As the United Arab Emirates’ bloody war against the Houthis drags on, it’s also playing a key role in the fight against al-Qaeda.
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 rundown 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 it 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 jihadi-themed films in the center of town.