ISIS in Yemen: Fueling the Sectarian Fire

March 20, 2015

Militia men loyal to Yemen's President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi loot the barracks of the Special Forces in the southern port city of Aden March 19, 2015. (Reuters)

The Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) carried out five suicide bombings in Yemen today. The attacks are the first by ISIS in Yemen, and ISIS’s targeting of Zaydi Shia mosques will fundamentally change political and security dynamics. The Yemeni state is already fragmenting. Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who resigned in protest in January, is establishing a rival government in the south to challenge the authority of the one now under Iranian-backed al Houthi control in the capital, Sana’a. The al Houthi-Hadi conflict remained largely a political one until fighter jets bombed Hadi’s residence on March 19. There is now a multi-faceted conflict in Yemen that also includes al Qaeda’s affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is fighting both the al Houthis and the Yemeni security forces. The arrival of ISIS in Yemen could fuel a broader sectarian war.

The forces driving the Yemeni state’s fragmentation started growing stronger in the fall. The al Houthis, a Zaydi Shia rebel group from north Yemen, besieged Sana’a in late September and extracted a deal that put Hadi under the al Houthis’ control—a coup d’état to which Hadi temporarily submitted. Ali Abdullah Saleh, Hadi’s predecessor before the 2011 Arab Spring, facilitated the rebels’ movement from their Sa’ada stronghold south to the capital. Saleh’s party, which controls the parliament, continues to support the al Houthis. The coup culminated in January when an al Houthi miscalculation resulted in the resignation of Yemen’s entire executive branch. The al Houthis seized the opportunity, rapidly solidified their control over northern Yemen, and started expanding south of Sana’a. Hadi escaped house arrest on February 22 and fled to Aden, Yemen’s second-largest city and South Yemen’s former capital. There, he began rebuilding his government and consolidating loyal forces.

The UN and Gulf States have been trying to negotiate a political settlement with the al Houthis since the coup, but to no avail. Both the al Houthis and Hadi want a unified Yemen—just not one where the other is in power. UN-led political negotiations have made no meaningful progress. The Gulf States, the U.S., Hadi, and anti-al Houthi political actors back the post-Arab Spring transition plan laid out in 2011, which the al Houthis firmly reject. Saudi Arabia ended its critical financial assistance to Yemen at the end of 2014, rejecting the seizure of the Yemeni state by an Iranian proxy. Iran, meanwhile, is publicly backing the al Houthis and recently sent supplies to Sana’a.

The al Houthi-Hadi conflict was largely a war of words until a few days ago. The al Houthi government in Sana’a sent combat aircraft to bomb Hadi’s Presidential Palace in Aden on March 19, although Hadi escaped unharmed. Local pro-Hadi militias and military forces had ousted a Saleh-loyal and pro-al Houthi commander from Aden that day following deadly clashes at Aden International Airport. The commander, Abdul Hafiz al Saqqaf, headed the Special Security Forces (SSF) in Aden had been agitating against Hadi’s forces there since early March.

The al Houthis are now trying to solidify their control over north-central Yemen. The al Houthis deployed a large force along the Ma’rib-al Bayda border on March 19, causing fears that they will enter Ma’rib governorate to secure oil infrastructure. Reporting also indicates that the al Houthi-Hadi battle may be moving northwest of Aden to Taiz, Yemen’s third-most-important city that has hitherto largely stayed out of the fighting. Al Houthis reportedly deployed a large armed group comprised of Special Security Forces to Taiz on March 20.

AQAP has been benefiting from the current conflict to expand its presence in Yemen’s southern and eastern governorates significantly. There are indicators that AQAP has been embedding fighters with local populations to combat al Houthi expansion, particularly in Ma’rib and al Bayda governorates. AQAP may seek to use the model of what al Qaeda’s affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra, did in Syria to establish a stronger presence. Jabhat al Nusra’s superior organization and military capabilities enabled it to gain acceptance among the Syrian opposition. AQAP has also established a strong presence in Bayhan, along the Shabwah-al Bayda border, after seizing one of Yemen’s largest military bases there on February 12. Unconfirmed reporting also indicates that AQAP took over al Hawta, the capital of Lahij governorate in southern Yemen on March 20. If true, it would be the third time in two months AQAP that has been able to seize and hold territory in southern Yemen.  

ISIS’s group in Yemen, calling itself “Wilayat Sana’a,” is seeking to accelerate sectarian conflict in Yemen. Four suicide bombers detonated suicide vests (SVESTs) at two Zaydi mosques in Sana’a on March 20 during Friday prayers. The Sana’a attack killed over 126 people. A separate bomber attempted to detonate an SVEST at a Zaydi mosque in the al Houthi stronghold of Sa’ada in northern Yemen. Al Houthis detained the bomber, but he later detonated his bomb while in custody. ISIS supporters quickly claimed credit for the attack via Twitter and later, Wilayat Sana’a put out a statement officially claiming credit. AQAP distanced itself from the attacking, asserting that it does not attack mosques.

The White House has been guarded in confirming ISIS responsibility for the attack, but the target matches traditional ISIS methodology and would be a sharp deviation from historical AQAP practice. Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the founder of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI, as ISIS was formerly known), deliberately sought to stoke sectarian conflict in Iraq in order to drive Shia retaliation that would allow him to mobilize the Sunni behind him. His specific targeting of Shia mosques, militias, and civilians brought him a rebuke from Ayman al Zawahiri, then Osama bin Laden’s deputy, starting the schism between al Qaeda leadership and AQI that culminated with Zawahiri’s expulsion of ISIS in February 2014. AQAP’s leader, Nasser al Wahayshi, is now Zawahiri’s operations manager and has remained loyal to Zawahiri against ISIS. It is most unlikely that he would have condoned attacks like these that contravene Zawahiri’s larger strategy, whereas the attacks perfectly match AQI’s strategy of stoking sectarian war. The strategy that brought Iraq to the brink of full-scale communal sectarian conflict in 2006 may well provoke the al Houthis to further crackdown on Sunni dissenters. Al Houthi gunmen already raided the home of an influential Salafist sheikh and political figure in Sana’a. Even a few attacks like these may drive sectarianism in Yemen, where it has not traditionally been strong, possibly benefiting ISIS as well as AQAP.

The entrance of ISIS into Yemen at the same time as escalating internal conflicts marks a significant inflection in Yemen’s political crisis. The U.S. can’t, and probably shouldn’t try to, fix the Yemeni state, but it can start by admitting that Yemen is fractured and is on a dangerous path to sectarian warfare. It should also lead the way and urge its Gulf partners to do the same in abandoning the 2011 political transition plan, which was problematic to begin with and has no chance of working now. There are also serious questions to answer, such as what the state of the intelligence on Yemen is now and who we think our counter-terrorism partners should be. The U.S. needs to get on the offense to defeat the growing global jihadist threat or else risk giving up the fight.