Impact of the Yemen war on militant jihad

Elisabeth Kendall, Pembroke College, University of Oxford

This memo was drafted for POMEPS Studies 29,Politics, Governance, and Reconstruction in Yemen.” 


This memo analyzes the impact of the Yemen war on militant jihadist groups in Yemen, which we generally understand via the categories al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has been the dominant jihad group in Yemen, and the Islamic State in Yemen (ISY), which has failed to gain significant traction. It also briefly interrogates the nature, impact, and prospects of the current counter-terrorism agenda of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the United States. The war can broadly be summarized as having empowered militant jihad during 2015 to 2016 as well as encouraging the development of serious organized crime networks around the smuggling of weapons and drugs. However, this has been followed, during 2017, by signs of splintering inside jihadist groups as they assess and potentially argue over their priorities and responses to increasing pressure from counter-terrorism offensives. The challenges faced by jihadists include maintaining a minimum base of tribal support or at least neutrality, deciding when to go to ground and when to stay and fight, running essential training and leadership programs in a hunted environment, and managing their apparently increasing turn to criminality to ensure their survival and supply lines. Signs of jihadist spats and leadership rifts, together with a general fluidity in allegiance among the foot soldiers, may mean that it is time to recalibrate our thinking about Yemen’s jihadists away from the simple binary categorization of AQAP and ISY.

The empowerment of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula 2015-16

AQAP’s influence peaked after a Saudi-led coalition of nine Sunni Muslim countries, supported by the US and UK, intervened militarily in Yemen to restore the internationally recognized government of President Hadi in March 2015. The security and governance vacuum created by the war allowed AQAP to resurge in the eastern governorate of Hadramawt. As the coalition campaign began, AQAP was able to swell both its numbers and its war chest by staging a massive jailbreak, seizing military hardware, and robbing the central bank. By April 2015, it had established a de facto state, which it ran out of Hadramawt’s coastal capital of Mukalla in collaboration with newly formed local governance structures for added credibility. This continued for an entire year until UAE Special Forces, with help from the US, forced it to withdraw in April 2016.

AQAP took advantage of the war to expand its influence, entrench its position and fuel its recruitment drive using a number of parallel strategies that were at once practical, tactical and ideological. It is important to note that populations in Yemen’s east, particularly in tribal areas, are well armed and would be difficult to terrorize into submission. The key to AQAP’s success was not direct recruitment; even at its peak, its core fighters likely numbered no more than 4,000. Rather, AQAP worked to secure buy-in from key city and tribal leaders and to win passive toleration from local populations. As coalition bombs rained down on civilian as well as Houthi military targets in Yemen’s west, AQAP’s territory looked like a haven of stability and security. AQAP territories also enjoyed easy access to fuel and food imported along Yemen’s porous eastern coastline in contrast to the Saudi naval blockade crippling Yemen’s western ports.

Unlike IS, AQAP explicitly decided on a strategically gradualist approach to governance. It revised its dictatorial governance style of 2011-12 – when it had declared short-lived Islamic emirates in parts of Abyan and Shabwa. This time, it took care to strike a local power-sharing deal with the so-called Hadrami People’s Council. This was a newly formed administrative unit that AQAP ideologue Khalid Batarfi claimed arose organically and independently of any political party or foreign entity. AQAP could thus share the glory when things went well but also the blame if they went badly. AQAP courted local populations by rebranding itself as ‘Abna’ Hadramawt’ (the Sons of Hadramawt) and fronting an impressive program of community development projects. During 2016, 56 percent of tweets from AQAP’s governance Twitter feed were about its hands-on development activities. By contrast, only three percent were about the implementation of the harsh hudud punishments of Islamic Law. This apparent laxity earned AQAP the contempt of Islamic State. After three separate provinces of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq released videos specifically criticizing AQAP’s weak implementation of Islamic Law, AQAP released a full length feature film, which it screened publicly in towns along the east Yemen coast as well as releasing online. Hurras al-Shari’ah (The Guardians of Islamic Law, December 2015) reaffirmed AQAP’s commitment to global jihad and contextualized its seemingly light touch as part of a smart long-term strategy aimed at full Islamic rule.

AQAP was able to finance its activities through oil imports and smuggling operations along Yemen’s porous eastern coastline. Ironically, AQAP actually benefited from the Saudi naval blockade, which was focused on the west of Yemen, since this gave it a virtual monopoly over imports and generated an estimated USD 2 million per day. AQAP also imposed windfall taxes on local companies with the stated aim of improving services for local people.

AQAP was careful not to alienate tribes and local populations in areas under its influence. It achieved this through nurturing kinship ties, both through marriage and by attempting to recruit from a cross section of tribes. On occasions when innocent tribesmen were accidentally killed in operations designed to target the Yemeni military, AQAP published formal apologies and negotiated with the relevant tribes to pay blood money. AQAP was also mindful to invoke and praise the glorious history and courage of various tribes in several statements, videos, poems, and anashid (anthems). This helped to frame their contemporary jihad as a continuation of the warlike prowess of their forefathers who fought independence battles against British colonialists in the 1960s; they too, the film asserts, were doing jihad. But perhaps most helpfully to AQAP, the eruption of war in 2015 gave it the opportunity to align itself with war effort against the Houthis, whom it had long deemed infidel allies of Iran. AQAP recast southerners’ historical fears of a takeover by northerners as a sectarian battle of Sunnis versus Shi’ites. Disputes that were essentially political were reframed as religious and endowed with a narrative of apocalyptic jihad.

The high civilian death toll inflicted by the Saudi-led coalition (i.e. not just by the Houthis) gave AQAP the opportunity to pose as the good guy, claiming to play by respected rules of engagement. Shortly after the UN temporarily blacklisted Saudi Arabia for killing children in May 2016, AQAP issued a statement promising not to target women or children, not even those of its enemies. It has likewise exploited US drone strikes, air strikes, and raids. Several AQAP videos feature interviews with grieving villagers pasted alongside footage touting global jihad. Following US Navy Seal raids in 2017 that killed villagers, AQAP issued statements designed to plug into tribal anger, positioning itself as the conduit for revenge. In March 2016, AQAP even held a “Festival of Martyrs of the American Bombing” in Hadramawt, which included a competition for schoolboys to design anti-US and anti-drone posters. This kind of youth outreach nurtures the next generation of angry young men for potential recruitment. Thus, US military action, while yielding short-term wins, can also generate long-term cycles of violence inasmuch as it enables AQAP both to position its jihad as justifiable revenge and to frame local misfortune as part of a global battle between believers and infidels.

The relative failure of Islamic State in Yemen 2015-16

Meanwhile, Islamic State (IS) had announced its expansion into Yemen on November 13, 2014 following Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s acceptance of an oath of allegiance sworn to him by “Yemen’s mujahidin” in an audio recording. However, despite some early defections from AQAP, the self-proclamation of various IS provinces around Yemen and several headline-grabbing attacks in 2015 and 2016, IS could not compete with AQAP.

On the contrary, the arrival of IS onto the world stage actually worked to AQAP’s advantage in two major ways. First, until 2016, it redirected international attention away from both al-Qaeda and Yemen to Iraq and Syria. Second, the excessive brutality of IS made AQAP look more reasonable. AQAP criticized IS’s indiscriminate bombings in Yemen, such as the double bombing of Friday prayers in Sana’a on March 30, 2015 in which nearly 500 people were either killed or injured. AQAP pledged that, unlike IS, it would not target “mosques, markets and crowded places.” In parallel, it apologized for its own previous excesses, such as the storming of a military hospital in Sana’a in 2013 and the beheading of 14 soldiers in Hadramawt in 2014, which it implicitly blamed on the negative influence of IS propaganda.

There are several reasons for the Islamic State’s inability to gain traction in Yemen. Unlike AQAP, IS produced little narrative that was culturally specific to Yemen aside from virulent disparagement of the Houthis as infidel agents of “Rejectionist” (read, Shi’ite) Iran. Nor did IS engage in AQAP-style community development projects in Yemen, despite its early efforts in this regard in Syria and Iraq. Pro-AQAP wires on the messaging application Telegram have taken pride in AQAP’s readiness to engage tribes, support community projects, and work in conjunction with local structures. Conversely, some ISY fighters have defected back to AQAP and lambasted the former’s overbearing, bulldozer tactics. Hence ISY has never succeeded in holding territory and is now largely confined to a single front in the Qayfa region of al-Bayda’ governorate. While some operations further afield continue to be attributed to and claimed by IS, particularly around Aden, these often appear politically motivated and so well-coordinated that it is hard not to suspect the helping hand of Saleh prior to his death in December 2017 or his Republican Guard.

Where next for militant jihad in Yemen?

During the latter half of 2017, both AQAP and ISY were severely dented by the UAE/US counter-terrorism campaign. Although AQAP withdrew from Mukalla rather than being militarily defeated, the subsequent crackdown is having an effect, aided by the recruitment of Security Belt and various southern elite forces. The jihadists have been depleted through both death and desertion, while some of their erstwhile tribal allies now prefer to fight with the new UAE-supported militias in exchange for a salary. This pressure on AQAP has been evidenced during 2017 by several formal AQAP statements and sermons warning local tribesmen that they will be targeted if they enlist with UAE-supported militias and urging jihadists to stand firm. It is also significant that AQAP has switched its targeting focus from the Houthis to the UAE-supported forces. During the first six months of 2017, only 25 percent of AQAP operations targeted UAE-supported forces. This rose to 51 percent during July through November 2017.

Nevertheless, the UAE-led campaign carries risks. AQAP is latching onto and stoking popular concerns about UAE’s imperialist agenda and heavy-handed implementation. First, various tribes in Yemen’s east (Mahra and Shabwa in particular) believe that UAE recruitment serves a political agenda in that it appears to favor those who support southern separatism. Second, while UAE-supported militias have fought AQAP, they have also helped to consolidate UAE influence over key ports and oil and gas producing areas. This raises suspicions that UAE involvement in southern Yemen is also motivated by long-term commercial interests. For example, the US-UAE counter-terror campaign launched in August focused on Shabwa, yet prior to August, only one of 169 AQAP operations during 2017 was in Shabwa. Shabwa is, however, the location of Yemen’s only gas terminal. Third, anger at serious reports of imam assassinations, arbitrary arrests, and human rights violations in over 20 “secret” prisons led by UAE-supported forces risks sparking a broader backlash.

As AQAP calculates how to respond to developments, cracks have started to appear, with disagreements centering around corruption and leadership style. In October 2017, Ansar al-Shari’a in Taiz issued a statement declaring that its sharia court no longer acted for AQAP. The court’s judge, Abu al-Bara’ al-Ibbi, is currently authoring a series entitled, “Reasons for the Setback” (2017-ongoing), in which he analyzes various ills that have beset the jihad movement. The series argues for the need to persist with active jihad, rather lying low, and complains of a loss of religious underpinning. Young Yemeni jihadists are described as “more hooked on anthems (anashid) than Qur’an” and, in one release, “the setback” is explicitly blamed on corrupt leadership and criminality. There appears to be evidence of a similar gravitation from “pure” jihad to criminal activity beyond Yemen’s western battlefronts. According to interviews conducted by this author on the ground during August 2017, both AQAP and regional government officials are inextricably entwined with organized crime networks in Yemen’s east profiting from the lucrative smuggling trade fueled by the booming war economy.

ISY is also under pressure. Its principal remaining core in al-Bayda’ was severely hampered in October 2017 when the US bombed its two training camps. While ISY media published an infographic vowing to prepare new camps, cracks have started to appear. In early November, a pro-ISY Telegram wire ridiculed a statement purporting to be from ISY in Taiz, dismissing them as a gang of rebels and commenting that “everyone knows there is no official existence there of the Islamic State…” It is possible that ISY will gradually blend into AQAP, given the latter’s stronger roots in Yemen and the fact that their mutual objectives have become better aligned. Indeed, in November, AQAP Telegram wires celebrated the defection of “many brothers” from ISY. And AQAP supporters’ wires were quick to praise ISY’s coordinated mass-casualty attack in Aden on 5 November since it avenged UAE actions, although they did not praise or mention ISY directly.

Whether these early signs of decentralization inside Yemen’s jihad groups persist depends on how the war develops. If Saleh’s son is brought to power, if the South secedes and the transition is badly managed, if certain regions feel discriminated against or if investment in development and education and gainful employment fails to materialize, then the various jihadist splinters may find common cause again, and – more importantly – bring with them disillusioned sectors of the population.