Al-Qaeda in Yemen – known as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – was believed to have been on the retreat in recent months, but the military campaign launched by Saudia Arabia, Egypt, and others has inadvertently given it a lifeline, security experts have warned.
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, currently on a visit to Japan and South Korea, told reporters that the fall of the Yemeni government at the beginning of the year hurt joint counterterrorism operations there.
“AQAP has seized the opportunity of the disorder there and the collapse of the central government,” he said.
“You see them making gains on the ground there as they try to take territory [and] seize territory,” Carter added.
Saudi Arabia, the UN and the US blame the rebel Houthi movement for collapse of the Yemeni state.
In January, the Houthis – who are Shia – seized the presidential palace and forced then leader Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi to resign. They have since sought to consolidate their hold on the country.
Hadi, who was placed under house arrest, eventually escaped and fled to Aden, the former capital of South Yemen.
He then declared Aden the new temporary capital of the entire country, but the Houthis pursued him there and captured that city as well.
The fall of Aden prompted the Saudis and some of their allies to mount military operations to rout out the Houthis, who they accuse of acting as Iranian proxies.
The fight between the Houthis and the government, which was formed in November 2014, has created a security and political vacuum that has been used by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as the more militant ISIL, to grow their strength and influence.
It also terminated a Yemeni military campaign, which was beginning to bear fruit, against AQAP.
The Sunni AQAP say they are sworn enemies of the Shia Houthis – both groups have clashed several times in the past year.
On Wednesday, AQAP issued a “bounty in gold” for the killing of Houthi leader Abdelmalik Bedrudin Al Houthi and former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
But both are opposed to the Yemeni government.
Now that the scattered remains of the Yemeni government and army are fighting off the Houthi expansion in the country, AQAP has maneuvered to take advantage of the security vacuum.
Last week, AQAP freed hundreds of its members – including senior leaders – that were incarcerated at a primary prison facility in Al Mukalla, which lies in southern Yemen along the Gulf of Aden.
Amid Yemen’s descent into chaos as the conflict there becomes increasingly regional, the US in mid-March withdrew its military detachment and special forces who were aiding government forces in their fight against AQAP.
The pullout of US forces on the ground has diminished the Pentagon’s capacity to combat AQAP and has contributed to the latter’s resurgence.