An investigation from BBC has revealed that the UAE recruited al-Qaeda members who now work for the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a Yemeni southern separatist group that is part of the US and Saudi-backed Yemeni government.
The UAE joined Saudi Arabia in invading Yemen in 2015 to fight the Houthis, who are officially known as Ansar Allah. The US threw its weight behind the Saudi/UAE coalition, and previous reporting revealed the coalition had recruited al-Qaeda fighters to join its ranks over the years.
The new BBC investigation cited a document obtained by a whistleblower that revealed 11 former members of al-Qaeda now work in the STC, which wishes to separate north and south Yemen, restoring the borders before Yemen unified in 1990.
Yemeni sources told BBC that a former senior al-Qaeda official and suspect in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, Nasser al-Shiba, is now a commander in an STC military unit. The STC is part of the Yemeni Presidential Leadership Council (PLC), which was formed in 2022 when the Saudis reached a ceasefire with the Houthis and gave up on reinstating former President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The STC’s leader, Aidarus al-Zubaidi, is the vice president of the PLC, which the US views as the legitimate government in Yemen. After President Biden began striking the Houthis in Yemen over their attacks on Israel-linked commercial shipping, al-Zubaidi called for US support for a ground campaign against Ansar Allah. “Ground forces must be supported on the ground, and these forces belong to the legitimate government,” he said last week. “These forces are the ones who can achieve a victory on the ground, because strong strikes without ground operations are useless.”
There’s no indication yet that the US is looking to back a new ground campaign against the Houthis, but the situation continues to escalate. The US has bombed Yemen eight times now since January 12, and US officials say they’re planning for an open-ended war.
The Houthis were previously a partner of the US in the fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). In January 2015, The Wall Street Journal reported that the US had “forged ties” with the Houthis as part of a strategy to “maintain its fight against a key branch of al-Qaeda.” A few months later, in March 2015, the Obama administration announced it was backing the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis.
The BBC investigation focused on revelations about the UAE’s involvement in targeted killings in Yemen. It found that starting in 2015, Abu Dhabi hired American mercenaries to kill members of the Islah party, Yemen’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is outlawed in the UAE but not considered a terrorist organization by the US.
Members of the American mercenary group called the Spear Operations Group admitted to BBC that they were involved in assassinations inside Yemen. They said they stopped in 2016 but helped train Emiratis at a UAE military base in the southern port city of Aden to conduct similar operations, and the targeted killings continued. Sources told BBC that Emirati soldiers then trained Yemenis to carry out the killings, making it harder to trace them back to Abu Dhabi.
Reprieve, the human rights group, said it investigated over 100 targeted killings in Yemen between 2015 and 2018. All of them were carried out the same way, with the assassins detonating a bomb as a distraction and then shooting the target as they fled. A similar killing happened as recently as last month.
Watch a documentary on the investigation here