigade” launched a suicide attack against the Japanese oil tanker MV M. Star in the Strait of Hormuz, injuring a crew member.

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Army soldiers standing at a tank with posters of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, secure a road in the southern Yemeni port city of Aden. (Source: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

Al Qaeda’s resurgence through soft power
In January 2009, AQAP dramatically increased in strength by merging its Saudi and Yemeni franchises. It has proclaimed Islamic Emirates in the cities of Shaqra, Jaar, Azzan and Zinjibar since 2011, and controls checkpoints in the south. An autonomous enclave, established by AQAP insurgents in the southern province of Abyan in 2011, was overrun by the military in June 2012, although some militants were reportedly displaced to other areas. Hadi was able to recapture Abyan in 2012 and restore limited control over the coastal city of Zinjibar. Abyan could, however, become a staging ground for operations to seize Aden, should the Yemeni military fail to defeat AQAP (sometimes referred to as “Ansar al Sharia”, an alias) in Zinjibar. AQAP’s leadership has recently adopted a “soft power” strategy to take and hold territory. Is has been the frequent goal of AQAP in the south to establish an Islamic state; however, in early 2011, Osama bin Laden opposed the idea in a letter to leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi due to “lack of popular support on the ground”. In April 2011, Adil al-Abab, Al Qaeda’s chief cleric, expressed the need to provide social services such as food and water, as part of the strategy to hold territory. He stated “first Zanjibar then Aden”. Later in May 2, 2011, bin Laden was killed by a US Navy SEAL team in his mansion in Abbottabad, Pakistan, but Wuhayshi continued with his strategy and made an “unprecedented” effort to develop and provide social services such as water and electricity in Jaar and Zanjibar. Even though President Hadi has been confident in his success ridding Abyan of AQAP, the fighting continues to the present date.

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(Source: Josef Polleross)

Aden’s centrality and the U.S. approach
Indeed, Aden would be a vital strategic asset for Al Qaeda, providing a secure base for attacks in the Gulf of Aden, Bab el-Mandeb, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. Aden had been a prosperous maritime hub under the British as shipments through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal became an important part of world trade. Yet Aden declined over the last two decades. Because it was mismanaged by corrupt politicians, and Al Qaeda’s attacks on the USS Cole and the MV Limburg drove up the price of marine insurance, international shippers have neglected Aden since in favor of Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia, Port Sudan and Djibouti. Instead of prospering, Aden could remain a “Cinderella of the East”, so argues author Victoria Clark. The U.S. follows a three-fold strategy in Yemen: combating AQAP, development assistance and international support for stabilization. It has repeatedly targeted and eliminated high-profile targets in Yemen, using UAVs, military-led airstrikes and CIA operations.

Yet the U.S. counter-strategy depends on the Yemeni state’s ability to maintain national unity. Yemen’s armed forces, including the navy and the air force, are poorly equipped, insufficiently trained and lack morale, limiting the government’s ability to exert control outside of the capital and ensure territorial sovereignty on land or at sea. Al Qaeda’s new soft power strategy requires a different approach in supporting the Sana’a government: assistance to local administrations, building forces to protect local communities and developing basic services. Al Qaeda might be of primary concern for the U.S., but it is only one of many threats to the Yemeni state. Hadi has, however, concentrated his security forces to fight AQAP and neglected demands of the north and the south. As a result, the national dialogue conference is in risk of failure, increasing the secessionist threat. In turn, U.S. support should not primarily focus on combating AQAP but the ability to unite Yemen as a whole, decreasing the group’s attractiveness as an alternative to the central government.

Sources

Niklas Anzinger is a Graduate Assistant at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs in Syracuse, NY. This post appeared in its original form and was cross-posted by permission from our partner site Offiziere.ch.

Sea Control 23 – USS PONCE

seacontrolemblemCAPT Rodgers, former CO of the USS PONCE Afloat Forward Staging Base, discusses how his ad-hoc crew of Sailors and civilian mariners plucked a 40 year old ship from decommissioning’s doorstep and turned it into the most in-demand platform in the Arabian Gulf.

(DOWNLOAD: SEA CONTROL 23: USS PONCE).

Sea Control is available on Itunes and Stitcher Stream Radio. Remember to tell your friends! We think Sea Control is a fine product. Anyone who says otherwise is going to steal all your banking information and email passwords because information should be free, man.

 

All images from CAPT Rodger’s unclassified post-deployment presentation on USS PONCE.Slide26

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Editor’s Note: The real question is who the jerk is who threw the chairs all around before they left.

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WarPlan Crimson: The NextWar Schedule

Cavalry? Fear not, boys. Whatever happens, we have got the Maxim gun and they have not.WarPlan Crimson was the War Department’s operational plan for the invasion of Canada, it is also the long-view schedule for NextWar and its Sea Control Podcast

NextWar Upcoming Topic Weeks:

Drone Tactics Week – Mar 3-8
Editor: Dave Blair (daveblair130(at)gmail.com)
The practical view of how a drone could be used outside (or furthering) their current model.

Defense Innovation Failures – Mar 24-29
Editor: Matt McLaughlin (matthew.mclaughlin.1(at)gmail.com)
Too little attention is paid to the innovative failures and dead ends. We’re going to fix that.

Private Military Contractors – Apr 14-19
Editor: Emil Maine (emil.maine(at)heritage.org)
Despite their recent pillorying, PMC’s have existed since before the condotierre and will continue to exist after America’s campaigns. We’ll discuss their utility and future.

Wargaming – May 5-10
Editor: Adam Kruppa (adam.kruppa(at)gmail.com)
From the table-top to the joint exercise, how do we mimic the world in ways that is useful (or not) for security and foreign policy?

Sacking of Rome – May 26-31
Editor: Paul Pryce (prycep(at)cya-ajc.ca)
The United States is the mightiest power on earth. We spend too much time concentrating on how the U.S. could fail, and less on how Hannibal or the Goths could succeed.

Strategic Communications – Jun 16-21
Editor: Nicolas Di Leonardo (nicolas.a.dileonardo(at)gmail.com)
You keep saying words, I do not think they means what you think they mean… to everyone else.

Sea Control Podcast Schedule:

Feb 24: CAPT Rodgers on the USS PONCE
Mar 3: CAPT Moore’s “More with Moore”
Mar 17: ASB with TX Hammes and Tim Walton
Mar 24: Anthony Arend and Maritime Law
Mar 31: Robert Sutter and Chinese Decision Making

Upcoming Projects: Sea Control may soon be broadening its perspective. The Phoenix Think Tank will soon be running a monthly “East Side of the Pond” edition of Sea Control and an Asia/Pacific version may soon follow.

Air-Sea Battle: Unnecessarily Provoking China?

A special rejoinder to CIMSEC’s Air-Sea Battle Week

All throughout Air-Sea Battle (ASB) week, CIMSEC hosted articles about the ASB Concept. Each is well worth the time to read and digest for different views about U.S. military efforts to defeat the growing challenges presented by anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities. Interestingly, several of the articles discussed the same scenario—a future U.S.-China conflict. Such a scenario seems almost natural, given U.S. concerns over whether China has the means to obstruct the U.S. military’s ability to project power in the Asia-Pacific. Unfortunately, it also neglects to take into consideration larger U.S. foreign policy objectives in the region.

By portraying ASB as a means to defeat China in a military conflict, these articles represent a view that is ultimately at odds with the U.S. “Rebalance to Asia” strategy (yes, it is a strategy!). A key focus of the U.S. rebalance from the beginning has been to ensure that U.S. efforts to reinvigorate its approach to the region do not unnecessarily provoke China. As then-National Security Advisor Tom Donilon stated in 2013, building a “constructive relationship with China” is one of the main pillars of the U.S. rebalance strategy.[1]

Unfortunately, as these articles demonstrate, ASB is frequently seen as a U.S. military effort specifically developed to defeat China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). This is despite frequent official U.S. statements to the contrary.[2] As the official document on ASB stated, the ASB concept is agnostic in both scenario and opponent.[3] Though this point cannot be stressed enough, it continues to elude many.

There are several reasons for the confusion about whether ASB is specifically meant for China. First, it is the result of the PLA’s own actions, as it has sought “to develop measures to deter or counter third-party intervention, particularly by the United States”—the very definition of an A2/AD strategy.[4] Second, the confusion over ASB is also fueled by earlier official U.S. military documents, which called upon the U.S. military to develop a way to counter A2/AD capabilities, such as those possessed by the PLA.[5] Third, nature abhors a vacuum: the lack of official public information about ASB in the beginning was made up for by the quick thinking of CSBA, a DC-think tank that proffered its own idea for the concept in 2010.[6] Despite being an unofficial recommendation, CSBA’s version of the concept still exerts influence over the conversation today.[7] Finally, U.S. domestic and foreign press has further muddied the waters, as a quick review of articles on ASB demonstrates.

However, confusion by the masses about whether ASB targets China is not the real problem. A bigger problem is what would occur should this view solidify within China’s senior civilian and military leadership. Were this to happen, it could result in unanticipated consequences that run counter to overarching U.S. objectives in the region.

First, it could hinder U.S. efforts to improve relations with China, a rising economic and military power in the region. Those within China’s leadership that hold a more hawkish view of U.S. intentions towards China in the Asia-Pacific would have additional ammunition to support their arguments. Conversely, those that favor improving relations with the United States would find it more difficult to make their case. Increasing People’s Republic of China (PRC) hostility to the United States would only complicate any U.S. effort to get PRC buy-in on issues of mutual concern, such as North Korea.

Second, it could cause the PLA to redouble its efforts to develop the very capabilities that ASB seeks to counter. Of particular concern here is ASB’s emphasis on the ability to strike a potential adversary’s command and control (C2) and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems, which most likely would be located on the adversary’s home turf.[8] When transposed to a hypothetical China scenario, talk of strikes on the Chinese mainland is likely to incite a knee-jerk response from a country that is already paranoid about U.S. efforts to contain its rise. The last thing the United States needs right now is a costly ASB-A2/AD arms race.

Unfortunately there are indications that some in China already see ASB as specifically targeting China. For example, in late November 2011, the spokesperson for China’s Ministry of National Defense stated that ASB reflects “the kind of view that advocates confrontation and seeks one’s own security at the expense of others”—implying that the “other” in question is China.[9] Unofficial military and civilian commentaries have more forcefully portrayed it as targeting China. A 2013 publication from China’s Academy of Military Science, an organization tasked with advising China’s senior military leadership, claimed that ASB supports U.S. military efforts “directed at China.”[10]

So, is it possible to prevent or at least lessen the likelihood that the U.S. military’s development of ASB undermines larger U.S. foreign policy objectives?  While to a certain extent it may be impossible, since some in Beijing are going to believe whatever they want despite U.S. actions or statements, there are a few steps that could still be taken.

First, the United States should conduct a senior-level policy review to determine how U.S. military efforts to ensure global access are affecting the implementation of the Rebalance to Asia. This review should be done by both the executive and legislative branches. Any review should also include those responsible for U.S. foreign policy, not just U.S. military policy.

Second, the U.S. administration should review the best way to ensure U.S. military access around the globe. Should the lion’s share of efforts be on offensive capabilities, including strikes against an adversary’s critical targets? Or should any effort be more defensive in nature, seeking instead to increase the survivability of U.S. and allied forces by defeating any enemy attacks after they have been launched? The latter may be seen as less provocative in Beijing.

Third, the U.S. military should consider rebranding ASB. Despite the U.S. military’s best efforts, it may be impossible at this stage to fully delink the concept from efforts specifically tied to defeating China. Starting anew and conducting a full-scale campaign to control the message from the beginning may help to minimize any overt connection to China in the future.

Finally, in no way should the U.S. military abandon efforts to ensure its ability to project power in light of growing Chinese A2/AD capabilities. The problem is not that the U.S. military needs to project power in support of U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific.  Instead, the issue revolves around how to do so in a way that conforms to larger U.S. foreign policy objectives. Solving this conundrum will ensure that both objectives are met without canceling each other out.

Daniel Hartnett is a research scientist at CNA and a member of the Truman Project’s Defense Council. He can be followed on Twitter @dmhartnett. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of any organization with which he is affiliated. This article draws from a longer piece done for the Center for National Policy.


[1]  Office of the Press Secretary of The White House, “Remarks by Tom Donilon, National Security Advisor to the President – As Prepared for Delivery,” The Asia Society, New York, New York, March 11, 2013.

[2] See for example, the in-depth testimony by the assistant deputy Chief of Naval Operations, current chair of the Air-Sea Battle Senior Steering Group, to the House Armed Services Committee. James G. Foggo III (USN, Rear Admiral), testimony to the House Armed Services Committee,  Subcommittee for Seapower and Projection Forces, Washington, DC, 10 October 2013.

[3] Air-Sea Battle Office, “Air-Sea Battle: Service Collaboration to Address Anti-Access and area Denial Challenges (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 17 January 2012), p. 2.

[4] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, 2013), p. 32.

[5] See, for example, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, January 2012), pp. 4-5; Joint Chiefs of Staff, The National Military Strategy of the United States of America, 2011, (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 8 February 2011), p. 14; and Office of the Secretary of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review Report, (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, February 2010), p. 31.

[6] Jan van Tol, Mark Gunzinger, Andrew F. Krepinevich, and Jim Thomas, AirSea Battle: A Point of Departure (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 18 May 2010).

[7] See, for example, T.X. Hammes, “Air-Sea Battle: Lots of Heat, Little Light,” Center for International Maritime Security, 12 February 2014, http://cimsec.org/asb-lots-heat-little-light/.

[8] Air-Sea Battle Office, “Air-Sea Battle: Service Collaboration to Address Anti-Access and Area Denial Challenges (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 17 January 2012), pp. 5-7.

[9] Wang Jingguo and Hao Yalin, “Guofang bu jiu mei zai ao zhu jun da jizhe wen, chai ‘kong hai yiti zhan’ lilun” [Ministry of National Defense Answers Reporters’ Questions about U.S. Forces in Australia, Denounces the ‘Air-Sea Battle’ Theory], Xinhua, 20 November 2011, http://news.xinhuanet.com/mil/2011-11/30/c_111206902.htm.

[10] The study in question is published by the Center for National Defense Policy, a center within the PLA’s Academy of Military Science. Strategic Review 2012 (Beijing: Military Science Press, May 2013), pp. 25-26.