February 19, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: Capitalizing on Chaos in Yemen
On February 17, 2016, a suicide bomber from the so-called Islamic State struck an anti-Houthi coalition training camp in Aden, killing at least 13 Yemeni troops. The day before, on February 16, suspected gunmen from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) attacked a convoy carrying the governor and the security director of the Yemeni city of Aden. For both men, the attack marked the second assassination attempt since the beginning of the year. Aden—current seat of the Yemeni government—has experienced a marked increase in attacks against key officials and security personnel in 2016. These attacks indicate that extremist groups like the Islamic State and AQAP are growing stronger within the chaos of the Yemeni conflict.
Comparing the strategies employed by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in Yemen offers important insight into the overall strategic vision of both groups. For its part, the Islamic State remains primarily committed to creating instability and fueling sectarianism. The group first announced its presence in Yemen on March 20, 2015, when four suicide bombers struck two Shi’a mosques in the capital of Sana’a, killing 137. In a statement following the bombings, the Islamic State claimed its fighters were seeking to halt the Safawi (Safavid, a reference to Iran) invasion of Yemen—in line with the virulent anti-Shi’a narrative of its parent group in Iraq and Syria. In the following months, the Islamic State continued its attacks on Shi’a targets, particularly mosques, and between May and September 2015 the group carried out at least 10 attacks on Shi’a mosques in Sana’a alone.
Unlike its branches in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, the Islamic State in Yemen does not yet openly control territory—despite the presence of training camps scattered throughout the south of the country. Sensing its own weakness, the group fears a stable government in Aden, which could focus its attention—and that of the Saudi-led coalition—on destroying the Islamic State presence in Yemen. By attacking key officials and security forces, the group hopes to destabilize the fragile government. The Islamic State assassinated the governor of Aden in December 2015, and attempted to assassinate his replacement a month later. In late January, the group even targeted the residence of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. By launching spectacular attacks—particularly against the Houthis, who are hated in much of the south for their occupation of Aden—the group is also seeking to draw more recruits into its ranks, and eventually become strong enough to establish a territorial foothold.
Al-Qaeda has had a presence in Yemen since at least 1992, and has built deep relationships with tribal groups, particularly in the large, remote Hadhramaut governorate in the east. Formed in 2009 by the merger of the Yemeni and Saudi branches of the organization, AQAP is considered the most dangerous al-Qaeda franchise. The group is responsible for the failed bombing of a Chicago-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009, as well as the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. Within Yemen itself, the group has repeatedly targeted the Yemeni military, while generally avoiding civilian targets. After a December 2013 assault on a military hospital, AQAP issued an official apology for the killing of unarmed health workers.
While AQAP has always held some territory in the country, it has taken advantage of the turmoil in Yemen to rapidly expand those territorial holdings. In April 2015, gambling that the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition were concentrated on their campaign against the Houthi rebels, AQAP seized the port of Mukalla, the provincial capital of Hadhramaut. In early December, the group expanded its territory, moving into the towns of Zinjibar and Jaar; in late January 2016, AQAP seized Houta, just north of Aden. In the first week of February alone, the group is reported to have seized the coastal towns of Shoqra and Ahwar; as well as the towns of Mahfid and Azzan (pop. 50,000), both of which are on the main highway between Mukalla and Aden.
By capturing key towns along the coast and major highways, AQAP is establishing smuggling routes that can be used to supply not just its fighters, but also those living under its control—which is critical to the building of local alliances. While AQAP continues to carry out attacks on Yemeni security forces, its primary goal is to establish a secure safe haven from which to attack the 'far enemy'—the West. Given its expansion over the last month, the group appears to be succeeding.
Regardless of the Islamic State and AQAP's divergent strategies, the chaos in Yemen is providing opportunity for both groups. Without a concerted international effort to end the conflict and reconstruct the devastated country, it is unlikely that this trend will reverse in the near future.
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