The Yemen File is a biweekly analysis and assessment of the Yemen conflict and the Salafi-jihadi movement in Yemen.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
 “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.
 “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.
 “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.