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.
Since at least 1994, the protection of government and other facilities in Yemen has been assigned to a police force called the Facilities Security and Public Figures Protection Police Force. Based on publicly available sources, this police force was responsible for planning, coordinating, and executing the protection of government facilities and projects, the headquarters of embassies and international organizations, as well as providing protection for public figures (Republic of Yemen Ministry of Interior; Facebook, 4 September 2012).
With the signing of the Riyadh Agreement in November 2019, a different unit called the Facilities Protection Forces (FPF) — purportedly a neutral agency — has been assigned the task of securing critical infrastructure in Aden, the interim capital of the internationally recognized government. Scrutinizing the supposed neutrality of the FPF, this piece describes the units history in Aden-Lahij and then briefly outlines how it differs from the traditional Facilities Security and Public Figures Protection Police Force.
After the 2015 war and the Houthi attempt to take over Aden, which resulted in instability in the governorate, armed groups composed of Popular Committees that participated in the fighting against the Houthis took responsibility for protecting government institutions in Aden from looting and robbery. The president of the internationally recognized government, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, reportedly announced in 2015 that the government was recruiting more fighters for the same purpose (Al Jazeera, 15 March 2015).
It was not until the beginning of 2017 (Yafa News, 11 November 2017; Aden Time, 14 November 2017) or the end of 2016, according to one source (Youtube, 9 January 2020), that the FPF was formalized as a brigade under the Support and Reinforcement Brigades (Aden Time, 14 November 2017; ACLED, 22 September 2020) and deployed to Aden and Lahij. The Support and Reinforcement Brigades are pro-Southern Transitional Council (STC) forces, which makes the FPF a de facto pro-STC force (for more on the Support and Reinforcement Brigades, see an earlier installment in this ACLED series). The FPF is sometimes also referred to as the Facilities Protection Brigade Aden-Lahij (Facebook, 19 December 2020).
According to media reporting, the FPF allegedly consists of more than 1,000 fighters (Al Yemen Al Araby, 16 November 2019) and in 2019 controlled around 42 government buildings in Aden and Lahij (Al Arabiya, 12 November 2019; Al Mashreq, 13 November 2019). The forces are led by Brigadier Ahmad Mahdi Al Afifi (a.k.a. Ahmad Bin Afif) who appears to be a young commander. He was born in Aden, but is originally from Shabwah governorate (Facebook, 16 November 2019). Colonel Asaad Abu Ibrahim is his deputy (Aden 24, 13 June 2020). The FPF’s headquarters are in Al Sulban camp in Aden (Crater Sky, 10 July 2020; Al Ayyam, 2 November 2020).
The current role assumed by the FPF of being the main force responsible for guarding state buildings in the southern governorates was established per the 2019 Riyadh Agreement between the STC and the internationally recognized Hadi government, fostered under the auspices of the Saudi king. The agreement stipulated the unification of all the FPF under one force that would be tasked with the protection of civilian facilities, government and ministry headquarters, the central bank, Aden ports, Aden’s airport, and other state facilities in Aden. In addition, there were plans to secure vital facilities — like the Mukalla, Dhabba, Mocha, and Balhaf ports — in other governorates within 90 days of the agreement. However, at time of writing, this has not come to fruition (Al Mashareq, 13 November 2019). According to the agreement, the FPF would be associated with the Ministry of Interior. However, the forces, at least in a de facto sense, still fall under the Support and Reinforcement Brigades. This undermines its supposed neutrality as a force responsible for securing critical infrastructure in Aden for both sides of the Riyadh agreement — the STC and the internationally recognized government.
The FPF had expansion plans before the Riyadh Agreement to move into Abyan (Al Ayyam, 3 December 2018), but these plans have not been implemented. This is possibly due to the current fighting between the STC and internationally recognized government forces around the Zinjibar frontlines. While the Riyadh Agreement placed the FPF under the Ministry of Interior, in practice, the group has not coalesced into a unified government force under the ministry. However, the agreement has given the FPF greater power and legitimacy. In November 2019, the FPF took control of the fishing port in Aden (Facebook, 16 November 2019; Al Ayyam, 17 November 2019), and, shortly after, the Ministry of Education’s Research and Development Center and the public prosecution building in Aden (Facebook, 17 November 2019). In the same month, the group reinforced its presence in Lahij by officially deploying its fourth brigade in Lahij under the leadership of Hassan Ahmad Al Wedad Ali Al Ahdal. The brigade secured water, electricity, and telecom facilities, as well as the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation’s local bureau in the governorate (Al Ayyam, 25 November 2019).
In addition to protecting government facilities, the FPF has been engaging in other activities, such as delivering potable water and medicine (Crater Sky, 11 July 2020). Recently, the FPF have been participating in COVID-19 prevention efforts by sterilizing public places in Aden (Al Ayyam, 16 April 2020). The increased coverage of the FPF’s community service activities correlates with the establishment of an independent social media presence in November 2019.
Illustrating the FPF’s increased importance, its commander, Al Afifi, was the target of an assassination attempt in January 2020 (Aden Al Ghad, 11 Janury 2020). Relations with other pro-STC forces are not always frictionless. When taking over the fishing port in November 2019, small skirmishes erupted between the FPF and Aden Security forces, a force tasked with policing Aden, under commander Shalal Ali Sheya (El Yamn El Araby, 16 November 2020). Clashes reignited in January 2020 when the FPF attempted to take over the passport building from Aden Security forces, as instructed by the Saudi-led coalition (Motabaat, 29 January 2020; Crater Sky 28 January 2020). Since its inception, however, the FPF has rarely been involved in violent events, highlighting its role as a force securing infrastructure rather than a force fighting on the frontlines (see figure below).
As per the Riyadh Agreement, and the media depiction of the FPF, the group is supposedly politically neutral and works solely to guard facilities to maintain the functioning of state institutions and to shield them from political instability in the interest of civilians. However, the FPF appears to serve as an armed branch of the STC, as it is affiliated with the Support and Reinforcement Brigades (Support and Reinforcement Brigade Media, 1 November 2019; ACLED 22 September 2020). FPF personnel also wear the South Yemen flag emblem on their military uniforms, similar to other pro-STC forces. Additionally, the FPF has continuous contact with other pro-STC groups like the Shabwani Elite forces (Al Youm 8, 21 July 2020) and the Southern Resistance (4 May News, 3 December 2019), indicating collaboration. This is why the choice to give the FPF the responsibility to protect key government institutions in Aden has been met with suspicion (Aden News Agency, 3 December 2019), as it could indirectly provide the STC with more leverage in the interim capital. In addition, it is unclear why the Riyadh Agreement would favor the FPF over the traditional Ministry of Interior-affiliated Facilities Security and Public Figures Protection Police Force, which, although potentially weakened, still seems to maintain a level of activity in certain governorates.
The FPF can be easily confused with a group with a similar name and a similar role: the Facilities Security and Public Figures Protection Police Force. This section provides a brief overview of the Facilities Security and Public Figures Protection Police Force and its differences from the FPF.
Before the establishment of the STC-affiliated FPF, protecting facilities had historically been the responsibility of a police unit known as the Facilities Security and Public Figures Protection Police Force (commonly referred to as the Facilities Security Police, FSP). Based on publicly available information and reports, this police force has been active since at least 1994 (Facebook, 4 September 2012) and was tasked with planning, coordinating, and executing the protection of government facilities and projects, as well as the headquarters of embassies and international organizations. It likewise provided protection for public figures (Republic of Yemen Ministry of Interior). The FSP fell under the jurisdiction of the general security department of the Ministry of Interior (Facebook, 12 September 2012). This police force was represented locally with branches in different governorates.
As happened to other security forces in Yemen, the start of the 2014 civil war led to the fragmentation of the FSP. However, there is reason to think that the FSP still maintains varying levels of activities in different governorates. In Al Mahra, for example, the FSP is led by Captain Mustafa An Nakhai (Al Mashhad Al Araby, 7 March 2019). It has been strongly supported by former Al Mahrah governor Rajeh Bakrit (Facebook, 6 March 2019), and appears to enjoy some level of independence from the local governorate security and from the Ministry of Interior (Al Mushahid, 11 March 2019).1It is not clear whether this force is still operational or has been disbanded. Its most recent activity has been the graduation of a batch of policemen/soldiers in July 2019 (Youtube, 28 July 2019; Twitter, 28 July 2019).
In Marib, the FSP is still a part of the local police force with Lieutenant Colonel Ali Saleh Doman, from the Jadaan tribes, at its helm. (Facebook, 11 August 2019; Republic of Yemen Ministry of Interior, 7 April 2018). A similar unit can be found in Taizz as part of the local police force (Republic of Yemen Ministry of Interior, 20 April 2018), as well as in Hadramawt (Nabd, 4 November 2020), and Lahij (Twitter, 12 October 2017). Similarly in Aden, a facilities security police force ran parallel to Al Afifi’s Facilities Protection Force, under the leadership of Mohammed Ali As Samantar, at least until mid-2018 (Yafa News, 12 July 2018). It is not clear whether the latter force is still operational.
The de facto Houthi authorities seem to have also subsumed this police structure within their Ministry of Interior and appointed Brigadier General Abdul Rauf Mufadhel as its leader (Facebook, 26 January 2019; Tihama News, 5 November 2019).
One apparent difference between the Ministry of Interior FSP and the STC-affiliated counterpart is their distinct outfits. The former are dressed in a brown and yellow camouflage suit, as seen on their official channels (Facebook, 11 August 2019; Twitter, 27 July 2019), whereas the latter — Al Afifi’s men — wear a darker grey army uniform, as seen in pictures on the group’s official Facebook page (Facebook, 16 October 2020).
While the traditional Facilities Security and Public Figures Protection Police Force seems to maintain an impartial policing role following the orders of its respective local leadership, the same cannot be said of the FPF. Through its structural integration into the Support and Reinforcement Brigades and strong links to the STC, the FPF lacks the impartiality required to secure infrastructure in Aden and Lahij while maintaining equal distance from both parties to the Riyadh Agreement.
As the Aden-Lahij FPF remains in full force, monitoring trends in its activity will be crucial to understanding which conflict party will control strategic infrastructure in Aden. Although the FPF, as a security force, will not likely be engaging in heavy fighting, rare instances of infighting with pro-STC armed groups have already been reported. As critical infrastructure is valuable and a potential source of income for soldiers and policemen, it further incentivizes small skirmishes over their control. A scenario which could lead to such skirmishes would be greater fragmentation of STC politics. Apart from infighting in the STC, a return of the internationally recognized government to control such infrastructure seems unlikely thus far. A potential return would be determined by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the STC’s financial and political supporter. The UAE’s involvement in supporting the formation of a unity government between the STC and the internationally recognized government, and the actual unification of security forces in Aden — as outlined in the Riyadh Agreement — could ease the STC’s grip over key institutions. However, the protection role of the FPF of the key economic and governmental facilities in the interim capital — endorsed by the Riyadh Agreement — already implicitly asserts STC dominance over Aden.
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