Yemen File

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

Loading...

Loading...

Yemen File: AQAP did more than just inspire the Pensacola attack

[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 played an active role in the December 2019 Pensacola attack.

The al Houthi Movement in Yemen: Al Houthis are now attempting to reach Ma’rib city from southern al Bayda governorate.

 

The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Yemen

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) played an active role in the December 2019 attack at a US naval air station in Pensacola, Florida. The FBI announced on May 18 that it had discovered extensive links between AQAP and the attacker, Saudi national Mohammad al Shamrani, who killed three US sailors and injured eight others during the December 2019 shooting.

Shamrani maintained extensive ties with AQAP for years. The FBI revealed that Shamrani radicalized in 2015 and established contact with AQAP before arriving in the US. Shamrani joined the Royal Saudi Air Force with the intent of planning an attack. He planned the Pensacola attack and communicated with AQAP operatives until the night before. One operative whom Shamrani contacted was AQAP militant Abdullah al Maliki. 

The FBI exploited the information found on Shamrani’s phones to target AQAP militants in Yemen, including Maliki. The US conducted an airstrike targeting Maliki in northern Yemen in early May, likely killing him.[1] The FBI remarked that the information it extracted from Shamrani’s phones aided the operation targeting Maliki.

Information from Shamrani’s phones may also have been used to target the late AQAP emir Qasim al Raymi. A US airstrike killed Raymi in northern Yemen in late January. This strike occurred shortly before AQAP claimed responsibility for the Pensacola attack in a prerecorded speech by Raymi in early February. Raymi’s recording may have also created opportunities for signals intelligence to locate him independent of the information from Shamrani’s phones.

More from AEI and CTP:
Al Qaeda’s role in the Pensacola shooting and what it means” by Katherine Zimmerman

US air strikes have strained AQAP’s internal divisions. AQAP’s current emir, Khaled Batarfi, highlighted the group’s internal rifts during a speech in February following Raymi’s death. Batarfi stressed that spies compromise member safety, highlighting internal rifts within the group. AQAP’s al Malahem media foundation released a document and audio recording about a “cabal” within the group on May 11, marking the second statement on its internal divisions in 2020.[2] The statements accused several AQAP members of challenging the group’s shari’a court.

These members also proposed surrendering the fight against the Islamic State in Qayfa district in southern Yemen’s al Bayda governorate to internationally recognized Yemeni government forces. The revelation that at least some of the information used to target AQAP leaders came from Shamrani’s phones may assuage some internal disputes about potential spying, but strategic disputes over AQAP’s prioritization will likely continue.

The Islamic State in Yemen is likely attempting to take advantage of AQAP’s internal disputes by urging al Qaeda militants to defect. The Islamic State in Yemen released a documentary on April 29 criticizing al Qaeda’s decision-making post–Arab Spring. [3] The Islamic State criticized AQAP’s support for the post-revolution Egyptian and Tunisian governments. It urged al Qaeda militants to defect to the Islamic State. AQAP and the Islamic State are fighting for influence and territorial control in al Bayda governorate in southern Yemen.

 

 

 

The al Houthi Movement in Yemen

Al Houthi militants may have shifted their ground operational movement in northern Yemen in an attempt to reach Ma’rib city. The al Houthi movement launched a ground military campaign in northern Yemen in late January to isolate Ma’rib governorate’s oil fields and deny the internationally recognized Yemeni government of Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi access to the key resource. The al Houthi movement may now be attempting to advance toward Ma’rib city from the south through al Bayda governorate’s Qaniya district, rather than from the west through Ma’rib governorate’s Sirwah district.

Anti–al Houthi forces are repelling the al Houthi movement’s attempted advances toward Ma’rib city. Hadi government forces *claimed repelling an al Houthi attack in Qaniya district on May 12. Saudi-led coalition airstrikes also *targeted al Houthi positions in Qaniya on May 14. 

Figure 1. Yemen

 Source: Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute

Anti–al Houthi forces attempted to expel al Houthi militants from a strategic district in southern Yemen in April. This most recent operation to recapture al Bayda governorate’s Mukayras district is the latest of several attempts to seize the district since al Houthi forces occupied Mukayras in 2015.

Anti–al Houthi forces intended to prevent the al Houthi movement from expanding toward southern Yemen from Mukayras. Mukayras is a strategic district because of its road network. The road running through Mukayras leads southward to Abyan governorate and Yemen’s southern coast. It runs northward to the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, and Ma’rib governorate, where the al Houthis are currently waging their aforementioned northern campaign.

Anti–al Houthi forces *announced their intent to recapture Mukayras in November 2019 and began *preparing for the operation in December. Al Houthi militants *sent reinforcements to Mukayras in January 2020 in response. The opposing sides *clashed south of Mukayras in February, and the al Houthis deployed additional reinforcements to Mukayras in March. This deployment may reflect the al Houthis’ increased confidence after making significant territorial gains in northern Yemen in March.

Anti–al Houthi forces launched the operation to push al Houthi militants out of Mukayras on April 8, *escalating clashes with al Houthi militants in the area. They have since *targeted al Houthi militants between April and May, *claiming recapturing al Houthi–held territories in Mukayras in late April and *early May. Fighting has stalled since.

The al Houthi movement continued its vocal support for Lebanese Hezbollah. The al Houthi movement condemned Germany’s designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and expressed solidarity with the group on April 30.[4] The al Houthi movement has been part of Iran’s “Axis of Resistance” since 2015. Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah have helped al Houthi militants develop their media, military tactics, and political organization. The al Houthis have also supported other Axis of Resistance members in a limited capacity, including conducting a fundraiser supporting Hezbollah in July 2019.[5]

 


[1] “AQAP Official Abdullah al-Maliki, Targeted in US Airstrike in Yemen, was Associate of Pensacola Shooter,” SITE Intelligence Group, May 18, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[2] “AQAP Exposes Cabal Within Group of Individuals Challenging its Shariah Court, Proposing to Turn Over Fighting Front,” SITE Intelligence Group, May 14, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com

[3] “IS Fighters in Yemen Explain AQ’s ‘Deviation’ Following Arab Spring in Video Documentary,” SITE Intelligence Group, April 30, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[4] “Houthis Condemn Germany’s Crackdown on Hezbollah, Expresses Solidarity with Group,” SITE Intelligence Group, April 30, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[5] “Houthi Rebels Fundraise for Hezbollah,” SITE Intelligence Group, July 15, 2019, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com; and “Houthi Rebels Report Funds collected for Lebanese Hezbollah,” SITE Intelligence Group, July 23, 2019, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

View Citations

Yemen File: COVID-19 strain expedites Saudi Arabia’s exit from Yemen war

[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 al Houthi Movement in Yemen: Saudi Arabia is expediting its preexisting effort to exit the war with the al Houthis amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Yemen: The Islamic State in Yemen claimed its first attack in Dhaleh governorate.

 

The al Houthi Movement in Yemen

Saudi Arabia is accelerating its preexisting effort to withdraw from the war with the al Houthi movement during the COVID-19 pandemic. Saudi Arabia has *been seeking an exit from this war since at least the fall of 2019 due to mounting economic and security pressures. The Yemen war has cost Saudi Arabia over $100 billion, and the kingdom has been decreasing its military spending in recent years to support major economic reforms.

Saudi Arabia has also shifted its security resources toward a growing threat from Iran and Iranian proxy forces based in Iraq, exemplified by the September 2019 attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil facility conducted from inside Iran. The resources committed to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen have also decreased in the past year. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) completed its troop withdrawal from Yemen in October 2019, and Sudan’s president confirmed reducing its troops by two-thirds in December 2019. Saudi Arabia has also suffered growing reputational damage for its role in Yemen’s war, particularly as relations with the US degraded in the aftermath of the *murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Saudi officials have intensified negotiations with the al Houthis since the fall of 2019 to bring the war to an end. Saudi Arabia, which controls Yemen’s air space, made a concession to the al Houthis in early February by allowing the first UN medical flight since 2017 to leave the al Houthi–held capital Sana’a. A Saudi official reported in late March that the kingdom invited the al Houthis and the internationally recognized Yemeni government to Saudi Arabia for peace negotiations.

Saudi Arabia has intensified efforts to leave Yemen’s war since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has further strained the kingdom’s budget. The pandemic has kept oil prices low following a Saudi-Russian oil price war in early March. The kingdom would need to sell oil at four times its current price to maintain its budget, causing the Ministry of Finance to direct states to cut budgets by at least 20 percent in early March. The looming economic crisis may be pushing Saudi Arabia to expedite a deal with the al Houthis, with the pandemic providing a degree of face-saving.

Saudi Arabia announced a two-week unilateral cease-fire in Yemen, which began on April 9, to support UN peace efforts and prevent the spread of COVID-19; the Saudi ambassador to Yemen also *previewed a future meeting between Yemen’s warring sides to discuss a permanent cease-fire. Saudi Arabia announced a one-month extension on its unilateral cease-fire in Yemen on April 24.

Al Houthi leaders seek to use negotiations with Saudi Arabia to advance overarching objectives: consolidating control of economic resources and outmaneuvering rivals to remain in power and achieve at least partial recognition as a legitimate government in Yemen. Al Houthi leaders sent a list of demands to the UN in early April, addressed from the Yemeni Republic of Sana’a. The demands include the lifting of the Saudi-led coalition’s air, sea, and land blockade. Lifting the blockade would allow air traffic to Sana’a and increase the al Houthi movement’s access to its primary revenue source, the Red Sea port of al Hudaydah, which has generated an estimated monthly revenue of $30 to $40 million. (The al Houthis also waged a recent military campaign in northern Yemen to isolate the internationally recognized Yemeni government’s oil production infrastructure in northern Yemen, furthering the al Houthi effort to deny others’ access to Yemen’s economic resources.) The al Houthis’ demands include a withdrawal of Saudi forces from Yemen and the payment of war compensation by Saudi Arabia, including salary payments for northern Yemeni public servants for a decade.

The al Houthi movement has also resumed some attacks on Saudi targets, likely to further pressure the kingdom to negotiate. The al Houthis had significantly reduced attacks on Saudi soil after Iran’s attack on Abqaiq in September as Saudi-Houthi talks intensified. They have since resumed such attacks, albeit at a slower tempo. Al Houthi militants launched missiles toward Saudi Arabia in late March, targeting two southwestern Saudi cities and the capital Riyadh. Saudi Arabia responded with retaliatory airstrikes on Sana’a but quickly *made clear that the airstrikes were in direct response to the al Houthi attacks and not an escalation attempt.

Secessionist forces’ declaration of self-rule in southern Yemen will likely disrupt Saudi efforts to withdraw from Yemen and may lead to an expansion of Yemen’s civil war. The UAE-backed Transitional Political Council of the South (STC) *declared self-rule in Aden city and other southern governorates on April 26 to displace the internationally recognized Yemeni government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s engagement with southern Yemeni factions has contributed to the country’s fragmentation since 2015. The STC seized control of Aden from Hadi’s government in August 2019, causing Saudi Arabia to broker a cease-fire and later the power-sharing Riyadh Agreement in November 2019. The Riyadh Agreement was intended to prevent the immediate fracturing of the anti–al Houthi coalition, which includes Hadi government and STC forces.

Saudi Arabia *rejected the STC’s declaration of self-rule on April 27, calling both parties to return to the Riyadh Agreement to deescalate tensions. Southern governors also rejected the STC’s announcement, further highlighting divisions in the south. An intra-Yemeni conflict in the south would draw nominally anti–al Houthi forces away from that fight, giving the al Houthis more opportunities to consolidate power and increase their leverage in negotiations with Saudi Arabia. Such a conflict could also prevent Yemeni counterterrorism forces from sustaining pressure on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

 

The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Yemen

The Islamic State in Yemen claimed its first attack in Dhaleh governorate, indicating that hostilities between the group and the al Houthi movement have spread from a primary area of operations in neighboring al Bayda governorate. The front line of the Yemeni civil war between the al Houthis and anti–al Houthi forces runs through Dhaleh and al Bayda. Islamic State militants detonated two improvised explosive devices targeting an al Houthi vehicle in Juban district in Dhaleh on April 4.[1] Juban district lies along a roadway that connects to the Islamic State’s main area of operations in al Bayda, about 45 miles north. The group maintains four brigades consisting of approximately 60 members each in al Bayda, according to a 2019 UN report.

Al Bayda governorate lies on a seam in Yemen’s civil war between the al Houthi movement and a fractious array of anti–al Houthi groups. The governorate’s security vacuum and longstanding popular grievances have allowed Salafi-jihadi groups, including the Islamic State and AQAP, to establish havens there. These two Salafi-jihadi groups frequently clash with each other and with the al Houthi movement in al Bayda.

Saudi Arabia *executed the allegedly AQAP-linked perpetrator of a November 2019 stabbing at a concert in Riyadh. A Saudi court also convicted a second individual for collaborating with the attacker and sending *funds to AQAP. AQAP has not claimed responsibility for the attack. The group’s late emir Qasim al Raymi condemned the kingdom’s perceived Westernization in a statement two weeks before the stabbing.

AQAP may be redirecting its focus to attacks outside Yemen. The group claimed responsibility for the December 2019 shooting by a Saudi pilot trainee at a US naval station in Pensacola, Florida, though there is not yet evidence that the attacker had prior contact with AQAP. 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.


[1]“IS Claims First Attack in Yemen’s Dhale Governorate, Bombing Houthi Vehicle,” SITE Intelligence Group, April 9, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

 

 

View Citations

Al Houthi Movement Offensive Targets Oil in Northern Yemen

[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 al Houthi Movement in Yemen: The al Houthi movement launched a two-pronged ground offensive in northern Yemen in early 2020 to isolate Ma’rib’s oil fields and disrupt the internationally recognized Yemeni government’s economic efforts.

The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Yemen: AQAP emir Khaled Batarfi’s rhetoric in his inaugural speech aligned with al Qaeda General Command’s praise for the US-Taliban agreement as a model for defeating enemy forces.

 

The al Houthi Movement in Yemen

The al Houthi movement launched a two-pronged ground offensive in northern Yemen in early 2020 to isolate Ma’rib governorate’s oil fields to disrupt the internationally recognized Yemeni government of Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s resumed oil production.

Hadi’s government announced plans in May 2019 to build a new oil pipeline in Ma’rib, aiming to pipe and export oil from the Gulf of Aden. The new pipeline will link Ma’rib’s oil fields to an existing pipeline in Shabwah governorate, eliminating Hadi’s government *oil trucking. This pipeline will replace Ma’rib’s damaged Ras Issa oil pipeline, which runs from Ma’rib to an oil terminal under al Houthi control in al Hudaydah governorate on the Red Sea.

Hadi’s government *reportedly resumed oil production in Ma’rib in October 2019, likely causing al Houthi militants to launch rockets on Ma’rib to immediately disrupt Hadi government’s economic efforts. The al Houthi movement *launched ballistic missiles targeting Hadi’s Ministry of Defense in northern Ma’rib in late October and early November 2019. Al Houthi militants likely conducted a ballistic missile and drone attack targeting a Hadi military training camp in northwestern Ma’rib on January 18. The attack killed at least 116 people, marking one of the deadliest attacks since the current civil war began. The al Houthi militants likely used these rocket attacks to set conditions for a ground offensive to isolate and deprive Hadi’s government from Ma’rib’s oil. 

 

Figure 1. Al Houthi Movement Advances on Ma'rib Governorate on Two Fronts: January-March 2020

Source: Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute 

The al Houthi militants launched a two-pronged ground offensive east and north of Yemen’s capital Sana’a in mid-January, targeting anti–al Houthi forces to advance toward Ma’rib’s oil. The al Houthi militants *launched a ground offensive in Nihm a day before the suspected al Houthi attack on Hadi’s training camp, capturing Nihm in late January. The al Houthi militants then advanced east of Nihm toward Sirwah and north of Nihm toward al Ghail.

The al Houthi effort in al Jawf is likely intended to prevent anti–al Houthi forces from reinforcing Ma’rib from the north as the al Houthis advance east toward Ma’rib. The al Houthis *seized al Ghail a day before seizing al Hazm, marking the first time the al Houthis captured a governorate capital in roughly five years. The al Houthis simultaneously advanced east of Nihm, *claiming to have captured a town in Sirwah in early March.

Anti–al Houthi forces have launched a counteroffensive against the al Houthis in al Jawf and Ma’rib in mid-March to prevent the al Houthis’ advance toward Ma’rib. Anti–al Houthi forces *claimed ambushing and *recapturing several al Houthi–held areas in al Jawf and *Sirwah in late March and*continue targeting al Houthi militants in Ma’rib. The al Houthis have not yet succeeded in achieving their campaign objective, which would require them to push past Ma’rib city to deny Hadi’s government its oil trucking route.

The al Houthi movement escalated tensions with Saudi-led coalition forces in late March, diminishing hopes for a nationwide cease-fire in Yemen to address the coronavirus. Al Houthi militants launched ballistic missiles toward two southwestern Saudi cities and the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on March 27 and 28, respectively. Saudi-led coalition forces conducted airstrikes on the al Houthi–held Yemeni capital Sana’a on March 30. Saudi officials reportedly invited the al Houthis and Hadi government to peace talks in Saudi Arabia in late March. Both parties voiced support for the UN’s call to a nationwide cease-fire on March 25.

Reports of al Houthi militant maritime attacks in Yemen’s surrounding waters are increasing. Saudi-led coalition forces *intercepted and destroyed two al Houthi remote-controlled improvised explosive device boats, known as drone boats, in the Red Sea on March 17. Saudi-led coalition forces *foiled a similar attack in the Red Sea in late February. Coalition forces disrupted an unidentified drone boat attack on an oil tanker south of a Yemeni port in the Arabian Sea in early March. If confirmed, this would be the al Houthis’ first use of drone boat attacks outside the Red Sea. The al Houthis have used drone boats as early as 2017 but may have developed a new explosive skiff model disguised as a fishing boat.

Rising tensions between the Transitional Political Council of the South (STC) and Hadi government forces in Aden may cause a power-sharing agreement to break down in southern Yemen. United Arab Emirates–backed STC forces *clashed with Saudi-backed Hadi government forces in Aden and *reportedly redeployed to neighboring Abyan governorate in late March to protect southern Yemen from a possible northern military invasion. The tensions between the two sides increased in March as they *took turns restricting each other’s mobility in the governorate. The November 2019 Riyadh Agreement aimed to ease these tensions by calling for the integration of STC and Hadi government forces, which has not been successful thus far. For more on southern Yemeni political tensions, see the November 2019 Yemen File.

 

 

The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Yemen

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) emir Khaled Batarfi’s rhetoric in his inaugural speech aligned with al Qaeda General Command’s praise for the US-Taliban agreement as a model for defeating enemy forces.[1] Batarfi and al Qaeda General Command praised the January al Shabaab attack in Kenya that killed three Americans, demonstrating AQAP’s participation in al Qaeda General Command’s strategic messaging.[2] AQAP offered condolences in mid-March for the death of two al Qaeda–affiliated leaders killed in Mali last year and urged fighters in North Africa and the Sahel to increase attacks.[3] This statement came a day after the al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) emir encouraged Sahel governments to insist on French military withdrawal from the region. These statements signal AQAP’s continued relationship with AQIM, which includes coordinated strategic messaging.[4]

Al Qaeda General Command eulogized former AQAP leader Qasim al Raymi and approved Batarfi as his successor. Al Qaeda General Command released a eulogy on March 30, citing Raymi’s time training in Afghanistan before his return to Yemen and praised Batarfi’s leadership and experience.[5] Batarfi restated his allegiance to al Qaeda General Command leader Ayman al Zawahiri and praised Raymi in his first audio speech as emir on March 20.[6] New Salafi-jihadi leaders routinely renew pledges of allegiance after assuming their positions.

AQAP resumed claiming attacks on al Houthi militants in al Bayda governorate. AQAP claimed its first al Houthi attack since October 2019, killing an al Houthi official in Tayyab in al Bayda governorate in early March.[7] AQAP claimed ambushing al Houthi militants and detonating an improvised explosive device targeting an al Houthi vehicle in Tayyab on April 3 and 4, respectively.[8]

Al Bayda remains a highly contested area where AQAP, the Islamic State, and the al Houthis all seek territorial control. Islamic State militants also claimed an attack on an al Houthi target in early March.[9] The Islamic State claimed control over several neighborhoods in Qayfa in al Bayda governorate in its weekly newsletter in mid-March and released a video of its militants in Qayfa in late March.


 

[1] “In Augural Speech as AQAP Leader, Batarfi Promotes Taliban’s ‘Defeat’ of U.S. and Praises Shabaab,” SITE Intelligence Group, March 23, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com; and “AQ-aligned Jihadi Coalition Points to Afghan Taliban as Model to Follow in Fighting Till Enemy Capitulation,” SITE Intelligence Group, March 18, 2020, available by subscription at www.sitintelgroup.com.

[2] “Al-Qaeda Praises Shabaab for Manda Bay Raid, Calls for Attacks on ‘Zionist-Crusader Alliance’ Interests,” SITE Intelligence Group, January 20, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[3] “AQAP Rallies Fighters in North Africa and Sahel in Condolences for Slain Militants,” SITE Intelligence Group, March 18, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[4] “AQAP and AQIM Regard Saudi Leaders As ‘Poisoned Dagger’ Against Muslims, Condemn Moderation Center,” SITE Intelligence Group, September 29, 2017, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[5] “Al-Qaeda central mourns former AQAP leader Qassim al-rimi, blessed successor,” SITE Intelligence Group, April 1, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[6] “In Augural Speech as AQAP Leader, Batarfi Promotes Taliban’s ‘Defeat’ of U.S. and Praises Shabaab,” SITE Intelligence Group, March 23, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[7] “AQAP Claims Killing Houthi Official in Bayda’, Provides Photos of Body and War Spoils,” SITE Intelligence Group, March 17, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[8] “AQAP Claims Armed Attacks and Bombing on Houthis in Tayyab,” SITE Intelligence Group, April 6, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[9] “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
TIMELINE
Arrow down red
May '20
Apr '20