In Stratfor's 2017 Fourth-Quarter Forecast, we assessed that despite a loss of territory and manpower, the Islamic State would focus on boosting its various provinces. Recently claimed attacks in Yemen suggest that the group may be shifting its focus and resources toward the already unstable country.
Within hours of a Nov. 14 bombing in Yemen, the country's Islamic State affiliate took credit, marking the second major attack it has claimed there in as many weeks, raising concerns that it is displaying an increasing capability in the war-torn country. In the latest attack, a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device detonated at the headquarters of the Security Belt in Aden's al-Mansoura district, killing at least six people and injuring dozens more. The Islamic State claimed the attack through the Amaq news agency, its propaganda wing, which released an image of the bomber. On Nov. 5, the Islamic State claimed a combined suicide bombing and armed assault that targeted the same security force.
The Islamic State announcements taking credit for the attacks reveal the group's animosity toward the United Arab Emirates, which backs and trains Security Belt forces and is is a key member of the Gulf Cooperation Council coalition fighting Houthi rebels and jihadists in southern Yemen. Combined with recent increasing reports of assassinations targeting moderate Salafist imams, including some supported by the United Arab Emirates, the attacks suggest that the Islamic State is focused on targeting the Emirati-backed Yemeni forces that have been opposing it.
The two relatively large November attacks demonstrate an increased capacity by the Islamic State in Yemen. The group had been limited to isolated, low-impact actions earlier in 2017, but a continued demonstration of greater sustained capabilities could add it as another serious threat in Yemen's already complex military environment. Al Qaeda and Islamic State militants already have a budding rivalry in some parts of central Yemen, though it has rarely boiled over into notable military conflict. If the Islamic State continues to show that it is capable of making frequent, damaging attacks in the region, the competition and conflict between the groups coule escalate.
More broadly, a rising Islamic State affiliate in Yemen could serve a similar role as affiliate groups currently operating in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, Pakistan's Khorasan province or the Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa. An established Islamic State province in Yemen could become another destination for foreign fighters fleeing conflicts in Iraq and Syria, provide a safe haven for militants, and inspire grassroots militants in Western countries.
The recent attacks follow recent U.S. authorization for drone strikes targeting Islamic State militants in the Horn of Africa, including in Yemen and Somalia. A U.S. airstrike in mid-October in Bayda province had marked the first time the United States had targeted the Islamic State in Yemen. However, the United States has been fighting al Qaeda in Yemen for years, often in the same areas in which it is now striking the Islamic State.