By Abigail Fielding-Smith, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism
An armed force run by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has kidnapped hundreds of men in Yemen, according to relatives and local human rights activists, fuelling concerns about the United States’ choice of partners in its war against Islamic extremism.
Yemenis say that over the past year, men in uniform have been coming to people’s homes and taking them away, in many cases never to be seen again. Desperate parents have told the Bureau they have virtually no information on their sons’ fate and nowhere they can turn for help.
The Bureau’s findings echo a report from a United Nations panel of experts earlier this year which raised the alert on forced disappearances in UAE-controlled southeastern Yemen.
The uniformed men are thought to belong to a militia called the Elite Forces, which is under UAE control. The Elite Forces have been accused of taking the men to a secret prison compound at al Riyyan airport in southeastern Yemen, where one human rights activist said they are packed into metal shipping containers then left in temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius plus.
The activist likened the conditions at the airbase to Guantanamo Bay and to Abu Ghraib, the notorious U.S.-run prison in Iraq. “We don’t know whether they’re alive or dead,” said one parent. “Is that human rights?”
The UAE has been operating in Yemen since 2015, initially stepping in to support the government in its fight against a rebel uprising. Since then it has worked—in coordination with the U.S.—to fight the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda.
The UAE is one of the U.S.’s key allies in the Middle East and the two countries have a close working relationship. Responding to the reports of disappearances and alleged abuse, international observers said questions must be asked about U.S. complicity and whether it is using information gathered by the UAE from the prisoners to guide Yemeni raids and strikes.
The Bureau spent weeks investigating reports of disappearances and tracing families of the detained. Many were afraid to talk. The handful who did agree to be interviewed described the time and circumstances of their sons’ arrests in detail, but asked us not to publish anything that might identify them or their children.
One man, who asked to be referred to by the nickname Abu Ali, told the Bureau that he heard a knock on the door of his family home one day last year. It was a group of armed men in beige uniform, which he thinks belongs to the Elite Forces, looking for his son.
“He wasn’t hiding,” said Ali, still perplexed at the violence of the intrusion. “They didn’t need to do it like that.” The men in uniform took his son away.
After asking around, Abu Ali got information that his son was being held in the detention facility at the airbase. Months later, he still doesn’t know what process is taking place in al Riyyan or what will happen to his son. “The law has disappeared in Yemen,” he said.
According to a United Nations (UN) report about Yemen published in January, the Elite Forces were created to counter al Qaeda in the southeastern port city of Mukalla once the Yemeni government reestablished control of the city in April 2016.
Mukalla had previously been under control of the terrorist group for about a year. The operation that liberated it was led by the UAE, and the Emiratis remain a powerful force across the city.
“While nominally under the command of the legitimate Government, [the Elite Forces] are effectively under the operational control of the United Arab Emirates,” says the UN report.
It’s presumed that the Elite Force arrests are an attempt to round up al Qaeda suspects. Extremist organisations remain a serious threat in Yemen, and some local residents have expressed support for the Elite Forces’ attempts to bring security.
But activists and relatives claim that many of those arrested are guilty of nothing more than doing ordinary jobs in Mukalla at a time when al Qaeda was in charge. Many people living in Mukalla technically worked for the group at some point, because it was the de facto government.
Abu Ali says this was the case with his son. “He was married, he needed work, so he worked,” said Abu Ali. “Al Qaeda was controlling everything.”
A UN panel of experts investigated six forced disappearances by the Elite Forces in Mukalla that took place between April and November last year. Five of the men taken had no links to al Qaeda, it said, while one was a professional tradesperson who did some work for the group.
There are also reports that people are being apprehended for being members of Islah, a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated political movement.
There are many different armed actors operating in Yemen, and parents don’t know who to go to for help when their sons are taken away. People the Bureau spoke to were shaken and frightened, and said Yemeni government officials were powerless.
“There are no official authorities you can talk to,” one relative told the Bureau. “I don’t know what happened.”
Another man, who like the other parents asked for his name not to be used, said that his son vanished a few months ago after the Elite Forces came to look for him. He has been trying frantically to find out about his son’s fate ever since, but has failed to get any answers from Yemeni officials.
“We have knocked on all the doors of the authorities, but sadly the Emiratis rule and have the final word,” he said.
Human rights activists estimate the total number of the disappeared in Mukalla and elswehere to be in the hundreds. Some are said to have been released after several months, but the majority are still said to be missing.
Houthi rebels are also reported to have engaged in abuses, with human rights groups accusing them of indiscriminate shelling and widespread abductions.
It is very hard to find out information about conditions in al Riyyan but human rights activists say that serious abuses are taking place there.
One man who has been following the situation in al Riyyan closely, and asked to remain anonymous, said that the abuses start with a “welcoming ceremony” in which prisoners are subjected to violence and insults. They are crowded into metal containers, whose temperatures can reach 53 degrees Celsius at midday, he said. One prisoner who was released had blood oozing out from the soles of his feet from all the beatings, according to the activist.
Prisoners are allegedly stripped for interrogation, the activist continued, likening the situation to “Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.”
The UAE is seen as the U.S.’ preferred Arab fighting partner. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis refers to the small Gulf state affectionately as “Little Sparta,” comparing it to the warlike ancient Greek city state. The UAE’s military system has been developed in such a way as to integrate smoothly with the U.S.’, and the two countries operated closely together in Afghanistan.
The UAE has invested considerably in promoting its image in Washington in recent years. Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East policy adviser, is reported to have sought advice from the UAE’s ambassador to the U.S., Youssef Otaiba. The U.S. Marine Corps trains the UAE’s Presidential Guard. Most of the UAE’s weapons come from the U.S., according to the Washington-based Center for International Policy.
The two countries have worked closely together in Yemen. UAE forces were reportedly present on an al Qaeda raid carried out by U.S. commandos last January, which as the Bureau revealed led to the deaths of nine children under the age of 13 and a U.S. Navy Seal. According to Reuters, the UAE has shared information with the U.S. that it has gathered from counterterrorism operations in Yemen.
Alex Moorehead, a project director at Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute, said that if the allegations of abuse in UAE-supervised prisons are true, it begs the question of whether intelligence extracted under torture is being shared with the U.S. and used in the U.S.’ own counterterrorism operations.
“Given these allegations, the U.S. should be very concerned about where the UAE is getting its intelligence from. There are also serious questions to be answered about the extent of U.S. involvement in UAE detention operations in Yemen,” he said.
“The U.S. should be transparent about what assistance it is providing to the UAE and its surrogate forces in Yemen. They should be investigating these allegations.”
When asked by the Bureau about the allegations of abuse in UAE-run prisons and concerns about its link with U.S. targeting processes, the American military headquarters responsible for operations in Yemen, Central Command, said: “Reports of violations of the laws of armed conflict are treated seriously. Any such actions are not compatible with US policy.”
Nadwa al Dawsari, a senior non-resident fellow at the U.S.-based Project on Middle Eastern Democracy, said that the forced disappearances could backfire on the U.S., draining local support for the counterterrorism mission.
Many local people are “very, very shocked and angry to see what’s happening,” she said. “The community is crucial to defeating al Qaeda.” It was mediation by the local tribes that persuaded al Qaeda to leave Mukalla last year, she pointed out. “These mediations can be effective only when there is community support.”
“If the U.S. is going to do counterterrorism in Mukalla they need to invest in rehabilitation and the justice system… there’s a huge demand for rule of law in Mukalla.”
No one is accountable for the alleged disappearances, say families. “We don’t have access to anyone to ask. They all won’t even see us. We can only talk to the officer at the checkpoint,” reads one testimony gathered by human rights researchers.
In spite of their fear of the consequences, parents of the detained say they have have formed a committee, organized small protests, and in desperation, written open letters to the Yemeni and UAE authorities.
“We demand again our right to know the fate of our sons who are detained,” pleads one of these letters. “The parties that have detained them have not said the reasons for their detention and have not put them forward to be judged.”
One Emirati officer’s name crops up again and again in the families’ accounts—he is someone whose phone number they have obtained. But talking to him brings them no closer to a resolution on their sons’ cases, they claim.
The UAE government has not responded to the Bureau’s request for comment on this story.