An alleged Al Qaida militant dressed up as a woman. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: In the city of Al Mukalla, southern Yemen, local security services were clued in on a group of Al Qaida militants hiding in a house the neighbourhood of Fowa. Commanders ordered highly trained forces to raid the suspected house and nail the militants. There were several militants but they were all found to be dressed in women’s clothes.

Since April 24 when government forces with the help of the Saudi-led coalition, mainly the UAE, stormed the city of Al Mukalla, the capital of Hadramout province, hundreds of Al Qaida militants who survived the massive offensive, are said to be on the run inside the city. Army commanders say that hundreds of militants died in battles with government troops or in the coalition’s heavy bombardment of their former military sites.

Major General Faraj Salmen Al Bahsani, the commander of 2nd Military Region, which includes Hadramout, and the commander of the operation, told Gulf News on Monday that his forces have arrested over 200 Al Qaida militants since late April. “We have captured more than 200 Al Qaida, including many foreigners,” he said.

Al Bahsani maintains that some of the hiding militants have resorted to covering their bodies from head to toe with a black abaya so as to slip under government forces’ radar. “We have arrested dozens of Al Qaida militants dressed in women’s clothes. We are on a constant watch out for them as to stop them from executing their evil deeds,” he said.

Al Qaida militants captured the city of Al Mukalla in April last year after brief clashes with army troops. Government officials have frequently said that the soldiers who remained loyal to the ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh handed over the major city to the militants to undermine the coalition’s war on Al Houthis that started a week earlier. After tightening their grip on the city, government forces with the help of the UAE military experts on the ground and air support launched raids on suspected Al Qaida and managed to thwart many attacks.

Watchers in Yemen think that Al Qaida changed hiding tactics as to escape the government’s crackdown.

“They have two choices; either face death or escape using methods they usually deem as religiously unlawful, like dressing up as women,” a local journalist who stayed in the city during Al Qaida occupation told Gulf News on condition of anonymity because of security concerns. “The militants know that security forces at checkpoints do not check vehicles that carry women in abayas. To solve this problem, security services should deploy female police at checkpoint,”

Trucks carrying AQAP weaponry

For three months, the militants who are infamous for their swift retaliatory attacks during the days of the ousted president have not been able to revive their old tactics of killings like drive by shootings that claimed hundreds of security officers across Yemen.

A former editor of a news site in Al Mukalla, who also asked not be quoted while talking about Al Qaida, told Gulf News that many Al Qaida militants were trapped inside the city in the wake of the government forces’ surprise attack on Al Mukalla. “A large number of Al Qaida militants from outside the city who stayed put thinking that they peers would not flee have stuck inside the city and were forced to dress up like women to leave their hiding places”.

For the first time since the beginning of counterterrorism war in the poverty stricken Yemen more than a decade, Yemen army troops that used to receive generous military support from the US, have been able to defeat Al Qaida as with the UAE-trained forces in Hadramout. Part of the credit, General Al Bahsani said, goes to the UAE’s rigorous training of his forces and smart gears. “Without the UAE’s generous military assistance, we would not have achieved this victory,” he said.

For almost a year, the UAE trained thousands of local people in military camps in the eastern desert of Hadramout province and paid their salaries.

A year after Al Qaida occupation of Al Mukalla, these highly trained and well-equipped forces, under the watchful eye of the UAE officers were assigned to clear the city and neighbouring coastal areas from thousands of Al Qaida militants. General Al Bahsani said his forces defeated Al Qaida at stunning speed due to the “well planned” military plan, coherence of his forces, and people’s willingness to get rid of Al Qaida.

General Al Bahsani said that local people have become vigilant and quickly alert security services about Al Qaida militants in the city. “This has led us to the capture of many sleeping cells. The last one was on Saturday when we raided a house and arrested a group of Al Qaida following a alert call by locals.” The journalist said people’s cooperation with the army shows that they want to completely clean their city from the militants. “When Al Qaida captured Al Mukalla, people did not embrace their ideology. Now they are sending another message that they do not want them in their city.”