Yemen: What a Brutal Attack Says About Terrorism and Civil War

2 MINS READMar 29, 2018 | 19:33 GMT
The Big Picture

It's tempting the think of jihadism as monolithic, but nothing could be further from the truth. Stratfor covers the irreconcilable differences that divide the movement and the difficulties of combatting its ideologies on "The Jihadist Wars" theme page. The theme is a pertinent one for Yemen, which amid a broader civil war has faced a persistent threat from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has long been the dominant jihadist group in Yemen, though the Islamic State does have a presence in the war-torn country. But a recent attack more brutal than those usually carried out by AQAP is raising new concerns about Yemeni terrorism and how it factors into the country's broader civil war. On March 28, a suspected AQAP cell attacked UAE-backed security forces in Yemen's restive Hadramawt province, killing as many as 12 soldiers in the provincial capital of Mukalla, which has been under UAE control since April 2016. The United Arab Emirates is one of the most important members of a coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen, but it has also worked to combat terrorism in the country.

AQAP has not yet claimed the attack, which involved the beheading of victims, so it is possible that it was carried out either by a rogue unit or by a criminal gang. In the past, AQAP has eschewed such brutal tactics. In fact, in 2014 AQAP apologized after some members of the organization beheaded a group of Yemeni soldiers. But of course, if the AQAP core wasn't responsible for the attack, it raises concerns that the group could be fragmenting, that a new group could be emerging or that Yemen's Islamic State branch might be expanding. Equally concerning is the possibility that the AQAP core is shifting to more brutal tactics.

Hadramawt's mountainous and arid geography is favorable for the operation of extremist groups trying to avoid detection, as is the province's social landscape. The tribes living in the area have a complicated relationship with extremist groups, sometimes cooperating with them, sometimes resisting them and sometimes just coexisting with them. But many of those tribes also adhere to strict moral codes, which prohibit the mutilation of corpses. If AQAP is in fact changing its tactics, it risks alienating the tribes that it relies on for its existence — tribes that are many times practical rather than ideological allies.

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