SANAA, Yemen — The Yemeni government launched an ambitious ground offensive Tuesday targeting strongholds of al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula militants in the southern provinces of Abyan and Shabwa as President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi sought to draw public attention to the rising number of foreign fighters who’ve traveled to Yemen to fight for the group.
At least 18 Yemeni soldiers and 12 militants were killed in the first day of fighting in what’s likely the Yemeni army’s most significant action since spring 2012, when troops backed by local tribal fighters forced AQAP-affiliated militants to abandon their strongholds in the west of Abyan province, where they’d set up a state within a state.
Speaking at a graduation ceremony at Sanaa’s Police Academy, Hadi defended the offensive Tuesday, alleging that the bulk of AQAP’s fighters were foreigners.
“Whoever is doubtful of that among our brothers should go to the morgues and see the corpses of people whose countries have refused to accept them,” he said. “They’re from Brazil, the Netherlands, Australia, France and other foreign countries.”
Hadi’s statement was a salvo in the government’s propaganda war against the militant group, which has been able to use Yemenis’ grievances against their government to rally support. By highlighting the presence of so many foreigners, he hopes to show that al Qaida’s agenda is not a Yemeni one.
But the remarks also reflected what many security officials have said is an alarming rise in foreign fighters joining AQAP, many of whom have been fighting in Syria previously.
AQAP has long had a significant contingent of non-Yemenis, given that it was formed by a merger in 2009 of al Qaida’s Yemeni and Saudi branches. But according to Yemeni officials, the past three months have seen a noticeable increase in the numbers of Saudi extremists heading to the country to join AQAP, the result of continuing fighting between extremist groups in Syria and an effort by other Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, to decrease the flow of foreign fighters to Syria.
The battle between two jihadi groups, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the Nusra Front, for control of northern and eastern Syria has drawn some of the most extreme fighters to Yemen, the officials say. That’s because key groups in Yemen have voiced their support for ISIS, though AQAP has officially struck a neutral tone.
“Yemen is a logical place for ISIS sympathizers to head,” said a Yemeni official briefed on security matters, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
The presence of the jihadis will complicate the government’s offensive.
“What Hadi said is not new to us. Not only are many members of AQAP foreigners, but many Yemenis within the group were raised abroad,” said Abdulghani al Iryani, a Sanaa-based political analyst. “It’s going to be a tough battle.”
Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.