UAE military vehicles at Aden’s international airport. The UAE believes its Gulf Arab heritage helps it navigate complex tribal networks in the country. Image Credit: Reuters

Abu Dhabi, Washington: The UAE is deploying its military against Al Qaida in Yemen and, in the process, providing what some see as a badly needed new template for counter-terrorism in Arab lands.

The UAE special forces are orchestrating the hunt for Al Qaida in remote deserts and mountains, adding the capability of Arab troops seasoned in war zones like Afghanistan and Somalia to a campaign long the preserve of the US and Yemeni militaries.

Suicide attacks killing 38 in Al Mukalla on Monday show the challenge. While the UAE helped to eject Al Qaida from the southern coastal city in April, militant threats persist — the latest attack was claimed by Daesh, in Yemen a lesser force than Al Qaida.

The Emiratis deployed initially against a different foe — Yemen’s Al Houthi group, joining a Saudi-led campaign last year to try to reverse a bid for national power by a group seen by many Gulf Arabs as a proxy for regional arch-rival Iran.

The war weakened Al Houthis, but in the resulting turmoil, Al Qaida swept across the eastern side of the country, seizing more land than it had ever held and raising tens of millions of dollars from running Al Mukalla, the country’s third largest port.

The UAE’s Al Qaida push meets a demand made repeatedly by Washington that Gulf Arabs do more to ensure their own security.

But a so-called “Obama Doctrine” of relying on local allies instead of big US military deployments abroad to fight militants has been seen as stumbling in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, despite funding and training of local partners.

Yemen may prove a happier example, its supporters hope.

The UAE response is to use special forces to try to sharpen a long-running push against Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), seen as one of the terror network’s most capable.

The Emiratis are working with the United States to train, manage and equip Yemeni fighters in that effort, signalling they have the stamina to stick with a campaign that could last long after the separate confrontation with Al Houthis is resolved.

The ability to run combined air, sea and land operations, deploy forces clandestinely and endure scores of troop losses has won acknowledgement from Western states long despairing of the fractured Yemeni army’s ability to tackle Al Qaida.

Retired General Anthony Zinni, former chief of US Central Command, said the UAE was “a top military” in the region and “exponentially more capable than its size might indicate”.

“It has also shown the ability to hang in there despite casualties ... (The UAE) has proven its willingness to fight alongside the US and coalitions.” After months of preparation, the UAE orchestrated the ousting of Al Qaida from Al Mukalla by Yemeni allies in a complex operation backed by US intelligence support and aerial refuelling.

While Al Qaida said it staged a tactical retreat without losses, it in fact took a beating, coalition sources said.

Coalition forces estimate Al Qaida lost 450 fighters, while the coalition lost 54 Yemeni fighters. Al Qaida fled inland.

“The focus is on not allowing Al Qaida to recover. Our intent is to keep them on the back foot,” said a senior coalition military official, who declined to be named.

“They are the most capable counter-terrorism force on the ground in Yemen,” said a US counter-terrorism official familiar with Yemen, who requested anonymity.

Some in the US government initially doubted the UAE’s sincerity in attacking AQAP, he said, but the Al Mukalla operation showed that “that’s not the case”.

Abu Dhabi is undaunted by the challenges in Yemen and insists its campaign protects the whole region. It suggests it has the Gulf Arab heritage to help navigate complex tribal networks.

“As non-Westerners, we’re able to operate with Yemeni fighters and gain their trust,” the coalition official said.

Washington is paying attention. The US action against Al Qaida was at first disrupted by the war with Al Houthis, which forced the evacuation in early 2015 of the programme’s US personnel.

But after the Mukalla operation, the Pentagon said a small number of military personnel were deployed to help the UAE counter-terrorism efforts, in a possible sign of increasing US willingness to re-engage on the ground.

The Pentagon said last week that this support mission, initially seen as short term, is being extended.

Michael Morrell, former deputy director of the CIA, wrote in Politico that the UAE’s Al Mukalla assault was a “textbook solution of dealing with terrorist groups that hold territory”.

UAE’s role

From the Yemen war’s outset, the UAE took on a big role.

Days after hostilities began, an eight-person special forces team of forward air controllers landed discreetly in a CH-47 Chinook helicopter on Aden’s Little Aden peninsula on April 13-15, 2015, the senior coalition military official said.

The team linked up with a Yemeni agent on the ground, part of the anti-Al Houthi southern resistance, the official said.

Within 10 days, there was an amphibious landing to insert more troops. In ensuing weeks, four- to six-man teams of UAE special forces trained groups of 50 Yemenis and provided leadership, building a 2,000-strong team of resistance fighters in Aden.

In July 2015, after months of preparation and liaison with Saudi-led partners, the force drove Al Houthis from Aden and from a big airbase nearby. The UAE went on to train 4,000 Yemeni fighters in Assab, Eritrea, as a force to help prevent lawlessness in the sprawling city.

In the autumn, the UAE smoothly rotated thousands of its troops in-theatre, while planning for the Al Mukalla operation.

“The Emirates has played an exceptional role,” Mahmoud Al Salmi, a professor at Aden University, said of the UAE’s rebuilding of hospitals and schools.

Southern Yemenis were grateful to the coalition because now, “whether there’s secession or not, the south is in the hands of its sons and that was made possible by the coalition countries”.

Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says counter-insurgency in Yemen may last many years.

“But the Emiratis are capable of making that commitment,” he said.