Against the backdrop of the Riyadh agreement and a security vacuum, the assassination spree has fueled paranoia in the interim capital
Aden's wave of assassinations: settling scores or eliminating witnesses?
On the evening of Dec. 5, Brig. Gen. Musfer Al-Harithi, director of monitoring and inspection at Yemen’s Ministry of Defense, was driving through the Sheikh Othman neighborhood of the southern port city of Aden, when he noticed a pair of masked men following him on a motorcycle. When they pulled alongside his car, gun drawn, Al-Harithi swerved onto a main street. Bullets sprayed the back of his car, but the military commander escaped with his life.
Since October, masked gunmen have assassinated seven military and security forces, three of whom were criminal investigation officers at police stations. Five of those assassinations, plus three failed attempts, occurred in the first week of December.
Assassinations are nothing new in Aden. Since its liberation from Houthis and forces loyal to ex-President Saleh in late 2015, the city has witnessed more than 100 seemingly politically-motivated killings of religious clerics, security officers, activists and state officials, most notably former Aden Governor Jaafar Saad.
But the latest wave of assassinations has focused exclusively on security and military forces loyal to both the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) and the internationally recognized government.
An official in Aden's securtiy sector said the masked gunmen have now moved on from targeting clerics to "eliminating witnesses," notably criminal investigation officers, who are familiar with the details of past assassinations and torture in secret prisons in Aden.
“There are those who fear that these officers would leak information pertaining to the perpetrators of some of the previous assassinations," said the official, who spoke to Almasdar Online on condition of anonymity out of safety concerns. They fear losing control of these officers as the Riyadh agreement is implemented, he said, referring to the Saudi-negotiated deal that halted spiraling clashes between STC and Hadi government forces in August. The Riyadh agreement maps out a plan to incorporate the STC into the Hadi government, but deep-seeded animosity between the groups remains.
A report by the UN Human Rights Council’s group of experts on Yemen named Aden’s pro-STC security chief Maj. Gen. Shallal Shaye’a and other STC leaders as possible suspects involved in the assassinations of religious clerics affiliated with Yemen’s dominant Islamist political party Islah, which Abu Dhabi generally regards as a Muslim Brotherhood-linked terrorist group. A Buzzfeed investigation found that the UAE hired American mercenaries to assassinate Islahi figures in Aden. No investigations into any of the assassinations by Yemeni authorities have been made public. Aden was established as Yemen’s interim capital shortly after President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi fled the capital Sana’ following the Houthi-Saleh military coup. As the new seat of Hadi’s government, Aden has emerged a battleground for power brokers seeking to reshape the central government.
The assassinations have come at a particularly precarious time in Aden as Saudi troops arrive to oversee implementation of the Riyadh Agreement and the power struggle between STC and government forces has escalated in neighboring Abyan governorate. Meanwhile, UAE forces recently departed the interim capital and many Yemeni security forces have stopped reporting to work after months of not receiving their salaries. Yemen’s Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed, along with some ministers, returned to Aden to implement the Riyadh agreement on Nov. 18, but virtually every deadline set out in the deal has been missed.
With the exceptions of one assassination in October and one in November, all of the attempted and successful assassinations of security and military forces happened in the first week of December. ISIS claimed responsibility for one of the assassinations. No one has stepped forward for the other six killings. Since September, seven civilians have been murdered in Aden.
Successful assassinations of security and military forces
Oct. 13, the security forces found the body of Colonel Fadel Mohsen Al-Shabahi, head of technical guidance at the Security Belt’s 3rd Brigade. Al-Shabahi's bloody body was found on a dock, his truck looted.
Nov. 3, masked gunmen assassinated Colonel Jamal Al-Subaihi, an investigative officer at Buraiqa Police Department in western Aden.
Dec. 1, masked gunmen shot dead Major Salah Hajili, director of criminal investigation at Mansoura Police Department in the center of the city.
Dec. 2, in Aden’s northern Sheikh Othman District, masked gunmen assassinated Louay Jamal, a soldier who had been fighting on the frontlines near Hodeidah on Yemen’s Red Sea coast.
Dec. 4, Lieutenant-Colonel Salem Lahtal, director of criminal investigation at Al-Arish Police Station in central Aden, was assassinated.
Dec. 7, ISIS claimed responsibility for the assassination of Colonel Mohammed Saleh, a personnel director for the Security Belt, near his residence in Mansoura District.
Dec. 7, unidentified gunmen assassinated Coast Guardsman Mustafa Mansour. Like Colonel Mohammed Saleh, who was assassinated on the same day, Mansour was from Radfan in Al-Dhale governorate.
Attempted assassinations of security and military forces
Dec. 3, masked gunmen on a motorbike in Sheikh Othman District shot Security Belt soldier Ahmed Salem, but he survived.
Dec. 3, the chief of staff of the UAE-backed 4th Giants Brigade, Colonel Abd al-Fattah Al-Saadi, survived an assassination attempt from an explosive device planted in his vehicle.
Dec. 5, the director of supervision and inspection at the Ministry of Defense, Brig. Gen. Musfer Al-Harthy, survived an assassination attempt in northeast Aden.
Dec. 22, the truck of Aden's Military Police commander, Col. Anis Al-Awali, exploded in front of his home in Al-Tawahi district in west Aden.
Jan. 2, Waddah Sheikh, a leader in the peaceful Southern Movement, nearly died when his car exploded in front of his home in east Aden.