Yemeni jihadists have proved to be fractious: Personal animosities, tribal rivalries and internal rifts prevented a unified front, limiting their capabilities until al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) formed in January 2009. The group united several jihadist factions from Yemen and Saudi Arabia into a coherent and potent organization.
In light of this discordant history, it was not surprising when a group of Yemeni jihadists declared allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in November 2014. And they quickly distinguished themselves from AQAP: The Islamic State units in Yemen hit a number of targets beyond al Qaeda’s targeting guidance, including mosques in Sanaa. Since early 2015, different Islamic State subgroupings known in Arabic as "wilayat" have claimed credit for various attacks. They have been most active in Sanaa, Aden and Hadramawt provinces.
The Islamic State's Wilayat Sanaa has executed a number of attacks in Yemen since its inception. Attacks in the capital occurred fairly frequently between March and September 2015 but have since tapered off. So far this year, there have not been any Islamic State bombings in Sanaa. Instead, the center of Islamic State activities in Yemen has shifted to Aden. A tactical change has accompanied this geographic shift. The Oct. 6 attack against the al Qasr hotel and resort in Aden province — which served both as the Yemeni government's temporary headquarters and housing for senior military officers from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — marked a watershed for the Islamic State in Yemen. Unlike its previous assaults, this one involved a complex attack on a hard target involving an armed assault and multiple large vehicle bombs. With this attack, the Islamic State demonstrated a sophisticated terrorist capability rivaling that of AQAP.
There is little indication that the government, the Saudi-led coalition backing it or even other jihadists will be able to eradicate the Islamic State in Yemen. While the organization will retain the capability to conduct terrorist attacks within Yemen, it likely will be unable to carry out any large-scale insurgent operations or to seize and control large areas of the country as al Qaeda has. It will remain a limited but persistent threat.