The Presidential Protection Brigades: Hadi’s muscle in the south
Yemen’s five Presidential Protection Brigades (PPB) include thousands of armed forces responsible for protecting President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and key staff and state institutions relevant to the security and functioning of his office. During the ongoing conflict, Hadi has expanded the PPB, making them among the most empowered armed groups within the government camp. They play a critical role defending the president’s interests against the UAE and its armed affiliates in the south.
The PPB have been at the center of the longstanding feud between the Yemeni government and the UAE in Aden, clashing on numerous occasions with UAE-sponsored Security Belt Forces and other fighters supporting the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC). In the battle for Aden in August 2019, PPB forces were pushed out of the interim capital and have subsequently become a key point of contention between government and STC mediators during the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement, which seeks to create a power-sharing government centered on the two groups.
Forces belonging to the PPB are drawn in large part from President Hadi’s home governorate of Abyan and effectively managed by his son, Nasser Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Their loyalty to the president – more on a personal basis, rather than to the office he holds – has made the brigades a prime concern for Hadi’s opponents in the south. STC-aligned forces have sought to weaken the PPB and prevent them from being based in or even close to Aden.
A page from the Saleh playbook
The PPB was formed in 2012, as part of Hadi’s effort throughout the post-2011 transitional period to weaken his predecessor’s stranglehold on the country’s military and security bodies. A key target of these efforts was the Republican Guard, which Saleh empowered as his own private army. The Republican Guard was led by Saleh’s son Ahmed Ali, with Saleh’s nephew Tareq commanding the largest brigade within the Republican Guard, the 3rd Brigade. In April 2012, soon after Hadi was sworn in, Tareq was dismissed from his position. Tareq now commands anti-Houthi forces on the Red Sea coast, but he has relied on UAE support and does not recognize Hadi’s legitimacy.
After the Houthis and Saleh took over Sana’a throughout 2014 and 2015 and Hadi fled to Aden, many of the PPB forces remained in Sana’a. With Saudi funds, Hadi’s son Nasser supervised the re-formation and expansion of the PPB, in many cases directly nominating the commanders of different brigades. The PPB are technically under the Ministry of Defense but are not part of Yemen’s seven military regions, and their command structure leads more directly to the president himself.
There are currently five distinct brigades within the PPB, each with its own headquarters and commander. They are ultimately responsible for protecting the president wherever he is, and this extends to securing the Presidential Palace in Aden, and various staff members, key buildings, roads, airports and other facilities. The 1st Brigade has traditionally performed these duties most clearly, in a way comparable to that of the U.S. Secret Service, while other brigades have protected the president’s broader interests, including in direct combat.
The Five Presidential Protection Brigades
Most PPB forces have been based in Aden during the conflict, with the exception of the 2nd and 5th brigades. Following the battle over Aden between the government and UAE-backed forces in August 2019, the PPB forces in the interim capital were forced out, and were mostly based in neighboring Abyan while negotiations over the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement continued. The current status and responsibilities of each brigade is as follows, based on information Almasdar Online received from officials in the Ministry of Defense and the PPB themselves:
The 1st Presidential Protection Brigade is currently based in Abyan governorate, near the coastal town of Shaqra, and it is led by Brig. Gen. Sanad Al-Rahwa. The 1st Brigade has been located in Shaqra since August 2019; before that it was based in the Presidential Palace in Aden’s Crater district. Given that this brigade has traditionally been based in the Presidential Palace and it performs the duties most directly related to the president’s personal security, the brigade’s leadership is closest to Hadi’s inner circle.
The 1st Brigade was specifically named in the Military Arrangements annex of the Riyadh Agreement, signed in early November by the government and STC following Saudi mediation. Whereas all government and STC-aligned military formations in Aden are stipulated to leave Aden, article 3 of the annex excludes the 1st Presidential Protection Brigade, “which is tasked with protecting the Presidential Palace and their surroundings and securing the movements of His Excellency the President, and providing security protection to the leaders of the Southern Transitional Council in Aden under the supervision of the leadership of the Coalition for Supporting Legitimacy in Yemen.”
The 2nd Presidential Protection Brigade is based in Al-Abr, Hadhramout governorate, and is primarily responsible for protecting Vice President Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar. This brigade’s forces have been protecting the vice president since 2017, while some units in the brigade are fighting on the front lines between Marib and Sana’a which are under Ali Mohsen’s close supervision. The commander of the 2nd PPB is Brig. Gen. Abdulhakeem Dawkam.
The 3rd Presidential Protection Brigade was previously stationed in Khormaksar district of Aden, in the Jabal Hadid camp, but now its units are spread between Lawdar and Shaqra districts in neighboring Abyan governorate. The 3rd Brigade, led by Brig. Gen. Louai Al-Zakimi, is one of the strongest and has been heavily involved in the fighting between government and UAE-aligned forces in Aden, making it a key target for opponents of Hadi.
The 4th Presidential Protection Brigade was initially relocated from Dar Saad district in northern Aden, where it has long been based, to the “Reception” military camp in Marib governorate. The brigade suffered heavy losses in January when the Houthis fired a ballistic missile at the Reception camp, killing more than 110 people, according to military officials. More recently, the brigade relocated to the Shaqra area of Abyan, where it is currently based.
The brigade is led by Mehran Al-Qubati, a young Salafi from Aden. Al-Qubati has been a vocal opponent of the UAE and its local allies in Aden, and along with the 3rd Brigade has been heavily involved in clashes with the Security Belt Forces and other loyalists of the STC. As a result, Al-Qubati has been one of the most heavily targeted individuals in the Hadi camp, and remains a top opponent of the UAE and STC.
The 5th Presidential Protection Brigade is based in Taiz governorate. Adnan Rozaiq has led the brigade from Taiz since its creation. Traditionally, the president would have armed units in major cities across the country in order to facilitate him and his senior staff’s travel to those locations. As such, Hadi formed a PPB brigade in Taiz, given it is one of the largest cities under government control. Rozaiq, a devout Salafi who views Hadi as Yemen’s righteous leader, was chosen specifically by Hadi to lead the brigade from the beginning. Rozaiq is from Shabwa governorate, which shares a common history with Abyan in terms of historical feuds.
A personalized army
The PPB forces in Aden have been a key target of the UAE-backed separatists not only due to their empowerment, but because of their loyalty to the president. Many PPB commanders and a large portion of the troops are from Abyan and Aden, except for the 5th PPB in Taiz, and are personally loyal to Hadi. This is a key concern not only in negotiations over the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement, but more broadly because it brings into question the sustainability of these forces in any future transfer of power.
While this degree of personalization can be expected from a unit directly serving and protecting the president, such as the 1st PPB traditionally based in the Presidential Palace, the PPB also have thousands of fighters whose activities go far beyond protecting Hadi. Due in large part to the feud between Hadi and the UAE over control of the south, the PPB have become the best equipped and financed among the government’s forces, and this empowerment has come at the expense of regular military brigades.
The official role of Nasser Hadi, the president’s son, within the PPB remains unclear, including to PPB personnel themselves. However, Nasser is frequently described as overseeing the forces and he has the ability to dictate orders to brigade commanders directly, working as his father’s top proxy, according to a military source in Aden.
The next president of Yemen, however he or she comes to power, will not only have to dismantle the final remains of Saleh’s Republican Guard, now in the hands of Tareq Saleh, but also the thousands of PPB fighters from Abyan and surrounding areas loyal to Hadi and his son.
Editing by Casey Coombs