March 10, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State’s Savagery in Yemen

• The March 4 attack on a nursing home in Aden is believed to be the latest savage attack by the Islamic State in Yemen

• The attack, which killed 18 people, including 4 nuns, was shocking enough for al-Qaeda to deny any involvement

• Reports of talks between the Houthi rebels and Saudi Arabia may be a sign of progress, but the damage to Yemeni society has already been done

• While it is not a major power in Yemen, the Islamic State will continue attacks designed to shock and divide the society.


As the war in Yemen approaches the one-year mark, the so-called Islamic State continues its push to divide and radicalize an already traumatized society. Amid reports of the first prisoner exchange between Houthi rebels and Saudi Arabia, and speculation that talks could begin to end the fighting that has killed more than 6,000 people, the Islamic State demonstrated once again its commitment to savagery as a tool of terror. Whatever does or does not happen in the larger war in Yemen, the fight against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda will remain a long-term challenge. 

On March 4, gunmen entered a nursing home run by the Missionaries of Charity, an organization started by Mother Theresa. The attackers, believed to be from the Islamic State, shot and killed 18 people, including elderly patients and 4 nuns. The murder of nuns who had dedicated their lives to helping Yemen’s most needy is an escalation of a trend towards savagery by the group that has targeted mosques repeatedly in the last year. Pope Francis called the attack ‘diabolical’ and even al-Qaeda denounced it, saying the attack was 'not our way of fighting.’

The murders are the most recent example of the difference in strategy between the Islamic State in Yemen and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The latter has deep roots in Yemen and largely avoids attacks on Yemeni civilians. AQAP denied involvement in the March 2015 bombing of two mosques in Sana’a that killed 142 people, while the Islamic State claimed credit for it. As in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, the Islamic State has no interest in building coalitions or local support. There is no carrot and stick approach—only the stick. AQAP has done relatively well in Yemen by focusing on attacking the government and, most of all, Western targets. The Islamic State attacks Yemeni civilians, primarily Muslim, not to build support, but to demand obedience.

Both groups have thrived in the year-long war between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebels, a war that produced nothing but misery for the Yemenis and no strategic leverage for the rival powers of Saudi Arabia and Iran. The quagmire in the air has become one on the ground as well. On March 8, the two sides held their first announced prisoner exchange since the start of the bombing campaign; the Saudis exchanged seven Yemeni prisoners for the return of a captured Saudi corporal. There are reports that this exchange could lead to broader talks aimed at ending the hostilities.

A cessation of the fighting would allow for more humanitarian aid for the over seven million people that the UN says are ‘severely food insecure,’ and begin the slow process of rebuilding what was pointlessly destroyed. Yet any potential peace would be threatened not just by the persistent regional machinations, but by the expanding extremism enabled by the fighting. AQAP is more powerful now than it has ever been; drone strikes may impact specific leaders but they will not dent the group’s overall strength. The Islamic State is nowhere near as strong as AQAP, but what it lacks in numbers and support it makes up for in extreme violence and a determination to gain a lasting foothold in yet another collapsing state.


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