The Yemen File is a biweekly analysis and assessment of the Yemen conflict and the Salafi-jihadi movement in Yemen.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
November 20 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 Yemeni civil war may escalate in the near term even as limited diplomatic progress sets conditions for a potential political resolution to the conflict. The al Houthi movement and Saudi Arabia are engaged in cease-fire negotiations facilitated by Oman. Saudi Arabia also brokered a deal between President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government and the Transitional Political Council for the South (STC), a UAE-backed southern separatist group, to stave off the complete fracturing of the anti–al Houthi coalition by including the STC in future UN-brokered talks with the al Houthis. Hadi government and STC officials have postured for a potential offensive against the al Houthis since the signing of this deal, which has also allowed Hadi government ministers to begin returning to Aden.
The al Houthis have escalated attacks inside Yemen in recent months, signaling an effort to disrupt anti–al Houthi military capabilities and possibly deter an offensive. The temporary al Houthi seizure of South Korean and Saudi vessels in the Red Sea underscores the continued threat that the al Houthis pose to commercial maritime traffic.
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 even if a national cease-fire is achieved.
Figure 1. Yemen Significant Activity: November 20
Source: Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute
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At a Glance: The Yemen Conflict
Yemen was always a fragile state and has fragmented over the course of this latest civil war. The internationally recognized government led by President Hadi is weak. 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. 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.
Small diplomatic victories might yield momentum toward a negotiated end to Yemen’s civil war. 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 will likely influence Saudi Arabia’s efforts to seek a cease-fire.
Saudi Arabia separately brokered a power-sharing agreement between the internationally recognized Yemeni government and a southern opposition faction—the Transitional Political Council for the South (STC)—that was signed on November 5. The agreement upgraded the STC from observer to participant status in future UN-brokered talks with the al Houthis. This deal is a temporary solution that 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.
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. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (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. The war contributes to Yemen’s severe humanitarian crisis, which is one of the worst in the world.
The al Houthi Movement
Oman is facilitating in-person meetings between Saudi and al Houthi officials. Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman traveled to Oman’s capital Muscat on November 18, indicating that talks may be advancing. The al Houthis have reduced cross-border attacks while negotiating a cease-fire. The group intensified efforts to persuade Saudi Arabia to enter negotiations in mid-September following an uptick in al Houthi cross-border attacks and falsely claimed attacks, including the Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil facilities. The al Houthis seek the reopening of naval and air entry points to allow resources into northern Yemen, a key demand since the Saudi-led coalition began the blockade in 2015–16. A buffer zone on the Saudi-Yemeni border is also under discussion.
The Saudi-led coalition’s blockade of western Yemen contributes to a severe fuel shortage in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, that with other service delivery failures risk cultivating local resistance to al Houthi control. A large al Houthi celebration marking the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed (Mawlid al Nabi) in early November caused *backlash on social media because of its cost.
Recent al Houthi attacks aim to disrupt anti–al Houthi military capabilities and possibly prevent an anti–al Houthi offensive. The al Houthis have intensified ground operations on fronts inside Yemen since September. The group targeted Hadi government Minister of Defense Mohammed Ali al Maqdashi in attacks in Ma’rib governorate in northern Yemen on November 13 and October 29. Pro–al Houthi media attributed the October 29 attack to the UAE, possibly indicating an effort to incite conflict among anti–al Houthi forces. An al Houthi attack on a military parade in Aden on August 1 killed a senior commander and sparked fighting between Hadi government–aligned and pro-STC forces.
An al Houthi drone and missile attack struck warehouses used by a Hadi government–aligned force in Mokha, in Taiz governorate on the Red Sea coast, on November 7. The attack damaged a hospital, forcing Doctors Without Borders to suspend its activities at the site.
The al Houthis remain a threat to commercial maritime shipping. The al Houthis detained a South Korean drilling vessel and South Korean and Saudi tugboats near Uqban Island in the Red Sea on November 17. In response, South Korea deployed a naval unit to the Red Sea. The al Houthis released the three vessels on November 20 after determining that they entered Yemeni waters due to bad weather.
The Conflict in Southern Yemen
The Hadi government and the STC are beginning to implement a power-sharing agreement signed in Riyadh on November 5. The Riyadh Agreement ended three months of clashes in southern Yemen that began when the STC seized the de facto capital, Aden, on August 10. The agreement set an ambitious timetable for restructuring the government and security forces and guaranteed STC participation in future UN-led peace talks between the Hadi government and the al Houthi movement.
The agreement postpones the southern issue to prioritize the war against the al Houthis. Hadi government and STC officials have emphasized this prioritization following the signing of the deal. Saudi Arabia has increased its military presence in southern Yemen to support the agreement, while the UAE withdrew its remaining forces from Aden in October.
For more on the Riyadh Agreement’s provisions, see the November 7 Yemen File.
The Hadi government began its return to Aden under the Riyadh Agreement. The agreement called for Hadi government ministers who had left Aden during the STC’s August takeover to *return by November 12. Hadi government Prime Minister Mu’ayyan Abdul Malik Sa’id arrived in Aden with five other ministers on November 18. The Yemeni Foreign Ministry *resumed work in Aden.
There are immediate challenges to the agreement’s implementation, however. STC supporters delayed the Hadi government’s return to Aden by refusing to cede control over the municipal headquarters and presidential palace.
Forecast: The Riyadh Agreement is unlikely to be fully implemented. 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. North-south tensions and internal southern dynamics will cause renewed fracturing in southern Yemen after the civil war ends. (Updated November 20, 2019.)
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. AQAP’s main effort is fighting the Islamic State in Yemen in al Bayda governorate, but it also conducts intermittent attacks in Abyan governorate.
AQAP is prioritizing attacks and media targeting the Islamic State in al Bayda governorate. AQAP did not claim attacks on Yemeni security forces in October 2019, focusing media instead on attacks against Islamic State targets in al Bayda governorate in southern Yemen. This prioritization continued into November, with AQAP claiming several attacks on Islamic State fighters in the first half of the month. AQAP and the Islamic State 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.
AQAP is sustaining a secondary effort against Yemeni security forces in Abyan governorate. AQAP waged counteroffensive campaigns against Hadi government and STC forces in southern and eastern Yemen between June and early September. The group surged attacks—including temporarily seizing an Abyan district—during the outbreak of fighting between Hadi government and STC forces in late August and early September. AQAP militants attacked a unit of UAE-backed al Hizam security forces in Abyan’s Mudia district on November 19.
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
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.