In the August heat, Yemen’s port city of Mukalla gleams like a gem. Its ancient, whitewashed houses and mosques lie nestled between ragged mountains and the crystal blue waters of the Indian Ocean. On the sidewalks of the city’s run-down roads, a stream of stall owners and fishermen dressed in colorful sarongs ply their wares. The placid hum of the souq belies the city’s recent history. Just two years ago, Mukalla was under the firm grip of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
When AQAP swept into Mukalla on April 2, 2015, Yemen was falling apart. The Houthis, a Zaidi Shia rebel group, had seized control of the country, prompting a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to launch a military operation to push them back and restore President Abdrabbuh Mansur and Yemen’s internationally recognized government. As AQAP entered the city, Yemeni troops in the province largely stood by or fled, leaving the fighting to the militants. Once things settled down, AQAP laid down roots, collecting customs fees, installing Sharia courts, carrying out public executions, and even holding screenings of jihad-themed films in the center of town.
But as AQAP consolidated power in Mukalla, plans were already under way for its abrupt defeat. Emirati military officials who spoke to me on background in August told me that once Emirati forces pushed the Houthis out of Aden and Marib in late 2015, they set their sights on Mukalla. The Emiratis and their allies stood up a 12,000-strong force of tribal fighters from the Yemeni province of Hadramawt and pulled the Yemeni military leader Faraj Salmayn al-Bahsani in from exile to help train them. In April 2016, a multipronged assault by Yemeni ground forces, backed by Emirati support, expelled AQAP-allied forces from Mukalla in just a matter of days.