Last Tuesday gunmen located and eliminated Ahmed Baramadah, deputy chief of the Political Security in Yemen's Hadharamout governorate, in the regional capital with seemingly minimal effort. Another motorized shooting followed on Sunday, killing an intelligence officer in Ghayl ba Wazir, and now a third attack on Tuesday morning has left this crater on the side of a colonel's vehicle.
Furthermore, Monday's assassination of a purported government soldier in al-Mukalla, Hadharamout's capital, has been revealed as another intelligence hit. All four attacks occurred within several hundred miles of each other; at least 60 assassinations have been counted since 2011, the majority of them in Sana'a, Aden and Hadharamout.
It should be noted that Hadharamout is one rumored spot of a joint CIA-GIP base, conceivably along Saudi Arabia's border. Last month a Saudi diplomat was gunned down in Sana'a, although al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) reportedly denied ownership of the act.
Immediate questions are geared towards those responsible for organizing these attacks, as well as the government's ability to hold a national dialogue in Sana'a when security remains unpredictable. Knee-jerk reactions automatically find their mark on AQAP, and no other actors appear to possess greater motivation, but this accusation necessarily credits their abilities. Contrary to the normally sensible Yemen Post (editing may be the real culprit), the ongoing spree isn't "part of an uncontrolled campaign of assassinations targeting military and security chiefs and officers."
Such a statement is illogical.
William Burns, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, recently suggested that "substantial progress" had been made against AQAP during a UAE meeting of the Global Counterterrorism Forum Plenary. Touting the Obama's administration's practice of inter-government cooperation - whether democratic or not being largely unmentioned - Burns announced that AQAP "now holds little ground" in Yemen's southern governorates, an absurd way to measure progress during an insurgency. The reality is that AQAP only recently acquired the territory in question with subversive aid from a "U.S. ally," Yemen's former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The active strongman needed to keep himself useful to Washington amid a revolution, and withdrawing his specifically-designated "counterterrorism" units from the main towns quickly accelerated this process.
This plan may have succeeded if his vice president of 18 years, current President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, didn't comply so willingly with Washington and Riyadh. It also worked out well for the foreign powers behind Yemen's power-sharing agreement, which effectively blocked the revolution and preserved their own power over Yemen's skies and seas.
Once removed from Abyan by earnest government soldiers (backed logistically by Washington and Riyadh), AQAP has returned to its natural state of guerrilla warfare and remains very much on "the ground."
Assassinations can represent weakness and desperation in certain situations, but AQAP's case is a relative weakness. Its alleged strength is partly manufactured by none other than the Yemeni, American and Saudi governments, whose mismanagement of the conflict has inflated AQAP's numbers and area of operations. Now that AQAP has vacated the towns it held uncontested between May 2011 and June 2012, few government projects have set about rebuilding them and aiding their peoples. Those Yemenis who aren't militarized are unlikely to join AQAP - the vast majority reject terrorism - but those who have already crossed the line aren't coming back. U.S. drones also help them convert fence-sitters and tear open tribal wounds that can be exploited.
As a result of past and present factors, AQAP has achieved a higher operational state than before its territorial conquests. Several officers charged with governing Lawder and Ja'ar, located north of Abyan's capital of Zinjinar, even claimed that the task was too costly and tiresome to maintain. While AQAP may be defeated over time, the group is deeply rooted in Yemen and cannot be pried loose with Sana'a and Washington's current strategy.
Alternative conspiracies involving Saleh, Southern elements or the current government itself only tumble further into Yemen's fog.