SANA’A – According to an article by the Washington Post on Tuesday, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is likely behind the assassination of at least 27 Islamic clerics who have been killed in the southern port city of Aden over the past two years.
Aden, the biggest and most important city within the territory of Yemen that is occupied by the Saudi-led invasion coalition, has been the scene of constant infighting and assassinations ever since the city fell in July 2015. Conflict between South Yemeni separatists, Wahhabi militias, Hadi regime loyalists and Al-Qaeda and even ISIS linked terrorists has killed hundreds, with the city having become a de facto war zone far behind the actual frontlines.
According to the Washington Post, the breakdown of effective government has created a power vacuum that has been filled in by influential Islamic preachers and clerics, who often compete for power with the armed militias roaming the streets. Notably the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a South Yemeni separatist organisation backed by the UAE, is increasingly getting into conflict with the new clerical establishment. In January, forces linked to STC tried to militarily take over the old presidential palace of Aden, which was the official location of the Saudi-backed Hadi regime. While a ceasefire was eventually brokered between the two sides at the orders of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the tensions continue.
Since October, the amount of assassinations of clerics has risen sharply, with over 15 murdered since then. July alone saw the killing of two influential religious figures. The majority of the homicide cases never get solved, leading to an atmosphere of lawlessness.
There does seem to be a pattern to the killing though. Many of the assassinated clerics are members or sympathizers of the Islah Party, a Salafist political organisation that has been supporting the Saudi-led invasion from the start. While Saudi Arabia sees the Islah Party as a key domestic collaborator to their occupation, the Emiratis consider the organisation a potentially dangerous element due to its links to the international Muslim Brotherhood.
“This is a carefully thought-through and orchestrated campaign,” the Washington Post quoted Peter Salisbury, a Yemen analyst with the International Crisis Group. “The people who are being targeted are outside the new mainstream in the south, which is pro-secession.”
“Islah is really facing heavy pressure in Aden and elsewhere, both politically and security-wise,” a US official also told the Washington Post, on condition of anonymity.
Brigadier General Shalal Ali Shaiya, the STC-linked “head of security” in Aden, categorically denied the claims and blamed the assassinations on the Islah Party instead. According to the Emirati-backed officer, Islah is killing the more moderate clerics in order to replace them with more extremist ones.
General belief amongst the followers of the assassinated clerics, however, is that the STC, and thus indirectly the United Arab Emirates, was behind the series of killings. This notion is further supported by the fact that many of the victims were notable opponents of South Yemeni separatism and supporters of national unity. This leads to the suspicion with many in Aden that the UAE is clearing the way for an eventual secession of South Yemen as an “independent” satellite state under Emirati control.
Officially, the collaboration government of the Saudi and Emirati occupation recognizes the ousted former President of Yemen, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, as their leader. However, in the streets of Aden the Southern Transitional Council and associated separatist militias rule the city.
“Safwan always called for unity, as did all the other moderate clerics who were killed,” said Wael Farea, an Islah Party cleric speaking to journalists regarding the recent assassination of anti-separatist cleric Safwan al-Sharjabi. “He never saw anything good coming out of separation.”
Ashraf Ali Muhammed, a local journalist, stated: “These assassinations have been carried out to serve some sides, from outside and inside the country (…) These sides have threatened to expel Islah from the community.”