Pentagon officials are adamantly denying reports that U.S.-supported allies have bribed — and at times recruited — members of al Qaeda’s Yemeni cell to support their ongoing campaign against Iranian-backed Shia paramilitaries in the country.
“That is false, patently false,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Rob Manning said regarding the claims, first reported by the Associated Press, that members of the Saudi and Emirati-led Arab coalition battling Houthi rebels in Yemen have co-opted al Qaeda members into the fight.
“We do not pay al Qaeda, we kill al Qaeda,” he told reporters at the Pentagon this week, declining to comment further.
His comments come amid signs the Arab coalition’s campaign to retake the key Yemeni port city of Hodeidah from the Tehran’s proxy forces has stalled.
Houthi militias have received direct support from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Quds Force — the IRGC’s directorate responsible for advising Shia paramilitary forces in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere across the globe.
“It is Iran who is supporting the Houthis, who are launching extended-range missiles against major population centers in Saudi Arabia … [and] who are blocking the proper distribution of humanitarian aid and critical medicines to address one of the largest outbreaks of cholera on record in the world,” by reinforcing the Houthi blockade of humanitarian aid through the Hodeidah port, U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel told reporters last month.
But coalition commanders in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi seem to have taken a page out of Iran’s playbook, by attempting to buy off or recruit members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — the Yemeni cell of the Sunni fundamentalist group. Saudi Arabia remains the main pillar of Sunni power in the Middle East, and has repeatedly taken military, political and economic actions to curb the influence of its main Shia regional rivals in Iran.
Over the past two years, Arab coalition commanders have funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to AQAP commanders, to abandon their strongholds in southern and eastern Yemen, the AP reported. In other cases, al Qaeda fighters were allowed to leave their territories in the country with their weapons and supply caches intact.
In other instances, battle-hardened AQAP fighters were actually folded into the ranks of the Arab coalition and sent to fight Houthi forces, AP reported.
Regional analysts claim American military and diplomatic officials were aware of the sideline deals cut between AQAP and the Arab coalition, which forcing Washington into an increasingly delicate position in Yemen.
The Trump White House is vowing to ramp up pressure on the Iranian regime, as well as its proxy forces across the globe — beginning with the administration’s decision to withdraw from the landmark nuclear deal with Tehran earlier this year. But the thrust of the Pentagon’s main mission in Yemen remains counterterrorism operations to eliminate AQAP, which U.S. officials say remains one of the most dangerous and best-funded al Qaeda cells in the world.