The growing involvement of regional and global powers in the Yemeni civil war may extend the conflict rather than end it. The U.S. may increase support to back the Saudi-led coalition in order to counter Iran’s influence and weaken al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Iran may have provided the al Houthi-Saleh bloc with more sophisticated weaponry. The civil war creates conditions that allow al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to expand a popular support base.
U.S. counterterrorism operations probably disrupted AQAP capabilities temporarily in Yemen. The Trump administration designated some regions of Yemen as “areas of active hostility” in order to enable U.S. forces to conduct strikes with less oversight from the White House. U.S. forces conducted more than twenty airstrikes against AQAP in Yemen on March 2 and over ten on March 3. The U.S. conducted roughly 30 airstrikes in all of 2016, in contrast. AQAP will very likely adapt its ground operations in response to increased airstrikes targeting the group. Attrition and disruption is unlikely to have a permanent effect on AQAP, which will be able to rebound as Yemeni actors prioritize the civil war over fighting AQAP. Increased counterterrorism operations against AQAP may inadvertently assist al Houthi-Saleh forces in central Yemen because of AQAP’s role in the fight to counter them.
The U.S. may increases support for the Saudi-led coalition as part of a plan to check Iran’s regional influence. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with British, Saudi, Emirati, and Omani counterparts in February and expressed support for the UN-led peace process. UN efforts may not be effective, however, since current requirements to enter negotiations call for the al Houthi-Saleh forces to withdraw from seized territory and to disarm. Saudi Arabia is likely seeking to bolster support within the Trump administration through increased reporting of Saudi casualties caused by al Houthi-Saleh cross-border attacks. The Yemeni government is advocating for the U.S. and international community to classify the al Houthi movement as a terrorist organization. This designation, as well as increased U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition, would alienate the al Houthi-Saleh bloc and likely push it closer to Iran.
Iran has supplied the al Houthi-Saleh faction with sophisticated weaponry. Al Houthi-Saleh forces used an unmanned remote-controlled boat to attack a Saudi vessel in the Red Sea on January 30, marking an uptick in sophistication for al Houthi-Saleh attacks that threatens global energy supplies and U.S. freedom of movement in the region. A UN investigation discovered that explosively formed projectiles (EFPs) matching Iranian Islamic Republican Guards Corps (IRGC) technology have been used in Yemen. Al Houthi-Saleh forces could use EFPs to counter the Saudi-led coalition’s armor. Iran may have also provided al Houthi-Saleh forces with drone technology, including an offensive drone, though this is unlikely to alter the battlefield.
Al Houthi-Saleh forces increased their use of ballistic missiles. Al Houthi-Saleh forces fired approximately 14 ballistic missiles in February 2017 and 13 in January 2017. Al Houthi-Saleh forces launched about three ballistic missiles per month in 2016. Iranian or Iranian proxy forces have likely provided guidance to convert Yemen’s pre-war stockpile of Scud missiles for use as longer-range ballistic missiles. Al Houthi-Saleh forces have used ballistic missiles to achieve strategic effects in Yemen. A ballistic missile attack killed the Yemeni Armed Forces Deputy Chief of Staff participating in offensive operations near Mokha city, eastern Taiz governorate, on February 22, for example. Al Houthi-Saleh forces will continue to use ballistic missiles to slow the Saudi-led coalition's offensive to seize Yemen’s western coast.
The Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) Wilayat al Bayda introduced new capabilities, although AQAP remains the dominant Salafi-jihadi group in Yemen. ISIS Wilayat al Bayda used a drone in Yemen to document an attack on al Houthi-Saleh forces in central Yemen in what may be the first instance of ISIS militants using a drone outside of Iraq and Syria. ISIS Wilayat al Bayda may intend to develop offensive drone capability similar to ISIS in Iraq and Syria. ISIS Wilayat al Bayda also conducted its first suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED) attack in Rada’a city in mid-February, demonstrating a potential step-change in its capabilities. ISIS’s overall pace of explosive operations in Yemen has not changed, however. ISIS Wilayat al Bayda operates within AQAP’s area of operations and at times alongside AQAP militants. (AQAP claims obtained through Telegram and SITE.)
AQAP is using military operations and propaganda to undermine Emirati-backed security forces in southern Yemen. AQAP conducted a complex attack on headquarters used by Emirati-backed al Hizam security forces in Zinjibar city, Abyan governorate, southern Yemen in late February. AQAP framed the attack as retaliation for violations committed by the al Hizam forces, including detentions that have angered the population in which AQAP has cultivated its support base. Al Hizam forces responded aggressively, playing into AQAP’s propaganda narrative. AQAP conducted a high-tempo attack campaign to drive al Hizam forces out of northern Abyan in early February. AQAP may attempt to replicate this campaign in southern Abyan in the near-term in order to expand its permissive environment. (AQAP claims obtained through Telegram and SITE.)
AQAP is expanding its support base in the context of Yemen's civil war by aligning itself with anti-al Houthi tribal militias. AQAP has expanded its support base by fighting alongside anti-al Houthi tribal militias, especially in central Yemen where the internationally recognized Yemeni government forces do not play an active role in the civil war. AQAP may be able to exploit an anti-al Houthi-Saleh uprising in Dhamar governorate, central Yemen, to extend its area of operations. (AQAP claims obtained through Telegram and SITE.)
The U.S. air campaign will disrupt AQAP’s operations in central and southern Yemen in the near term. The group will recover, however, as combatants remain focused on securing their interests in the civil war over countering AQAP. U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition’s current campaign could drive the al Houthi-Saleh bloc to develop stronger ties with Iran. The U.S. must pressure the Saudi-led coalition to agree to a political settlement that grants the al Houthi-Saleh bloc a role in a future Yemeni government.
Tyler Nocita contributed significant research to this situation report.