New Yemeni Resolve to Defeat al-Qaeda Bearing Results in Lawdar
The battle for southern Yemen has intensified since the succession of Abd Rabu Mansur al-Hadi to the Yemen presidency and his subsequent vow to suppress the Islamist insurgency. The latest battleground in this struggle is the strategically located city of Lawdar in Abyan Governorate, where local volunteers bought time for state security forces in rebuffing an attempt by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and their Ansar al-Shari’a allies to take the city and expand their occupation zone in Abyan.
The battle in Lawdar comes at a time when the Yemeni armed forces are still badly divided and in the opening stages of major reforms and changes in the leadership, which is dominated by members of ex-president Ali Abdullah Salih’s family. State forces engaged in the battle in Lawdar include the 111th Infantry Brigade and the 26th Republican Guard Brigade (al-Mu’tamar[Sana’a], April 14). The locally raised People’s Defense Committees (PDC) have played a vital role in the battle, despite having no formal military training. Some of the ex-president’s relatives have proven dangerously reluctant to relinquish their posts – Yemen’s main airport was recently closed for a day after Yemen’s Air Force commander, Muhammad Salih al-Ahmar (a half-brother of the ex-president) responded to his dismissal by shelling the airport before surrounding it with loyal tribesmen and military personnel (Yemen Times, April 7; Marib Press, April 9). An attempt to assess the combat-readiness of the Republican Guard was derailed by its commander, Ahmad Ali Abdallah Salih, the eldest son of the ex-president, who submitted a report containing “major errors and inaccurate numbers” (al-Ahali [Sana’a], April 14; al-Jumhuriyah [Ta’izz], April 15). The ex-president’s nephew, Tariq Muhammad Abdallah Salih, has refused to hand over command of the 3rd Republican Guard Brigade (Akhbar al-Yawm [Sana’a], April 10). The new president has come under fierce attacks from local media outlets still loyal to the ex-president’s family that oppose the dismissal of family members from top posts in the military and security services (al-Ahali [Sana’a], April 14).
The battle began on April 9 when Ansar al-Shari’a attacked the military barracks near the power station on the outskirts of Lawdar and seized a large variety of weapons that would be used in their attempt to take the city, including tanks, anti-aircraft guns, artillery and missile launchers (Ma’rib Press, April 10). The Yemeni Army initially withdrew, but the defense of the city was quickly taken by local youth and other civilians using their personal weapons, mainly AK-47s (al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 10).
Yemeni fighter-jets were also active in striking militant training camps and other positions held by the Islamists in Abyan, though Ansar al-Shari’a claims U.S. drones have been responsible for some of the targeted attacks from the air (Akhbar al-Yawm, April 5; Reuters, April 16).
Dozens of militants were reported killed, including two senior commanders, in an April 11 operation to clear Islamist checkpoints from the highway outside of Lawdar. The Defense Ministry said that Saudis, Somalis and Pakistanis were among those killed (26September.net, April 11; Saba [Sana’a], April 11).
Pro-government forces claimed on April 13 to have arrested two al-Qaeda leaders, Jalal al-Saydi and Abd al-Ra’uf Nasir, though the latter’s family has denied the report (al-Mu’tamar, April 13;al-Masdar [Sana’a], April 14). Nasir was reported to have been seized by members of the Lawdar Youths Gathering, a local militia formed to defend the city (al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 15). Two senior al-Qaeda militants, Akram al-Hafizah and Ahmad Darawish, were reported killed on April 11 (al-Mu’tamar, April 11; Yemen Post, April 12). Yemen’s Defense Ministry has also reported the death of Ansar al-Shari’a leader Ra’id al-Sa’id in Zinjibar, which is still held by the movement (Yemen Post, April 15; for Zinjibar see Terrorism Monitor, August 12, 2011).
Two hundred men of Yemen’s American-trained Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) arrived in Abyan on April 14 to join the battle against the Islamist militants for the first time. Under the command of the ex-president’s relatives, this elite unit was withdrawn from counterterrorist operations in the provinces and deployed as a presidential guard in Sana’a last year after anti-government protests began (Yemen Times, April 16).
Arriving with the CTU was the new Abyan governor, Jamal al-Aqil, whose motorcade came under fire on his way to meet with local military commanders and leaders of the popular committees. Like al-Aqil, both President al-Hadi and Defense Minister Major General Muhammad Nasir Ali are from Abyan, which encourages those hoping for a greater government focus on reversing the successes the militants have achieved there during Yemen’s political turmoil.
As the militants begin to crumble under military pressure in Abyan, AQAP has intensified its campaign of suicide bombings in Abyan and elsewhere in Yemen (AFP, April 6). Nonetheless, the battle for Lawdar is a major propaganda blow for the Islamist militants, who rather than being met as liberators, were instead repulsed by Lawdar’s residents in league with military forces loyal to the new regime. If al-Hadi can unify the military (still no easy task) and maintain the momentum established at the battle for Lawdar, this may be remembered as the moment when the tide turned against AQAP and its allies in Yemen.
Border Clashes Shut Down Oil Production as the Two Sudans Prepare for New Round of War
In response to South Sudan’s surprise occupation of its northern neighbor’s most productive oilfields, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir announced on April 12 that South Sudan had “chosen the path of war” (Sudan Tribune, April 12).
With the support of the United States, South Sudan declared its independence in July 2011 without having first reached an agreement with Khartoum on vital issues such as oil revenues, transfer fees and border demarcation. Juba’s occupation of the Heglig field goes well beyond applying pressure on Khartoum; it deprives its northern neighbor of revenues, foreign currency reserves and fuel. It also places an already unpopular regime in a corner from which it may feel it necessary to return to a state of war for its own survival. Khartoum might be able to buy peace with Juba and the return of Heglig by looking favorably on Southern claims in other border disputes, but this would be a humiliating response by a military/Islamist regime that cannot afford to show any weakness. In the meantime, the Sudanese pound is rapidly dropping in real value and lineups for petroleum products are growing longer by the day. However, South Sudan, which possesses no refineries, is also suffering a rapid decline in the value of its currency and is running short of hard-currency reserves needed to purchase refined petroleum products, much of these reserves having already been spent on Juba’s massive re-armament program and expansion of its military.
The South Sudan maintains that Heglig was part of the southern region according to administrative divisions existing at the time of independence in 1956 and now appears to be rejecting a 2009 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague that Heglig lays inside the northern Sudan rather than the South. The Heglig oil fields, which are in gradual decline but still provide over half of Sudan’s remaining oil production, are operated by the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Co. (GNPOC), a Chinese, Malaysian, Indian and Sudanese consortium. China, a major arms supplier for Khartoum, is reported to be shipping arms to South Sudan through the Kenyan port of Mombasa (Nairobi Star, April 8).
The occupation of Heglig is the latest stage in a growing battle over Sudan’s oil wealth. Khartoum lost roughly 75% of its oil production with the separation of the South Sudan, where most of the oil is found. However, the only outlet for this oil is via pipeline through the north to Port Sudan, which gave Khartoum the idea of replacing its lost revenues by charging transfer fees of $36 per barrel rather than the going international rate of $1 per barrel as well as siphoning off significant amounts of southern oil for its own use. Juba turned off the taps in January in protest even though oil exports account for 98% of South Sudan’s budget (see Terrorism Monitor, March 22). Khartoum has not backed down on the transfer fees, so Juba has apparently decided that if South Sudan must do without oil, so must Sudan.
South Sudan’s information minister has indicated a withdrawal of Khartoum’s forces from the disputed Abyei region would be among the conditions required for a South Sudanese pullout from Heglig (al-Jazeera, April 12; for Abyei see Terrorism Monitor Brief, May 27, 2011). On March 15, South Sudan President Salva Kiir told an audience in Wau that border demarcation cannot begin until Khartoum acknowledges the Abyei region belongs to South Sudan.  President Kiir has been unresponsive to international pleas to pull his forces back, complaining that he has been unable to sleep because of telephone calls from international leaders: “The UN secretary-general [called] yesterday; he gave me an order… to immediately withdraw from Heglig. I said, “I’m not under your command” (al-Jazeera, April 12; Sudan Tribune, April 12).
The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) maintains their advance into Heglig came in response to an incursion into the oilfields of South Sudan’s Unity State with two brigades of Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) regulars, 16 tanks and various pro-Khartoum militias. The SAF were defeated by the SPLA’s 4th Division under General James Gatduel Gatluak and pursued as far as Heglig, where they have remained (Sudan Tribune, April 11). Sudanese forces are reported to be moving on Heglig gradually, with SAF spokesmen citing delays caused by mines laid by South Sudanese troops (Sudan Tribune, April 15).
Sudan’s military maintains that the SPLA were joined in the April 10 attack on Heglig by fighters belonging to Darfur’s Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). An AFP reporter said they had observed dead bodies in Heglig bearing JEM insignia and two destroyed land cruisers with JEM emblems. JEM denied the allegations, providing the unlikely suggestion that the SAF may have dressed their own dead in JEM uniforms (AFP, March 28). In June, 2011 the Darfur-based rebels claimed to have carried out a long-distance raid on the Heglig Airport (see Terrorism Monitor, July 1, 2011).
The SPLA claims to have shot down one of Khartoum’s Russian-built Mig-29 fighter jets during an April 6 air raid in the Heglig region, though this was denied by an SAF spokesman (al-Jazeera, April 6). According to South Sudanese intelligence and other sources, Mig-29 air strikes targeted a strategic bridge in Abiem-nhom County in Unity State, a target at Ajakkuac in Warrap State and the main bridge in Bentiu (capital of Unity State), killing five people and wounding five others (Sudan Tribune, April 11; April 14; April 15). The SPLA does not yet possess a combat-capable air force, but is believed to have plans to develop an air arm for their military.
Sudan’s defense minister, Abd al-Rahim Muhammad Hussein, says the SPLA offensive is part of a cooperative effort with components of the recently formed Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) to occupy Heglig and the South Kordofan capital of Kadugli (Sudan Tribune, April 11; for the SRF, see Terrorism Monitor, November 11, 2011). The SRF includes JEM and the SPLA-North, which operates in Sudan’s South Kordofan and Blue Nile States. Hussein said SPLA-North forces in South Kordofan consist of 22 battalions of 500 men each, while JEM and Darfur’s Sudan Liberation Movement – Minni Minnawi (SLM-MM) have a combined 125 Land Cruisers across the South Sudan border in Bahr al-Ghazal preparing to launch cross-border attacks (Sudan Tribune, April 11). While the deployment of large numbers of Darfur rebels in the border region of South Sudan cannot be confirmed, it is consistent with Khartoum’s claims of greater cooperation between the rebels and the SPLA over the last year. If JEM actually was involved in the attack on Heglig, it would be the first sign that the SRF alliance was becoming a military reality with the support of Juba.
1. “The Crisis in Abyei,” The Sudan Human Security Baseline Assessment Project, Small Arms Survey, March 28, 2012, www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/facts-figures-abyei.php