Last Monday, officials from Yemen’s pro-Saudi “government-in-exile” declared the southern port city of Aden to be their temporary capital, with the plan for it to be the nation’s capital for the next five years while Saudi-led forces retake the rest of the country.
Pro-Saudi officials had been hyping the capture of Aden from the Shi’ite Houthis for weeks as a major shift in the war, but as they try to press their offensive, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) seems to be coming in through the back door, and now controls parts of Aden.
Interestingly, there was no sign the pro-Saudi forces were resisting in any serious way, and no signs of major battles inside Aden. Rather, locals said self-described al-Qaeda forces were patrolling the streets of western Aden with impunity, and had raised the AQAP flag over several government buildings, including the port complex itself.
AQAP had already benefitted materially from the Saudi war in Yemen, seizing the port of Mukalla further down the shore. Taking Aden would be a real game-changer, however, as it would be by far the biggest city in al-Qaeda’s possession anywhere in the world, giving them a PR victory akin to that ISIS enjoyed when it captured the huge Iraqi of Mosul.
Throughout the current war, launched in March, the Saudi forces and their allies on the ground have not fought AQAP in any significant way, and have focused pretty much exclusively on the Shi’ites. This has helped them recruit allies by couching it as a sectarian onflict, but this too may be allowing AQAP to gain a measure of credibility in the region.