Growing instability in Aden presents an increasing challenge for the Saudi-led coalition and the Yemeni government under President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The coalition’s local partners against the al Houthi-Saleh alliance may now be pursuing their own objectives.
The Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) assassinated its first high-profile target in Yemen. ISIS Wilayat Aden-Abyan claimed credit for the attack that killed the Governor of Aden, Jaafar Mohammed Saad, on December 6 and threatened additional attacks on Yemeni government officials. (Sources available upon request.) Militants either detonated a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device as the governor’s motorcade passed in Aden’s al Tawahi district or rammed the governor’s vehicle with a suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED). Emirati Minister of Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash condemned the governor’s assassination and said that it would not deter the coalition’s efforts to restore safety and security to Yemen. Saudi Arabia will reportedly deploy a counterterrorism unit to Aden in response.
Gunmen assassinated at least four officials and officers in Aden in two days. Unidentified militants killed a security officer, a military police colonel, an energy official, and a prominent judge known for anti-terrorism rulings, in separate incidents on December 5 and December 6. No group has claimed responsibility for the killings; potential perpetrators include jihadist groups and southern separatists, both of whom oppose the establishment of a unified Yemeni government. Southerners are currently fighting alongside coalition and pro-Hadi Yemeni military forces against the al Houthis; however, the long-term objectives of the highly factionalized southern militias generally are at odds with the coalition’s objective of reinstating the Hadi central government. The escalating violence against government and security officials in Aden is undermining the coalition’s attempts to secure the city and build the legitimacy of Hadi’s government there.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is reconstituting its presence in neighboring Abyan governorate. Local reports indicate that AQAP militants remain in the area after storming Zinjibar and Jaar on December 2, despite the Governor of Abyan’s December 6 denial of the group’s presence. AQAP and ISIS Wilayat Aden-Abyan may compete for influence in Aden as both attempt to derail the re-establishment of Hadi’s government in the city. AQAP is simultaneously retaining its governmental capabilities in al Mukalla, Hadramawt, where the group detained a group of male and female students for comingling at a graduation ceremony on December 6.
The al Houthi-Saleh alliance continues to attack coalition targets. Pro-al Houthi media outlet Saba News claimed that an al Houthi-Saleh rocket attack damaged an Emirati warship off the coast of Mokha, Taiz governorate on December 4. Al Houthi forces also continue to attack Saudi territory. Saba claimed that al Houthi forces shelled a Saudi weapons cache and sniped Saudi soldiers in Najran province, Saudi Arabia on December 6, while pro-Saudi sources claimed that the Saudi military rebuffed al Houthi attacks on the border in Jazan and Najran provinces on the same day. Al Houthi-Saleh forces also shelled a coalition-held military base in Ma’rib governorate in central Yemen, reigniting clashes along the frontline in Sirwah, Ma’rib on December 6.
A humanitarian ceasefire is expected to begin within days. UN Special Envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed met with President Hadi in Aden on December 5 to discuss the proposed agenda for UN-led peace talks, following similar meetings with al Houthi officials in Muscat. All parties reportedly agreed to implement a humanitarian ceasefire, which will precede talks set to begin in Geneva on December 15, according to newly appointed Yemeni Foreign Minister Abdul Malik al Mikhlafi. The ceasefire is conditional on the al Houthi-Saleh alliance freeing prisoners and withdrawing from seized population centers. Multiple ceasefire agreements between the coalition and al Houthi-Saleh forces have failed in the past.
The proposed ceasefire is unlikely to hold while both sides grapple for advantage on the ground. The Saudi-led coalition will become further entrenched in the Yemen conflict as it responds to counterattacks by the al Houthi-Saleh alliance and struggles to secure Aden against jihadist and other security threats, likely prolonging instability in Yemen.