By Adam Simpson*
Since the nation-state of Yemen collapsed in early 2015, violent extremist groups have operated with near-impunity. Although the primary conflict remains between those forces linked to President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi and Ansar Allah (the dominant Houthi militia), the deadly competition amidst this conflict between al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the local Daesh (“Islamic State”) affiliate, Wilayat al-Yemen, will have far reaching ramifications for the future of Yemen and its neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
AQAP has a long history in Yemen with its predecessor groups dating back to the early 1990s. One of AQAP’s predecessor groups, al-Qaeda in Yemen (AQY), carried out the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, which killed seventeen U.S. servicemen and wounded scores more. AQAP has visibly demonstrated its ability to manage and exploit connections with some tribes and social groups, particularly in areas with long histories of grievance and disenfranchisement, including Mareb and Hadhramaut.
The al-Qaeda franchise has also learned from its successes and failures. In December 2013, the AQAP-affiliate Ansar al-Sharia targeted the Defense Ministry in Sana’a. Yemenis quickly condemned the group after video surfaced of militants shooting doctors and nurses in the building’s hospital. Following the attack, Qasim al-Raymi (now AQAP’s emir) released a rare apology and offered to pay blood money to the victims’ families. Though the group remains married to violence and brutality, it is somewhat beholden to the public opinion and in many cases the group depends on a modicum of local support. AQAP has endured many efforts – from both Yemen’s government and its people – to destroy them, including a continuous U.S. drone campaign. This survivability is attributable to AQAP’s cultivation of social and tribal relations in Yemen over the years.
By early April 2015, AQAP seized Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth largest city and capital of the Hadhramaut Governorate (the country’s largest governorate). Observers compared this to Daesh’s conquest of Mosul in Iraq; tentative local support allowed the groups to overcome weak state security forces that quickly surrendered or fled. However, AQAP’s control over Mukalla is very different from Daesh’s domination of Mosul, where they were quick to impose strict codes of conduct. The al-Qaeda fighters in Yemen seized local institutions under the apolitical, secular name the “Sons of Hadhramaut,” and were quick to begin sharing power, at least in principle, with local tribes and other Hadhramis. In fact, Mukalla was in comparatively good shape compared to other areas of the country as it was spared from the civil war and retained one of the few still fully operational ports. The recent devastation wrought by hurricane Chapala has been a major setback for AQAP’s rule in Yemen. Local reports suggested that AQAP had even attempted to evacuate some residents and organize rescue teams, though the natural disaster flooded Mukalla and displaced thousands of its residents. As the Gulf-led coalition’s attention has shifted further north, the group has increased its quest to acquire territory in the country’s south, recently capturing another provincial capital in Abyan’s Zinjibar.
On the other hand, Wilayat al-Yemen is a nascent and inchoate entity in Yemen. The group is also a fierce competitor for AQAP’s resources and recruits. Since declaring the announcement of the presumptive “caliphate” in June 2014, Daesh has been openly hostile to cooperation with other militant groups, preferring oaths of allegiance. Even though Daesh’s June 2014 conquest of Mosul depended heavily on other local forces and underground networks, Daesh has demanded strict conformity to its own leadership structures since this victory. In Yemen, such tactics would not benefit the “caliphate.” More likely is that the pool of local recruits available to them in Yemen would stem directly from former – or current – AQAP members who have insights into the social connections necessary for their success.
However, the relationship between Daesh’s Yemen-based division and the core leadership based out of Raqqa, Syria is unclear. Most likely local militants are attempting to capitalize on the broader brand, while the Daesh core is content to exploit it for propaganda purposes. That said, the Daesh brand commands an understandable degree of fear and seriousness and its existence in war-torn Yemen is worth taking for granted. Wilayat al-Yemen has, at the very least, the communications capacity of Daesh-core and has released videos with similar style and gruesomeness.
Wilayat al-Yemen’s simultaneous October 6 attacks against Houthi targets in Sana’a as well as Gulf Coalition forces and Yemeni government figures in Aden sent a clear message: Wilayat al-Yemen has no interest in taking sides in Yemen’s civil war. The group further proved this in the December 6 assassination of Aden’s governor Jaafar Mohammed Saad. This is juxtaposed with AQAP which, directly or indirectly, is working with anti-Houthi forces in south and central Yemen. Al-Qaeda’s division in Yemen is in effect on the same side as President Hadi and his GCC allies. Although AQAP is by no means a long-term ally of the Riyadh-led military coalition, the group until recently did not appear to be in any direct conflict with the multinational force led by the Saudis. As of writing, no coalition bombs have fallen on Mukalla and AQAP has largely avoided attacks on the Gulf Arab coalition forces.
However, as the frontline of the Houthi-Hadi war moves north, AQAP has attempted to expand its influence in Aden and is increasingly coming into contact with government and coalition forces. AQAP’s ability to act as an estranged ally of the Saudi-coalition was always doomed to long-term failure, especially in view of its competition with Wilayat al-Yemen. The contradiction is too much for those followers who sympathize with Wilayat al-Yemen’s uncompromising ideology.
Both AQAP and Wilayat al-Yemen have been in a contest for Aden. Both have staged attacks in the city while the local “Islamic State” group has attempted to impose gender segregation on universities in the city. AQAP may be more likely to attack its de facto GCC allies in order to compete with ISIS, but the al-Qaeda division is much more likely to divert its attention to attacks on Western targets. AQAP has long been recognized as the most dangerous element of the broader al-Qaeda franchise. In early 2015, the group perpetrated attacks in France on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
Although recent calls made by al-Raymi for attacks on Western governments are nothing new, it should be noted that AQAP views this as a key distinction between itself and its competitor Wilayat al-Yemen. One of AQAP’s leaders, Khaled Batarfi, recently criticized Wilayat al-Yemen, remarking that the group kills mostly Muslims, rather than Christians and Jews. In an awkward turn of events, days after this public criticism, Western intelligence agencies began to publicly suspect that Daesh’s Sinai-based division – Wilayat al-Sinai (aka Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis) – was responsible for a Russian airliner crash in Egypt’s Sinai that killed all 224 people aboard. Weeks later, Daesh’s grizzly attacks in Paris provided further evidence of their challenge to al-Qaeda’s credibility.
The rise of Wilayat al-Yemen is a threat to AQAP. It took years of effort and patience to find its space at the fringes of Yemeni society, and then in vacuums left by the state, slowly ingratiating itself with a range of Sunni Islamists and a few important tribal conglomerates. AQAP’s social connections often preclude the group from attacks against civilians within the country – a lesson Wilayat al-Yemen is likely not going to learn soon – but that only increases the likelihood of the group stepping up attacks against Arab Coalition forces and Western targets abroad.
About the author:
Adam Simpson is the Project Assistant for the Middle East Strategy Task Force, an initiative of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
This article was published by Gulf State Analytics on December 18, 2015