Yemen File

The Yemen File is a biweekly analysis and assessment of the Yemen conflict and the Salafi-jihadi movement in Yemen. {{authorBox.message}}

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AQAP Emir Rallies Group Under New Leadership Before Plotting External Attacks

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Yemen: The new AQAP emir will focus on cohering the organization under his leadership before reemphasizing external attack planning.

The al Houthi Movement in Yemen: The Iranian regime is providing the al Houthi movement with weapons capable of shooting down US military aircraft.

 

The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Yemen

New al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) emir Khaled Batarfi will likely strengthen AQAP by cohering the organization internally before planning external attacks. An AQAP religious official confirmed the death of former emir Qasim al Raymi, whom a US airstrike killed in January, and announced Batarfi as Raymi’s successor on February 23.[1] Batarfi’s past experience includes planning external operations for the group, potentially indicating that AQAP will continue its recent reinvigorated support for attacks outside of Yemen. Batarfi’s first statement since taking the position indicates that he is prioritizing cohering the group internally to strengthen it in the near term.

Batarfi’s strengths include his previous leadership experience in Yemen and his ties to senior al Qaeda leadership. Batarfi retains links to senior al Qaeda leadership attributed to his time fighting in Afghanistan in 1999. He also has relationships with mid-level commanders in multiple areas of Yemen from his past command roles in Hadramawt, Abyan, and al Bayda governorates. Batarfi spent time off the battlefield while imprisoned between 2011 and 2015 in Hadramawt governorate until AQAP released him after capturing the governorate capital al Mukalla. Batarfi rose through AQAP’s ranks rapidly thereafter from mid-level commander in Abyan to AQAP spokesman.

Batarfi will likely continue planning external operations given his previous leadership and experience in attack plotting. Batarfi took over external operations after the death of AQAP bombmaker Ibrahim al Asiri in 2017. The group’s external attack attempts have been limited since 2015, however. Batarfi planned the disrupted 2017 Jordan attack, according to the UN. The group may now be increasing its external operations activity. It claimed responsibility for the December 2019 shooting at a US naval air station in Pensacola, Florida, but the level of support for the attack beyond this rhetoric is unknown.[2]

AQAP’s attack rate may hold steady or decline in the coming months while Batarfi focuses on rallying the group under his leadership. Batarfi used his first message as emir to acknowledge the organization’s internal strife. The February 25 video acknowledged the organization’s internal spy problem and promised complete amnesty and anonymity to those who confess. [3] AQAP officials also stressed that spies compromise members’ safety, possibly alluding to Raymi’s death. Batarfi’s inaugural message may indicate a greater initial focus on counterespionage—differing from the first statements of former AQAP emirs Raymi and Nasser al Wahayshi, who spoke about plotting external attacks—but it also reflects a multiyear counterintelligence effort within AQAP.[4]

 

The al Houthi Movement in Yemen

The Iranian regime has increased the al Houthi movement’s offensive capabilities by introducing new weapons to Yemen’s battlefield, including missiles capable of downing US military helicopters. Iran has provided sophisticated weapons to the al Houthi movement throughout the conflict, including missile and drone components. The US Navy intercepted a dhow in the Arabian Sea carrying Iranian-manufactured weapons intended for the al Houthis in early February.

The seized weapons included type-358 antiaircraft missiles, which have been used to attempt to shoot down US drones over Yemen and are capable of downing US military helicopters. The US Navy seized three type-358 missiles in the Arabian Sea in November 2019. The seized weapons also included type-351 missiles, which are believed to have been used in the September 2019 Iran-based attack on Saudi oil infrastructure, and type-C802 missiles, which were used in an al Houthi attack on the USS Mason in the Red Sea in October 2016.

Iranian and Iranian proxy advisers continue to support developing the al Houthi movement’s military capabilities. The US attempted a strike on a senior Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander responsible for advising militants in the capital Sana’a in January. The Saudi-led coalition and Hadi government forces *claimed that airstrikes and clashes in northern and central Yemen last month *killed several Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah military leaders and experts.

The al Houthi movement rescinded a proposed tax to preserve its access to humanitarian aid. The al Houthi movement manipulates foreign humanitarian aid to al Houthi–held territories by blocking and extorting UN aid programs to gain control over external assistance. Al Houthi members rescinded a proposed 2 percent aid tax in mid-February after donors threatened to suspend aid. The Trump administration is pressuring the UN this month to halt its relief assistance to the al Houthis, citing corruption.

The al Houthi movement and President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government are unprepared to strike a long-term political deal. The al Houthi movement and Hadi government agreed on February 16 to the first large-scale prisoner swap since 2015. The prisoner exchange is part of the December 2018 Stockholm Agreement, which also sought to implement a cease-fire, mutual force redeployment, and facilitate humanitarian aid movement in the coastal al Hudaydah governorate.

The prisoner swap will unlikely lead to lasting diplomatic progress, however, because neither side has demonstrated willingness to negotiate a political solution in recent months. Hadi government officials publicly *discussed *recapturing the al Houthi–held capital in November 2019. The al Houthi movement *launched a preemptive offensive to prevent a Hadi government assault in late January, advancing the front line north and east of Sana’a. The al Houthi militants seized al Hazm, the capital of northern Yemen’s al Jawf governorate on March 1, *marking the first time that Saudi-backed forces have lost a Yemeni governorate capital in over two years.

Hostilities have also continued between the al Houthi movement and the Saudi-led coalition following a diplomatic concession. The Saudi-led coalition *allowed the first UN medical flight to leave Sana’a in early February, marking the first civilian flight out of Yemen since 2015. The al Houthis resumed attacks on Saudi infrastructure on January 31, however, in a likely attempt to pressure the Saudi-led coalition to make further concessions and accept a cease-fire.

Saudi air defenses intercepted an al Houthi missile attack targeting Yanbu in eastern Saudi Arabia on February 21. The al Houthi movement and the coalition have also traded retaliatory *attacks in northern Yemen after the al Houthis *claimed to shoot down a coalition fighter jet in al Jawf governorate in mid-February.


[1] “AQAP Confirms Death of Leader Qassim al-Rimi, Announces Successor,” SITE Intelligence Group, February 23, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com

[2] “AQAP Claims Credit for Naval Air Station Pensacola, Leader Calls Lone Wolves to Act,” SITE Intelligence Group, February 2, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[3] “In Latest Video on Deterring Espionage, AQAP Focuses on Psychological Torment and Family Disgrace,” SITE Intelligence Group, February 25, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[4] “Al-Malahem Foundation Publishes Full Wuhayshi Interview,” SITE Intelligence Group, May 7, 2009, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com; and “New AQAP Leader Eulogizes Wuhayshi, Calls for Attacks on U.S. in Speech,” SITE Intelligence Group, July 9, 2015, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

View Citations

February 12 Briefing:

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Yemen: AQAP has renewed support for external attacks as it faces setbacks in Yemen, including its leader’s death.

The al Houthi Movement: The al Houthi movement resumed attacks on Saudi infrastructure in a likely attempt to increase pressure on the Saudis to agree to a cease-fire.

 

The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Yemen

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has renewed support for external attacks in the US and Saudi Arabia even as it faces setbacks in its primary base in Yemen, including the death of the group’s leader. On February 2, AQAP claimed responsibility for the December 2019 shooting by a Saudi trainee pilot, Mohammad al Shamrani, that killed three US sailors and injured eight others at US Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida.[1] Shamrani’s social media showed support for al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and Yemeni-American AQAP cleric Anwar al Awlaki.

The group’s claim praised Shamrani, but there is not yet evidence that he received more than inspiration from AQAP. Separately, AQAP *directed an attacker who stabbed concert performers in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in November 2019, according to Saudi media. AQAP has not publicly commented on the Riyadh stabbing. The late AQAP emir, Qasim al Raymi, had condemned Saudi Arabia’s westernization in a speech released two weeks before the attack.[2]

 AQAP likely accelerated publishing the previously recorded claim of the Pensacola attack, which featured Raymi, to project strength following reports of Raymi’s death. A US airstrike in late January targeted and killed Raymi in northern Yemen. Raymi was an AQAP founder with long-standing ties to senior al Qaeda leadership.

A US drone strike killed Raymi's predecessor Nasir al Wuhayshi in June 2015. Raymi's death may further degrade AQAP's operational capabilities, particularly following the 2017 death of the group's chief bomb maker Ibrahim al Asiri. However, both Raymi and Asiri likely had the opportunity to train successors. US strikes targeting AQAP leaders and UAE-backed counterterrorism operations in Yemen have degraded the AQAP organization in recent years, but the conditions of Yemen’s civil war have allowed the group to deepen ties to local populations that will extend beyond the current conflict.

AQAP has historically facilitated high profile attacks in the West, including the 2009 Fort Hood shooting, the 2009 attempted “underwear bomber” Christmas day airline attack, and the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris.

 

The al Houthi Movement

The al Houthi movement resumed attacks on Saudi infrastructure in a likely attempt to increase pressure on the Saudis to agree to a cease-fire. The al Houthi movement resumed rocket attacks on Saudi airports and oil infrastructure for the first time in four months, claiming the late January strikes as retaliation for Saudi-led coalition airstrikes inside Yemen. Al Houthi officials seeking negotiations in September 2019 had pledged to cease attacks on Saudi Arabia if the coalition halted airstrikes in Yemen to support cease-fire negotiations.

The Saudi-led coalition, which controls Yemeni airspace, *allowed the first UN medical flight to leave Yemen in early February, marking the first civilian flight out of Yemen since 2015 and signaling a diplomatic concession. The al Houthi members had demanded the resumption of flights during UN-led talks and released detained Egyptian fishermen within days after the flight.

The al Houthis escalated attacks targeting forces fighting for Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi to weaken rival military leadership and improve their ground position in advance of future negotiations to end Yemen’s civil war. Suspected al Houthi militants launched a ballistic missile and drone attack targeting a Yemeni Army training camp in northern Yemen’s Ma’rib governorate in mid-January. This attack was one of the highest-casualty incidents since the current conflict’s beginning. Yemeni Army forces supported by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes then attempted to advance from Ma’rib toward the al Houthi–held capital, Sana’a, reactivating high-intensity ground fighting on a previously dormant  front line.

The recent escalation is likely focused on dynamics inside Yemen and the Saudi–al Houthi relationship, rather than revenge for the killing of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani in early January. The al Houthi leader condemned Soleimani’s killing and expressed solidarity and another senior official *called for “swift reprisals.”[3] The al Houthi movement has yet to claim a revenge attack, however. This most likely reflects an attempt to avoid drawing international ire for alignment with Iran while attempting to pressure the Saudi-led coalition to reach a favorable cease-fire agreement. Alternately, divisions in the al Houthi movement over its relationship with Tehran could disrupt or delay a revenge attack.

 Al Houthi and Islamic State fighters engage in limited cooperation against AQAP in central Yemen. Al Houthi militants have provided Islamic State fighters with access to its military camps, according to a recent UN report. Hostilities between al Houthi and Islamic State fighters are ongoing, however. [4] This coordination reflects a short-term tactical and local alliance against a shared enemy, AQAP, rather than a larger organizational or ideological alignment.


[1] “AQAP Claims Credit for Naval Air Station Pensacola, Leader Calls Lone Wolves to Act,” SITE Intelligence Group, February 2, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[2] “AQAP Video Focuses on Recruitment of Women for Espionage, Condemns Saudi Westernization,” SITE Intelligence Group, October 20, 2019, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[3] “Houthi Leader Mourns IRGC Quds Force and PMU Officials, Calls Muslims to Unite Against ‘American and Israeli Arrogance’,” SITE Intelligence Group, January 3, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[4] “IS Claims 3 Attacks on Houthis on Consecutive Days, Taking 2 POWs,” SITE Intelligence Group, January 21, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com; and “IS Claims Killing 8 AQAP Fighters, 14 Houthis in Separate Operations in Bayda’,” SITE Intelligence Group, February 4, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.    

View Citations

December 11 Briefing: Year in Review

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk(*) for the reader's awareness.]

US interests remain under threat in Yemen. The al Houthi movement demonstrated its willingness and capability to attack America’s Gulf allies in line with an Iranian escalation campaign and also threatens Red Sea shipping lanes. The Salafi-jihadi movement in Yemen weakened under pressure in recent years, but the local conditions that Salafi-jihadi groups exploit—local power conflicts, anti-government sentiments, and governance gaps—persist. Diplomatic activity in late 2019, notably Saudi-Houthi talks, could set conditions for cease-fire, but such talks remain unlikely to resolve key issues even if they lead to a negotiated settlement to the national conflict. The civil war also continues to worsen Yemen’s dire humanitarian crisis.

The al Houthi threat may increase even if the group reaches a provisional cease-fire with Saudi Arabia. A US Navy vessel interdicted a shipment of sophisticated, Iranian-origin guided missile parts bound for Yemen in late November, signaling an Iranian regime effort to continue stockpiling weapons in Yemen. Should such an effort succeed, the al Houthis could resume attacks on Saudi Arabia with greater effect or, with increased capabilities, even realize its recent threats to attack Israel. Apparent intra–al Houthi disagreements over the group’s relationship with Iran raise the potential for fracturing. The al Houthi movement weathered a tribal uprising and political backlash in Sana’a in 2019, however, and even a fracture in the movement is unlikely to eliminate the faction most closely aligned with Tehran. 

The issue of southern Yemeni independence, which burst open fissures in the anti–al Houthi coalition in 2019, remains unresolved. Further fracturing within the coalition or even among southerners will distract from the anti–al Houthi war and counterterrorism efforts. Saudi Arabia brokered a short-term power-sharing deal in November between the internationally recognized government led by President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the *secessionist Transitional Political Council for the South (STC), which had taken over the Hadi government’s de facto capital Aden in August. Clashes resumed between the two sides in early December when the terms of the Saudi-brokered agreement were not fulfilled. Saudi and Emirati support for various Yemeni factions has contributed to this fracturing. Saudi Arabia has increased its engagement in southern Yemen following the draw down of Emirati forces throughout 2019.

Prolonged political instability, including the conflict in southern Yemen, creates conditions for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to strengthen in the long term. Emirati-backed counterterrorism efforts have significantly weakened, but not defeated, AQAP, historically one of al Qaeda’s most lethal and externally focused affiliates. AQAP’s attacks in 2019 reflect a low point of its capabilities. The group prioritized attacks and media targeting the Islamic State in al Bayda governorate. AQAP is stronger than the Islamic State in Yemen and will likely win this competition. AQAP has sustained a secondary effort against Yemeni security forces in Abyan governorate and will likely increase its operations there in 2020, particularly if ongoing political conflict persists. The group also continues to produce media in line with al Qaeda strategic messaging

Yemen’s increasing embroilment in destabilizing regional dynamics, particularly the US and Saudi contests with Iran, complicates efforts to resolve Yemen’s political crisis and will likely have broader implications. A cease-fire with the al Houthis would still leave an Iran-aligned enclave on the southern Saudi border, a likely source of future conflict. Yemen’s strategic location also ties it to the increasing militarization of the Red Sea region and raises the importance of Russian and Chinese influence-building.

 

CTP Yemen Highlights from 2019

AEI Resident Fellow and CTP Adviser Katherine Zimmerman testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism on Yemen’s humanitarian crisis in March 2019. She argued that the US has vital national security interests at stake in Yemen and called for American strategic and political leadership to help resolve the conflict. Key objectives include defeating al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Yemen, reducing Iran’s influence in Yemen and the al Houthi movement’s threat, and stabilizing humanitarian conditions in the country. Read Katherine Zimmerman’s full testimony, “Taking the Lead Back in Yemen,” and questions for the record.

Zimmerman also argued in RealClearWorld that the al Houthi movement can still be split from Iran.

CTP Analyst James Barnett argued that America’s Gulf partners’ engagement in Yemen has contributed to the country’s fragmenting, which in turn undermines efforts against the al Houthi movement and AQAP.

Barnett and CTP Analyst Nicholas Carl also discussed the al Houthis’ role in an Iranian escalation against US and partner interests in the Middle East that began in May 2019. They argue that the al Houthi movement’s claim of responsibility for a September attack on Saudi oil infrastructure gave Iran plausible deniability and advanced al Houthi interests inside Yemen.

 

Yemen Maps:

2019 Yemen Frontlines

Al Houthi Attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE: 2016–19

 

The biweekly Yemen File will resume in January 2020. The daily Gulf of Aden Security Review will pause after December 13 and will also resume in January. We hope that you enjoy these publications and look forward to continuing the conversation next year. You can always send feedback to criticalthreats@aei.org.

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