The conflict between al-Houthi militants and the government of ousted President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi has offered a unique opportunity for Yemen's jihadists to spark a sectarian struggle and increase their influence. Such an outcome would ultimately empower these groups in the much the way that jihadists in nearby Syria have benefitted — Syria's Sunnis and their backers have long sinc realized that they cannot fight the Bashar al Assad's pro-Iranian regime without strengthening jihadists. Ultimately, it is Jihadists that could benefit from Yemen's regime collapse.
In the latest spate of violence, at least 137 people were killed and another 345 were wounded March 20 in four separate mosque bombings. The three mosques targeted belonged to the Zaidi sect led by the chieftain of the northern Saada province-based al-Houthi tribe, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi. A fourth suicide bomber reportedly attacked a government building in the al-Houthi town of Saada itself. The bombings were well coordinated and planned out in order to inflict the maximum amount of damage during Friday worship.
Already the Islamic State militant group has claimed responsibility for the attack. This is noteworthy because al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is Yemen's more established jihadist group. Given the sectarian nature of the attack and the intentional targeting of Zaidi mosques, however, the Islamic State claim appears to be valid. Al Qaeda core leadership and leaders of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula itself have been highly critical of the Islamic State's extreme form of jihadism and of its attacks against fellow Muslims. Because of this, the nature of these attacks is more consistent with the Islamic State's strategy — although al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula would certainly attack al-Houthi leaders.
These attacks come as the al-Houthi movement is working to consolidate power following Hadi's ouster. It is also in the process of taking large swathes of territory in northern and central Yemen. Meanwhile, forces loyal to Hadi — who fled to the southern port city of Aden — have been battling troops loyal to Hadi's predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is allied with the al-Houthis. Many conservative tribes are also aligned with Hadi against the al-Houthis. This has led to effective anarchy in Yemen. Many of the conservative tribes that oppose the al-Houthis are also closely aligned with jihadists such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. These unstable conditions are beneficial to jihadist groups that cannot topple a strong government themselves. Instead, they have sought to create anarchic conditions to advance their goals. Yemen has long been descending into chaos. Now, with the fall of the Hadi government, the conditions could not be better for jihadists.
As we have seen in Iraq and more recently in Syria, jihadists associated with the Islamic State have been able to benefit from sectarian struggles in which Sunni militants backed by regional Sunni powers struggle against Iran-backed Shiite forces. Salafist-jihadist outfits in particular have distinguished themselves on this charged sectarian battlefield, especially the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. It is too early to tell whether the Islamic State will benefit from the complex war in Yemen. However, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula certainly will — especially as many elements opposed to the al-Houthis have used the jihadists as force multipliers. On a regional scale, the more that bombings such as occurred March 20 take place, the more the United States and Iran will be forced to align with each other against jihadist groups. This works to the disadvantage of Saudi Arabia, which is caught between the pro-Iranian al-Houthis on one hand and jihadists on the other.