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Al-Qaeda, ISIS, And Jihadi Clerics React To Increasing UAE Involvement In Conflicts In Muslim Countries

By: Mansour Al-Hadj*

The following report is now a complimentary offering from MEMRI's Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor (JTTM). For JTTM subscription information, click here.

In the years following the events of the Arab Spring, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has emerged as an active player in many conflicts in the Arab and Muslim world. Its bold and direct support of groups and governments along with its political, financial, and military involvement have brought a lot of criticism to the rich Gulf state from various parties including jihadi groups, writers, and religious figures.

Of its various activities, the UAE has received the most condemnation and sustained the most casualties for its involvement in the conflict in Yemen, where it plays a significant role in the struggle against Al-Qaeda, unlike Saudi Arabia, which focuses its attention on the Houthis. In the last few years, the UAE has expanded its military aspirations and presence in many countries. It has sent troops to Yemen, built a military base in Somaliland, and sponsored local forces opposing jihadi groups in Yemen and Libya. Both Al-Qaeda In The Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State (ISIS) have condemned the UAE's objectives, presence, and support for security forces in Yemen. These groups have plotted to carry out attacks inside the UAE and have successfully carried out operations against UAE troops and forces loyal to it in Yemen.

This report will present the reactions by jihadi groups in the form of threats, direct operations against the UAE, and operations targeting forces sponsored by the UAE as well as statements made by prominent jihadi scholars condemning the UAE for its involvement in conflicts in Muslim countries.

ISIS Reactions

In September 2015, the UAE lost over 50 soldiers and officers when four ISIS bombers attacked a hotel used as a temporary Yemeni government headquarters as well as military sites used by the Saudi-led coalition in the port city of Aden. On October 6, 2015, ISIS released a statement claiming responsibility for the attacks and released the names and photos of the attackers.[1] ISIS stressed that its fighters are tracking UAE soldiers in Yemen to target them.

According to an article in the ISIS weekly Al-Naba' in November 2016, the UAE soldiers have barricaded themselves in their bases and they send Yemeni soldiers to perform their tasks. Citing a security source in Aden-Abyan province, the article mentioned that ISIS in Aden had assassinated UAE officer Hadef Al-Shamesi and stressed that ISIS fighters continue to track UAE soldiers in order to target them.[2]

In December 2017, pro-ISIS media group Rimah published a poster showing an ISIS fighter standing in front of a depiction of the Khalifa Tower in flames with text saying: "Soon, the statelet of Emirate."[3]

AQAP Reactions

In an April 2016 article in AQAP's Al-Masra[4] newspaper, writer Hareth Al-Hussaini described the role the UAE played in Yemen as "Catastrophic," accused it of aiming to "tear down" the country by supporting, training, and arming separatist groups as well as controlling the Port of Aden. According to the writer, the UAE targets groups and individuals who oppose their agenda in Yemen using the Security Belt and the Elite Forces, both of which are trained and sponsored by the UAE.

When AQAP lost control in April 2016 of the city of Mukalla, which had been under its control since April 2015, the group released a statement threatening the UAE for its role in Yemen. The statement, titled "Statement To Our People In The Coast Of Hadhramout Regarding The Recent Malicious Military Operation," said that "the UAE in particular has played the role of a rented rifle" in the bombing of Yemen by the Saudi-led military coalition.[5]

AQAP has repeatedly accused the government of the UAE of being a tool of the U.S. and an agent fulfilling its agenda in the region. In Part Six of the "Repulsion Of Aggression" video series released in November 2016, the group featured senior commander Ibrahim Al-Qusi condemning the UAE and accusing it of carrying out many airstrikes against civilians in Abyan and Lahj. In the video, Al-Qusi, who is a former Guantanamo detainee who joined the group in 2014, said: "Today, the U.S. is trying to use another card and [wear] a new shoe from its shoe [collection]: the government of the UAE and its stooge army. Allah willing, [the UAE] and its army will face the same fate that U.S. agents did before it."[6]

In April 2017, AQAP released a video accusing the UAE of waging war on Islam and Muslims and being a tool for the U.S. In the video, titled "America And Its Latest Trap," AQAP condemned the U.S. and the UAE for conducting a commando raid in Yemen. Khalid Batarfi, an AQAP senior commander who was featured in the video, condemned the UAE for participating in the raid and accused it of waging war against Islam and Muslims and being the "obedient servant" of the U.S.[7]

In September 2017, AQAP released Part Eight of its series "Repulsion Of Aggression," in which the group's senior official Ibrahim Al-Qusi condemned the UAE for its involvement in the southern part of the country by sponsoring, recruiting, and training the Elite Shabwa Forces and accused it of acting on behalf of the U.S. and of carrying out its policies in Yemen. Al-Qusi also criticized the U.S., saying that because it has failed repeatedly in Yemen, it is now using the Emirati government and its army to fulfill its goals there. In this video, AQAP showed footage of a demonstration organized by the Bakazm tribes condemning the UAE airstrikes in Yemen.[8]

AQAP has accused the UAE of assassinating clerics and preachers in the city of Aden, Yemen. In April 2018, the group released the second issue of its bulletin Madad, which accused the UAE of intending to "reorganize conservative societies" and that the "first step" toward achieving that goal would be "spreading immorality" and "transforming Yemeni cities into a smaller or similar version of that basin of corruption, Dubai." "This objective," the bulletin stresses, "would be achieved by assassinating the preachers, the scholars, and the sincere mujahideen."[9]

Similarly, AQAP has also accused the UAE of waging war on Islam and of committing crimes in multiple Muslim countries. In Part 10 of its video series "Repulsion of Aggression," AQAP accused the government of the UAE of waging war on Islam to please the U.S. and said that it had committed crimes against Muslims in many countries around the world, including Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen.[10]

AQAP's Attacks On Pro-UAE Forces

On August 2, 2018, reported that AQAP had carried out an attack against the UAE-backed Security Belt forces in the city of Mahfad in Abyan province.[11] In May 2017, AQAP released a video documenting its attacks on government buildings used by the UAE-backed Security Belt forces and Yemeni anti-terrorism forces in Lahj. In the video, titled "Repulsion of Aggression Part 7," AQAP condemned the UAE for its backing of the Security Belt forces and recounted its 2016 raid against AQAP fighters in Lahj.[12] On December 1, 2017, reported that five soldiers from the Shabwa Elite Forces, backed by the UAE, were killed when AQAP attacked a temporary checkpoint in Shabwa.[13] Pro-AQAP groups have also condemned these forces and urged them to quit. On September 5, 2018, Al-Badr Foundation For Media Production posted on Telegram a letter by one Abu Hajar Al-Abyani, titled "The Security Belt In Abyan And The Losing Bet," asking the Forces to retreat, saying that their backers and allies, the UAE and the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen, have forsaken them.[14]

AQAP Plot To Carry Out Attack Inside The UAE

In addition to condemnations and attacks against UAE army and forces loyal to it in Yemen, AQAP has revealed that it had plotted to carry out an attack inside the UAE. In an interview with Khalid Batarfi, a senior AQAP commander, released June 19, 2018, Batarfi said that his group had "taken steps to carry out a year-long ruse operation inside Dubai to test several things via one of the Saudi Mukhabarat [Saudi intelligence services] spies who was targeting the mujahideen." Batarfi also added that "the operation revealed... the extent of Saudi chicanery even against its ally, the Emirates." In the same interview, Batarfi called for jihad against the Emirates, and considered it "a debt on all mujahideen to stop the Emirates in its tracks."[15]

Harakat Al-Shabab Al-Mujahideen Reaction

In a May 2018 speech, Abu Ubeydah Ahmad Omar, leader of Al-Qaeda-affiliate Harakat Al-Shabab Al-Mujahideen, condemned the presence of the UAE in Somalia, saying that "it vies in the race of taking control of the Somali ports outside Mogadishu and creating military bases in the Red Sea."[16]

Al-Qaeda In The Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) Reaction

UAE's involvement in Libya has also been condemned by jihadi groups. In June 2016, Al-Qaeda In The Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) launched a campaign in support of jihadi group Ansar Al-Sharia in Libya. The campaign accused France, the forces of Gen. Khalifa Haftar, and their allies in the UAE and Egypt of destroying the city of Benghazi.[17]

Reactions From Jihadi Clerics

Jihadi clerics have also been highly critical of the UAE, its relationship with the U.S., and its involvement in different conflicts in the Muslim world. Syrian jihadi cleric Abd Al-Razzaq Al-Mahdi is one of harshest critics of the UAE. In September 2017, he published a post on his Telegram channel accusing the UAE of being "the first [country] that opposed the Arab Spring and the Muslim brotherhood governments... and support treasonous and apostate governments, such as El-Sisi and Haftar, that wage war on Islam and Muslims."[18]

Al-Mahdi also accused the UAE of "funding the French Crusaders' campaign on Mali with seven billion dollars to prevent Ansar Al-Sharia from ascending to power." In a 2017 post, Al-Mahdi accused the UAE of "sponsoring Russia's Crusaders' campaign against the people of Syria."[19] In a July 30, 2018 post, Al-Mahdi accused Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Muhammad Bin Zayed of funding "anti-Islam movements in the U.S. to stop the spread of Islam."

Another critic of the UAE is sheikh Abu Hafs Al-Maqdisi, emir of the Gaza-based jihadi group Jaysh Al-Ummah Al-Salafi ("The Salafi Army Of The Ummah"). On May 15, 2018, Al-Maqdisi called for the assassination of Arab leaders whom he described as "agents of the occupation," including Muhammad Bin Zayed, saying it would be the "best response for the massacres in Palestine."[20]

*Mansour Al-Hadj is director of the Reform in the Arab and Muslim World Project at MEMRI.


[2] See MEMRIJTTM Report ISIS Weekly Highlights Activity Of Death Squads In Yemen, November 28, 2016.

[3], December 30, 2017

[4], October 4, 2016.

[11], august 2, 2018.

[13], December 1, 2017.

[18] September 27, 2017.

[19] September 27, 2017.

[20], May 15, 2018.