STC Forces' Key Role in Combating Terrorism in South Yemen


November 24, 2022

Ali Mahmood 

Southern Armed Forces in Abyan South Yemen -ACSYS-Abdullah Al-Dhabi

After a series of defeats in Abyan, South Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) published a propaganda video earlier this month that was significantly different from the group's prior propaganda. In the video, AQAP's Emir of Shabwah and Abyan, Munir Bajly al-Ahdal, a.k.a. "Abu Alhayja Alhodidi," gave a "motivational" speech to a small number of militants before they launched an attack against the UAE-backed Security Belt Forces. Instead of their usual bombastic claims and show of force, here they appeared to show that AQAP's losses and removal from its main camps in Abyan have shifted its position to that of a disruptor rather than an organization with aggressive actions and preparations for mounting attacks to hold territory. They appeared to be on the defensive, acknowledging that they have shifted their strategy from direct strikes to using explosives such as roadside bombs. This shift is an indication that they have been driven out of important territory in Abyan that they had previously occupied and that they are no longer able to mobilize fighters for combat missions such as the assault in Ahwar that coincided with the start of operation "Arrow of the East".

To gain a better understanding of the situation and AQAP's claims, I traveled to Abyan to observe the progress of the counterterrorism operation "Arrow of the East", which is being led by the Southern Transitional Council in collaboration with the local government of Abyan.

The area of the military operations of the "Arrow of the East" campaign is broken into two axes. The first axis covers the coastal directorates of Khanfar and Ahwar, which include the cities of Shuqra and Khobr Almaraqisha. Troops deployed in this axis cleared most of al-Qaeda's Ansar Al-Sharia's strongholds in Mogan and Wade Sri.

The second axis encompasses the central and northeastern directorates of Abyan, which include Lawdar, Alwadie, Mudiyah, and Al-Mahfad. The Southern Armed Forces affiliated with the Southern Transitional Council, which were armed and trained by the UAE, cleared most of AQAP's strongholds in this area, most notably the Omran Valley, which has been the largest AQAP stronghold in Abyan since 1994.

While traveling along the coastal road from Shuqra to Ahwar, I noticed the Security Belt Forces (SBF) deployed throughout the stretch of this road. The road is busy, with tens of cars and trucks passing through from the east to Aden and vice versa. Passengers often stand at the checkpoints to exchange small talk with the soldiers stationed there, and some travelers swing from their cars to greet the soldiers deployed along the road.

This was in stark contrast to the previous three years, when it was under the control of Islah Party-affiliated forces, which the locals viewed as an outside force and avoided by using different unpaved and dangerous roads.

In the market of the city of Shuqra, where the road runs through the center of the market, one can immediately recognize the magnitude of the southern forces' accomplishment. The market is bustling with shoppers and sellers. Children gather to wave at passing military vehicles as they pass in front of restaurants and shops, and the South Yemen flag was visible everywhere.

Before the Security Belt took control of Shuqra, extremist elements roamed the market freely, causing fear among the locals. Although AQAP members avoided harming local civilians in Shuqra at the time to avoid retaliation and gain their trust, the locals felt threatened by their presence because, in the past, when AQAP took complete control of a territory, they tended to turn against the civilians under their control, terrorizing them and enforcing harsh punishments, including death, for anyone who violated their rules.

In all the areas we covered, we witnessed the joy of victory in the people's eyes.

"Praise be to Allah for removing the nightmare that has been sitting on our chests for decades," said Hajj Salim al-Awathali, a resident of Lawder, when we asked him about the situation in his city after the southern forces entered Abyan to expel the Ansar al-Sharia terrorists.

"We lived in a large prison surrounded by murderers from all directions," Mr. Al-Awathli says. "They suffocated us and made our lives a living hell."

On the way to Mudiyah, we met our colleague Riyad, a journalist and activist who had to move between Zanjubar and Aden over the past few years in order to evade the "ghosts of death" who sought to silence his pen. After the security forces chased the terrorists out of the governorate, Riyad's circumstances changed significantly. We observed him traveling with his camera, documenting the return of life to Abyan.

Riyad says, "We in the Abyan governorate have been plagued by terrorism and armed groups that have killed and destroyed the area. They brutally murder people on suspicion of "spying on them" and anyone associated with the state, especially soldiers."

"I was personally threatened with death multiple times by these groups, and my only crime was being a journalist. For them, I was a spy who must be eliminated by any means necessary. Therefore, I spent my life running. I then announced on social media that I left journalism so that they would leave me alone."

The women of Abyan also paid a significant price due to the presence of these extremist elements, which spread fear and prevented them from working.

Bushra al-Masri, a journalist from Abyan, said, "Thank God we went back to work without fear; for us, this was a distant dream."

She continues, "We endured difficult years, confined to our homes and living in fear, because leaving the house as a woman during the mass presence of these elements on our streets was equivalent to suicide."


Campaign Against Terrorism in South Yemen

In the past seven years, the pro-independence forces of South Yemen have played a crucial role in combating terrorism. Soldiers backed by the Arab Coalition have been operating in and around Aden and throughout South Yemen, dealing heavy blows to ISIS and Al Qaeda, primarily in the governorates of Lahj, Aden, and Abyan, as well as oil-rich Shabwa and Hadramwat. After expelling Al Qaeda from Lahj in August 2016, the Security Belt Forces then expelled militants from the city of Zinjubar, the capital of Abyan.

In April 2016, the Southern Forces, represented by the Hadrami Elite Forces, were successful in expelling Al Qaeda from Al Mukalla. Since then, they have worked to secure the coastal region of the Hadramwat.

The pro-STC forces, represented by the Shabwani Elite Forces, conducted a successful military operation in February 2018 under the codename "The Decisive Sword" to clear Shabwa's Assaeed district from al-Qaeda.

In February of 2018, the pro-STC forces in Hadramawt, represented by the Hadrami Elite Forces, launched a broad operation dubbed "Al Faisal" through which they cleared AQAP's stronghold in western Al Mukalla, Wadi Al Mosaini.

In March of 2018, pro-STC security forces known as the Security Belt Forces launched a large-scale operation against Al Qaeda in the city of Al Mahfed, located in the eastern portion of Abyan. Several senior AQAP leaders, including Abu Mohsen Basabrein, one of the most prominent AQAP leaders, were eliminated during the operation.

In March 2019, the pro-STC Elite Forces in the province of Shabwa launched the "White Mountains" operation, clearing the districts of Nisab, Markhah, Khoura, and Abdan. Following this operation, the Shabwani Elite Forces declared the oil-rich province free of Al Qaeda, and AQAP militants fled to Al Bayda and Marib.


The clashes that broke out in August 2019 between pro-STC forces in Aden and troops loyal to the Yemeni government led by the country's former president Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi paved the way for the Islah militia, "the arm of the Muslim Brotherhood group in Yemen," which controls the province of Marib in north Yemen, to take control of the oil-rich province of Shabwa and large swaths of Abyan province in the south.

The fall of the two southern strategic provinces to the Islah affiliates, who withdrew their forces from the northern provinces of Al Bayda and Al Jawf, revived the terror groups and provided them with secure corridors to retake their former posts in the two provinces, which had been cleansed by the UAE-backed STC forces.

"Between 2016 and 2019, our forces conducted a large number of operations to rid the province of terrorist organizations. Such operations dealt fatal blows to Al Qaeda and Ansar Al Shari'ah, but after August 2019, the Islah Party surrendered the territory they control in north Yemen to the Houthi group and relocated their militia to Shabwa and Abyan," Captain Salah Al Yousifi, a spokesperson for the Security Belt Forces in Abyan, told the ACSYS. "This plot gave terrorist groups an opportunity to resurrect and restore major posts in their former strongholds in Abyan and Shabwa."


"Arrow of the East " a Fatal Blow to AQAP in Abyan

 The Southern Forces launched the "Arrow of the East" counterterrorism operation on August 23, 2022, to cleanse Abyan of terror groups in response to an appeal issued by the governor of Abyan, General Abu Baker Hussein, and the security authorities in the province, who requested assistance due to the increased threat posed by the AQAP terror groups. The operation commenced on August 23, 2022, clearing the coastline of Shoqra city and expanding towards the district of Mudiyah in eastern Abyan, where troops raided Wadi Omaran, the primary base for Al Qaeda and Ansar Al Sharia in Abyan. AQAP utilized Wadi Omaran as a safe haven for decades. It served as both a hiding place and a training base.

Three weeks ago, during the fourth phase of the Arrow of the East operation, the Southern Forces made new advances when they entered the center of the Al Mahfed district in eastern Abyan. Al Mahfed district connects Ayaban to the oil-rich province of Shabwa. It is characterized by its rugged terrain and intricate tribal structure. The Al Mahfed district in Abyan, South Yemen, is home to the powerful Bani Kazim tribe, as well as numerous smaller tribes such as the Al Mansour tribe, the Al Saad tribe, and the Al Gahzar tribe. "On Friday, a battalion from the Security Belt Forces stormed Wadi Al Khayala in Al Mahfed to track down Ansar Al Sharia elements, who had fled Wadi Omarn in Mudiyah and attempted to establish a foothold in Wadi Al Khayala's mountainous chain." A SBF security officer stated, "Our troops raided Wadi Al Khayala early on Friday morning and redeployed in multiple posts along the mountain range there." "Two of our brave soldiers were killed and four others were injured when their vehicle struck a terrorist-laid mine,"

After the Southern Forces dealt fatal blows to their hideouts in Wadi Omaran in Mudiya, Al Qaeda terrorists fled to Al Mahfed, taking advantage of its rugged terrain, which provided them with safe hideouts and corridors to the neighboring provinces of Shabwa and Al Baydha.

"Al Saeed and Haban districts in the neighboring province of Shabwa provided AQAP militants with safe havens such as Wadi Al Khayala and Dheiqah Mountain," according to researcher Saeed Al Awthali from Abyan.


A Heavy Cost

Since 2015, the Southern Forces have paid a high price fighting terrorism. A high-ranking commander of the Southern Forces told ACSYS, "We have lost hundreds of heroic commanders and soldiers who were either assassinated or killed in direct combat with terrorist groups." The commander stated, "Since the "Arrow of the East" operation began in August 2022, we have lost 48 martyrs, including senior commanders, and over 100 injured." According to the senior commander, since the military operation began on August 23, 2022, the Southern Forces have killed 24 al-Qaeda militants and captured 12.


Why are Abyan and Shabwa strategically important for AQAP?

The history of al-Qaeda in South Yemen dates back to the early 90s, when the political regime in Yemen, represented by the late president Ali Abdullah Saleh and his allies, the "Islah party", which is the arm of the Muslim Brotherhood Group in Yemen, sought to relocate the Mujahidin, known as "the Afghan Arabs," who returned from Afghanistan in 1992 after their participation in the war against the Soviet Union, to the south with the objective of eradicating the "communists".

"Recent sanctions announced by the US government against al-Qaeda elements remind us how southern Yemen remains strategically important for AQC and AQAP." "The coastline along Abyan and Shebwa serves a dual purpose for the transnational terrorist organization; it allows AQAP access to the sea for easy movement in and out of Yemen and complements smuggling operations to provide stable financial resources." Fernando Carvajal, an expert on the armed groups who served as a regional expert on the UN panel of experts in Yemen, told ACSYS.

"The Abyan-Shebwa coastline grants any party a direct route from the south to al-Baydha, Mareb, al-Jawf, and the Saudi border through rough mountainous and desert territory, providing vital advantages against rivals, even air surveillance," he added.



AQAP attempted, through their recent propaganda, to create a media victory to compensate for their losses on the ground in Abyan. The organization claimed that its members were able to control the checkpoint they attacked in Ahwar, which was not the case; in fact, AQAP lost seven members and suffered three injuries during that attack before the remaining attackers fled the area, and the Security Belt now controls the checkpoint.

Even though the UAE-backed STC forces have made significant gains against terror elements in Abyan and are employing a different strategy to force AQAP out of its hiding areas, it is crucial for the international community to support these forces and assist in ridding South Yemen of terrorism and protecting its people, who have endured decades of violence at the hands of these terrorist groups.


All the photos in this report were taken for ACSYS by Abdullah Al-Dhabi.

Ali Mahmood 

Ali is a journalist based in Aden covering the war in Yemen for the National and other media organizations.