Jihadism in Yemen: A Long History, a Long Future

6 MINS READMar 11, 2016 | 09:15 GMT
A picture taken with a mobile phone early on May 24, 2014 shows Al-Qaeda militants posing with Al-Qaeda flags in front of a museum in Seiyun, second Yemeni city of Hadramawt province, after launching a massive pre-dawn assault that killed at least 15 soldiers and police. The assault in Hadramawt, a jihadist stronghold that has seen large-scale attacks on the army in the past, came as troops pressed a month-old ground offensive against Al-Qaeda in Abyan and Shabwa provinces to the west. AFP PHOTO / STR (Phot
Since its formation in 2009, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has risen to prominence within Yemen's abiding jihadist movement.
(AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Jihadists will continue to be active in Yemen, as they have been for decades now.
  • The Islamic State will pose a persistent, low-level terrorist threat in the country. 
  • Al Qaeda will remain a far larger and more complicated problem in the Arabian Peninsula, operating under a variety of aliases. The group has gained greatly from their tacit relationship with the Saudi-led coalition.

Jihadists have a long history in Yemen. In fact, the first al Qaeda attacks against U.S. interests occurred with the 1992 twin bombings of the Gold Mihor and Movenpick hotels in Aden. But Yemeni jihadists have proved to be fractious, a reality that limited their capabilities until al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) formed in January 2009. Under the leadership of Nasir al Wahayshi, AQAP united a number of jihadist factions from Yemen and Saudi Arabia, forging them into a coherent and effective organization.

Even after the formation of AQAP however, internal rifts belied Yemeni jihadists' unified front. Personal animosities, tribal rivalries and differences over tactics, strategies and ideology simmered, occasionally breaking out into violence. Heavy losses suffered in a 2012 government offensive, launched after the group seized a large portion of southern Yemen, led to acrimony and finger-pointing. Some jihadists argued that the group's leadership was reckless to seize and hold territory, while others claimed it was not aggressive enough.

The Islamic State

In light of this discordant history, it was really 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. Indeed, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula loudly denounced the Islamic State for such attacks, most recently for the March 4 assault on a Missionaries of Charity retirement home in Aden that killed 16 people, among them four Indian nuns.

Since early 2015, the Islamic State has claimed attacks in several different provinces, using its province or "wilaya" designations for its units. But they have been the 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. However, these operations have consisted mostly of bombings against soft targets such as mosques and funeral processions. Although some have involved multiple suicide bombers, its bombs — even car bombs — have generally been underpowered. Still, some of these attacks have wrought considerable carnage, such as its first, a March 2015 attack that sent four suicide bombers into three mosques in Sanaa.

Wilayat Sanaa's attacks in the capital occurred fairly frequently between March and September 2015 but have since tapered off. The last Islamic State strike there was the Oct. 12 double-tap bombing against the home of Ahmed Ali Saleh, son of Yemen's former president. First, a device was detonated outside the residence, followed by a second bomb targeting the Houthi security forces that responded. 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. Since October 2015, there have been a few attacks in Hadramawt and elsewhere in Yemen, but most have occurred in 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 their previous assaults, it was 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.

Since then, the Islamic State has conducted a number of suicide bombings and assassinations in Aden, claimed under the names Wilayat Aden and Wilayat Aden-Abyan. One such bombing, a Jan. 28 operation aimed at the governor of Aden, was even conducted by a Dutch operative. 

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

Even so, the Islamic State's growth in Yemen has faced serious constraints. Perhaps the largest of these is al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In addition to its deep roots in Yemen, including links to powerful local tribes, the group has become very powerful since the Saudi-led coalition invaded Yemen, assuming control over a large portion of the country. The group downplays its al Qaeda brand, identifying itself as Ansar al-Shariah and calling local units the "sons of" a particular province or area, for instance, the "sons of Hadramawt." Currently, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — by whatever name — controls more territory than does the Houthi-Saleh forces or the Saudi-backed government. This territorial primacy gives them access to vast resources, which can be used not only to recruit and pay new fighters but also to further entrench the group in Yemen.

Several reports have suggested that AQAP fighters are even helping in the Saudi-led coalition's battle to liberate the city of Taiz from Houthi forces. This is just the latest sign of a tacit relationship between the Saudi-led coalition and the al Qaeda group, which has repeatedly targeted Saudis in the past. The relationship has been an important factor in increasing the group's power over the past year, despite U.S. airstrikes that killed al Wahayshi, among others.

Discord within the Islamic State is another major factor limiting the group's progress in Yemen. In December, a large number of members revolted against the group's emir in Aden. Although they still claimed loyalty to al-Baghdadi at the time, several have since defected to AQAP.


There is little indication that the government, the Saudi-led coalition 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.

AQAP, meanwhile, has been working to deepen its regional and tribal ties, taking care not to commit the kinds of divisive attacks that have become the Islamic State's calling card. They focus instead on the "hearts and minds" campaign that the group's core has been promoting across the globe. Because of this, it will be far more difficult to dislodge al Qaeda from the areas it controls in Yemen than it was in 2012. The group will remain a serious player there — and a serious threat — for the foreseeable future.

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