Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is a grave security threat to both Yemen and the West. This was most devastatingly proved on January 7, 2015, when the group carried out a bombing attack against police cadets in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, killing dozens. Shortly thereafter, they likely perpetrated their first attack on Western soil.
Said and Cherif Kouachi, who had both traveled to Yemen in 2011 and are thought to have received training and financing from AQAP, murdered twelve staff members at the Parisian offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine that had published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.1 In the days after the Charlie Hebdo attack, AQAP claimed credit for the operation.2 In fact, the group had already identified Charlie Hebdo’s editor as a target for assassination in the spring 2013 edition of Inspire, AQAP’s propaganda magazine.
In recent years AQAP has carried out a series of high-profile attempted attacks on Western aviation, killed hundreds of members of the Yemeni military and security forces and bombed multiple foreign embassies in Sana’a. They are a highly formidable outfit.
Ominously, AQAP has also carved out multiple safe havens in Yemen, a task made easier by the chaos of Yemen’s Arab Spring protests, which began in January 2011. Over 2,000 people may have died in that uprising, leading to the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had governed Yemen for over three decades.
However, AQAP was not the only group looking to take advantage of the shifting power dynamics of Yemen’s Arab Spring. Other key actors – such as the Muslim Brotherhood-linked al-Islah party and General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the hugely powerful military commander – have followed suit. Most dramatically, the Shiite movement known as the Houthis recently executed a coup that has extended its control over key territory, including parts of the capital city of Sana’a. Even by Yemen’s standards, the situation today is chaotic as the government remains virtually powerless to shape events.
The competition for influence in which AQAP is embroiled in Yemen mirrors an ongoing competition for influence in the global jihadist movement provoked by the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Following the capture of significant amounts of land in Iraq, ISIS emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate in June 2014. How to respond to this development has divided jihadists, including al-Qaeda, and poses a conundrum for AQAP.
This paper studies the evolution of the AQAP and ISIS relationship in the context of ISIS’ growth, and AQAP’s approach to resolving the resulting disagreements. It then examines AQAP’s influence in the overall context of Yemen’s current political and ideological ruptures.
The Al-Qaeda – ISIS Split
In order to understand the importance of AQAP’s relationship with ISIS in the context of the overall jihadist movement, it is necessary to elucidate the reasons behind the split between ISIS and al-Qaeda. Even before the rupture, relations between al-Qaeda and its Iraqi franchise had long been strained. Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership lamented the group’s unwillingness to take instructions and the harm its indiscriminate killings caused al Qaeda’s reputation in the Muslim world.3 Ultimately, however, it was the Syrian uprising of 2011 that precipitated the ISIS–al-Qaeda break.
As chaos engulfed Syria, al-Baghdadi sensed an opportunity to exert influence. From Iraq, he dispatched fighters to Syria to form the al-Nusra Front (ANF), which would develop into a highly effective fighting force against the Bashar al-Assad regime. In April 2013, al-Baghdadi incorporated the ANF into his own organization, which he rebranded the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, and asserted dominion over activities in Syria.4
When ANF emir Abu Mohammad al-Jolani objected, al-Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahri was forced to intervene. Backing al-Jolani, in the summer of 2013 al-Zawahiri ruled that the groups should operate independently and instructed al-Baghdadi to focus on Iraq.5 Al-Baghdadi’s subsequent refusal to do so led to open fighting between the ANF and ISIS in parts of Syria.6 By the end of 2013, al-Baghdadi was sending private correspondences to representatives of other al-Qaeda franchises, urging them to shift their allegiance from al-Zawahiri.7 In February 2014, with al-Baghdadi’s intransigence apparent, al-Zawahiri severed al-Qaeda’s ties with ISIS.8 In the ensuing months, some analysts speculated that al-Qaeda could splinter en masse, with some franchises aligning themselves with al-Baghdadi while others remained loyal to al-Zawahiri.9
Thus far, AQAP’s senior leadership remains loyal to al-Zawahiri. The group has not pledged allegiance to ISIS and, despite arguments to the contrary, there is no evidence to suggest that it will do so.10 In fact, AQAP has been focused on fostering unity among Sunnis, issuing conciliatory messages that support al-Zawahiri and calling for unity in the face of such mutual enemies as the United States and Iran.
In March 2014, just one month after the al-Qaeda–ISIS split, AQAP posted an audio message online that proclaimed, "[W]e have one stance toward all groups that wage jihad for the sake of God…[AQAP] have been careful from the beginning to have a brotherly stance toward all the mujahideen."11 The timing of this message was particularly significant as it was released shortly after al-Qaeda’s main representative in Syria, Abu Khalid al-Suri, was killed by ISIS fighters.
In July 2014, AQAP’s emir, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, issued a tribute to al-Zawahiri; meanwhile, key AQAP ideologues released a separate, seemingly supportive video of al-Qaeda’s emir.12 These, too, were strategically timed messages of support, as they came only days after al-Baghdadi had declared his caliphate.
On August 12, 2014, AQAP released another ISIS-related video via its al-Malahim Media Foundation platform. In the video, key AQAP ideologue Ibrahim al-Rubaish praised the Sunni victories being won on the Iraqi battlefield.13 Although not naming ISIS explicitly, al-Rubaish stated, "I congratulate all the mujahideen on all battlefronts and all Muslims on the victories that our brothers in Iraq have achieved against the puppets of the [Iranians]…Who does not rejoice in the victory of the Sunni Muslims and the defeat of the gangs of [former Iraqi Prime Minister] Maliki?"14
Two days later, AQAP published a statement offering security advice to "our brothers in Iraq" and announced "solidarity with our Muslim brothers in Iraq…we stand by the side of our Muslim brothers in Iraq against the American and Iranian conspiracy and their agents of the apostate Gulf rulers."15 A Twitter account affiliated with Ansar al-Sharia, AQAP’s insurgent wing, sent a similar message.16
These messages have been misread by some as AQAP foreshadowing a possible break from al-Qaeda and a pledge of allegiance to al-Baghdadi.17 In reality, they were merely declarations of support for fellow Sunnis and the victories they were gaining over the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq. AQAP fighters’ hatred for Shiites likely outweighs any ill-feeling caused by the al-Qaeda–ISIS split.
Multiple AQAP statements in recent months seemingly confirm this. A joint statement released in September 2014 by AQAP and a fellow al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, encouraged warring jihadists in Syria to focus on the enemy that unites them: the United States and its supposed "crusader campaign to fight Islam and the Muslims." The statement argued that divisions only weakened the jihadist movement and benefited its enemies: Christians, Jews, Shiites and Alawites.18
That same month, AQAP also released a video related to ISIS via al-Malahim Media Foundation that featured Sheikh Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi, a veteran al-Qaeda jihadist who had ties to Osama bin Laden. In the video, AQAP implored the jihadists to "form a coalition to strike the leader of invalidity and the head of disbelief"; and to "forget their difference, unite their efforts, and join their ranks against their crusader enemy." Al-Ansi encouraged striking the U.S. (referred to as the "main enemy") and "its interests everywhere."19
Al-Ansi was also keen to stress the importance of Iran as an enemy, ascribing Houthi territorial gains in Yemen, and the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, to an Iranian plot. In doing so, Al-Ansi linked not just AQAP and ISIS, but all Sunnis, in an epic contest against their mutual enemies. Again, the message is that jihadist infighting should come to an end in order to focus on the larger strategic battles at hand. Even so, al-Ansi is not afraid to criticize ISIS when necessary. For example, he also described the group’s filming and marketing of beheadings as "barbaric" and "not acceptable."20
In October, AQAP again addressed the issue of common enemies. On Twitter, it specifically referred to the war against "our brothers in the Islamic State" and how, "on this occasion," it supported them "against the global crusader campaign." AQAP made a further call for "the mujahideen to forget their disputes and to stop the infighting among them, and to be diligent in pushing away the crusader campaign that targets all."21
Clearly, AQAP’s leadership desires more unity, not greater division. While this conciliatory approach has not been reciprocated by ISIS, it is one that is broadly in line with that of al-Zawahiri, who has attempted to mend ties with ISIS since its February 2014 expulsion.22 These efforts have been aided by the fact that, thus far, no key AQAP figure is known to have joined ISIS. Due to his seniority, the most significant defector who could have switched sides would have been AQAP emir Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who is thought to be a mediator for intra-al-Qaeda disputes. It is possible that he mediated between al-Qaeda and ISIS prior to the latter’s expulsion.23
Al-Wuhayshi’s mediation was likely an attempt to improve relations between the groups, rather than a signal that he was considering defecting. In fact, not only has al-Wuhayshi explicitly praised al-Zawahiri since al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate, but he also was promoted to the role of al-Qaeda’s "general manager" by al-Zawahiri in the summer of 2013.24 This was the first time that al-Qaeda bypassed its core Pakistani leadership to promote a leader from a regional affiliate to such a senior role. Today, al-Wuhayshi has emerged as a leading contender to replace al-Zawahiri as overall emir of al-Qaeda, should the Egyptian leader be killed. For al-Wuhayshi, defecting to ISIS makes little sense on any front.
Speculation that Ibrahim al-Asiri, AQAP’s key bomb-maker, has aligned himself with ISIS is also likely wide of the mark.25 Admittedly, al-Asiri aspired to join up with the jihad in Iraq following the U.S. invasion of 2003. However, he was jailed in his home country of Saudi Arabia for planning to do so, which seemingly led to a shift in attitude toward his own government. Al-Asiri commented that "[u]p until that point I didn’t know that the Saudi government was in the service of the crusaders" (i.e. the U.S.).26 Al-Asiri’s subsequent plots have reflected this shift in focus. In August 2009, for example, al-Asiri constructed a bomb with which his brother Abdullah attempted to assassinate Muhammad bin Nayef, the Saudi Minister of Interior. Al-Asiri also constructed the underwear bomb of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, which the Nigerian attempted to detonate on Christmas Day 2009 aboard an airliner traveling from the Netherlands to the U.S. Al-Asiri’s focus on the U.S. and Saudi Arabia matches AQAP’s priorities, and there is no evidence to suggest al-Asiri is moving away from AQAP ideologically. Furthermore, as one of the most wanted terrorists in the world, traveling from (in all likelihood) AQAP strongholds in southern Yemen to ISIS strongholds in northwest Iraq would be a risky proposition for al-Asiri.
While AQAP’s leadership remains stalwart in its loyalty towards al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda, its rank-and-file has proven more restless. U.S. officials observed the trend of AQAP defections to ISIS quickening as ISIS expanded its territorial control in the summer of 2013.27 One Yemeni-based analyst even claimed that ISIS was training AQAP-linked fighters in Yemen, and that AQAP members had moved to Iraq and Syria in order to affiliate themselves with the group.28
Some Yemeni jihadists have also made public statements in support of ISIS, including the ideologue Abdul Majid al-Hitari. Arguably the most outspoken has been Mamoun Hatem. A tribal leader and AQAP ideologue, although AQAP has not confirmed his role, Hatem’s reputation made him the rumoured target of a U.S. drone strike in March 2014.29 Hatem posted a series of supportive messages on Twitter both prior to, and after, al-Baghdadi’s declaration of a caliphate.30 Yet, as Thomas Joseclyn of the Long War Journal has pointed out, even Hatem failed to back the actions of those Yemeni mujahideen fighters who pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In fact, Hatem took to Twitter to say that while he had attempted to persuade AQAP to swear fealty to al-Baghdadi, he did not want support for ISIS to weaken AQAP and divide the Yemeni jihadist movement.31 Another AQAP fighter sympathetic to ISIS is Jalal Baleedi, an AQAP field commander in the governorates of Abyan, Shabwa, Hadramout, al-Bayda and Lahj in southern Yemen.32 However, he has not suggested any intent to formally break from AQAP over the ISIS issue.
In September 2014, a new group called "The Supporters of the Islamic State in Yemen" released a video of nine mujahideen fighters pledging their allegiance to al-Baghdadi. 33 A month later, journalists in Yemen received an email from a group announcing itself as "Supporters of the Islamic State in the Arabian Peninsula."34 Then, in mid-November, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi accepted a pledge of allegiance from a group known as the "Mujahideen of Yemen" and proclaimed all other jihadist groups’ activities in Yemen invalid.35 Little is known about these various groups, including whether they are even three separate entities. It is possible that they consist of AQAP fighters unhappy with the group’s distance from ISIS, though this too cannot be confirmed.
Regardless, senior AQAP official Harith bin Ghazi al-Nadhari felt compelled to respond to al-Baghdadi, stating that ISIS’ caliphate is not legitimate, that it had not been approved by Islamic authorities and that ISIS had no real presence outside of Syria and Iraq. He also blamed divisions in the jihadist movement on ISIS, contending that they "split the ranks of the mujahideen, and scattered them…." However, even in this speech, al-Nadhari stressed that AQAP "did not want to talk about the current dispute" between ISIS and al-Qaeda so as to avoid encouraging "the enemies of Islam." He explicitly reiterated AQAP support of "our brothers with what we can, and we still hold to that position, as we believe in the necessity to support our mujahideen brothers, including all of their groups and entities, regardless of their inclinations."Al-Nadhari also emphasized AQAP’s "utmost joy" at the reports that mujahideen infighting had potentially abated in Syria.36
Following the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks, the debate concerning the AQAP–ISIS relationship took yet another twist. On January 8, Amedy Coulibaly likely shot and killed a police officer in Paris. The next day, he held up a kosher bakery and killed four hostages before French police managed to kill him. While Coulibaly had pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi, he also claimed his attack was coordinated with the Kouachi brothers’ operation against Charlie Hebdo.37 Given the division between AQAP and ISIS, there was significant speculation as to whether the groups had coordinated the Paris attacks.38 Stated simply, this is unlikely. As the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Aaron Zelin has pointed out, any coordination between the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly is more likely due to their personal relationships rather than joint planning by the respective groups.39
Therefore, the overall prospect of AQAP splintering the jihadist movement further by aligning itself with ISIS is highly unlikely. Even so, ISIS’ declaration of a new caliphate poses some challenges to AQAP through its appeal to Yemenis impatient with al-Qaeda’s lack of progress. After all, AQAP controlled "emirates" in Abyan and Shabwa, south Yemen, in the spring and summer of 2011, only to be expelled the following year. ISIS appears to have much more durability and a demonstrated ability to hold territory, which may increase the appeal of the group the longer it carries on as a semi-coherent state.
Beyond jihadist circles, AQAP is also involved in a struggle for power and influence within Yemeni society. The next section examines this struggle, with a particular focus on the group AQAP currently has the most reason to fear: the Zaidi Houthi rebels.
Enter the Houthis
Zaydism is a form of Shiism that was followed by Yemen’s elite rulers until the country became a republic in 1962. The new leadership, backed by Saudi Arabia, attempted to minimize the influence of the Zaidis, who constituted a majority in parts of the north but a minority in Yemen overall. Salafism and Wahhabism were subsequently strongly promoted as alternatives from the 1970s onwards.40 A series of institutes espousing these alternatives were subsequently formed, which enjoyed some popularity with lower-class Zaidis outside of the old governing aristocracy.
Zaidi fears regarding the gathering strength of Salafist and Wahhabist ideology were exacerbated by the formation of the al-Islah party in the aftermath of the May 1990 merger of north and south Yemen. Al-Islah was co-founded by Abdullah al-Ahmar, a key tribal leader with close links to Islamists, and Abdul Majid al-Zindani, a man now designated as a terrorist by the U.S.41 The organization has been described as representing "a wide coalition for Sunnis of the Muslim Brotherhood and apolitical backgrounds, Wahhabi Salafis, and tribals seeking patronage, some from Zaydi backgrounds."42
Two main Zaidi responses emerged to this growth in Wahhabi Salafi influence. The first was al-Haqq, which was led by Zaidi elites and contained future Houthi leaders. Al-Haqq aimed to establish a closer relationship with Saleh and those in government, and thereby gain greater access to patronage. However, al-Haqq failed to harness grassroots or youth support.43
More successful was the Believing Youth network of summer camps and sports clubs in northern boarding schools. The Believing Youth’s teachings contained a more religious and ideological slant, with a particular focus on social issues. The founders of the movement included several members of the al-Houthi family, and the socio-religious identity that developed in the Believing Youth network would contribute to the Houthi rebels’ outlook.44
Following a series of protests in 2002 in Saada, north Yemen, a Zaidi insurgency led by Husayn al-Houthi emerged. Al-Houthi delivered religious speeches assailing the government for its corruption, and bemoaned high unemployment and food prices. His star rose throughout the mountain towns of north Yemen; in June 2004, he launched an armed rebellion against the government.45 Saada would emerge as the rebels’ stronghold.
In September 2004, after government forces killed Husayn al-Houthi, his younger brother Abdulmalek took command of the group. Under his leadership, the Houthi rebels would fight five wars with the government, interrupted only intermittently by uneasy truces. Following the last ceasefire, in 2010, the Houthis began to expand their presence through intermarriage with key tribal families. A year later, the movement developed a political wing.
Considering this history, the violence that broke out between the Houthis and the Yemeni government in 2014 was predictable. However, what few could have predicted at the time was that Houthi-initiated protests in August 2014 would – in just over a month – lead to a political coup and the fall of Sana’a.
To understand how this happened, it is vital to understand the conditions behind Ali Abdullah Saleh’s protracted departure.
Saleh agreed to step down as early as April 2011 as part of a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) brokered deal. Saleh backed out of signing this agreement multiple times, finally relenting in November 2011. Power was formally handed over to his vice president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, in February 2012.
The deal, however, retained considerable influence for Saleh in the new government. The General People’s Congress party, of which Saleh remained the head, was well represented in the new cabinet, and members of Saleh’s family kept their jobs in the military and security apparatus. This ensured him continued influence and control over parts of the military, complimenting his other tribal alliances. The deal also established a power sharing agreement with the main opposition party, al-Islah. Importantly, Saleh received immunity from prosecution for the deaths that occurred during that year’s uprising.
This arrangement posed a severe problem for the Houthis, who gained no ministerial posts as part of the GCC deal. Not only were none of their natural allies strengthened, but their relationship with al-Islah, with which they had aligned in calling for Saleh’s departure, even deteriorated.46
A further source of Houthi discontent sprang from the shape and form of the proposed new federal Yemen. This has its roots in the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), created as part of the GCC deal. The NDC convened 565 representatives from various political factions – including youth representatives, southern secessionists, Houthis, women as well as established government figures – for almost a year to discuss political reconciliation and other key issues concerning Yemen’s future.
The delegates agreed that Yemen would evolve into a federal system comprised of six states.47 After initially withdrawing in protest, the Houthis accepted the principle but stressed their dissatisfaction at how the borders would be drawn. Specifically, the Houthis objected to being isolated from certain resources and a specific port.48 They demanded that a single region in the north be created and that they gain more access to federal government institutions.49
This set the scene for the clashes that broke out in 2014 between Houthis, the army, and tribal groups friendly to both the government and al-Islah. The Houthis achieved a major victory by taking control of the city of Amran, north of Sana’a. While they agreed to withdraw in late July, they nonetheless emerged from the clashes emboldened.
Moreover, in May 2014, the Yemeni finance minister announced that fuel subsidies were to be cut as part of a $500 million loan negotiation with the IMF.50 Once these cuts came into effect in August and fuel prices increased by 90 percent, the Houthis demanded an immediate restoration of the subsidy. 51 Tens of thousands of their supporters gathered on the outskirts of Sana’a while their bulldozers levied buildings to make way for makeshift protest camps.52 This was an opportunistic and tactical move, capitalizing on a deeply unpopular policy in order to legitimize a Houthi power grab.
After initial violent skirmishes, the government relented, agreeing to reintroduce fuel subsidies and form a new cabinet.53 However, emboldened by their successes, the Houthis continued their advance. Before long, they conquered the influential al-Iman University, run by Abdul Majid al-Zindani, and overran the state security forces defending the state television building. They also took control of a nearby stadium.54
Fighting centered on a military base northwest of Sana’a, where the Houthis defeated military units loyal to General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar. This was a significant moment, as Ali Mohsen – an enemy of the Houthis who had led the state’s wars against them – had huge levels of influence in the government.55 Importantly, Hadi did not deploy his most loyal military units in support of Ali Mohsen. Possibly, the president was content to watch two aspiring rivals bludgeon one another. Once Hadi’s forces declined to engage the Houthis, al-Islah-aligned fighters chose to abstain as well.56
As the Houthis advanced on Sana’a, Yemen’s military abandoned their posts and Interior Minister Abdo al-Torab ordered troops to co-operate with the advancing forces.57 Houthis seized the Central Bank, government buildings, and television stations and banks, setting up checkpoints throughout Sana’a while its leadership went to the presidential palace to negotiate terms. Even the Houthis may have been surprised at how easily Sana’a fell.
On September 21, 2014, an agreement was signed calling for the appointment of a new prime minister within three days, followed by the formation of a technocratic government within a month. Unsurprisingly, the agreement also stipulated the reintroduction of fuel subsidies.58 Furthermore, the Houthis were to put forward an adviser to the president, populate the Shura Council, and participate in election monitoring, among other tasks related to the outcome of the NDC.59 Finally, Houthi militias were to be integrated into the Yemeni security and police forces. In return, they were to dismantle their protest camps and checkpoints. Ultimately, however, the Houthis refused to cede control of Yemeni territory, agree to disarmament and abide by a ceasefire in the contested areas.60 With that, the deal was in doubt.
That Hadi could not unilaterally enforce these terms highlighted a lack of state power and testified to the comprehensive nature of the Houthi victory. That the truce was even partially brokered by the United Nations – which had criticised the Houthi aggression and whose acquiescence on the GCC deal had paved the way for Hadi in the first place – laid bare the scope of domestic and international dysfunction in Yemeni politics.
The Houthi victory is already translating into significant levels of political influence. On October 7, as part of their demand that a new prime minister be installed, Hadi attempted to appoint his ally, Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak. The Houthis, however, nixed the appointment and called for a return to mass protests. 61 Bin Mubarak subsequently turned down the position. Yemen’s ambassador to the U.N., Khaled Bahah, perceived as more amenable to the Houthis, was selected days later.62 One of his first moves was to give the Houthis control of the oil ministry.63
The Houthis are matching their political expansion with territorial gains. Weeks after their triumph in Sana’a they captured Damar, to the south of the capital, before proceeding to Hodeida, a port city in west Yemen. This was an understandable strategic move. Hodeida provides access to Bab al-Mandab, a southern entrance to the Red Sea. Bab al-Mandab links up with the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean and separates East Africa from the Arabian Peninsula. Approximately 4 percent of the world’s oil supply passes through this waterway.64
Saleh and the Houthis
When the Houthis captured Damar and Hodeida, they did so without a fight. The ease with which they swept through Sana’a can be attributed to the shambolic nature of the Yemeni military.65 However, it also suggests a possible deal. Saleh may have seen the Houthis as a vehicle with which to wreck the Yemeni political process, defeat adversaries such as al-Islah and Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and even manoeuver back into power.
Saleh-aligned army units were rumoured to have reached truces with the Houthis even before their takeover of Sana’a, while the capture of Damar is thought to have been assisted by tribesmen loyal to Saleh.66 There have also been suggestions that tribesmen fighting alongside the Houthis were Saleh loyalists, and that Saleh instructed his supporters to help control the streets of Sana’a once Ali Mohsen had been defeated. One Sana’a resident who had observed certain checkpoints in the capital commented, "I know these people. They aren’t Houthis. They… couldn’t care less about the Houthis."67 The implication is that Saleh loyalists struck up an alliance of convenience. The former president’s son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, is one possible collaborator. Until August 2012, he was head of the elite Republican Guard.
An alliance with Saleh’s may make sense for the Houthis in the short term, but it is not a move that will gain them popular support. The Houthi takeover of Sana’a has already cost them some of the goodwill they had accrued during their anti-corruption campaign. By cooperating with the unpopular Saleh, who is hated in Yemen and against whom the Houthis had agitated for so long, the group runs significant risks.
Iran and the Houthis
While the Houthis are a home grown movement whose strength is largely based on exploiting local grievances, they also have important connections to Iran.
In December 2009, Arab and Egyptian sources reported that meetings were taking place between the Houthis, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese proxy.68 Months before, the U.S. had largely dismissed Saleh’s attempt to link the Houthis to the Iranian government.69 In September 2009, the U.S. assessed that "Iranian influence in Yemen has thus far been limited to informal religious ties between Yemeni and Iranian scholars and negligible Iranian investment in the energy and development sectors."70
However, suspicions concerning Iranian ties to the Houthis strengthened in January 2013 when a boat containing anti-aircraft missiles and rocket-propelled grenades was intercepted on its way to Yemen. The Yemeni government believed that the large weapons cache was loaded in Iran and destined for "armed insurgents" in Yemen.71 One Yemeni official has claimed that Iran continues to ship weapons while Western officials charge Hezbollah with channelling cash to the Houthis.72
As the Yemeni tribal and conflict analyst Nadwa al-Dawsari points out, some Iranian leaders publicly celebrated the Houthi triumphs. For example, Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khameini, stated that Iran "supports the rightful struggles of [the Houthis] in Yemen and considers this movement as part of the successful Islamic Awakening movements."73 In return, the Houthis have also been known to profess support for Iranian religious figures, including Khamenei.74
Furthermore, another Iranian official has stated that the elite IRGC Quds Force has a military presence in Yemen and is training Houthis. It has also been alleged that Hezbollah dispatched military operatives to the Houthis.75 In fact, suspected Hezbollah members and IRGC officers were arrested at Sana’a International Airport under the suspicion that they had come to train rebels.76 These individuals were freed after the Houthis seized Sana’a last September.77 Iranian training of Houthis does not occur just in Yemen. According to members of the Yemeni government, Iran has also used Hezbollah to train Houthis in southern Lebanon. This training is thought to be overseen by the IRGC.78
Iran’s potential ties to Yemen have significant geopolitical consequences, particularly for Saudi Arabia. Yemen’s northern neighbour has historically wielded significant influence in Yemen via large cash payments and aid to key political and tribal figures.79 The Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, has called on Iran to remove its "occupying" forces (not just from Yemen, but also from Iraq and Syria).80 The GCC, too, issued a warning of not "stand[ing] idly" while foreign powers took over Yemen.81 As the ongoing Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen demonstrate, the Saudis have been willing to match their rhetoric with action.
AQAP and the Houthis
Shortly after the September 21 agreement, Abdel Malek al-Houthi delivered a speech from Saada in which he stated that "the most dangerous obstacles" facing Yemen – seemingly a reference to Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and his tribal and Sunni associates, such as al-Islah – had been removed. The only "remaining obstacle" was AQAP.82
In fact, AQAP had been taking advantage of the unrest by inserting dozens of operatives into Sana’a to join pre-existing sleeper cells. In an AQAP video released weeks before the Houthis entered the capital, AQAP leader Jalal Beleidi warned that "[o]ur fighters have entered Sana’a and we are waiting for this battle. Our fight will be against both the Houthis and the government."83
This was not an empty threat. At the end of September, AQAP targeted a house in Saada owned by a prominent Houthi and a Houthi-controlled hospital in Marib, east Yemen.84 Shortly after bin Mubarak declined the prime ministership, AQAP launched two subsequent suicide attacks. One occurred in Sana’a, targeting Houthis gathered at Tahrir Square, and killed over forty people, while the other in Hadramawt, southeast Yemen, targeted the military and killed at least twenty soldiers.85 Between October 16-20, AQAP claimed responsibility for sixteen separate attacks, largely in central Yemen.86
AQAP will increasingly come into conflict with the Houthis in the months ahead as both groups strengthen their presence throughout Yemen and look to make inroads into new territory. For example, in October, AQAP took control of Udain, a town in southwest Yemen. This was potentially a retaliatory move after the Houthis took control of nearby Ibb, a known AQAP area of operation.87
Another example is the current Houthi attempt to expand into Radaa, al-Bayda province. This is bringing them into conflict with both AQAP and tribal fighters.1 The escalation of Houthi–AQAP violence is already becoming clear. Following the Houthi push into Radaa, AQAP military commander Qasim al-Raymi warned that their actions "will not just pass unnoticed and you will pay the price dearly."89 These were not empty words. Days later, AQAP and allied tribal fighters launched six attacks over one weekend against the Houthis.90 On December 3, AQAP launched a car bomb attack targeting the home of the Iranian ambassador; and, on December 15, a co-ordinated AQAP car bomb attack against Houthi positions in Radaa led to the deaths of twenty five people, including fifteen children.91
The Radaa tribes are not supportive of AQAP’s ideology, but they also regard the Houthis as outsiders and are wary of their attempts to appropriate land and usurp power. Therefore, the more the Houthis expand, the greater will be AQAP’s ability to recruit. As Nadwa al-Dawsari has noted, a similar situation occurred in the summer of 2014 when al-Islah and the tribes fought Houthis in Marib and Jawf.92
The Houthi–AQAP clashes are likely to lead to increased sectarianism. While this has generally not been a motivating factor in the various battles throughout Yemen, AQAP regards the Houthis as heretics and will attempt to frame the conflict in sectarian terms. This could play into a latent concern among Sunnis about the rapidity and scale of the recent Houthi expansion.
AQAP and the Future of Yemen
In recent times, Yemen has suffered from a lack of successful governing models, making the conditions ripe for a group such as the Houthis to gain a solid level of support. However, their recent actions have undercut much of this support. The Houthis ability to hold onto territory in the face of pushback from AQAP, Saudi-led air strikes and potential resistance from actors such as al-Islah and Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar remains to be seen. In a country beset by violence, division and poverty, whoever manages to emerge from this struggle in the long term remains an open question.
AQAP has always sought to take advantage of this type of instability in Yemen. Fortunately, AQAP’s style of jihadism has proven unable to attract popular support. Furthermore, in the past, the group has displayed an inability to hold territory in the face of concerted military opposition from the army, state-backed militias and tribes. This sets it apart from ISIS, which has shown itself capable of seizing and holding territory.
Yet the impact that ISIS’ rise has had on Yemen’s jihadist movement should not be overstated. It may have generated some expressions of sympathy and a small number of defections from AQAP, but AQAP’s senior leadership remains united in their loyalty to Ayman al-Zawahiri and are leading the effort to foster unity among likeminded Sunnis. Furthermore, with President Hadi having fled to Saudi Arabia, there is no legitimate central government in Yemen. AQAP will exploit this weakness by expanding into new territories across the country and potentially helping convince wavering Yemeni jihadists that AQAP is well equipped to match ISIS’ achievements.
As AQAP attempts to take and hold territory, the group will increasingly come into conflict with the aggressively expansionist Houthis. Whoever comes out on top will help dictate Yemen’s future. Unfortunately, neither option provides much reason for optimism. An uptick in violence is certain and a rise in sectarianism remains possible. Inevitably, AQAP will be at the heart of both.
No matter the developments within Yemen in the months ahead, AQAP will remain relevant to not only that country, but the jihadist movement as a whole. It is a highly resilient organization. Its key leaders have been killed in drone strikes, its territorial gains at times have been reversed, and its spectacular transnational terrorism has raised the ire of Western governments. Yet – as recent events in Paris have proved – it continues to thrive and manages to retain relative unity in the face of ISIS. It is no surprise that defeating the group remains such a priority for governments across the world.