YEMEN: In this file photo Yemeni soldiers stand near a rocket launching during a major offensive against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in the Maifaa region of Shabwa province on May 4, 2014. -AFP

ABU DHABI: Years of setbacks have weakened the once mighty Yemeni branch of Al-Qaeda, but the militants are seizing the opportunity to regenerate while the government and Houthi rebels are locked in a fight to the death in the north. Government security officials and tribal leaders said that the fierce battle for Marib, which has raged for the past month, is creating a security vacuum that is being exploited by the jihadists. Once seen as the most potent Al-Qaeda franchise, they have suffered multiple defeats in the past three years, leaving them deprived of territory and fighters, and with mystery surrounding the fate of the leadership.

"The governorate of Marib has been AQAP's main stronghold for years," said one intelligence official. While the main combatants in Yemen's six-year war sustain heavy losses in an effort to control Marib city, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula remains "at ease" elsewhere in the region where it retains strong influence in villages and small towns. "As others get busy fighting, they are training fighters again, planning, rebuilding relations" with local tribes and chasing "financial support" from local communities, the official added.

Marib city, the capital of the oil-rich governorate, is the last northern stronghold for the internationally recognized government which is backed by a Saudi-led military coalition. The Houthis control the rest of the north after years of conflict which has plunged Yemen into the world's worst humanitarian crisis. "The war in Marib could be ending the maximum pressure campaign that almost wiped (AQAP) out" in Yemen in the last few years, another Yemeni intelligence official said.

Rapid rise..

Born at a meeting of jihadists on a January evening in 2009, in southern Abyan's rugged mountains, AQAP was a marriage of convenience between the network's offshoots in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, as they faced the onslaught of US and regional military campaigns. The group led by Nasser Al-Wuhayshi and his deputy Said Al-Shihri, former prisoners in Sanaa and Guantanamo respectively, found immediate success as Yemen grappled with growing instability-a secessionist movement in the south, a rebellion in the north, and a crippling economic crisis.

In one year, the group recruited hundreds of fighters with the help of local tribes, attracted jihadists from Asia and Africa, claimed deadly attacks, and attempted to kill a senior Saudi official and bomb a US civilian plane. It even issued one of the first English online jihadist magazines, called Inspire.

Even before that, the shadow of al-Qaeda hung over Yemen-the group claimed responsibility for the 2000 attack against the destroyer USS Cole in the southern city of Aden that killed 17 US military personnel. By the end of that decade "they had a strong basis for their movement and many safe havens," said Hossam Radman from the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies.

AQAP peaked in 2014, invading towns and taking control of the southern city of Mukalla in 2015, while its main competitor the Islamic State group was gaining ground in Iraq and Syria. Outside Yemen, the group attacked the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo in 2015, killing 12, showing its ability to strike far from home. "It is logical that the continuation of the battle in Marib and the inability of any of the two sides to win will be a major gain for the organization as it rearranges its ranks," said Saeed Bakran, an expert on Yemeni extremists.

...and decline

When Saudi Arabia launched a military intervention in Yemen in March 2015, aimed at halting the Houthis' astonishing gains, its eye was also fixed on AQAP. The UAE, a key member of the Saudi-led coalition, took the lead in driving AQAP out of villages one after the other with the help of US forces, weapons, and intelligence. US drones and special forces managed to locate and kill leaders including the long-feared Al-Wuhayshi in 2015.

Another challenge was the ambition of the Islamic State, as the rivals tussled for territory and support over the years. "All these elements weakened AQAP. Today, it is facing financial problems, many members are accused of treason, and others joined IS," a tribal leader in Marib said.

Despite that, it "continued to exploit the security vacuum created by the ongoing conflict" and to "conduct attacks and operate in areas of southern and central Yemen with relative impunity," according to a 2019 US report on terrorism. AQAP fighters are estimated to number in the low thousands, according to the report. Then came the battle for Marib, some 120 kilometers (75 miles) east of the rebel-controlled capital Sanaa.

"The fighting is helping the group reorganize. They even pushed some of their fighters to join the ranks of the resistance battling the Houthis, to benefit from the financial support they receive," the tribal leader said, referring to salaries believed to be paid by the coalition. Last month, the group called on Yemenis to raise arms against the Huthis in Marib, portraying itself once again as the "defender of Muslims" in the region.

Meanwhile, the United States' intervention to end Yemen's long conflict has energized a once lifeless peace process, observers say, but savage fighting in the country's north has thrown up yet another barrier. After six years of relentless fighting, the conflict that has brought Yemen to its knees appears to be at a turning point, just as the United Nations warns the country could tip into wide-scale famine at any moment.

The US has withdrawn support for the Saudi-led coalition's offensive in Yemen, and sources say its new envoy Tim Lenderking met face-to-face with the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who unleashed the conflict when they seized the capital Sanaa. After the freewheeling approach under former US president Donald Trump, the might of Washington's diplomacy has now swung back behind the UN pointman on Yemen, Martin Griffiths, whose unenviable job it is to get the two sides to the table.

And Saudi Arabia, with its poor rights record back in the spotlight under Joe Biden's administration, is under pressure to find a way out of the quagmire it waded into when it swooped in to support the internationally recognized government in 2016. "Lenderking has been doing the rounds in the region, engaging with parties to the conflict," a Gulf-based Western official said. "American involvement is bringing new momentum" to end the stalemate, the official said. "The support for Griffiths has never been stronger."

'Plan before the Houthis'

Despite the optimism, Lenderking received a cool response to his proposal to kick off a revived peace process, and a source close to the UN efforts said the initiative is effectively on hold until the battle raging outside the city of Marib is won or lost. The Houthis are throwing everything they have at the fight for the capital of an oil-rich region, sustaining heavy casualties as a price worth paying for the last piece of the north that the government still controls.

Its capture would hand the rebels an important new revenue source as well as a stronger position at the negotiating table, or even embolden them to push for more territory. The battle is "holding back the negotiations ... because the Houthis want to see how far they can go," the source familiar with the UN efforts said. - AFP