UAE hired Israeli mercenary to lead US death squad on Yemen assassination spree
The elite US special operations fighters, who had obtained years of specialised training in the US military, including in Washington's long years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, were paid to take part in mercenary missions to assassinate a number of Yemeni individuals deemed "terrorists" by the UAE, the leader of the group revealed.
"There was a targeted assassination programme in Yemen," Abraham Golan told BuzzFeed News. "I was running it. We did it. It was sanctioned by the UAE within the [Saudi-led] coalition."
Golan, a Hungarian Israeli security contractor who lives in the United States said his company, Spear Operations Group, pitched the idea to Mohammed Dahlan, the former head of security for the Palestinian Authority, as well as other key advisers to Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.
The meeting was clear-cut and to the point. The group was told to help "disrupt and destruct" Yemen's al-Islah party, which Golan described as "a political branch of a terrorist organisation" - referring to the Muslim Brotherhood and echoing the sentiments of the UAE, which, along with Saudi Arabia, has attempted to crush the movement across the region.
Al-Islah is one of President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi's top allies in the south.
In return for carrying out the targeted killings, the US mercenaries would receive $1.5 million a month and successful kills would be rewarded with undisclosed bonuses. Later, Spear Operations Group would also provide training for Emirati soldiers in commando tactics. But Golan revealed he had set a condition for the Emiratis: requesting his group be at least semi-officially incorporated into the UAE Armed Forces, given UAE uniforms and ID, "for juridical reasons".
The American fighters would be given a UAE military rank to provide them with legal cover, and all equipment would be provided by Abu Dhabi.
"Because if the sh*t hits the fan," he explained, the UAE uniform and dog tags would mark "the difference between a mercenary and a military man".
Golan's initial budget allowed for his fighters to receive $25,000 a month - about $830 a day - plus bonuses. According to three sources familiar with the operation, one of the mercenaries previously worked with the CIA's "ground branch" - Langley's version of the special forces. Another was still active as a SEAL in the Navy Reserve and had obtained a top-secret clearance, sources revealed.
|It does appear to be a targeted campaign. There have been 25 to 30 assassinations
- Gregory Johnsen, Arabia Foundation
While the Navy's Special Warfare Command declined to comment, the CIA claimed it had no knowledge of such a programme in Yemen. But a former CIA official who initially declared it an impossible scenario later told Buzzfeed News: "There were guys that were basically doing what you said." Shocked by what he had learnt, the former official questioned the "vetting procedures" to ensure "the guy you just smoked is really a bad guy". The mercenaries, he said, were "almost like a murder squad".
In December 2015, Golan and about a dozen hired American mercenaries travelled to an Emirati military base in the desert on a chartered Gulfstream jet, before later taking a UAE Air Force transport plane to another base in Assab, Eritrea. The group was briefed by a uniformed Emirati officer who had given them a hit list consisting of 23 people, some of which were identified by their role in Yemeni politics.
Former US Navy SEAL Isaac Gilmore, who spearheaded the operation alongside Golan, confirmed some of the named were members of Yemen's political Islamist al-Islah party, some were clerics involved in inciting violence, and some were "out-and-out terrorists" - though he admitted he "couldn't be sure".
Golan suggested some terrorist enemies were so dangerous and difficult to arrest, that the only viable solution was assassination, noting he modelled his assassination business on Israel's targeted killing programme.
Yemen's coastal Aden city, which has for several years stood as the country's temporary capital, has been marred with a range of security situations, including bombings and assassinations, many of which have until now, remained unexplained.
In recent years, dozens of clerics, prominent activists and political figures have been killed or barely escaped assassination attempts in Aden, where Emirati forces control much of the security apparatus alongside separatist fighters.
But on December 29, 2015, Golan's squad focused on Anssaf Ali Mayo, the local leader of al-Islah. The covert "in-out" mission was to see the mercenaries plant an explosive device onto Mayo's office door, but after one of the fighters began shooting for unknown reasons, the mission was derailed. The bomb detonated as they left the scene. The squad later found out that Mayo had left the building ten minutes before they had arrived.
"It does appear to be a targeted campaign," Gregory Johnsen of the Arabia Foundation, who in 2016 served on a UN panel investigating the Yemen war, told Buzzfeed News. "There have been 25 to 30 assassinations," he said, though a few appear to be the work of the Islamic State group's Yemen branch.
In April, Minister of Religious Endowment Ahmed Attiya said the killings were "systematic" and that more than 50 clerics had left Yemen so far, fleeing to countries such as Egypt and Jordan.
"If this continues, we will ask the clerics to stay home and stop going to mosques," he said from Riyadh.
Attiya has also appealed for an effort to "rescue the clerics, scholars, and imams" of Aden and his office has warned that the killings are taking place hand-in-hand with forced replacements of clerics affiliated with Islah.
More than 10,000 people have been killed since a Saudi-led coalition launched a military campaign to help the internationally recognised government regain control of territory lost to the Houthi rebels. Yemen's multi-faceted conflict has pushed the impoverished country to the brink of famine, triggering what the United Nations says is the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
The UAE, which has over the years garnered substantial influence over the south of the country, has been widely accused of war crimes.
In August, a report obtained by Al Jazeera revealed Abu Dhabi was operating a network of 27 clandestine prisons in southern Yemen, where inmates are subject to torture and brutal interrogation techniques.
The report described instances of physical and psychological torture as well as scenes of Emirati army personnel and their Yemeni allies committing sexual abuse. Detainees were raped and given electric shocks to the chest, armpits and genitals, it said, noting more than 49 were killed as a result of the torture.
In July, the UN Human Rights Office also confirmed that Yemeni detainees had been tortured and sexually abused by Emirati soldiers.
Yemeni security officials said local forces backed by the UAE were expanding their reach in the country's south, where they have clashed with forces loyal to the internationally recognised president.
Yemeni minister Saleh al-Jabwani accused the UAE of trying to fragment the country by creating separate "regional and tribal armies" in the south.
Sana Uqba is a journalist at The New Arab.
Follow her on Twitter: @Sanasiino