Sunni Islamist dynamics in context of war: What happened to al-Islah and the Salafis?

Laurent Bonnefoy, Sciences Po/CERI

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

While the revolutionary process of 2011 in Yemen had given high expectations to Sunni Islamists, the object of this short article is to examine what these hopes have become after almost three years of conflict. It aims to analyze, in particular, the way the current war has tipped equilibriums. The Sunni Islamist field structured around the three competing branches of Jihadism, Salafism, and the Muslim Brotherhood which have distinct trajectories, means and projects was transformed, largely in favor of the two former and much to the expense of the latter represented by al-Islah. Through such dynamics, the paper (which voluntarily only very briefly touches upon Jihadi groups, leaving much of their analysis to Elisabeth Kendall in this volume) also intends to provide a mapping of contemporary Salafism in Yemen, highlighting how violence has changed the way its activists, militants and leaders interact with other groups, favoring a militarization process.

Al-Islah as the post-Saleh kingmaker

Following the revolutionary uprising of 2011, the post-Saleh period had seemingly been characterized by the political centrality of al-Islah. Established in 1990, representing an alliance between Muslim Brothers and conservative tribal sheikhs, this party had been widely seen as the new “Yemen Spring” kingmaker during 2012 to 2013. Al-Islah had participated directly to the revolutionary uprising, granting it numbers and resources, and then had allegedly captured – or hijacked it, according to some of its adversaries – the uprisings to its own advantage. Yet, following the fall of President Ali Abdallah Saleh after almost a year of peaceful demonstrations, Islahi leaders appeared to be somehow unwilling to actually take the lead, leaving others in the frontline of the transitional institutions. They supported Abderabuh Mansur Hadi as the sole presidential candidate in the February 2012 plebiscite and joined the national unity government with only limited demands – far from what their mobilizing capacity could have suggested. No “ikhwanization (Brotherization)” of the Yemeni state happened, contrary to what some, like the Houthis and certain liberals, claimed. Islahi leaders continuously wanted to appear as the ones who played according to the new institutional rules and abided by the revolutionary project of a “civil state.” During the National Dialogue Conference they seemingly supported a form of consensus. At the time, the party’s strategy was more similar to that of Ennahda in Tunisia than the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

In parallel, the period that followed the demise of Saleh (through the so-called Gulf Initiative that set the transitional agenda and granted the ex-president immunity from prosecution) was marked by new developments in the Yemeni Salafi field. Two main trends emerged from 2011 to the start of the current war in 2015.

Salafis willingly engaged in politics after the revolution

The first trend was the politicization of a segment of Salafism through the establishment of an explicitly Salafi party, the Rashad Union in early 2012. This step represented a significant development for a movement which, since its founding in the 1980s by Muqbil al-Wadi‘i (d. 2001), had rejected political parties and even participation as a whole. The Salafi movement in Yemen had until now staunchly claimed to stay away from politics only to focus on issues of creed. Debates had unfolded during the 1990s and 2000s, but the so-called apolitical line had prevailed, leaving the majority of Salafis reluctant to engage politically. During the first weeks of the 2011 uprising, Salafi leaders had thus condemned demonstrations, advocating loyalty to the state in the name of the unity of the Islamic community and of the preservation from chaos (fitna).

The revolution, however, changed this. As the “new kid in town” in an otherwise stable political field (no other significant parties emerged and new figures of leadership were surprisingly scarce, despite the demands of the revolutionaries and initiatives like that of the Justice and Development Party), the Rashad Union drew public and media attention. Much like the Nur Party in Egypt, it was expected to become a powerful alternative to al-Islah should elections be organized. Rashad projected itself as a moderate force, distinct from al-Islah, which was portrayed as a remnant of the old regime. Rashad stressed the fact its project complied with democratic standards, and that it was only an update and adaptation of the Salafi religious project as formulated by Muqbil al-Wadi‘i to a new Yemeni context, where political pluralism could be a reality and assist in the spread of the Salafi creed and religious doctrine.

The crisis of apolitical Salafis

The second trend was linked to the crisis of the so-called apolitical Salafis from the Dar al-Hadith institute in Dammaj (50km south of the border with Saudi Arabia). During the revolutionary uprising, the pro-Saleh stance of their leaders, in particular Yahya al-Hajuri who had taken control of the institute in 2001 after the death of Muqbil al-Wadi‘i had evidently weakened these apolitical Salafis, who were portrayed as disconnected from popular demands. The new inter-Salafi competition coming from al-Rashad amplified this dynamic, as the Dammaj branch was seen as unable to address contemporary political issues and stuck in a seemingly apolitical stance that rejected political participation but ended up endorsing the status-quo.

At the global level, the apolitical Salafis’ capacity to mobilize was also jeopardized by specific doctrinal and institutional feuds with prominent Saudi clerics – al-Hajuri holding an uncompromising line that made him critical of all fellow clerics who engaged in charity work and thus increasingly marginalized. More significantly, in late 2013, the armed blockade that the Houthis (whom the Salafis portrayed as a Shia rebellion) organized around the Salafis’ institute in Dammaj left apolitical Salafis disorganized and humiliated. The forced closure of Dammaj and displacement of its students after weeks of fighting and dozens of casualties had allegedly been approved by the central Yemeni government and the army. In January 2014, this gesture apparently served to appease the Houthis, as they were then gaining political and military momentum, and pressured the transition government to cleanse “their” Saada governorate of Salafi presence. While the Salafis’ new condition generated some sympathy within broad Sunni Islamist circles and fostered solidarity for the approximately 3,000 students and families who had been displaced and settled in camps outside of Dammaj, the marginalization of that current of Salafism was profound. In order to protect itself from a similar fate, Muhammad al-Imam, the other prominent Salafi figure in Yemen, who also had refused the revolutionary process, found an agreement with the Houthis based on a form of non-aggression pact that, three years into the war, still holds. His institute near Dhamar remained active despite Houthi scrutiny.

Al-Islah marginalized by the war

The war further reshuffled cards within a competitive Sunni Islamist field in which Muslim Brothers, Jihadis, and Salafis had, to a large extent, taken different political options since 2011 (even though, as with all ideal-types, the border between each group was not systematically clear as “radical” figures of the Muslim Brotherhood like Abdulmajid al-Zindani and Abdullah al-Sa‘tar illustrate). Al-Islah’s rise to institutional power was brutally interrupted by the Houthis’ expansion during the second half of 2014. The Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood was, after the Salafis of Dammaj, the primary target of the Houthis and of their alliance with Saleh. The fall of Amran in July 2014 and then of the capital two months later shattered al-Islah: it lost its military might, and its tribal, financial, and institutional bases. Most of its leaders either fled or were arrested. During the transition phase, al-Islah had also increasingly been at odds with the Southern movement, consequently losing much of its popularity and the option to find retreat to the South as the Houthis advanced.

While al-Islah as a party supported operation “Decisive Storm” launched by the Saudi led coalition headed in March 2015, its activists and tribal allies only received limited retributions from Gulf leaders who were reinforcing patronage relations with Yemeni political actors in the framework of the war. The April 2016 nomination of one of its traditional allies, General Ali Muhsin, to the vice-presidency failed to counter Islah’s marginalization. Indeed, Islahis were not the ones who benefited the most from financial or military support by the coalition. Much to the contrary, they were sidelined (if not in certain instances repressed), in particular by the Emiratis who, encouraged other actors in the South, including Salafis active on the military front and had a specific ideological impetus to fight the Houthis. Al-Islah was further sidelined when the 2017 regional crisis pitted its perceived ally Qatar against coalition members Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Ali Abdullah Saleh’s death in December 2017 following his political U-turn and sudden support to the coalition against the Houthis left the Saudi and Emirati leadership in search of new allies on the field. Senior princes from both countries agreed to jointly discuss with leaders from al-Islah, highlighting potential for a comeback of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, manifestations on the ground of such a development remained uncertain.

A militarization of Salafism

Salafi militias rose to prominence throughout 2016, not only on the military fronts but also within institutions allegedly loyal to President Hadi. Such a trend is however proving problematic as it is based on the militarization of Salafism and implies a possible merger with jihadi movements.

Among the new significant Salafi actors, many had combatted the Houthis during their siege on Dammaj in late 2013. They consequently could portray themselves as the most clairvoyant of all political forces, as they had not sought compromise with the Houthis and had aptly exposed what they described as a Shiite sectarian offensive. Salafi militiaman Abu al-Abbas in Taez was among the most significant and has gradually been able to sideline Islahi fighters who in the first months of 2015 had played an important role locally to fight the Houthis. The rise of Abu al-Abbas consequently occurred at the expense of al-Islah, even generating targeted assassinations of Muslim Brotherhood figures by Salafi militants in Taez.

Former students of Dammaj also included Basam al-Mihdar in Abyan and Hani Bin Burayk from Aden, who both gained influence in the pro-Hadi military apparatus. Hani Bin Burayk joined the government in January 2016 as the minister of state in charge of security in Aden before being sacked by President Hadi in April 2017 for being too openly in favor of Southern independence. He nevertheless remained on the Emirati payroll, fostering tensions within the regional coalition. Much like other Salafi clerics who had moved from an apolitical stance in times of peace to an armed engagement in the context of war, Bin Burayk was accused of favoring the development of a continuum in which militants of al-Qaeda and potentially ISIS could be integrated. The Rashad Union’s leaders also took part in the trend, many of them fighting locally on the Baydha front, in the center of the country, ending the peaceful politicization project they had envisioned in 2012. The Salafis’ legitimization of armed violence blurred the border between jihadism and other Sunni Islamists groups.

The development of Salafism since the start of the war can be explained in part because its doctrine has a comparative advantage on the battle field. It has consequently been open for instrumentalization by regional powers which are on the one hand eager to fight the Houthis (even if this fosters sectarian conflict) and on the other unwilling to support Muslim Brothers. Indeed, when compared to other political or territory-based mobilizations, Salafis share an ideological incentive that encourages them to fight the Houthis in the latter’s own territory, something that militias built on a tribal identity and the Southern movement (both of which operate primarily within a limited territory) have up to now been largely unable to achieve.

Interestingly, the blurring of categories both within the Salafi field and in the broader Sunni Islamist spectrum could not conceal more complex trajectories. The militarization of Salafism in Yemen appeared all the more likely in contexts where this trend overlapped with other objectives or identities. In other words, the Salafi ideology was not always sufficient in itself to trigger armed militancy against the Houthis and often needed to be articulated with another identity: support for the Southern movement in most instances. Inversely, Salafi leaders with a Zaydi background and whose families or tribes were not at direct odds with the Houthis, or were even a potential target of coalition airstrikes, appeared less inclined to engage militarily or even support military action. Such was the case of Yahya al-Hajuri. After being expelled by the Houthis from Dammaj in January 2014 and calling for mobilization against them, the Salafi leader grew increasingly discreet. Contrary to what could have been expected (and what, according to media accounts, the Saudi government asked him to do), his relocation in Saudi Arabia coincided with a focus on strictly religious matters, not endorsing operation “Decisive Storm.” His own northern and Zaydi origins likely played a role in such a counter-intuitive stance.

Beyond these exceptions, the “salafization” of combatants on the so-called pro-Hadi side and in the Southern Movement remains a deep trend fueled both by internal dynamics as well as regional incentives. Emirati and Saudi governments, who claim to be fighting Islamist movements and are unlikely to wish to see Yemen become a hub for jihadi groups, do not always appear to be fully aware of what they are doing in this country or whom they are supporting. By funding then repressing Salafi groups, they are sending decidedly mixed signals. Some decision makers within the UAE and Saudi Arabia undoubtedly support Salafis in Yemen because of what they see as a lack of alternatives, especially given their aversion of Muslim Brothers and Qatar. Yet others may well be acting knowingly, supporting movements that develop a sectarian reading of the conflict and a most conservative project. Whatever the reasons, this trend is likely to come at a high price, much like in Syria and earlier in Afghanistan. Mending Yemen after the militarization of Salafism, the sidelining of al-Islah, and the blurring of the borders between Sunni Islamist ideal-types will surely be a daunting task.