The U.S. military is in the process of evacuating about 100 Special Operations forces members from the Al Anad airbase in Yemen due to that country’s deteriorating security situation, sources in the region familiar with the situation told CNN.
Those being evacuated are the last American troops stationed in the Arab nation, which is home to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist group also known as AQAP. The United States closed its embassy in Sanaa last month, after Houthi rebels took over the Yemeni capital.
For years, the U.S. military has worked closely with Yemen’s government to go after AQAP, together carrying out numerous attacks like the 2011 drone strike that killed prominent al Qaeda figure Anwar al-Awlaki. And U.S. President Barack Obama has hailed this cooperation as a pillar in his anti-terrorism campaign.
“Yemen has never been a perfect democracy or a island of stability,” Obama said in January, promoting the policy of “partnering and intelligence-sharing with that local government” as the best approach in a bad situation.
“The alternative would be for us to play whack-a-mole every time there is a terrorist actor inside of any given country,” the President said.
But while there have been drone strikes as recently as last month, these cooperative efforts have been hampered by Yemen’s growing difficulty in maintaining unity and peace. These include the rise of the Houthis, their battles with forces loyal to ousted President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi and the presence of not only al Qaeda fighters but other militants.
On Friday, for instance, ISIS purportedly claimed responsibility for bombings at two mosques in Sanaa what, if true, would mark that group’s first large-scale attack in Yemen. The claim came in a statement posted on a site that previously carried ISIS proclamations, but couldn’t be immediately authenticated by CNN.
Those blasts killed at least 137 people and wounded 357 others, according to Yemen’s state-run Saba news agency.
While ISIS and al Qaeda are both Sunni groups that espouse extreme versions of Islam and violent opposition to the West, that doesn’t mean they’ll be working together anytime soon. In fact, AQAP strongly rebuked ISIS in a video released in November, characterizing its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s declaration of an Islamic caliphate as illegitimate.
More than anything, the idea of the group calling itself the Islamic State violently flexing its muscles speaks to the chaotic situation there. With no one really in control, that means numerous groups — including those with a history of killing civilians and lashing out at the West — have been more room to operate and a better chance potentially to take over.