On Wednesday, Yemeni government forces expressed mounting concern over pirate attacks on cargo ships by the infamous al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) terror group. The statements come despite government forces successfully repelling the Islamist militants from the southern Yemeni port of Mukalla this weekend.
Captain William Nault, chief of staff for the multinational Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), said that the Mukalla advance by Yemeni government forces was "heartening," calling it a "setback" for AQAP, but warned that instability wrought by an ongoing civil war in the country could lead to a resurgence of pirating activity by the extremists.
"AQAP has taken advantage of that chaos and moved into the void. In doing so they have gotten stronger," stated Nault, whose mission includes prevention and mitigation of maritime piracy and terrorism.
Nault warned that, in addition to maritime piracy, AQAP has a "stated capability and intent to conduct a maritime terrorist attack." The CMF remains on alert to prevent rocket attacks across waterways or attacks along the high seas that could cripple the region’s critical maritime trade.
The threat posed by AQAP along the region’s waterways has grown in recent months, according to Nault, despite the militants ceding territory. "I would say that the maritime situation has worsened over the last year," he said during a security meeting in London.
"The primary threat would be against a soft target, meaning an industry ship passing or going in and out of the Red Sea towards the eastern end of Yemen," stated Nault, suggesting that a terror plot may unfold in the coming weeks.
The al-Qaeda network has successfully carried out two maritime attacks of note in Yemeni waters, including the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole warship, killing 17 US sailors, and an October 2002 strike that damaged a French tanker. In recent years, the extremist group’s Yemen-based branch has focused on maritime piracy of private merchant ships.
The heightened prospects of piracy terrorist attacks in the Gulf waterways troubles Nault. "That is my concern – will we see a resurgence of piracy-like activity or might it be something worse in that area around Yemen?"