Sanaa, Yemen (UPI) Feb 24, 2009
Amid the growing war jitters infecting much of the Middle East and fears Iran may seek to close the Gulf's Strait of Hormuz, a key oil artery, there are growing concerns that jihadists in Yemen plan to block another maritime choke point to disrupt oil supplies.
Said al-Shihri, the deputy commander of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, recently outlined a radical strategy: joining forces with Islamist militants in Somalia, across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen, to take control of the Bab el-Mandab, a narrow waterway between Yemen and Eritrea that links the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean via the Red Sea.
For that to be anywhere near effective, AQAP would need freedom of access in southern Yemen, where it has bases and where the central government in Sanaa is grappling with a growing secessionist movement.
This goes a long way to explaining AQAP's recent statements voicing support for southern secessionists, who are led by old-style socialists who once formed a separate state until the union with the north in 1990.
AQAP recently described supporting the southern cause as a religious duty for all Muslims. AQAP leader Nasser al-Wahishi declared, "We are obligated to support them."
Al-Shihri, a former Guantanamo detainee from Saudi Arabia, said in a 12-minute audiotape released Feb. 8 that controlling the Bab al-Mandeb -- Arabic for "Gate of Tears" because of the navigational hazards ancient seafarers faced there -- would "bring it back under the protection of Islam."
He urged Somali jihadists, who have links to al-Qaida, to join with AQAP to "create a great victory and international power for us
"Then the strait will be closed and the grip of will be tightened around the throat of the Jews, because the U.S. supports them through (the strait), by means of the Red Sea in particular."
That is in line with Osama bin Laden's recent call for an economic jihad to bleed the West.
Following an offer by the al-Shebab militants in Somalia, who are fighting a U.S.-backed transitional federal government, to join forces with AQAP, al-Shihri declared they would wage war on the Americans on two fronts.
The Red Sea, which is linked to the Mediterranean at its northern end via the Suez Canal, is one of the most critical maritime routes in the world. Thirty percent of world trade runs through the Bab al-Mandeb.
Since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, it has become a vital security issue for the countries along its littoral and to the major powers who depend on its for swift military deployments, as in the 1990-91 Gulf War and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
A major new operational theater in the conflict against Islamist extremism in that region would cause considerable problems for the United States, Egypt and Israel, as well as for Saudi Arabia and the Arab states of the Gulf.
They depend on access to the Red Sea to transport oil and gas exports to the West.
A jihadist breakthrough in the strait would also open the way for Iranian expansion into the region and into Africa, where it is making a major effort to secure allies and markets.
However, an Islamist seizure of the strait will be extremely difficult, even though the Gulf of Aden, south of the Bab al-Mandeb, is plagued by Somalia pirates preying on oil tankers and other shipping in the busy trade routes there.
Neither AQAP or al-Shebab possess heavy weapons or warships they would need to seal off the strait, although they could cause disruption of shipping by employing the hit-and-run tactics of the Somali pirates.
Also, al-Shehab does not operate near the strait. Its area of operations is further south along Somalia's Indian Ocean coastline from the southern port of Kismayu northeast to Mogadishu.
There is no near-term prospect that al-Shehab, which is bracing for a government-led offensive, will be able to extend its operational zone northward to the Gulf of Aden.
Nonetheless, the Yemeni government is taking the AQAP threat seriously. "We have to prepare for possible sea or land attacks," Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Kurbi said Tuesday.
The jihadists could never completely control the Bab al-Mandeb, he said, but they can "threaten ships by attacking them with missiles or capturing them in international waters like the pirates of Somalia."
Somali Information Minister Dahir Mahmud Gelle urged the international community on Feb. 10 to take steps to eliminate AQAP and al-Shebab to prevent the seizure of the strait.
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