The Yemen File is a biweekly analysis and assessment of the Yemen conflict and the Salafi-jihadi movement in Yemen.
November 7 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.]
Diplomatic breakthroughs in Yemen could lay the groundwork for a political resolution to Yemen’s civil war. Yemen’s internationally recognized government signed a power-sharing agreement with a southern separatist faction in southern Yemen after months of unrest. The agreement delays addressing Yemen’s southern issue but brings southerners into UN-led negotiations. The Saudi-led coalition is also pursuing a limited cease-fire with the al Houthi movement. A key demand from the al Houthis for broader talks has been the end of coalition air strikes and the opening of ports. This cease-fire risks releasing pressure on the al Houthis in advance of political negotiations, which strengthens their position at the table. Underlying conflicts and conditions that create opportunities for al Qaeda and other Salafi-jihadi groups to expand in Yemen remain unaffected.
President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government reached an agreement with the Transitional Political Council for the South (STC), a UAE-backed southern separatist group, on November 5 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The kingdom worked to broker the deal since August, when STC-aligned forces seized power in Aden. The agreement restructures the cabinet and security sector to increase southern representation and unify Yemen’s fragmented security forces. The UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths hopes the deal will pave the way for a political settlement to the civil war. Some Hadi government and STC officials have *suggested the agreement will presage a joint offensive against the al Houthis. The agreement’s *stipulations are ambitious and vague, making implementation difficult.
Saudi Arabia is separately *negotiating a permanent cease-fire on the Saudi-Yemeni border with the al Houthi movement. A tentative de-escalation of cross-border activity follows a series of real and claimed al Houthi and Iranian attacks on Saudi targets since May 2019. The al Houthi movement has halted drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia in October but has *continued operations against Hadi government–aligned forces in northern and central Yemen.
A political resolution to the civil war does not address the local conditions that Salafi-jihadi groups exploit in Yemen. Local power conflicts, anti-government sentiments, and governance gaps will persist in the areas where al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State in Yemen operate today. Recent statements from AQAP and the Islamic State signaled their continued presence and connection to global Salafi-jihadi organizations. AQAP’s emir released a rare speech calling for al Qaeda–linked groups in Syria to unify. The Islamic State in Yemen pledged allegiance to the successor of the late Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
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At a Glance: The Yemen Conflict
Small diplomatic victories might provide momentum toward a negotiated end to Yemen’s civil war. Saudi Arabia and the Iranian-backed al Houthi movement reduced cross-border attacks since late September while negotiating a potential cease-fire. Saudi Arabia separately brokered a power-sharing agreement between the internationally recognized Yemeni government and a southern opposition faction that was signed on November 5.
Any resolution to the civil war leaves significant challenges in Yemen, including to US interests. Iran expanded its influence in Yemen significantly over the past five years through its relationship with the al Houthi movement. The al Houthis now threaten Red Sea maritime security and Gulf state security in addition to supporting Iran’s destabilizing regional activities. AQAP retains its historical sanctuaries despite ongoing counterterrorism operations. AQAP, the Islamic State, and other Salafi-jihadi groups exploit local conditions unrelated to the war with the al Houthis to develop ties to local Yemeni communities. Near-famine conditions in Yemen are driving the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, which could further destabilize the region.
Yemen was always a fragile state and has fragmented over the course of its latest civil war. President Hadi’s government is weak with most of its influence limited to two governorates in northern Yemen. Multiple Yemeni factions, many of which benefit from Emirati or Saudi military assistance, pursue their own interests as part of an anti–al Houthi coalition. Few Yemeni security forces respond to the Hadi government directly. A power-sharing agreement between President Hadi’s government and southern separatists prevented a complete fracturing of the anti–al Houthi coalition in November 2019 but did not resolve key issues, such as the question of southern independence.
The al Houthi movement controls most of northern and central Yemen, including the capital, Sana’a, after seizing power in September 2014. The movement has increasingly aligned with Tehran since the start of the current conflict, but this alignment is likely not uniform across al Houthi leadership. Statements since the September 2019 attack on Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq indicate that some al Houthi officials are skeptical of participating in Iran’s regional activities.
Saudi Arabia and the al Houthi movement are engaging in cease-fire negotiations. The two sides began talks after the al Houthis claimed an Iranian attack on Saudi oil facilities in September 2019. The drawdown of Saudi Arabia’s coalition partner, the UAE, by June 2019 and the growing risk of a direct confrontation with Iran likely influence Saudi Arabia’s efforts to seek a cease-fire.
The Conflict in Southern Yemen
The STC and Hadi government signed a power-sharing agreement in Riyadh on November 5 to end three months of clashes in southern Yemen. The STC’s seizure of Aden on August 10 sparked the conflict, which quickly spread to neighboring Abyan and Shabwah governorates. Saudi Arabia began brokering negotiations in late August and submitted a draft agreement in October. *Disagreements over control of government ministries, cabinet members, and *clashes in Abyan in late October delayed the signing of the final agreement.
The *Riyadh Agreement sets an ambitious timetable for restructuring the government and security forces, which will be difficult to implement, and guarantees STC participation in future UN-led peace talks. The agreement:
- Calls for a new 24-minister cabinet composed of 12 northerners and 12 southerners within 30 days. Cabinet members must be “*impartial” and must not have participated in the recent fighting.
- Recognizes the STC as a legitimate bloc advancing southern Yemeni interests and includes STC representation in any government delegations to UN-brokered talks with the al Houthis. The STC previously had observer status for such talks.
- Calls for the *return of the Hadi government to Aden within seven days (by November 12).
- Withdraws Hadi government–aligned forces from Aden’s environs, except for the First Presidential Protection Brigade, which will protect President Hadi and his cabinet. Saudi Arabia will *oversee security in Aden.
- Places all STC-aligned security units, including the al Hizam brigades, under the control of the ministries of defense and interior within 30 days. The Saudi-led coalition will consolidate all medium and heavy weapons in southern Yemen so that Yemeni forces will use them only with coalition authorization.
- Grants southern Yemenis a greater degree of authority over the distribution of state resources. The government will hold all government revenues, including oil revenues, in the Central Bank of Aden.
The agreement postpones addressing the southern issue, ensuring the question remains a flashpoint. The STC did not disavow its goal of southern independence and has presented the agreement as advancing this goal. The Hadi government *insists that the agreement preserves Yemeni unity.
Localized clashes continued in parts of southern Yemen ahead of the signing ceremony. Rivalries between local powerbrokers will continue despite the agreement. STC-aligned forces and Hadi government–aligned forces clashed in Abyan governorate on October 31. STC-aligned forces separately *attempted to seize government facilities in Socotra archipelago in late October as part of a power struggle with Socotra’s Hadi government–aligned governor.
Some Hadi government officials oppose the agreement because it empowers the STC. Two Hadi government ministers, Interior Minister Ahmed al Maysiri and Transportation Minister Saleh al Jabwani, *urged President Hadi not to accept the agreement on October 26 on the grounds that it rewards the STC for its “coup.” The two ministers *survived an assassination attempt on October 28 in Shabwah governorate, which Jabwani *blamed on STC-aligned forces.
Saudi Arabia is increasing its military presence in southern Yemen to support the agreement, while the UAE continues to draw down its forces in Yemen. The UAE *withdrew the last of its forces in Aden in October and transferred control of key installations to Saudi Arabia, which also *deployed new forces to Shabwah. The UAE had begun drawing down its forces along the Red Sea in the spring. Sudanese forces on the Red Sea Front have also drawn down in recent months, possibly in coordination with the UAE.
Forecast: The Riyadh Agreement will collapse in one to two years or after a political settlement with the al Houthis. The Hadi government and STC will maintain a fragile relationship so long as the war against the al Houthis continues. The STC will use its influence in the government to strengthen, especially in the security forces, during this time. The STC will attempt to secure an independent state once the national war ends, causing conflict to resume in southern Yemen. (Updated November 7, 2019)
The al Houthi Movement
The al Houthi movement and Saudi Arabia have reduced cross-border attacks while negotiations for a cease-fire are ongoing. The al Houthi movement had intensified efforts to persuade Saudi Arabia to enter negotiations in mid-September after the attack on the Abqaiq oil facilities. The al Houthi movement renewed cease-fire overtures to Riyadh shortly thereafter, including a unilateral *cessation of cross-border drone and missile attacks. The group has continued its normal pace of military operations within Yemen, however. Iran supports a cease-fire in Yemen to secure its own regional interests. [For more on Iran’s interest in shaping Yemen’s cease-fire negotiations, read the October 22 Yemen File.]
Saudi Arabia began direct cease-fire negotiations with the al Houthi movement. Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman and the head of the al Houthi movement’s Supreme Political Council, Mahdi al Mashat, communicated directly in September after the Abqaiq attack, according to recently released *reports. The two sides have since *formed a joint committee to discuss cease-fire provisions.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif met with an al Houthi delegation, likely as part of Iran’s efforts to shape cease-fire negotiations in Yemen. A high-level al Houthi delegation met with Zarif in Tehran on October 26. The meeting occurred less than two weeks after Iranian Supreme Leader *Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and *President Hassan Rouhani endorsed a cease-fire in Yemen during meetings with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is mediating between Riyadh and Tehran. The Iranian *readout of the al Houthi-Zarif meeting suggests that the parties discussed Khan’s mediation efforts in relation to Yemen.
Forecast: Saudi Arabia and the al Houthi movement will publicly agree to a partial cease-fire in the next month. A Saudi–al Houthi cease-fire might deprive Iran of its ability to leverage the al Houthi movement for attacks against Saudi Arabia in the near term but will cement Iranian influence in Yemen in the long term. (Updated November 7, 2019)
The al Houthis’ release of individuals accused of involvement in a 2011 assassination attempt against the late Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh provoked a rare public split in the Sana’a-based political elite. General People’s Congress (GPC) members had *boycotted participation in the al Houthi–led government in protest, announcing the decision on October 20. The al Houthi leadership took steps to appease the GPC faction, including *establishing an investigatory committee into the release of the detainees. Some *reports indicate the al Houthi movement threatened members. GPC officials *agreed to *rejoin on October 27.
The al Houthi movement attempted to assassinate President Hadi’s Minister of Defense. The al Houthis *launched a drone or missile attack on Mohammad Ali al Maqdashi’s convoy in Ma’rib governorate in northern Yemen on October 29, killing two soldiers. Al Houthi media *blamed the attack on the UAE. The al Houthis have killed multiple high-level military commanders in drone and missile strikes in 2019.
The al Houthi movement claimed to shoot down a US-made reconnaissance drone along the Saudi border on November 1 but has provided no evidence. A US military spokesman denied the al Houthis’ claim. The al Houthis shot down US MQ-9 Reaper drones over Yemen in two separate incidents in June and August 2019, respectively.
The Salafi-jihadi Movement in Yemen
Prolonged political instability and conflict in southern Yemen creates conditions for Salafi-jihadi groups to strengthen there in the long term. AQAP has waged low-level campaigns against Yemeni counterterrorism forces in multiple southern governorates in 2019, including counteroffensives in June, but remains significantly weakened by counterterrorism operations. In October the group did not claim attacks on Yemeni security forces, focusing media instead on attacks against Islamic State targets in al Bayda governorate in southern Yemen. The two groups have clashed in al Bayda since July 2018. The Islamic State is significantly smaller than AQAP and has directed the majority of its efforts against AQAP recently. [For more on AQAP’s recent campaigns in Yemen, read the September 10 Yemen File.]
The Islamic State in Yemen pledged allegiance to Abu Ibrahim al Hashimi al Qurayshi, the successor of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and new leader of the Islamic State, amid a wave of pledges from Islamic State affiliates worldwide. The Yemeni group published photos of fighters pledging allegiance to Abu Ibrahim on November 4. This pledge was among the first released by Islamic State affiliates, along with others from groups in Somalia, Bangladesh, Sinai, and Pakistan.
AQAP’s emir, Qasim al Raymi, rallied support for Salafi-jihadi militants in Syria in a rare video speech released on November 2. Al Raymi urged Salafi-jihadi militants in Syria to avoid factionalism and blind allegiance to commanders. The statement echoes a September one from al Qaeda General Command that urged al Qaeda–linked groups in Syria to cease infighting and focus on defeating Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s regime.
The US issued rewards for information on two senior AQAP officials. The Department of State’s Rewards for Justice program announced a reward for information of up to $6 million for Sa’ad bin Atef al Awlaki and up to $4 million for Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al Qosi. Sa’ad bin Atef is AQAP’s emir in Shabwah governorate and appeared as a commander in AQAP media in September 2015. Al Qosi is a veteran al Qaeda operative who once worked directly under Osama bin Laden. The US released him into Sudanese custody from the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in 2012. He joined AQAP in Yemen by the end of 2014.
A suspected US drone strike *killed two AQAP operatives in northern Yemen on November 2. The strike occurred in Ma’rib governorate, a historical AQAP support zone. The US has not commented on the incident.