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Inside the al-Qaeda heartlands of Yemen

“They shot randomly, destroying homes. If a man is indeed a member of al-Qaeda, the military should run after him and not come here and destroy civilian homes.”

by Sean Stephens
Feb 7 2019, 6:55pm

AL-HAWTAH, Yemen — Fourteen-year-old Hareth Omar Al Moallem was asleep when armed men stormed his home and set fire to his bedroom one day last year.

“It’s all ruined,” he said, pointing to a hole in the ground. “There’s nothing now. They came up and burnt it with gasoline.”

The soldiers were after his brother, a member of Yemen's deadliest terror group: al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

“When they came looking for him, he was already long gone. They should’ve gone after him. It shouldn’t have involved us,” Hareth told VICE News.

Most Yemen coverage centers on the civil war between the Saudi-backed military and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. But other groups have brought death and destruction to the impoverished country, most notably AQAP, and the United Arab Emirates forces trying to extinguish them.

Here in the country’s east, where AQAP is active, Hareth’s story is not unique. Emirati forces, backed with U.S. support, have waged a ruthless campaign against the terror group — or anyone they suspect of being an al Qaeda fighter. And that’s taking a toll on Yemeni civilians, who say the operations are heavy-handed and sometimes target innocent people.

The United Nations is currently holding peace talks aimed at staving off greater conflict between the Saudi coalition and the Houthis on the outskirts of Yemen’s largest port city, Hodeidah, but that has had little bearing on the war on terror. Just last month, AQAP launched three attacks on security forces throughout the country, according to Elisabeth Kendall, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford tracking terror activity in Yemen.

The Emiratis have been at the forefront of counterterror operations, leading several offensives against AQAP and Yemen’s other major terror group, ISIS-Y (Islamic State group in Yemen), active in Shabwa and Abyan provinces since early 2016. And they’ve had help. CENTCOM, the U.S. mission overseeing all military operations in the Middle East, revealed earlier this month that the U.S. conducted a combined 36 airstrikes against the two militant groups in 2018 alone.

The offensive is working, to a degree. Since launching its biggest attack on foreign soil in 2015 — when the group claimed responsibility for the shooting that killed 12 at the Paris offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine — AQAP has been pummeled by a series of Emirati-led operations.

The terror group remains Yemen’s top militant network and one of the biggest terror threats to the U.S. and its Western allies, but it has been greatly diminished, with numbers drastically reduced and fighters now dispersed from territory they once controlled.

“They are scattered and displaced,” Waddah Omar, a commander with the security division of he Aden province, told VICE News. “There are constant campaigns against them in Aden and Abyan, and other provinces. So it’s impossible for them to flourish.”

VICE News traveled to al Qaeda heartlands in Yemen last year to see towns and villages that had been liberated as part of the counterterror offensives. But support for the campaigns weren’t exactly forthcoming. Many Yemeni civilians insist they've suffered immensely in the crossfire — though the coalition denies this.

“The entire sky was burning,” Abdulhadi Mohammed al Qarquoa, an elderly man who lives in the town of Al-Hawtah, said of the Emirati-led offensive. “They shot randomly, destroying homes. If a man is indeed a member of al-Qaeda, the military should run after him and not come here and destroy civilian homes.”

The Emirati-led offensive is so costly to civilians that some locals say it risks actually helping AQAP's recruitment efforts. “They force people to do that. The military does something, then the next week the locals go back to al Qaeda,” said Fahd Mohammed ba Shaibah, who has lived in al-Hawtah his entire life.

This segment originally aired January, 29, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.