26 April—On Monday, allied Yemeni and Emirati forces retook Ash Shihr terminal, Yemen’s largest oil export terminal from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The move comes a day after forces swept the militant group from their nearby stronghold in the port city of Mukalla, capital of the Hadramawt province.
The air strikes were carried out in coordination with a ground offensive in militant-controlled territory further west. Statements released by coalition officials said that nearly 2,000 Yemeni and Emirati troops advanced into Mukalla, taking control of its maritime port and airport, and setting up checkpoints.
The coalition also stated that 800 al Qaeda members were killed in the battle to retake the city and the oil terminal. Yet contrary to this statement, residents in the region said that the number killed was unlikely, adding that the group withdrew largely without a fight. One military officer said, “We entered the city centre and were met by no resistance from al-Qaeda militants who withdrew west.” Residents say that local clerics and tribesmen had been in talks with the group to exit quietly. It is believed that the fighters withdrew to the neighbouring Shabwa province.
The recapture of this area is a big win for coalition forces. Ash Shihr terminal, closed since its capture by AQAP fighters in 2015, is the export site for nearly 80% of Yemen’s oil reserves. Nearby Mukalla port, however, has remained open, and reports indicate that AQAP was pocketing around $2 million a day in customs revenues.
The advances against the militant group are indicative of a shift within the Saudi-led coalition. For the past year, the coalition has targeted the Houthi rebels, a group which captured the Yemeni capital of Sana’a and caused the government to go into exile, ultimately moving administrative operations to Aden. However, a tenuous ceasefire has been in place between the coalition and the rebel group since 11 April. The coalition has used the truce to target Al Qaeda strongholds in the region. The militant group, considered one of the most active and dangerous branches of Al Qaeda, had taken advantage of the power vacuum to develop a mini-state around Mukalla.
The coalition is now advancing on AQAP-held towns along the 370-mile coastline between Mukalla and Aden. It appears that militants are seeking to mount a stronger resistance in the region. The push against AQAP is being led by the United Arab Emirates, which has been training and arming local recruits for several months.
Yemen’s civil war has killed more than 6,200 people, displaced more than 2.5 million people. It has caused a humanitarian catastrophe in one of the world’s poorest countries. UN brokered peace talks between the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels are currently underway in Kuwait. Al Qaeda has not been invited to participate.
9 December- The US State Department warned U.S. Embassy staff in Cairo to remain close to their homes. A memo released by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security reads, “In light of the heightened tensions and recent attacks on Westerners in the region, the U.S. Embassy has recommended that its staff carefully scrutinize their personal movements and consider staying close to their residences and neighborhoods over the coming period.” It is believed that ISIS and affiliated groups may have increased their targeting of Western nationals in recent weeks. Last week, ISIS-linked Egyptian militant group Ansar Beit al Maqdis took responsibility for the killing of Texan oil worked William Henderson, who was reported missing and killed in August. The embassy has remained open.
Meanwhile, the British embassy in Cairo suspended services beginning Sunday. The embassy declined to give details or indicate when it would reopen. The British Consulate-General in Alexandria is operating as normal. A spokesperson for the British embassy stated, “The decision to suspend public services at the embassy has been taken for security reasons and is in the best interests of our staff. The decision is independent of our wider travel advice for Egypt.” An anonymous source indicated that a suspected militant who was recently detained by Egyptian authorities had confessed to plans to target foreign embassies.
On Monday, Canada also closed its embassy in Cairo due to “security concerns.” No other details have been given to explain the closure, but it is thought to be linked to a video released by ISIS on Sunday. The video depicts a man identified as Canadian militant John Maguire (a.k.a. Abu Anwar al-Canadi) urging attacks against his home country. The video refers to the killing of Canadian soldiers and an attack on parliament in Ottawa, and shows Maguire urging Muslims to follow the example of the recent attacks.
Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney cautioned Canadians in Egypt to remain vigilant. A message on Canada’s Cairo Embassy website states: “The ability to provide consular services may occasionally be limited for short periods due to unsettled security conditions.”
In addition, the US and British diplomatic mission to the United Arab Emirates has warned citizens to be vigilant of further terror attacks targeting Westerners after a school teacher was stabbed to death in a shopping mall and a bomb left outside the home of an American family. The US embassy said it was “engaged at the senior-most levels of the UAE government to ensure the safety and security of US citizens in the UAE,” but urged US citizens to vary their routines and schedules.
Romanian-born Ibolya Ryan, 47, who had become an American citizen and trained as a teacher in the US, died on Thursday after she was attacked by a veiled woman with a butcher’s knife in a public toilet at the Boutik Mall in Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s capital.
A woman has been arrested in connection with the brutal murder of Ibolya Ryan, a Romanian-born naturalised American teacher. The woman is also believed to have left a bomb in front of the home of an Egyptian-American doctor. The bomb was defused before it could detonate. It is believed that the woman may have been working with others to target Westerners.
In response to the recent attacks, Aliya Mawani, counsellor at the Canadian Embassy in Riyadh, said that Canada’s Travel advisory for Bahrain is advising Canadians to exercise a high degree of caution: ‘We encourage all Canadians to monitor updates on the Travel Advisory for Bahrain on a regular basis.”
3 November– Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait are in discussions to develop a military agreement to combat Islamic militants, with the possibility of a joint force to intervene around the Middle East. The Sunni-dominated nations share a view that the region is threatened by Sunni Islamic militants and Islamist political movements. The military pact goes beyond the current engagements in Iraq and Syria as part of the US-led coalition; aiming to target additional hotbeds of extremist activity. The alliance would focus on Libya and Yemen, where radicalised militants have seized control of territories from their respective governments. Egyptian President Abel Fattah el-Sisi has warned that extremists must be dealt with in several places, and that would require “a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy in the region.” Jordan and Algeria have also been approached to join the alliance.
While the talks remain secret, unnamed Egyptian officials have reported that the discussions are in advanced stages. The alliance is considering the establishment of a core force made up of elite troops, aircrafts, and an intelligence service comprised of members of the alliance. The nations have already held bilateral and multilateral war games the past year in advance of an alliance. Reportedly, there remain differences regarding the size of force, funding, location of headquarters, and whether to seek Arab League or U.N. political cover for operations. If the joint forces cannot be agreed upon, the alliance still aims to coordinate military action for pinpoint anti-militant operations. It is thought that actions such as these have already taken place; Egypt and the UAE are believed to have conducted targeted airstrikes in Libya over the summer, and Egypt has reportedly carried out unilateral strikes in Libya; although the Egyptian government denies involvement in either operation.
The alliance is being discussed as violent clashes intensify in Benghazi as the Libyan army attempts to retake areas seized by Islamist militants. On Monday, extremist fighters hit an oil tanker with a rocket propelled grenade, causing fire and major disruption at Benghazi’s port. The Libyan army asked residents in the central al-Sabri district to evacuate ahead of a major military operation. Over 200 people have been killed and several homes destroyed since the Libyan army began its offensive in October, yet residents are fearful of getting caught in crossfire while travelling.
Libya is currently divided by rival governments. The internationally recognized and recently elected government has taken shelter in Tobruk; Islamist militias that overran Tripoli during the summer have reinstituted the previous Islamist government in Tripoli. The nation is also facing a surplus of warring militias and militant groups, and has become a safe-haven for radicalised fighters.
In Yemen, where the government has been battling one of al-Qaeda’s most active branches for years, the government is also contending with Houthi Shiite rebels. The Houthis successfully overran Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, last month. Saudi Arabia has offered support against the Houthis in 2010, believing that the Shiite Houthis are serving as proxy fighters for Iran.
Pan Arab alliances in the past have not succeeded. However the impetus is strong for the coalition. Saudi Arabia and Egypt face a growing militant threat within their borders, and Gulf nations are eager to keep militant threats away from their borders and foreign interests. The multi-national alliance is also intended to serve as a symbol of unity and strength against the perceived influence of Iran. The nations will seek a nod of approval from the US, however Washington has not yet been privy to the talks.