One of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s regrettable statements during the Iraq war was his infamous response to an Army specialist asking about the lack of armor for military vehicles. Rumsfeld replied:

“You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

A similar sentiment may be floating around the Pentagon and White House this time with respect to partner forces in Yemen, who do not appear motivated or capable of handling the effort with the professionalism and respect for even the most basic humanitarian interests of the population on the ground. Much attention has been focused on US support for Saudi Arabia and civilian casualties as a result of the Saudi air force’s targeting practices. The actions of the United Arab Emirates, another leading member of the coalition in receipt of extensive US and international support, deserve much greater scrutiny.

The problems in this case are not only related to the air campaign, but that the UAE military and UAE-backed forces are implicated in enforced disappearances and ill treatment of detainees in their ground operations. And it is UAE ground forces who would serve at the tip of the spear in any assault on Hodeidah port. The plans for taking the key Red Sea port are highly controversial due to its potential humanitarian implications for famine in Yemen, but it is a major offensive operation that the Trump White House is considering supporting.

Our interviews with several experts with on the ground information and our culling together of reliable open source materials provide a worrisome picture of a UAE military with the capacity to deal a heavy blow to al-Qaeda, but with separate aspirations of its own in Yemen, and reports of serious abuses in its detention operations.

The prospect of expanded ground operations is not the end of the question for the United States, which has provided support for the Saudi and Emirati-led operations against rebel groups in the country but not directly involved US forces in the fight.  The UAE has also been a key partner for the United States in a separate battle with al-Qaeda. As January’s US-UAE ground raid highlighted, the United States may become directly implicated in UAE detention practices through joint operations, depending on the detainee contingency plans worked out with the UAE.

Accordingly, the revelations of UAE detainee abuse should be especially concerning for the US and other international supporters, further heightening the legal risk for governments and their officials personally, and involving the US in a range of harmful and counterproductive practices that threaten to alienate the local Yemeni population. Specifically, these revelations will raise alarm bells for US officials who have come to rely on UAE intelligence about al-Qaeda, and should be concerned as to whether any information was obtained from these detainees.

UAE and US military missions in Yemen

The US and the UAE are partners in two different wars in Yemen today—one pitched against the Houthis, a Shiite rebel group which overthrew the internationally recognized government in a civil war, and one pitched against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

In the first war—primarily against Houthi rebels allied with the former Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh—the UAE is part of the Saudi-led coalition fighting in support of the internationally recognized government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. UAE military successes include a 2015 amphibious assault on the major city of Aden that wrestled it from Houthi control, though they have suffered some setbacks since then. The United States plays a significant, but more indirect, role in that conflict, having provided members of the coalition arms, refueling, and intelligence over time. There are credible allegations of “widespread violations” of international law by all parties to this conflict.

In the second war, the United States is directly engaged in combating AQAP. With little support from other States, the US military has worked closely with the UAE in the fight against AQAP. UAE forces accompanied the US military in the January ground raid that reportedly resulted in the death of more than 20 civilians, including nine children. In April 2016, with strong encouragement from the United States, UAE special forces and UAE-supported Yemeni forces retook control of the important port city of Mukalla from AQAP, which had occupied the city and used it as a base of operations since April 2015. At the time, the Pentagon acknowledged the presence of US forces in-country “operating in a liaison with the coalition activities in Mukalla.” The UAE forces have also worked to disrupt AQAP in other areas, including in and around Aden.

UAE force structure in Yemen

The UAE forces in Yemen include its Emirati Presidential Guard, an elite force that played a key role in retaking Aden from the Houthis. Peter Salisbury, Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House, explained in an email to us, “The Special Forces unit within the Emirati Presidential Guard has taken the lead in Yemen in coordinating the Yemeni militias for the UAE … and have very close relations with US Special Forces present in Yemen.”

The UAE has relied increasingly on building up local forces within Yemen. According to Reuters, “Senior UAE military officers say their forces have trained and pay more than 11,000 Yemeni soldiers from Hadramout and 14,000 from Aden and three provinces. Unity is elusive, however.” These local forces are also not professionally well trained. Consider the challenges facing the Emirati Presidential Guard in Mukalla. As Michael Knights, Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote, in building up local Yemeni forces for the liberation of Mukalla and the oilfields in Masila, “the coalition focused less on building highly proficient or well-armed forces than on working with determined allies who would follow simple instructions that accorded to a loose UAE-developed plan.”

In Aden, the UAE has helped create, train, fund, and supervise another militia group, the Security Belt Forces, which became embroiled in a recent breakdown of relations between Yemeni President Hadi and the UAE. The Security Belt Forces include “some 15,000 southern fighters deployed across four provinces and mainly commanded by hard-line Muslims known as Salafis,” according to an in-depth report by the Associated Press.

The UAE military and UAE-backed local forces have primarily operated in the south of the country, but recently pushed into the north into Taiz province. “Taiz is part of the north, and southerners would not fight beyond their borders. Taking them there was a big challenge,” a UAE military officer told Reuters earlier this month.

Recent reports indicate that UAE forces are helping guide “increased activity” against AQAP, with the UAE-backed Hadrami Elite Forces in the Yemeni province of Hadramout carrying out raids and detention operations. The Hadrami Forces are a kind of militia group whose members have been recruited from the local population in Hadramout province. According to an expert panel mandated by the UN Security Council, the UAE itself has admitted that the coalition has provided “military, financial and training assistance” and “intelligence, logistic information and aerial intervention” to the Hadrami Elite Forces. A US AID-commissioned study states that the Hadrami Elite Forces’ “salaries, operations costs, training and weapons are reportedly all covered by the UAE.” Other reports indicate that the Hadrami Forces have also received training from the Jordanians and are equipped and funded by the Saudis.

An important question that determines which State may be legally on the hook for any war crimes or other violations committed by these militia groups is the issue of control. While the UAE has maintained that the Hadrami Elite Forces are under the control of the Yemeni government headed by President Hadi, this is not borne out by a range of sources. In the US AID-commissioned study, “interviewees identified the UAE as having a significant role, including training, paying for, and commanding military units (e.g. Security Band [sic] Forces and Hadrami Elite Forces).” According to the UN expert panel, the Hadrami Forces are, in reality, an offshoot of the UAE’s own forces. The panel reported in January 2017 that, “while nominally under the command of the legitimate Government, the [Hadrami Elite Forces] are effectively under the operational control of the United Arab Emirates, which oversees ground operations in Mukalla.” Similarly, the Security Belt Forces “follow orders from the UAE advisors funding, training and advising counterterrorism operations,” according to the Center for Civilians in Armed Conflict. The study commissioned by US AID explains that Security Belt Forces “are not considered a part of the serial numbered Yemeni Government forces” and their uniforms are similar to UAE military.

Experts backed this up with consistent information about the UAE’s control over these militia groups. Salisbury said, in an email to us, “The UAE is in control in Mukalla. The Emiratis select the military commanders, they train and pay the forces, and they direct and carry out joint operations with them. President Hadi does not have control over Yemeni forces in Mukalla.”

A Yemen expert with local knowledge added that “The elite Hadrami forces, and other Yemeni forces backed by the United Arab Emirates, receive their training and orders from the UAE special forces. They do not take their orders from President Hadi, they take their orders from their Yemeni commanders—who are appointed by the UAE and receive orders from the UAE Special Forces.” The expert further explained in an email:

“The UAE provides significant support to certain Yemeni forces in Aden, Hadramout, Shabwa, and Mahra, including advisory support, weapons, intelligence, and strategic advice. This is the way it usually goes: after local Yemeni forces trained by the UAE are stationed in specific locations, the forces will call the UAE for follow up support—for example, if they need weapons or advice. Then the UAE forces come, assess the situation, and respond to their needs. Usually the local Yemeni forces inform the UAE before moving somewhere, with the UAE often giving them the go ahead, or instructing them to slow down or to retreat.”

The UN report repeatedly underscores that UAE forces are in “operational control” of ground operations in both Aden and in the vicinity of Mukalla, Hadramout province. Indeed, given the deterioration in relations between the UAE and Yemeni President Hadi outlined in a recent piece by the former US Ambassador to Yemen, the extent to which the UAE forces, Hadrami Elite Forces, and other UAE-backed militias are even responsive to commands emanating from President Hadi is in some doubt. The UAE has been linked to the push by Yemeni politicians in Hadramout province for greater autonomy and even possible secession, as well as similar moves in Aden. President Hadi has even accused the UAE of “acting like an occupation power in Yemen.”

Hadrami Elite Forces, Mukalla checkpoint/Pacific Press via AP


US-support to UAE and Hadrami Elite Forces

The US has reportedly provided extensive and sustained support to the UAE. The US government has a long history of providing training to the UAE’s Presidential Guard, for instance and is responsible for major arms sales to the UAE. The Emirates government boasts that over 4,000 US personnel are hosted at the Al Dhafra Air Base in Abu Dhabi and that the two militaries “regularly collaborate on joint-training missions.”

US defense officials also told the Military Times in May 2016 that the US provides the UAE in Yemen with “intelligence support, advice and assistance with operational planning, maritime interdiction and security operations, medical support and aerial refueling.” The Pentagon also considers the UAE a “long-time partner.” In the past, Secretary James Mattis has been fond of calling them “the Little Sparta,” due to the outsize role they have played in coalitions with the US in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The armed forces of both countries now engage in joint operations against al-Qaeda inside Yemen.

There are also reports that the US may have provided support directly to the Hadrami Elite Forces. According to one report, the Hadrami Forces in Mukalla received “tactical and technical anti-terrorism support from the United States.” Salisbury, however, told us that the US relationship is close but not necessarily as direct. “US Special Forces are not supposed to deal directly with any of the Yemeni militias, just the Emiratis. But it is a very close relationship. In Hadramout, US Special Forces are stationed at the same base where the Emirati Presidential Guard trains the Hadrami Elite Forces,” Salisbury said.

Emirati Presidential Guard-US Marines joint mess night/Marines

Where did all the detainees go?

The US government and individual officials risk running into a host of legal problems in their support and reliance on foreign military partners who may engage in war crimes. Credible allegations of detainee abuse and enforced disappearances by UAE-backed forces raise particular concerns for the US in this regard.

UAE-backed forces have captured many suspected al-Qaeda and Houthi operatives, including as a result of more than 250 raids in and around Aden, a senior military commander told Reuters. Within a month of taking control of Mukalla, General Faraj Salmin, commander of Yemen’s Second Military Zone in the eastern province of Hadramout, said that his forces had captured “around 250 members of al-Qaeda, including some leaders.” Weeks later, the forces were still reportedly conducting “extensive search operations throughout Mukalla to flush out Al Qaeda elements.”

In January 2017, the U.N. Security Council-mandated expert panel, in one of the most detailed, specific, and meticulously-researched reports on the conflict to date, revealed that it had documented five incidents of enforced disappearances:

“The Panel investigated five incidents relating to six individuals who were forcibly disappeared after being arrested by the Hadrami Elite Forces between May and November. One was detained at the Riyan airport and has subsequently been released. Another was a professional tradesperson who undertook some technical work for AQAP while it was the de facto authority in the area. The other five have no known links to AQAP.”

Earlier in the same month, the US-headquartered Center for Civilians in Armed Conflict (CIVIC) reported similar allegations:

“In Mukalla, Hadramout, reports of disappearances and ill treatment of persons detained by the Yemeni Elite Forces—counterterrorism forces trained and mentored by the UAE—are emerging and warrant investigations… According to relatives of victims CIVIC spoke with, detainees taken by Elite Forces are kept in prison cells created in al-Rayan International Airport in Hadramout. UAE officers are present at al-Rayan airport and relatives believe that they are aware of the situation.”

Nadwa Al-Dawsari, Senior Nonresident Fellow with the Project on Middle East Democracy and lead researcher and author of the CIVIC report, told us that these identified cases were symptoms of a wider condition. She said:

“I believe the documented cases of enforced disappearance and ill-treatment by the Hadrami Elite Force are part of a much wider problem. In the case of the Elite Forces there seems to be a pattern of violations, rather than a problem resulting from lack of training and supervision. The Emirates have built a detention center at Mukalla Airport. That is where the detainees are taken, and where they are subject to inhumane treatment, including torture. Families of victims protested several times calling for the fair trial of their sons but no one listened to them: Not the local authority, not the Emirates, not the Elite Forces’ leadership.”

The US State Department’s annual human rights report on Yemen, released in March of this year, states: “Local NGOs and media also reported that individuals tied with al-Islah have been arbitrarily detained in Mukalla by UAE-affiliated Security Belt forces.” Under a heading on “refoulement,” the report also states that “in September media outlets reported that UAE-supported Security Belt Forces deported more than 200 migrants, mostly Ethiopians, from Aden.”

In an in-depth report, Peter Salisbury writing for Vice News wrote:

“Since taking Mukalla, the [Hadrami] militias have begun a campaign of arrests, breaking into the homes of Islamists, abducting them, and sending them to a detention center at an unknown location, multiple sources inside Mukalla said. Many of those arrested are members of Islah—the group the Saudis are backing in the north and the UAE considers terrorists.”

Amnesty International has reported on incidents of arbitrary detention at Aden airport, which was under the control of UAE-backed forces, including a case of two men who were last seen at the Aden airport taken for questioning by Yemen authorities and then held “held incommunicado in an unknown location without access to their families or lawyers, raising fears they might be at risk of torture and other ill-treatment.”

A researcher with knowledge of the situation in Aden said the Security Belt was implicated in dozens of human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances and the forced displacement of individuals of northern background, since the force was constituted in spring 2016. While some of the men detained by the Security Belt were referred to official detention facilities, others, according to family members, had been taken to secret detention facilities. When families or government officials intervened on behalf of some of these men to try and determine the reasons for their continued detention, prison officials often told them the men’s files were with the coalition.

These findings are consistent with the few independent news reports that have covered the situation in Aden. The Associated Press’s Ahmed Al-Haj and Maggie Michael recently reported that the Security Belt Forces have “been accused by critics of heavy-handed methods, abusing opponents” and that “local media report killings and unlawful detentions by the Belt.” The reporters also spoke with a bus driver who alleged that he was beaten by Security Belt forces at a checkpoint on the way into Aden and held in a tiny cell with 30 other people. In the US AID-commissioned study published earlier this year, “respondents pointed to human rights violations by security forces including kidnapping, lynching, and torture, especially during house raids in search of militants/terrorists.”

The UAE-backed forces are not the only groups alleged to have committed enforced disappearances in Yemen—the Houthis are implicated in “widespread and systematic” cases of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, and torture, in the UN Panel and CIVIC reports, as well as reports by the Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, and Human Rights Watch—but the actions of US partners pose particular concerns for American involvement and potential complicity.

Legal and policy issues

These allegations raise a number of clear legal and policy concerns regarding US support for foreign military forces in Yemen. First, serious international legal concerns would be raised by US reliance on intelligence information obtained through detainee abuse. Second, the US may itself be complicit in enforced disappearances, and potentially torture, and its forces and officials exposed to personal legal risks for providing support to foreign military partners engaged in such war crimes. There are also clear proscriptions on US sharing intelligence and other support with forces that engage in law of war violations.

Turning first to the reception of intelligence information. Concerns are heightened by reports that the United States has come to rely on intelligence obtained from the UAE in the war with al-Qaeda. A recent Reuters report described this form of intelligence-sharing as a strong feature of US-UAE cooperation in Yemen:

“Intelligence gleaned from UAE-backed operations has been shared with the United States, which is rebuilding its knowledge about the group since the war forced the pullout of its personnel in 2015.”

Emirati intelligence was also reportedly central to the joint US-UAE raid in Yemen in January. The question is whether intelligence information provided to the Americans has been gathered from interrogations involving detainee abuse. Given the reports of enforced disappearances and ill-treatment of detainees by forces under the UAE’s control, this is a very real concern for US officials involved in obtaining intelligence from UAE sources in Yemen. This would not be the first time for the US’s “long-time partner” to have engaged in such egregious acts. Historically, the UAE reportedly played an active role in the CIA’s torture, secret detention, and rendition program.

If the Hadrami Elite Forces and Security Belt Forces are operating as de facto organs of the UAE, as indicated by the reports and experts we consulted, their actions essentially count as official acts of the UAE. This fact is legally meaningful, because the international and domestic laws concerning US responsibility for aiding and assisting foreign State forces is clearer and more expansive than the laws concerning U.S. support for non-State armed groups.

While US officials may have had limited information about the behavior of UAE, Hadrami Elite Forces, and Security Belt Forces earlier in the fight, there is now much more of a record available to policymakers. As outlined in a separate article by Ryan Goodman, a “knowing participation that the acts would assist the commission of a crime” is enough to ground criminal liability for helping another’s criminal act. This risk is heightened by the fact that concrete and credible allegations have been documented and publicly revealed in reliable reports.

In addition, the US itself may be more generally responsible for assisting these alleged enforced disappearances, where it provides support that contributes to the commission of the wrongful act and has knowledge that the assistance may be used to commit that act.  The categorical allegations of the U.N. panel report are important here: As highlighted in a Chatham House report on this issue, assisting states “should not be able to deny their responsibility for assistance in situations in which internationally wrongful acts are manifestly being committed.”

13th Cavalry Regiment -UAE land forces exercise, Sept 2016/DVIDS


What can be done to offset these risks? At the very least, these allegations should trigger an investigation by the US government, to assess whether it, or its officials, may be complicit in the alleged crimes and violations, and to assist in future risk assessments of how to engage with the UAE, the Hadrami Elite Forces, and the Security Belt Forces, if at all. If the US is complicit in such violations, it will also have obligations to provide redress to the victims, and to take appropriate action against individuals who may have been involved in any offence.

What this means for Yemen and the fight against al-Qaeda

A broader question remains, that goes beyond the very real legal issues raised above. From a strategic perspective, what sense does it make for the US to be supporting forces that are engaged in such abusive practices? Is this really a productive way of achieving the long-term goal of combating AQAP or ensuring stability in Yemen?

As the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies highlighted, in a recent report on how AQAP continues to thrive in this environment:

“The destruction and civilian casualties heavy-handed military interventions inevitably entail have already, and will continue to, alienate civilians and potential counter-terrorism allies on the ground, increase popular sympathy for AQAP and similar groups, and bolster their recruitment efforts amongst the local population.”

This sense is backed up in testimonies from the CIVIC report, which gives the impression that the UAE forces and their surrogates are at times out of control, not even focused on AQAP, but still alienating the civilian population:

“Civilians in Hadramout, where UAE forces are present and actively involved in managing security in the governorate, also expressed disappointment and anger towards the unlawful detention and forced disappearance of civilians. ‘Hadramis are so shocked. We were happy the Emiratis came. They are our brothers and we thought they’d help us. And now they’ve became a curse. They abducted our sons and disappeared them illegally and unfairly. They are abducting people right and left, raiding homes and terrorizing people. Meanwhile, they let al-Qaeda militants out. Everyone knows that in Mukalla,’ said the mother of a detainee who was disappeared by Elite Forces in Mukalla more than six months ago.”

Lots of questions remain. What support has the US given to the UAE and specifically the Hadrami Elite Forces and the Security Belt Forces? What expectation is there that these forces will comply with international humanitarian and human rights law? Have any of these allegations been investigated, by the US or the UAE? How is intelligence from UAE and UAE-backed forces obtained and how is it used? Are US forces involved in any way in detention operations by the UAE or UAE-backed forces? What are the contingency plans for detainees in US-UAE joint operations?

A final question on many peoples’ minds is whether there are any independent legal institutions with a credible threat of investigating and prosecuting such abuses. When it comes to the UAE forces, the answer may surprise you. Stay tuned to Just Security for an article by Professor Rebecca Hamilton.


Main photo: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis meets with the United Arab Emirates’ Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan in Abu Dhabi, Feb. 18, 2017 – DOD photo by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley