October 7, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State Exploits Chaos in Yemen

• A new Yemeni wilaya of the Islamic State claimed credit for four suicide car bombings in Aden that killed 11 Yemeni and four Emirati soldiers

• The group calls itself Wilaya Aden-Abyan, likely paying homage to the terrorist group that was affiliated with al-Qaeda in the 1990s

• The group is following its playbook from Iraq and Syria, using suicide bombings to exploit the instability and insecurity caused by regional proxy armed conflict

• The only groups benefiting from the war in Yemen are the Islamic State and the more well-established al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, presenting another enormous challenge to the country and the region.


The ongoing war in Yemen has been a disaster for almost everyone involved, except the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. As the Saudi-led coalition continues its air campaign and is intensifying its ground efforts against Houthi rebels, the Islamic State has exploited the chaos and established itself as a serious terrorist threat to a country that has long dealt with the more numerous and powerful al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). On October 6, a newly named wilaya (state) of the Islamic State claimed credit for four suicide car bombings in the port city of Aden, killing 11 Yemeni and four Emirati soldiers. Another Islamic State group, Wilaya Sana’a, claimed credit for a suicide bombing at a mosque attended primarily by Zaydis in the capital of Sana’a, killing seven.

These recent attacks in Sana’a and Aden are part of a deliberate campaign of terror by the group. The targeting of the coalition forces is in line with the Islamic State’s history in both Iraq and Syria; first, it attacks Shi’a mosques to generate sectarian strife, then attacks the government and military. The Islamic State has killed hundreds in the past year targeting mosques associated with Zaydis, particularly in the capital of Sana’a, trying to differentiate itself from AQAP and gain support and stature.

The new group calls itself 'Wilaya Aden Abyan.' In the 1990s, a terrorist group called the Aden Abyan Islamic Army was active and lethal in Yemen. Its leader, Zayn al-Abidin al-Mihdhar AKA Abu Hassan, was executed by the Yemeni government in 1999 for kidnapping and murdering Westerners; exactly one year later, al-Qaeda operatives attacked the USS Cole in the port of Aden, killing 17 U.S. sailors, wounding 39, and nearly sinking the ship. The name of the group also derives from an apocryphal hadith that says a victorious army will arise from Aden Abyan. Both the association with the early days of al-Qaeda and the apocalyptic vision are main drivers of the Islamic State’s imagery and ideology. By trying to co-opt the origin story of al-Qaeda, the group hopes to win over more supporters and simply ignore the divide between the rival groups.

The war in Yemen, with its sectarian dynamics and regional proxy gamesmanship, is a perfect laboratory for a terror group seeking regional expansion like the Islamic State. As the prominent powers—the Houthi rebels supported by Iran and the exiled government supported by the Saudi-led coalition—focus on each other and tear the country apart, the Islamic State and AQAP fill the vacuum. The Houthis have tried to pressure AQAP but are now focused on their own survival, giving AQAP and like-minded groups de facto sanctuary, though U.S. drone strikes still target AQAP members. Yemen's sheer scale of destruction, civilian deaths, and suffering—a humanitarian disaster that is worsening by the day—helps feed the narrative of the Islamic State, which falsely portrays itself as the defender of Sunnis and the persecutor of everyone else.

The war in Yemen is not ending any time soon, giving the Islamic State more time to expand and more fuel to ignite as it seeks a sectarian war and and a battle with regional and government troops. The history of Iraq, Syria, and, to a lesser but still troubling degree, Libya, show how difficult it is to remove the Islamic State once it takes root in troubled soil. Yemen faces a challenging future; an assertive and expanding Islamic State will make it far worse.


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