A shift in U.S. policy against the al Houthis as part of a broader U.S. effort to counter Iran in the region may push the al Houthi-Saleh faction closer to Iran and further entangle the Yemeni civil war in regional conflicts. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is increasingly operating in southern Yemen as it expands its support base.
The U.S. may take direct action against the al Houthis in Yemen as part of a regional strategy to counter Iranian influence. An administration review includes expanding U.S. efforts to block Iranian support from reaching the al Houthis. National Security Advisor Michael Flynn stated that the administration was “officially putting Iran on notice” on February 1 in response to an Iranian ballistic missile test and an al Houthi-Saleh attack on a Saudi warship in the Red Sea. U.S. Central Command deployed the USS Cole, a guided missile destroyer, to escort vessels through the Bab al Mandab Strait in response to the late January attack on the Saudi vessel. An aggressive policy to further isolate the al Houthi movement, which is not an Iranian proxy, may drive the group closer to Iran.
An al Houthi-Saleh small-boat attack in the Red Sea is a shift in tactics and a dangerous spillover of the Yemeni civil war into the congested international waterway. Al Houthi-Saleh militants attacked a Saudi Medina-class frigate off the coast of al Hudaydah on January 30, the first suicide attack conducted by the faction. Prior al Houthi-Saleh attacks on vessels in the Red Sea used surface-to-ship missiles. The tactical shift may be a reflection of a limited al Houthi-Saleh missile stockpile. A Pentagon official claimed that the January 30 attack may have been intended for a U.S. vessel, but this claim is unconfirmed. Increased hostilities in the Bab al Mandab Strait, a global maritime chokepoint, threaten global energy supplies. The al Houthi-Saleh faction may be attempting to escalate hostilities in the Red Sea to pressure the international community to accelerate a negotiated settlement to the war.
A U.S. ground raid against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) may indicate a shift in U.S. policy away from reliance on drone strikes and partner operations to counter AQAP. The U.S. administration may seek to delegate decision-making for operations in Yemen to lower levels of command in order to accelerate activities against AQAP. An increased tempo could temporarily disrupt AQAP, but would not address the ground conditions that enabled AQAP to expand its support base. A U.S. SEAL team, Emirati Special Operations Forces (SOF), and elite Yemeni soldiers raided an AQAP headquarters in northwestern al Bayda governorate in central Yemen on January 29. U.S. officials reported the raid was intended to kill or capture AQAP emir Qasim al Raymi, identified as the third most dangerous terrorist in the world. AQAP and al Qaeda media outlets released a torrent of propaganda highlighting civilian deaths from the January 29 raid, and Raymi claimed the raid showed America’s “true ugly face.” U.S. President Donald Trump hailed the raid as a success despite U.S. and civilian casualties. It is not clear whether the raid yielded actionable intelligence. The Hadi government and the al Houthi-Saleh faction both criticized the raid as a violation of Yemen’s sovereignty, and there are contradictory reports that the Hadi government may be reassessing permission for U.S. ground operations in Yemen. (AQAP claims obtained through Telegram and SITE.)
AQAP is regaining freedom of movement in southern Yemen. AQAP operates in a permissive environment in central and southern Yemen. AQAP attacks prompted Emirati-backed counterterrorism forces, the al Hizam brigade, to withdraw from northern Abyan governorate on February 2. AQAP controlled terrain in Abyan, a historical safe haven for the group, in 2011 and 2015. AQAP has also developed pockets of support throughout al Bayda governorate by supporting anti–al Houthi-Saleh tribal militias. Yemeni forces are preparing for an operation to retake its lost territory, however. Militants operating under the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS’s) name also conduct minor operations inside of AQAP’s operational zones.
The Saudi-led coalition and President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government aim to seize Yemen’s western coast in order to compel the al Houthi-Saleh faction to agree to an unfavorable negotiated settlement. Hadi stated in early February that his government will not engage in negotiations until its forces seize al Hudaydah port in western Yemen. Hadi government forces seized Mokha port on Yemen’s southern Red Sea coast from al Houthi-Saleh forces on January 23. Mokha city remains contested, however. Hadi government forces are unable to advance the frontline without the support of Emirati SOF and Sudanese ground forces. The fight will protract as Hadi government forces reach al Hudaydah governorate, where they lack local support.
Insufficient governance threatens the Hadi government’s legitimacy. The Hadi government has yet to pay the majority of the salaries in southern Yemen, sparking frequent anti-government protests. More than two-thirds of Yemen’s population, 18.8 million people, requires humanitarian and protection assistance. Yemen is currently “the largest food security emergency in the world,” according to a Famine Early Warning Systems Network report. Al Hudaydah and Taiz governorates are heavily affected by these crises, although nearly every governorate has been touched. Impending coalition operations will exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in al Hudaydah and neighboring governorates, fueling popular support for the anti-coalition fight. The ongoing humanitarian crisis and Hadi’s inability to effectively govern will make it difficult for Hadi to gain popular support.
The continuation of Yemen’s civil war and its increasing interactions with regional conflict, such as the Iranian-Saudi conflict, will perpetuate conditions that enable AQAP to expand its support base and that encourage the growth of Iranian influence within the al Houthi movement. The incorporation of a leading al Houthi faction into the Iranian network probably facilitates the transfer of asymmetrical capabilities to Yemen and permits this faction to consolidate control over the movement. The U.S. must use its leverage over the Saudi-led coalition to pursue a negotiated political solution.
Tyler Nocita contributed significant research to this situation report.