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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Yemen File: Al Houthi offensive escalates violence in central 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 Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Yemen

The al Houthi Movement in Yemen

 

The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Yemen

Violence in central Yemen has escalated following an al Houthi–movement advance into al Bayda governorate over the summer. Al Bayda had an underlying tribal conflict before the current civil war, which has added a layer of complexity to its local dynamics. Salafi-jihadi groups, namely the Islamic State in Yemen and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have generally sided against the al Houthi movement while maintaining havens in al Bayda. Al Houthi forces’ recent efforts to move through al Bayda toward neighboring Ma’rib governorate, the internationally recognized Yemeni government’s last stronghold in northern Yemen, have fueled existing tensions between al Houthi militants and Salafi-jihadi groups since August. (See more on the al Houthi campaign in the following section.

The al Houthi movement’s operations in al Bayda have weakened the Islamic State in Yemen. In recent years, the Islamic State’s main base in Yemen has been the Qayfa area in northwestern al Bayda. Al Houthi militants *launched a ground offensive in the Islamic State’s areas of operations in mid-August and *claimed to kill the Islamic State in Yemen’s leader. The Islamic State in Yemen publicly acknowledged its loss of Qayfa and declared a “new phase of jihad.”[1]

The Islamic State will remain weak in Yemen, likely benefiting its rival AQAP. The Islamic State may try to strengthen local relationships to recover from recent losses, but it has previously failed to establish such ties. The group accused tribesmen of “backstabbing” by allowing al Houthi militants to enter its territory, causing the group to lose land.[2] The Islamic State in Yemen could attempt to relocate to a new haven, but its options are likely constrained by its limited network. AQAP remains the dominant Salafi-jihadi group in Yemen and would likely push any Islamic State in Yemen fighters out of its territory. The Islamic State in Yemen’s loss of Qayfa will therefore further stymie the organization, causing a long-term lull in its broader operational capabilities.

 AQAP retains low-level operational capacity in al Bayda. AQAP fighters are clashing with al Houthi militants in the governorate in a conflict that overlays local tribal dynamics. AQAP increased its counterespionage activities in al Bayda in August. The group *executed several nonmembers *accused of spying for the al Houthi movement.[3] AQAP’s executions may be *targeting specific tribes it suspects of being linked to the al Houthis.

 AQAP has also increased its media output and resumed claiming attacks after a five-month lull, possibly indicating the group is reconstituting its operational and logistical capabilities.[4] A US air strike killed a key AQAP media operative in May, disrupting the organization’s media production until late June.[5] AQAP has increased its media production since late August and resumed claiming attacks in mid-September. The attacks have all targeted the al Houthi movement, possibly in response to the al Houthis’ August ground offensive in Qayfa, where AQAP is active.[6] AQAP may attempt to frame itself as a “protector” to certain tribes that the al Houthi movement *has targeted with *indiscriminate shelling and kidnappings to *prevent them from collaborating with anti–al Houthi forces. If AQAP attempts to do so, it could gain local support.

Forecast: The Islamic State in Yemen’s continued weakening will drive recruits toward AQAP, contributing to AQAP’s gradual strengthening as it exploits Yemen’s conflict. AQAP will deepen its alignment with select tribes in al Bayda governorate by participating in local conflicts and the fight against the al Houthi movement. Alternatively, AQAP runs the risk of causing local backlash by taking an overly harsh stance toward accused spies from local communities.

  

The al Houthi Movement in Yemen

The al Houthi movement is attempting to move through al Bayda to advance into the Hadi government’s last stronghold in northern Yemen. The al Houthi movement *framed its ground offensive in al Bayda as a counterterrorism operation to *conceal its goal of pushing militarily toward Ma’rib governorate. The al Houthi movement seeks to isolate the Hadi government’s oil fields in Ma’rib city, the capital of Ma’rib governorate. The al Houthi movement has attempted to reach Ma’rib city from the western front and is now attempting to advance toward the capital through a major road that runs southward through al Bayda.

Al Houthi reinforcements *have been arriving from neighboring Dhamar governorate to Qaniya in northern al Bayda *at least since July to join the Ma’rib operation. Clashes involving al Houthi forces *moved northward from Qaniya in late August toward *Mahliyah and *Rahabah districts in southern Ma’rib throughout September. Military escalation in Ma’rib, which hosts approximately 750,000 displaced Yemenis, would exacerbate an already dire humanitarian situation.

Figure 1. Al Houthi campaign in central and northern Yemen: July–September 2020

Source: Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.

The al Houthi movement’s leader, Abdul Malik al Houthi, condemned Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for normalizing diplomatic relations with Israel. Abdul Malik al Houthi stated that Israel has begun preparing a presence in Yemen *during a televised speech in mid-September. The al Houthi leader accused Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain of being part of the “American and Israeli agenda.”

The UAE’s normalization of relations with Israel may also have led an Iranian official to openly acknowledge that Iran has provided the al Houthi movement with technical expertise on weapons building. Iran’s Armed Forces General Staff spokesperson *remarked in late August that Iran has transferred technical expertise to the al Houthi movement. Iran is under increasing pressure from the solidifying alliance between its Gulf Arab rivals and Israel and has signaled a growing willingness to threaten Gulf interests in the Persian Gulf. Iran may be signaling the threat it could pose to the UAE by enabling al Houthi drone and ballistic missile attacks on the country. The al Houthi movement has claimed to have conducted such attacks on the UAE. Senior Iranian military officials used to refer to the UAE as a “deterred” country but have recently shifted their rhetoric to framing the UAE as a country that poses a national security threat.

 To read more about how Iran has helped the al Houthi movement develop its advanced weapon capabilities, see Jessica Kocan’s assessment of the al Houthi movements’ attacks targeting Saudi Arabia.


 [1] “IS Embarks On New Stage of Jihad in Yemen After Defeat, Attributes Loss to Enemies On All Sides,” SITE Intelligence Group, August 31, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “AQAP Announces Arrest of Spy Network For American, Emirati, And Saudi Intel,” SITE Intelligence Group, August 24, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com; and “AQAP Fighters Reportedly Flatten Clinic Used By Accused Spy, Video Surfaces of Confession,” SITE Intelligence Group, August 28, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[4] “AQAP Official Urges Muslims Seek Vengeance For UAE-Israel Normalization,” SITE Intelligence Group, August 28, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com; “AQAP Describes U.S. As Long-term Loser In Post-9/11 World, Calls Lone Wolves To Attack American Interests Everywhere,” SITE Intelligence Group, September 13, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com; and “AQAP Official Laments Status of Muslims in War While Celebrating Impact of COVID-19 On West in Eid Al-Adha Speech,” SITE Intelligence Group, August 3, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[5] “AQAP Mourns Death of Hurras Al-Deen Leader,” SITE Intelligence Group, June 30, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[6] “AQAP Resumes Issuing Military Communiques After 5 Months, Claims Killing Houthi Commander And Shelling Houthi Position in ‘Bayda,” SITE Intelligence Group, September 21, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com; and “AQAP Claims Bombing, Shelling, And Sniping Houthis In Multiple Attacks in ‘Bayda,” SITE Intelligence Group, September 30, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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