The al-Qaeda franchise that tried three times to stage attacks on US soil admitted that it has retreated from a key port city in southern Yemen after it was taken by the Saudi-led Gulf military coalition. But the development does not mark its disappearance from the city.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, known as AQAP, said in a two-page statement that it retreated from the port city of Mukalla in southern Yemen last week, arguing that it did so to protect civilians, and accusing coalition members of doing the bidding of the United States.
Around 2,000 Yemeni and Emirati troops advanced into Mukalla last Sunday, local officials and residents said, taking control of its maritime port and airport and meeting little resistance.
The port had enabled AQAP to collect up to $2 million in taxes daily for the past year. The group had occupied the city since April, 2015, when it declared Mukalla the capital of its Islamic Emirate amid Yemen's chaotic civil war.
The Saudi-led coalition said its offensive had killed 800 al-Qaeda fighters and several leaders, though Mukalla residents told Reuters the number appeared unlikely and the group withdrew largely without a fight.
AQAP said it had retreated from the port on Yemen's south coast to protect civilians and save the city of around 120,000 from destruction, adding that only a handful of its fighters had been killed.
"We only withdrew to prevent the enemy from moving the battle to your homes, markets, roads and mosques," the group said in a rare statement posted on Twitter.
Mukalla has been the center of a rich mini-state along the Arabian Sea coastline that AQAP built up over the past year as it exploited conflict between government loyalists backed by a Gulf Arab coalition and Houthi rebels supported by Iran.
"The coalition bombed an electricity plant and a food market that the Mujahideen [guerrilla fighters] recently built and a petrol station… that resulted in the killing of tens of Muslims," the statement said.
VICE News could not independently confirm AQAP's claim of civilian deaths, but the United Nations says the Saudi-led coalition, which is receiving US assistance, has been responsible for the majority of the 3,000 Yemeni civilians killed since operations began in March 2015.
Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemen expert at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said that while the coalition's retaking of Mukalla represented a real blow to AQAP by removing a major source of revenue, the group had survived largely intact to fight another day.
"Basically AQAP shaved their beards, rather than really departing from Mukalla," Muslimi said. "AQAP has retreated, mostly, to its old strategy of hiding in mountains and hiding before striking again."
Muslimi also emphasized that Yemen's civil war — a complicated tangle of regional, tribal, religious, and political conflicts — creates "black holes" that AQAP is able to exploit.
"You need to end the larger civil war, bring legitimate leadership, political order, and so on," he said. "There's none of that. Full-scale civil war is still going now, even if it's less hot than in the past."
Still, Michael Morell, the former deputy and acting director of the CIA, said the loss of Mukalla is "major blow to AQAP."
"It is the equivalent of the Islamic State losing Mosul or Raqqa," he wrote in POLITICO.
He said this was not only a victory for the Saudis and the Emirates, which he said are AQAP's primary targets in the region, but also for the US.
Morell said AQAP organized three attempts to bomb US aircraft between 2009 and 2011, including the attempted so-called "underwear bomber" attack on a plane flying to Detroit.
"The degradation of the group is also in the national security interests of the United States since the homeland remains target No. 1 for AQAP outside the region," he wrote.
Yemen's civil war has killed more than 6,200 people, displaced more than 2.5 million, and caused a humanitarian catastrophe in one of the world's poorest countries.
Reuters contributed to this article.