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 [email protected].