Little-Known Military Brigades and Armed Groups in Yemen: A Series
This series maps the activity of little-known military brigades and armed groups proliferating throughout the conflict in Yemen. Mapping these actors has become relevant for understanding future trajectories of violence in Yemen as some of them have developed significant combat capabilities with shifting allegiances. While some follow their own interests, others have clear allegiances to the internationally recognized government or the Southern Transitional Council. As with actors in other conflict scenarios, such allegiances are, however, never set in stone. Rather, allegiances are a fluid process, shifting due to changes of outside circumstances (e.g. the behavior of a patron) or battlefield victories. In order to be better prepared for these changes, this series maps the activity of such military brigades and armed groups — some of them have become relevant already, while others may see their turn towards increased relevance in the future.
This piece provides a deep dive into an actor that is not yet covered in much detail by traditional media; as such, it draws on OSINT, including new media sources, more than traditional ACLED analyses. Some of these sources are not used in ACLED’s data collection, yet the information garnered from them for this piece has been either triangulated or presented with the appropriate caveats.
The 30th Armored Brigade is a brigade of the internationally recognized Hadi government that has been fighting in Ad Dali governorate against Houthi forces for at least five years (Al Wattan, 22 January 2019). It is known to fight alongside other pro-Hadi forces, such as the 4th Brigade and 83rd Artillery Brigade (Al Masdar, 22 April 2019). Uniquely, the 30th Armored Brigade also fights alongside pro-Southern Transitional Council (STC) forces — including the Security Belt Forces (SBF), Support and Reinforcement Brigades (SRB), Saiqa Brigades, Giants Brigades, and Southern Resistance forces — on a regular basis. It is one of the only pro-Hadi units to regularly fight alongside pro-STC forces against Houthi forces, despite repeated clashes between pro-STC and other pro-Hadi forces in the southern governorates.1 While other pro-Hadi forces have reportedly fought alongside pro-STC forces on repeated occasions (see ACLED’s earlier installment in this series on the Amajid Brigade), this has not occurred with the same frequency as the 30th Armored Brigade. Furthermore, under the command of Hadi Al Awlaqi, the 30th Armored Brigade appears to have developed ties with pro-STC forces in Ad Dali that may indicate that the brigade is becoming a de facto pro-STC force.
The 30th Armored Brigade was reportedly deployed in Ibb from 2013 to 2015, under the command of Muhammad Qaid Saleh Al Hufayzi (Saba, 10 April 2013; Rayman Press, 1 May 2013; Shabwah Press, 28 February 2015). Based on publicly available reports and information, it is unclear when the brigade was established or where it was deployed prior to 2013. In the fall of 2015, after Houthi forces advanced throughout Yemen, command was transferred to Abdul Karim As Sayyadi, who is from the Al Awd area in Qaatabah district (Yemen Media Center, 19 September 2015). Under his command, the 30th Armored Brigade participated in reversing the spring 2015 Houthi advance and remained deployed on frontlines in Ad Dali from that point forward. In the fall of 2018, the 30th Armored Brigade clashed with the 83rd Artillery Brigade in Qaatabah and later lost significant territory to a Houthi offensive in spring 2019 (Yemen Press Agency, 22 October 2018; Al Mawqea, 19 April 2019).
In March 2019, As Sayyadi handed command over to the current commander, Hadi Ahmad Musad Al Awlaqi, in accordance with a Presidential Decree (Al Moaten, 18 March 2019). The change in command occurred after As Sayyadi was accused of sympathizing with the Houthi movement following a successful Houthi offensive in Ad Dali (Al Mawqea, 19 April 2019). Soldiers in the brigade likewise held protests against As Sayyadi’s leadership (Yemen Shabab, 21 January 2019). Al Awlaqi, who is from Shabwah but was raised in the town of Al Jalilah north of Ad Dali city, is also the overall commander of pro-Hadi and joint forces on the Ad Dali axis (Al Masa Press, 17 June 2020; Al Wattan, 14 March 2019; Al Mashhad Al Yemeni, 12 September 2020).2The Al Awaliq tribal group, from which individuals take the name Al Awlaqi (also spelled as Al Awlaki), is the most influential tribal actor in Shabwah governorate (ACAPS, August 2020). He reportedly trained with Soviet forces in Ryazan as an officer in the army of South Yemen and maintains an affinity for frontline combat (Al Wattan, 14 March 2019; Twitter, 15 April 2020; Tahdeeth, 26 September 2020; Al Ayyam, 1 May 2019).
Under the command of Al Awlaqi, the brigade has been active throughout all frontlines in Ad Dali. While the vast majority of its activity is reported on the Al Fakhir frontline in Qaatabah district, it has also clashed with Houthi forces in Ad Dali, Al Husha, and Damt districts (see map below) (Maeen Press, 10 October 2019; Khabar News Agency, 31 March 2020).
The battle for Ad Dali governorate represents a struggle over strategic sites along the borders of the northern Yemen Arab Republic and the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen before the unification of Yemen in 1990. Qaatabah, the largest city near the current frontlines, is located at a strategic junction, leading to Ibb City to the west, Yarim and Dhamar to the northwest, and Damt and Radaa to the north. Not only do these routes provide a more direct route from Aden to Sanaa, they also grant access to sizable populations in Ibb and Dhamar. Additionally, Al Awlaqi took command of the 30th Armored Brigade after Houthi forces pushed into Ad Dali from Ibb and Al Bayda governorates and threatened to advance south of the pre-unity border in early 2019.
The current frontlines, as evidenced in the above map, have centered on the Al Fakhir front to the west, Bab Ghaliq front to the north of Qaatabah, and in Al Husha district to the southwest. At their furthest advances in early 2019, Houthi forces threatened, but did not gain control, of Ad Dali city. Most frontlines have remained relatively static since Houthi forces were pushed back from the outskirts of Ad Dali city, with small-scale exchanges of territory across all active frontlines in 2020.
Anti-Houthi forces fighting in Ad Dali are often reported in ambiguous terms such as Joint Forces, Southern Armed Forces, Resistance Forces, and Army Forces. These terms lack precision and are treated by ACLED differently based on previous activity in reported areas and general understandings of the terms. The Joint Forces, for instance, are coded as both pro-Hadi and Southern Resistance forces. The Southern Armed Forces, however, are coded as both SBF and Southern Resistance forces. Less ambiguous terms such as Resistance Forces and Army Forces are coded as Southern Resistance and pro-Hadi forces respectively. The vague nature of such reporting likely results in an under-reporting of the 30th Armored Brigade in ACLED data, as it is only recorded when explicitly named or known to be active in a precise location.
Collaboration with Pro-STC Forces
The current round of clashes between pro-STC and pro-Hadi forces follow previous clashes in January 2018 and August 2019 (Sanaa Center, 4 May 2020). This episodic conflict between the forces stems from President Hadi’s decision to fire Aden Governor Aidarus Al Zubaidi and Southern state minister Hani bin Braik on 27 April 2017 (Al Jazeera, 27 April 2017). Two weeks later, on 11 May, the two were instrumental in the formation of the STC with Al Zubaidi as the President and bin Braik as his deputy (Al Araby Al Jadeed, 11 May 2017). Despite repeated efforts at defusing the situation and re-establishing a united government, the two bodies remain at an impasse. As such, pro-Hadi and pro-STC military forces rarely fight alongside each other. In Ad Dali, however, the 30th Armored Brigade is an exception, regularly fighting alongside a variety of pro-STC forces.
While other pro-Hadi forces such as the 33rd Armored Brigade and Presidential Guard have been dismantled or prevented from operating in Ad Dali by pro-STC forces, the 30th Armored Brigade continues to fight alongside pro-STC forces in Ad Dali (Al Mawqea Post, 2 December 2019; Al Khabar Post, 27 December 2019; Aden al Ghad, 8 May 2019). The 30th Armored Brigade has collaborated with a variety of pro-STC forces in Ad Dali governorate, including the Security Belt Forces, Saiqa Brigades, Support and Reinforcement Brigades, Giants Brigades, and the Southern Resistance. This collaboration is unique as pro-STC and pro-Hadi forces have experienced repeated instances of infighting in Ad Dali after Houthi forces have advanced in local fronts (Sanaa Center, 30 January 2020).
The change in command of the 30th Armored Brigade in March 2019 –from As Sayyadi to Al Awlaqi — was likely designed to increase cooperation between pro-Hadi and pro-STC forces. Al Awlaqi previously held commands in the Southern Resistance and Security Belt Forces in Ad Dali and Lahij governorates (Aden Observer, 18 September 2017). Al Awlaqi’s history of commanding pro-STC forces in Ad Dali likely eased tensions with current pro-STC forces in Ad Dali. However, it also resulted in increased tensions within the 30th Armored Brigade. For instance, minor intra-brigade clashes were reported the day Al Awlaqi took command and an officer in the brigade carried out an assassination attempt on Al Awlaqi a month after he took command (Al Wattan, 16 March 2019; Al Mashhad Al Yemeni, 18 April 2019).3Such infighting after changes of command is not rare in Yemen. The 35th Armored Brigade in Taiz recently experienced infighting after some units rejected the appointment of a new commander (Huna Aden, 19 July 2020). Likewise, tensions rose within the 21st Mechanized Brigade in Shabwah after a restructuring of command (Yemen News Portal, 23 September 2020).
Al Awlaqi has shown his ability to ameliorate poor relations between pro-Hadi and pro-STC forces during his command of Joint Forces in Ad Dali. Despite being the commander of a pro-Hadi brigade, he has not shied from praising pro-STC forces when appropriate, providing a glowing report of the Security Belt’s effective defense on the Murays and Qaatabah frontlines (Aden Press, 6 April 2019). Such willingness to praise and cooperate with pro-STC forces may be further explained by Al Awlaqi’s tribal connection to local leaders of the Southern Resistance forces. For instance, Colonel Amr Ahmad Musad Al Awlaqi – likely Hadi Al Awlaqi’s brother – leads one of the armored units of the Southern Resistance in Ad Dali (Al Ayyam, 22 October 2019). Since Al Awlaqi took command, the Southern Resistance is the most common of all forces that fight alongside the 30th Armored Brigade. Out of all the events since Al Awlaqi took command in March 2019 in which the 30th Armored Brigade has a reported associated actor in engagements with Houthi forces, the Southern Resistance is involved in 80% and is the only associated actor in 61% (see figure below). The familial connection, Al Awlaqi’s previous commands in pro-STC forces, and the brigade’s consistent cooperation with the Southern Resistance highlight the strong relationship between the 30th Armored Brigade and pro-STC forces.
The current status of the 30th Armored Brigade in Ad Dali indicates that it may be transitioning into a de facto pro-STC force. The past and contemporary relations of Al Awlaqi to pro-STC forces in Ad Dali are deep and based on personal and familial ties. That the 30th Armored Brigade has not experienced any fighting with pro-STC forces despite the ongoing hostilities between pro-STC and pro-Hadi forces in neighboring Abyan implies that the brigade has forged a unique relationship with its partner forces.
It is unclear how the development of the relationship between pro-STC forces and the 30th Armored Brigade will affect the integrity of the brigade moving forward. The composition of the brigade is also unclear, making it difficult to ascertain likely loyalties between the Hadi government and the STC. While some aspects of the Al Awaliq tribal confederation are antagonistic to the UAE and its partner forces, the Al Awaliq present in Ad Dali governorate appear much more accommodating (Masa Press, 11 August 2017). This is evidenced by Hadi Al Awlaqi’s previous commands and Amr Al Awlaqi’s current command of pro-UAE Southern Resistance forces (Aden Observer, 18 September 2017; Al Ayyam, 22 October 2019). Additionally, although the brigade was deployed in and likely composed of soldiers from Dhamar and Ibb in the 7th military region, it has fought in the 4th military region since late 2015. However, without further information on force composition and structure, it is impossible to estimate future loyalties.
The 30th Armored Brigade resides in a precarious position as the primary pro-Hadi force in Ad Dali. Its position will likely increase the chances of the brigade becoming a scapegoat if there is a successful Houthi offensive in Ad Dali, as happened in early 2019 (Al Mawqea, 19 April 2019). Conversely, the brigade may be overshadowed by the sheer number of pro-STC forces if Houthi forces are pushed out of Ad Dali. Regardless, its consistent cooperation with pro-STC forces is a necessity for the pro-Hadi government to maintain a presence in Ad Dali, a STC stronghold (ACLED, 18 December 2019). Despite its unenviable position, it is clear that the 30th Armored Brigade will play a significant role in the future of the relationship between the STC and pro-Hadi government in Ad Dali, and on the frontlines against Houthi forces.
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