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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November 7 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.]

Diplomatic breakthroughs in Yemen could lay the groundwork for a political resolution to Yemen’s civil war. Yemen’s internationally recognized government signed a power-sharing agreement with a southern separatist faction in southern Yemen after months of unrest. The agreement delays addressing Yemen’s southern issue but brings southerners into UN-led negotiations. The Saudi-led coalition is also pursuing a limited cease-fire with the al Houthi movement. A key demand from the al Houthis for broader talks has been the end of coalition air strikes and the opening of ports. This cease-fire risks releasing pressure on the al Houthis in advance of political negotiations, which strengthens their position at the table. Underlying conflicts and conditions that create opportunities for al Qaeda and other Salafi-jihadi groups to expand in Yemen remain unaffected.

President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government reached an agreement with the Transitional Political Council for the South (STC), a UAE-backed southern separatist group, on November 5 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The kingdom worked to broker the deal since August, when STC-aligned forces seized power in Aden. The agreement restructures the cabinet and security sector to increase southern representation and unify Yemen’s fragmented security forces. The UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths hopes the deal will pave the way for a political settlement to the civil war. Some Hadi government and STC officials have *suggested the agreement will presage a joint offensive against the al Houthis. The agreement’s *stipulations are ambitious and vague, making implementation difficult.

Saudi Arabia is separately *negotiating a permanent cease-fire on the Saudi-Yemeni border with the al Houthi movement. A tentative de-escalation of cross-border activity follows a series of real and claimed al Houthi and Iranian attacks on Saudi targets since May 2019. The al Houthi movement has halted drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia in October but has *continued operations against Hadi government–aligned forces in northern and central Yemen.

A political resolution to the civil war does not address the local conditions that Salafi-jihadi groups exploit in Yemen. Local power conflicts, anti-government sentiments, and governance gaps will persist in the areas where al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State in Yemen operate today. Recent statements from AQAP and the Islamic State signaled their continued presence and connection to global Salafi-jihadi organizations. AQAP’s emir released a rare speech calling for al Qaeda–linked groups in Syria to unify. The Islamic State in Yemen pledged allegiance to the successor of the late Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.

 

Read more on

The Conflict in Southern Yemen

The al Houthi Movement

The Salafi-jihadi Movement in Yemen

 


At a Glance: The Yemen Conflict

Small diplomatic victories might provide momentum toward a negotiated end to Yemen’s civil war. Saudi Arabia and the Iranian-backed al Houthi movement reduced cross-border attacks since late September while negotiating a potential cease-fire. Saudi Arabia separately brokered a power-sharing agreement between the internationally recognized Yemeni government and a southern opposition faction that was signed on November 5.

Any resolution to the civil war leaves significant challenges in Yemen, including to US interests. Iran expanded its influence in Yemen significantly over the past five years through its relationship with the al Houthi movement. The al Houthis now threaten Red Sea maritime security and Gulf state security in addition to supporting Iran’s destabilizing regional activities. AQAP retains its historical sanctuaries despite ongoing counterterrorism operations. AQAP, the Islamic State, and other Salafi-jihadi groups exploit local conditions unrelated to the war with the al Houthis to develop ties to local Yemeni communities. Near-famine conditions in Yemen are driving the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, which could further destabilize the region.

Yemen was always a fragile state and has fragmented over the course of its latest civil war. President Hadi’s government is weak with most of its influence limited to two governorates in northern Yemen. Multiple Yemeni factions, many of which benefit from Emirati or Saudi military assistance, pursue their own interests as part of an anti–al Houthi coalition. Few Yemeni security forces respond to the Hadi government directly. A power-sharing agreement between President Hadi’s government and southern separatists prevented a complete fracturing of the anti–al Houthi coalition in November 2019 but did not resolve key issues, such as the question of southern independence.

The al Houthi movement controls most of northern and central Yemen, including the capital, Sana’a, after seizing power in September 2014. The movement has increasingly aligned with Tehran since the start of the current conflict, but this alignment is likely not uniform across al Houthi leadership. Statements since the September 2019 attack on Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq indicate that some al Houthi officials are skeptical of participating in Iran’s regional activities.

Saudi Arabia and the al Houthi movement are engaging in cease-fire negotiations. The two sides began talks after the al Houthis claimed an Iranian attack on Saudi oil facilities in September 2019. The drawdown of Saudi Arabia’s coalition partner, the UAE, by June 2019 and the growing risk of a direct confrontation with Iran likely influence Saudi Arabia’s efforts to seek a cease-fire.

 

 

The Conflict in Southern Yemen

The STC and Hadi government signed a power-sharing agreement in Riyadh on November 5 to end three months of clashes in southern Yemen. The STC’s seizure of Aden on August 10 sparked the conflict, which quickly spread to neighboring Abyan and Shabwah governorates. Saudi Arabia began brokering negotiations in late August and submitted a draft agreement in October. *Disagreements over control of government ministries, cabinet members, and *clashes in Abyan in late October delayed the signing of the final agreement.

The *Riyadh Agreement sets an ambitious timetable for restructuring the government and security forces, which will be difficult to implement, and guarantees STC participation in future UN-led peace talks.  The agreement:

  • Calls for a new 24-minister cabinet composed of 12 northerners and 12 southerners within 30 days. Cabinet members must be “*impartial” and must not have participated in the recent fighting.
  • Recognizes the STC as a legitimate bloc advancing southern Yemeni interests and includes STC representation in any government delegations to UN-brokered talks with the al Houthis. The STC previously had observer status for such talks.
  • Calls for the *return of the Hadi government to Aden within seven days (by November 12).
  • Withdraws Hadi government–aligned forces from Aden’s environs, except for the First Presidential Protection Brigade, which will protect President Hadi and his cabinet. Saudi Arabia will *oversee security in Aden.
  • Places all STC-aligned security units, including the al Hizam brigades, under the control of the ministries of defense and interior within 30 days. The Saudi-led coalition will consolidate all medium and heavy weapons in southern Yemen so that Yemeni forces will use them only with coalition authorization.
  • Grants southern Yemenis a greater degree of authority over the distribution of state resources. The government will hold all government revenues, including oil revenues, in the Central Bank of Aden.

The agreement postpones addressing the southern issue, ensuring the question remains a flashpoint. The STC did not disavow its goal of southern independence and has presented the agreement as advancing this goal. The Hadi government *insists that the agreement preserves Yemeni unity.

Localized clashes continued in parts of southern Yemen ahead of the signing ceremony. Rivalries between local powerbrokers will continue despite the agreement. STC-aligned forces and Hadi government–aligned forces clashed in Abyan governorate on October 31. STC-aligned forces separately *attempted to seize government facilities in Socotra archipelago in late October as part of a power struggle with Socotra’s Hadi government–aligned governor.

Some Hadi government officials oppose the agreement because it empowers the STC. Two Hadi government ministers, Interior Minister Ahmed al Maysiri and Transportation Minister Saleh al Jabwani, *urged President Hadi not to accept the agreement on October 26 on the grounds that it rewards the STC for its “coup.” The two ministers *survived an assassination attempt on October 28 in Shabwah governorate, which Jabwani *blamed on STC-aligned forces.

Saudi Arabia is increasing its military presence in southern Yemen to support the agreement, while the UAE continues to draw down its forces in Yemen. The UAE *withdrew the last of its forces in Aden in October and transferred control of key installations to Saudi Arabia, which also *deployed new forces to Shabwah. The UAE had begun drawing down its forces along the Red Sea in the spring. Sudanese forces on the Red Sea Front have also drawn down in recent months, possibly in coordination with the UAE.

Forecast: The Riyadh Agreement will collapse in one to two years or after a political settlement with the al Houthis. The Hadi government and STC will maintain a fragile relationship so long as the war against the al Houthis continues. The STC will use its influence in the government to strengthen, especially in the security forces, during this time. The STC will attempt to secure an independent state once the national war ends, causing conflict to resume in southern Yemen. (Updated November 7, 2019)

 

 

The al Houthi Movement

The al Houthi movement and Saudi Arabia have reduced cross-border attacks while negotiations for a cease-fire are ongoing. The al Houthi movement had intensified efforts to persuade Saudi Arabia to enter negotiations in mid-September after the attack on the Abqaiq oil facilities. The al Houthi movement renewed cease-fire overtures to Riyadh shortly thereafter, including a unilateral *cessation of cross-border drone and missile attacks. The group has continued its normal pace of military operations within Yemen, however. Iran supports a cease-fire in Yemen to secure its own regional interests. [For more on Iran’s interest in shaping Yemen’s cease-fire negotiations, read the October 22 Yemen File.]

Saudi Arabia began direct cease-fire negotiations with the al Houthi movement. Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman and the head of the al Houthi movement’s Supreme Political Council, Mahdi al Mashat, communicated directly in September after the Abqaiq attack, according to recently released *reports. The two sides have since *formed a joint committee to discuss cease-fire  provisions.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif met with an al Houthi delegation, likely as part of Iran’s efforts to shape cease-fire negotiations in Yemen. A high-level al Houthi delegation met with Zarif in Tehran on October 26. The meeting occurred less than two weeks after Iranian Supreme Leader *Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and *President Hassan Rouhani endorsed a cease-fire in Yemen during meetings with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is mediating between Riyadh and Tehran. The Iranian *readout of the al Houthi-Zarif meeting suggests that the parties discussed Khan’s mediation efforts in relation to Yemen.

Forecast: Saudi Arabia and the al Houthi movement will publicly agree to a partial cease-fire in the next month. A Saudi–al Houthi cease-fire might deprive Iran of its ability to leverage the al Houthi movement for attacks against Saudi Arabia in the near term but will cement Iranian influence in Yemen in the long term. (Updated November 7, 2019)

The al Houthis’ release of individuals accused of involvement in a 2011 assassination attempt against the late Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh provoked a rare public split in the Sana’a-based political elite. General People’s Congress (GPC) members had *boycotted participation in the al Houthi–led government in protest, announcing the decision on October 20. The al Houthi leadership took steps to appease the GPC faction, including *establishing an investigatory committee into the release of the detainees. Some *reports indicate the al Houthi movement threatened members. GPC officials *agreed to *rejoin on October 27.

The al Houthi movement attempted to assassinate President Hadi’s Minister of Defense. The al Houthis *launched a drone or missile attack on Mohammad Ali al Maqdashi’s convoy in Ma’rib governorate in northern Yemen on October 29, killing two soldiers. Al Houthi media *blamed the attack on the UAE. The al Houthis have killed multiple high-level military commanders in drone and missile strikes in 2019.

The al Houthi movement claimed to shoot down a US-made reconnaissance drone along the Saudi border on November 1 but has provided no evidence. A US military spokesman denied the al Houthis’ claim. The al Houthis shot down US MQ-9 Reaper drones over Yemen in two separate incidents in June and August 2019, respectively.

 

 

The Salafi-jihadi Movement in Yemen

Prolonged political instability and conflict in southern Yemen creates conditions for Salafi-jihadi groups to strengthen there in the long term. AQAP has waged low-level campaigns against Yemeni counterterrorism forces in multiple southern governorates in 2019, including counteroffensives in June, but remains significantly weakened by counterterrorism operations. In October the group did not claim attacks on Yemeni security forces, focusing media instead on attacks against Islamic State targets in al Bayda governorate in southern Yemen. The two groups have clashed in al Bayda since July 2018. The Islamic State is significantly smaller than AQAP and has directed the majority of its efforts against AQAP recently. [For more on AQAP’s recent campaigns in Yemen, read the September 10 Yemen File.]

The Islamic State in Yemen pledged allegiance to Abu Ibrahim al Hashimi al Qurayshi, the successor of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and new leader of the Islamic State, amid a wave of pledges from Islamic State affiliates worldwide. The Yemeni group published photos of fighters pledging allegiance to Abu Ibrahim on November 4. This pledge was among the first released by Islamic State affiliates, along with others from groups in Somalia, Bangladesh, Sinai, and Pakistan.

AQAP’s emir, Qasim al Raymi, rallied support for Salafi-jihadi militants in Syria in a rare video speech released on November 2. Al Raymi urged Salafi-jihadi militants in Syria to avoid factionalism and blind allegiance to commanders. The statement echoes a September one from al Qaeda General Command that urged al Qaeda–linked groups in Syria to cease infighting and focus on defeating Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s  regime.

The US issued rewards for information on two senior AQAP officials. The Department of State’s Rewards for Justice program announced a reward for information of up to $6 million for Sa’ad bin Atef al Awlaki and up to $4 million for Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al Qosi. Sa’ad bin Atef is AQAP’s emir in Shabwah governorate and appeared as a commander in AQAP media in September 2015. Al Qosi is a veteran al Qaeda operative who once worked directly under Osama bin Laden. The US released him into Sudanese custody from the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in 2012. He joined AQAP in Yemen by the end of 2014.

A suspected US drone strike *killed two AQAP operatives in northern Yemen on November 2. The strike occurred in Ma’rib governorate, a historical AQAP support zone. The US has not commented on the incident.

October 22 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.]

Saudi Arabia is pursuing a limited cease-fire with the al Houthi movement to secure its southern border. The al Houthis have long sought to pressure Saudi Arabia to accept a cease-fire. They increased attacks against Saudi Arabia to this end since May in tandem with an Iranian escalation against the US’s Gulf partners. In September, Iran conducted a major attack on oil facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia, which the al Houthis falsely claimed. This attack has likely caused Saudi Arabia to shift its security priorities. The United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) decision to shift its forces away from the counter–al Houthi fight also likely influenced Saudi Arabia’s openness to a cease-fire.

The Iranian regime is attempting to leverage the Yemen cease-fire talks to advance its effort to split the Gulf States from the US and consolidate the influence of its al Houthi partners in Yemen. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani *endorsed a *cease-fire in Yemen on October 13. Iran is simultaneously *encouraging direct Iran-Saudi talks to convince Riyadh that Iran—not the US—is the only country that can guarantee regional security. Tehran will insert itself into any Yemen cease-fire negotiations and attempt to convince the Saudis that a broader Iran-Saudi agreement is the only way to end al Houthi cross-border attacks. [For more on Iran’s efforts to divide the US and its Gulf partners, read the October 7 Iran File.]

There are several potential outcomes to Saudi–al Houthi negotiations. A lasting cease-fire could help Iran split Saudi Arabia from the US’s maximum pressure campaign if Riyadh fears resumed al Houthi cross-border attacks as a result of its support for the campaign. The al Houthis will retain the military capabilities that Iran has provided in the case of a cease-fire. A cease-fire could give the al Houthis the space and resources to develop governance in areas they control, thus securing al Houthi, and by extension Iranian, influence in Yemen. Alternatively, negotiations could break down, prolonging the military stalemate in Yemen and causing a resumption of al Houthi attacks in Saudi Arabia. In either case, the al Houthi movement could fracture over disagreements about the group’s relationship with Tehran or *historical political differences in the movement.

Saudi Arabia is separately brokering an agreement to end a conflict in southern Yemen between southern secessionists and the internationally recognized government. The draft agreement postpones resolving the issue of southern secession, ensuring it remains a flashpoint. The agreement’s stipulations for greater southern representation in government will likely prompt backlash from powerful northern constituencies.

Read more on:

Saudi–al Houthi Relations

The Conflict in Southern Yemen

 

At a Glance: The Yemen Conflict

Updated October 22, 2019

The conflict in Yemen significantly challenges US efforts to combat al Qaeda and Iranian influence. Iran has expanded its influence in the Arabian Peninsula during the Yemeni civil war. The Iranian-backed al Houthi movement threatens Red Sea maritime security and the security of US Gulf state partners, providing Iran with plausible deniability for Iran’s destabilizing regional activities. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which had been al Qaeda’s most virulent affiliate, retains sanctuaries in southern Yemen despite ongoing counterterrorism operations. The underlying conditions that AQAP exploited to strengthen remain, and the group could reconstitute as Yemen fragments. Other Salafi-jihadi groups, including the Islamic State, are also present in Yemen. US Gulf partners, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have become entangled in the Yemeni civil war, which is now a regional conflict. Near-famine conditions in Yemen are driving the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, which could further destabilize the region.

Yemen has fragmented. President Hadi’s government is weak with most of its influence limited to two governorates in northern Yemen. Multiple Yemeni factions, many of which benefit from Emirati or Saudi military assistance, pursue their own interests as part of an anti–al Houthi coalition. Few Yemeni security forces respond to the Hadi government directly. Southern Yemenis remain divided over the question of secession and distribution of political power but are increasingly calling for greater autonomy from the government. A southern secessionist group seized Yemen’s de facto capital, Aden, from the Hadi government in August and is attempting to expand its influence across the south. The al Houthi movement controls most of northern and central Yemen, including the capital, Sana’a, after seizing power in September 2014.

The al Houthi movement has increasingly aligned with Tehran since the start of the current conflict, but this alignment is likely not uniform across al Houthi leadership. Statements since the September 2019 attack on Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq indicate that some al Houthi officials are skeptical of participating in Iran’s regional activities.

Saudi Arabia and the al Houthi movement began back-channel talks after the September 2019 Abqaiq attack. The drawdown of Saudi Arabia’s coalition partner, the UAE, by June 2019 and the growing risk of a direct confrontation with Iran are likely influencing Saudi Arabia’s efforts to seek a cease-fire. A lasting cease-fire would allow the al Houthis to focus more resources on the fight in Yemen and consolidating their gains in the country’s northern and central governorates.

 

 

Saudi–al Houthi Relations

The al Houthi movement intensified an ongoing effort to compel Saudi Arabia to negotiate a cease-fire in mid-September. Al Houthi officials falsely *claimed responsibility for an Iranian attack on Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq on September 14 that temporarily *halved the Kingdom’s oil production. The al Houthi movement renewed cease-fire overtures to Riyadh shortly thereafter.

The al Houthi movement offered concessions to Saudi Arabia following the Abqaiq attack. The head of the al Houthi Supreme Political Council offered Saudi Arabia a partial cease-fire on September 20 and *announced a moratorium on strikes of the scale of the Abqaiq attack on October 1. The al Houthi movement unilaterally released 290 prisoners on September 30 and offered a prisoner swap of up to 2,000 prisoners on October 10.

 Saudi Arabia conceded to some al Houthi demands and Saudi Arabia seeks a cease-fire to save face and hopes an agreement will enable the al Houthi movement to distance itself from Tehran. Riyadh is considering limiting its air campaign and lifting a blockade of al Houthi–controlled territories in return for an end to cross-border attacks. The Saudi-led coalition has halted air strikes against major al Houthi–held cities since the beginning of October. The Saudi-led coalition also *allowed several oil shipments to the al Houthi–controlled al Hudaydah port in mid-October.

Iran also supports a cease-fire in Yemen and will attempt to shape Saudi–al Houthi negotiations to secure its strategic objectives. Iranian President Rouhani *spoke favorably of a cease-fire in Yemen during an October 13 meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is mediating between Riyadh and Tehran. The same day, Supreme Leader Khamenei publicly discussed the Yemeni civil war in unusual depth and *urged the international community to adopt an Iranian plan for resolving the war that Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has pushed since 2015. (See Figure 1.) Tehran may see a cease-fire as a means to compel Riyadh to distance itself from the US maximum pressure campaign to avoid inciting the resumption of al Houthi cross-border attacks. Iran also seeks to consolidate its influence in Yemen through a cease-fire and eventually a political settlement that secures al Houthi gains. [For more on Iran’s efforts to divide the US and its Gulf partners, read the October 7 Iran File.]

Forecast: Saudi Arabia and the al Houthi movement will publicly agree to a partial cease-fire in the next month. A Saudi–al Houthi cease-fire might deprive Iran of its ability to leverage the al Houthi movement for attacks against Saudi Arabia in the near term but will cement Iranian influence in Yemen in the long term. (Updated October 22, 2019)

Figure 1. Saudi Arabia Begins Back-Channel Talks with al Houthi Movement and Iran After Abqaiq Attack

 

 

The al Houthi movement may fracture along political fault lines. The Sana’a-based wing of the General People’s Congress (GPC) *boycotted al Houthi institutions on October 20 after the al Houthis *released suspects linked to a 2011 assassination attempt against the late Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Al Houthi officials have attempted to bring the GPC back into the fold by *claiming that the prisoner release was a mistake, but Sana’a-based GPC officials continue to criticize the al Houthis.

 

 

The Conflict in Southern Yemen

An early October breakthrough in negotiations brokered by Saudi Arabia between southern secessionists and President Hadi’s government may temporarily end the crisis in southern Yemen. The August 10 seizure of Yemen’s de facto capital, Aden, by the Transitional Political Council for the South (STC), a southern Yemeni secessionist group, set the conditions for the expansion of Yemen’s civil war as fighting spread from Aden into neighboring Abyan and Shabwah governorates. The STC sought to unseat the Hadi government from southern Yemen. The STC did not secede at this point but called for the resignation of most of President Hadi’s cabinet, particularly members of the Islamist al Islah party. Saudi Arabia is brokering negotiations in Jeddah to end the conflict in southern Yemen before publicly responding to the al Houthi movement’s cease-fire offer.

 Saudi Arabia is close to brokering a deal that would give the STC significant influence in the Hadi government and increase Saudi military presence in southern Yemen. The draft agreement under negotiation postpones resolving the southern issue until after the conflict with the al Houthis ends. It also calls for equal north-south representation in government ministries and for Saudi forces to oversee local security forces in Aden. Saudi forces took control of key facilities in Aden in early October, likely as part of the agreement, and *reinforced positions in Shabwah, another southern governorate and a hot spot of recent clashes, on October 9. Two of President Hadi’s ministers who fled Aden in August *returned to Yemen from Saudi Arabia on October 19, possibly indicating that the Hadi government is preparing to return to Aden. (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2. Saudi Arabia Increases Its Military Presence in Southern Yemen as STC and Hadi Government Move Toward Deal

 

 

STC-aligned forces clashed with Hadi government–aligned forces in the Socotra archipelago, but this will not derail the agreement between the STC and Hadi government. STC-aligned forces *attempted to seize the archipelago’s security headquarters on October 5 after the Hadi government–aligned governor *dismissed his pro-STC security chief. The clashes were localized but underscore how rivalries between local powerbrokers will continue to destabilize southern Yemen even in the event of a peace deal.

Forecast: The STC and Hadi government will accept the Saudi proposal. The STC will use its influence in the government to strengthen, especially in the security forces, creating the conditions for a future STC military victory. The STC will resume military operations against the Hadi government in the next year either to gain more power in the government or to declare secession. The STC’s inclusion in the Hadi government will alienate members of the Islamist al Islah party and forces loyal to Vice President Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, exacerbating a low-intensity conflict between al Islahi and STC-aligned forces in southern Yemen. (Updated October 22, 2019)

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

 

October 8 Briefing

The al Houthi movement conducted an information operation directed at Saudi Arabia following a major Iranian attack on the Kingdom. Immediately after reports of an attack on the oil facilities in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia, al Houthi media outlets released *claims of responsibility and statements from al Houthi officials. The al Houthis did not conduct the Abqaiq attack itself and have also falsely claimed responsibility for a May drone attack on a Saudi pipeline conducted by Iranian-backed Iraqi militants. The al Houthi military spokesman also claimed what would have been the al Houthis’ largest cross-border attack on Saudi forces, including capturing over 2,000 Saudi personnel, in late September. The al Houthis have produced no evidence of such an attack. Al Houthi–released footage is likely from operations in northern Yemen in late August.

The al Houthi information operation might be part of an Iranian-directed effort to weaken Saudi Arabia further. It could also be an al Houthi–generated effort to pressure Saudi Arabia to accept a détente since the Kingdom seeks to wind down the war in Yemen. Additionally, the information operation could be an attempt by al Houthi leaders to consolidate power against rival domestic factions in northern Yemen.

The al Houthi movement is not a full Iranian proxy and has sent mixed messages about de-escalation with Saudi Arabia. The al Houthi movement has escalated attacks against Saudi Arabia since May in tandem with an Iranian escalation against US and partner interests in the Gulf. Al Houthi officials privately warned Saudi Arabia of an impending Iranian strike shortly after the Abqaiq attack. The group also offered Saudi Arabia a cease-fire, which the Saudis are considering. The al Houthi military spokesman subsequently announced a large-scale offensive in southern Saudi Arabia on September 28, which Saudi Arabia *denied. The al Houthis are likely embellishing the details of a smaller-scale attack along the Saudi-Yemeni border.

Read Further On:

The al Houthi Movement

The Conflict in Southern Yemen

 


At a Glance: The Yemen Conflict

Updated October 8, 2019

The conflict in Yemen significantly challenges US efforts to combat al Qaeda and Iranian influence in the Middle East. Iran has expanded its influence in the Arabian Peninsula over the Yemeni civil war. The Iranian-backed al Houthi movement threatens Red Sea security and asymmetrically threatens US Gulf state partners, helping Iran maintain a degree of plausible deniability for its destabilizing regional activities. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which had been al Qaeda’s most virulent affiliate, retains its sanctuaries in southern Yemen despite ongoing counterterrorism operations. The underlying conditions that AQAP exploited to strengthen remain, and the group could reconstitute as Yemen fragments. Other Salafi-jihadi groups, including the Islamic State, are also present in Yemen. US Gulf partners, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have become entangled in the Yemeni civil war, now a regional conflict. Near-famine conditions in Yemen are driving the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, which could further destabilize the region.

Yemen has fragmented. President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government is weak with most of its influence limited to two governorates in northern Yemen. Multiple Yemeni factions, many of which have security forces backed by the UAE or Saudi Arabia, seek to secure their own interests even as they remain nominally aligned against the al Houthi movement. Few of the security forces in Yemen respond to the Hadi government directly. Southern Yemenis remain divided but are increasingly calling for greater autonomy from the government. A southern secessionist group seized Yemen’s de facto capital, Aden, from the Hadi government in August and is attempting to expand its influence across the south. The al Houthi movement controls most of northern and central Yemen, including the capital, Sana’a, after seizing power in September 2014.

The al Houthi movement has grown closer to Tehran since the start of the current conflict, but this alignment is likely not uniform across al Houthi leadership. Statements since the September 2019 attack on a Saudi oil facility indicate that some al Houthi officials are skeptical of participating in Iran’s regional activities.  

 

The al Houthi Movement

The al Houthi movement has supported Iran’s regional escalation campaign by increasing its pace of attacks against Saudi Arabia since May. Iran facilitates these attacks by furnishing the al Houthis with missiles and drones. The attacks serve Iranian interests by punishing Saudi Arabia for the American “maximum pressure” campaign while absolving Tehran of overt responsibility. The al Houthis falsely *claimed responsibility for an Iranian attack on Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq on September 14 that temporarily *halved the Kingdom’s production.

The al Houthi movement has sought to induce Saudi Arabia into accepting a cease-fire. The group made overtures for a cease-fire after the Abqaiq attack. The head of the al Houthi Supreme Political Council, Mahdi al Mashat, offered Saudi Arabia a partial cease-fire on September 20. The al Houthi movement unilaterally released 290 mostly Yemeni prisoners on September 30. Mashat *announced on October 1 that the group had halted strikes against Saudi Arabia of the scale of the Abqaiq attack. (See Figure 1.) Al Houthi leader Abdul Malik al Houthi previously *urged the Saudi-led coalition to accept a cease-fire after a drone attack in August.

The al Houthi movement claimed a major offensive in southern Saudi Arabia on September 28 but has yet to produce evidence of such an attack. Al Houthi military spokesman Yahya Sare’a announced Operation Victory from God on September 28 and claimed the capturing of three Saudi brigades, totaling over 2,000 soldiers. However, his statements on the offensive’s timing are inconsistent. Al Houthi media outlets have not released evidence for a cross-border offensive in September, much less one of this scale. Pictures and videos the al Houthis released purporting to show Saudi prisoners of war likely were taken at other locations and times, possibly in late August when the al Houthis captured hundreds of Saudi-led coalition-backed Yemeni forces in northern Yemen. Saudi Arabia and President Hadi’s government have *denied the al Houthi claims.

Several possible reasons for elements of the al Houthi movement to create the impression of a major attack on Saudi Arabia exist.

  • The al Houthi movement may have sought to play up its military successes to a domestic Yemeni audience. The group frames its attacks against Saudi Arabia as deterrence against the Saudi-led coalition’s air campaign. Al Houthi leader Abdul Malik al Houthi’s most recent *public address echoed this narrative and underscored his independence from Tehran.
  • The al Houthi movement may have sought to influence Saudi popular opinions in order to influence Saudi Arabia ahead of cease-fire negotiations. Such a claimed offensive might also convince Saudi Arabia’s partners that the Kingdom is incapable of containing the conflict, which could increase international pressure on Saudi Arabia to accept a deal with the al Houthis.
  • Pro-Tehran al Houthi leaders may seek to undermine an Iran-skeptical al Houthi faction to maintain or strengthen the group’s alignment with Iran. The al Houthi movement’s leaders have never been unified in their position toward Iran. A more pro-Tehran wing, potentially acting with Iranian encouragement, may have attempted to undermine a possible al Houthi–Saudi détente by creating the appearance of an offensive in Saudi Arabia, which might pressure Riyadh to eschew a cease-fire to save face domestically. Iran may have hoped to prevent Saudi Arabia from making peace with the al Houthis separate from a larger Saudi-Iranian regional agreement.

Iran may have sought to discredit Saudi Arabia following the Abqaiq attacks. Iran may have encouraged the al Houthis to announce the offensive to make Saudi Arabia appear vulnerable. Iran may have hoped that Saudi Arabia’s partners would push for Saudi-Iranian negotiations due to this perceived vulnerability. Iran and Saudi Arabia may have already laid the groundwork for negotiations by engaging in backchannel communications, using Pakistani and Iraqi intermediaries, shortly after the Abqaiq attack.

Figure 1. Al Houthi Movement Announces Offensive in Saudi Arabia After Falsely Claiming Abqaiq Attack

 

Saudi Arabia is considering a partial cease-fire with the al Houthi movement. Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman*welcomed the al Houthi movement’s September 20 cease-fire offer on October 3. Saudi Arabia recently opened a backchannel with Mahdi al Mashat, the head of the al Houthi movement’s Supreme Political Council. Saudi Arabia likely believes that it can still split the al Houthi movement from Iran.  

Forecast: Saudi Arabia and the al Houthi movement will agree to a partial cease-fire in Yemen in the next month. (Updated October 8, 2019)

 

The Conflict in Southern Yemen

A breakthrough in negotiations brokered by Saudi Arabia between southern secessionists and President Hadi’s government may end the crisis in southern Yemen. The August 10 seizure of Yemen’s de facto capital, Aden, by the Transitional Political Council for the South (STC), a southern Yemeni secessionist group, set the conditions for the expansion of Yemen’s civil war as fighting spread from Aden into neighboring Abyan and Shabwah governorates. The STC sought to unseat the Hadi government from southern Yemen. The STC did not secede at this point but called for the resignation of most of President Hadi’s cabinet, particularly members of the Islamist al Islah party. Saudi Arabia has attempted to broker negotiations in Jeddah. STC-aligned counterterrorism forces in southern Yemen have shifted their focus from combating AQAP to fighting Hadi government–aligned forces. AQAP capitalized on this shift by *seizing a district in Abyan in September.

The STC and Hadi government may be close to reaching a deal. Saudi Arabia recently *proposed that the Hadi government include the STC in its ministries and that Saudi forces deploy to Aden to oversee a neutral security force. Officials from an STC-aligned security force stated on October 7 that an agreement could be signed in a few days. Saudi Arabia seeks to end the conflict in southern Yemen before officially responding to the al Houthi movement’s cease-fire offer.

Forecast: The STC and Hadi government will accept the Saudi proposal. The STC will use its influence in the government to strengthen, especially in the security forces, creating the conditions for the group to secure a military victory in a future conflict. The STC will resume military operations against the Hadi government in the next year either to gain more power in the government or to declare secession. The STC’s inclusion in the Hadi government will spark backlash from members of the Islamist al Islah party, exacerbating a low-intensity conflict between al Islahi and STC-aligned forces in southern Yemen. (Updated October 8, 2019)

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