Yemen File

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

February 12 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 Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Yemen: AQAP has renewed support for external attacks as it faces setbacks in Yemen, including its leader’s death.

The al Houthi Movement: The al Houthi movement resumed attacks on Saudi infrastructure in a likely attempt to increase pressure on the Saudis to agree to a cease-fire.

 

The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Yemen

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has renewed support for external attacks in the US and Saudi Arabia even as it faces setbacks in its primary base in Yemen, including the death of the group’s leader. On February 2, AQAP claimed responsibility for the December 2019 shooting by a Saudi trainee pilot, Mohammad al Shamrani, that killed three US sailors and injured eight others at US Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida.[1] Shamrani’s social media showed support for al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and Yemeni-American AQAP cleric Anwar al Awlaki.

The group’s claim praised Shamrani, but there is not yet evidence that he received more than inspiration from AQAP. Separately, AQAP *directed an attacker who stabbed concert performers in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in November 2019, according to Saudi media. AQAP has not publicly commented on the Riyadh stabbing. The late AQAP emir, Qasim al Raymi, had condemned Saudi Arabia’s westernization in a speech released two weeks before the attack.[2]

 AQAP likely accelerated publishing the previously recorded claim of the Pensacola attack, which featured Raymi, to project strength following reports of Raymi’s death. A US airstrike in late January targeted and killed Raymi in northern Yemen. Raymi was an AQAP founder with long-standing ties to senior al Qaeda leadership.

A US drone strike killed Raymi's predecessor Nasir al Wuhayshi in June 2015. Raymi's death may further degrade AQAP's operational capabilities, particularly following the 2017 death of the group's chief bomb maker Ibrahim al Asiri. However, both Raymi and Asiri likely had the opportunity to train successors. US strikes targeting AQAP leaders and UAE-backed counterterrorism operations in Yemen have degraded the AQAP organization in recent years, but the conditions of Yemen’s civil war have allowed the group to deepen ties to local populations that will extend beyond the current conflict.

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.

 

The al Houthi Movement

The al Houthi movement resumed attacks on Saudi infrastructure in a likely attempt to increase pressure on the Saudis to agree to a cease-fire. The al Houthi movement resumed rocket attacks on Saudi airports and oil infrastructure for the first time in four months, claiming the late January strikes as retaliation for Saudi-led coalition airstrikes inside Yemen. Al Houthi officials seeking negotiations in September 2019 had pledged to cease attacks on Saudi Arabia if the coalition halted airstrikes in Yemen to support cease-fire negotiations.

The Saudi-led coalition, which controls Yemeni airspace, *allowed the first UN medical flight to leave Yemen in early February, marking the first civilian flight out of Yemen since 2015 and signaling a diplomatic concession. The al Houthi members had demanded the resumption of flights during UN-led talks and released detained Egyptian fishermen within days after the flight.

The al Houthis escalated attacks targeting forces fighting for Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi to weaken rival military leadership and improve their ground position in advance of future negotiations to end Yemen’s civil war. Suspected al Houthi militants launched a ballistic missile and drone attack targeting a Yemeni Army training camp in northern Yemen’s Ma’rib governorate in mid-January. This attack was one of the highest-casualty incidents since the current conflict’s beginning. Yemeni Army forces supported by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes then attempted to advance from Ma’rib toward the al Houthi–held capital, Sana’a, reactivating high-intensity ground fighting on a previously dormant  front line.

The recent escalation is likely focused on dynamics inside Yemen and the Saudi–al Houthi relationship, rather than revenge for the killing of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani in early January. The al Houthi leader condemned Soleimani’s killing and expressed solidarity and another senior official *called for “swift reprisals.”[3] The al Houthi movement has yet to claim a revenge attack, however. This most likely reflects an attempt to avoid drawing international ire for alignment with Iran while attempting to pressure the Saudi-led coalition to reach a favorable cease-fire agreement. Alternately, divisions in the al Houthi movement over its relationship with Tehran could disrupt or delay a revenge attack.

 Al Houthi and Islamic State fighters engage in limited cooperation against AQAP in central Yemen. Al Houthi militants have provided Islamic State fighters with access to its military camps, according to a recent UN report. Hostilities between al Houthi and Islamic State fighters are ongoing, however. [4] This coordination reflects a short-term tactical and local alliance against a shared enemy, AQAP, rather than a larger organizational or ideological alignment.


[1] “AQAP Claims Credit for Naval Air Station Pensacola, Leader Calls Lone Wolves to Act,” SITE Intelligence Group, February 2, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[2] “AQAP Video Focuses on Recruitment of Women for Espionage, Condemns Saudi Westernization,” SITE Intelligence Group, October 20, 2019, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[3] “Houthi Leader Mourns IRGC Quds Force and PMU Officials, Calls Muslims to Unite Against ‘American and Israeli Arrogance’,” SITE Intelligence Group, January 3, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[4] “IS Claims 3 Attacks on Houthis on Consecutive Days, Taking 2 POWs,” SITE Intelligence Group, January 21, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com; and “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.    

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