Tag Archives: Yemen

Islamic State Extends into Yemen

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So far, the Islamic State and al-Qaeda have not faced off militarily in Yemen, but that possibility is growing.

By: Ashraf al-Falahi//ADEN, Yemen — Yemen’s civil war is allowing the Islamic State (IS) to expand its presence there. Amid the spread of extremism engendered by the conflict between the Houthis and the central government, IS is becoming the main adversary for both the Houthis and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

IS is strengthening its footprint in the northern, Houthi-controlled governorates and is making progress in the south, although al-Qaeda remains the dominant force there.

Attacks by armed pro-IS groups rose in October, after they pledged allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the capital, Sanaa, and other cities in the country’s south and southeast. As a result, their activities gained an added dimension, as they attempted to impose themselves as effective instigators of violence on the Yemeni scene. These groups attacked government troops as well as those they describe as Shiite, Iran-backed Houthis.

IS executed its largest two operations in Yemen in October: when it claimed responsibility for a car bomb attack against the residence of the president and members of the Yemeni Cabinet at the al-Qasr Hotel in Aden, and when it targeted a camp for Emirati troops, part of the Saudi-led Arab coalition.

IS launched its efforts in Yemen back in March, when the organization bombed two Shiite Houthi mosques in Sanaa, leading to the death of Houthi command figures and religious leaders, most notably Imam al-Murtada bin Zaid al-Mahtouri and Mohammad Abdelmalek al-Shami.

In April, IS beheaded four Yemeni soldiers and executed 11 others by firing squad in the southern governorate of Shabwah. By releasing a video of the carnage, IS clearly demonstrated the strategy of savagery espoused in its strongholds and the adoption of the same methodology and media strategy by its branches in Yemen.

The organization’s operations reached their peak in June, when IS conducted seven operations against what it described as “Shiite Houthi places of worship” in Sanaa. Those attacks killed and wounded about 100 people, mostly Houthi supporters.

On June 17, the IS branch in Yemen also claimed responsibility for four attacks in Sanaa targeting Houthi religious sites and buildings. The attacks killed 31 and wounded a number of others. On June 20, a booby-trapped car exploded next to the Houthi Qubbat al-Mahdi mosque in Old Sanaa, killing and wounding a number of people.

About the same time, IS took responsibility for a car bomb in a Houthi-controlled security quadrant in Sanaa, which killed and wounded a number of Houthis. On June 29, an attack by IS on the houses of two Houthi leaders in Sanaa left at least 28 dead or wounded, including eight women.

The growing level of violence is strengthening IS and putting it on a direct collision course to replace AQAP as flag bearer for the Holy War against their enemies. Both groups seek to take advantage of political and sectarian instability. As a result, the influence — even the mere existence — of the Ayman al-Zawahri-led al-Qaeda is threatened.IS’ combat tactics rely on taking control of a specific geographic region, as was the case in Iraq and Syria, as a prelude to launching attacks against other areas — a feat it has failed to accomplish so far in Yemen. Yet, it succeeded in establishing training camps for its combatants in mountainous regions of southern Yemen. IS revealed that feat in a November statement detailing how its troops, trained in the southern city of Lahej, attacked a government military camp in Hadramaut.

In parallel, disputes erupted between the two organizations following the assassination of a number of high-ranking AQAP leaders in drone attacks. Most prominent among those killed was the organization’s emir in the Arabian Peninsula, Abu Basir Nasser al-Wuhayshi, killed June 12. His death led to both groups trading Twitter-based accusations of treason and misrepresentation of the jihadi cause. These disputes threaten to grow into direct clashes, as occurred in Syria.

However, to date, no direct, physical clashes have been reported between al-Qaeda and IS in Yemen. The dispute has remained confined to verbal barbs and the avoidance of armed confrontations. Yet, that could change dramatically due to the increased level of political and military competition between the two, particularly as both share animosity toward the Houthis and Shiites in general.

Furthermore, there are indications that a number of AQAP members have defected to IS. Al-Qaeda’s late leadership figure in Yemen, Maamoun Hatem, was reputed to be one of the most eager to pledge allegiance to Baghdadi. When Hatem was killed May 11 in an American drone attack, some IS members tweeted eulogies — a phenomenon that was repeated in July when al-Qaeda singer/chanter Abu Hajar al-Hadrami was killed in a drone attack in Mukalla in July.

The number of IS combatants is kept secret, as are their locations or hideouts — particularly in light of them successfully infiltrating the security measures of coalition and government forces in Aden, as well as the strict security measures adopted by the Houthis in Sanaa.

These successes are the result of IS enjoying some popular support in predominantly Sunni areas (such as Shabwah, Al-Bayda, Lahej and Taiz), and especially in areas that have suffered the atrocities of the Houthis and their allies, who perpetrated human rights violations against unarmed civilians. The IS-affiliated factions thus are welcomed as protectors from such transgressions.

In the midst of the rapid changes taking place in Yemen, the emergence of IS’ branch there has caused widespread controversy. Yet, accusations that supporters of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime are backing the IS expansion, seeking to shuffle the cards on the Yemeni scene, seem to be nothing more than unfounded political mudslinging.Nabeel al-Bakeiri, a Yemeni researcher of Islamic factions, told Al-Monitor that the expansion of IS is more media propaganda than fact. He said there are numerous examples, particularly that “none of al-Qaeda’s prominent leaders had pledged allegiance to Baghdadi.”

The chances of armed clashes between al-Qaeda and IS in Yemen remain slim indeed for now, as the latter is still in a mobilization and preparation phase and thus unable to confront al-Qaeda militarily. But a repeat of the Syrian scenario remains possible in light of the battle for influence that rages between them, while taking into account that their shared hostility for the Houthis may delay any such clashes.

More from Al-Monitor.com:

Saudi Arabia shoots down Scud missile fired by Yemen rebels

CAIRO – Saudi Arabia shot down a Scud missile fired into the kingdom by Yemen’s dominant Houthi group and its army allies on Saturday, according to the Saudi state news agency, in the first use of the missile in over two months of war.

The missile was launched early Saturday morning in the direction of Khamees al-Mushait, and was intercepted by a Patriot missile, a statement by the leadership of the Saudi-led joint Arab military coalition said.

The area is home to largest air force base in southern Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, but there are no oil facilities in the area.

An alliance of Gulf Arab nations has been bombing Yemen’s dominant Houthi militia and allied army units loyal to powerful ex-President Saleh since March 26 in an attempt to restore exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to power.

The coalition has said a main goal of their war effort is to neutralize the threat that rockets in Yemen pose to Saudi Arabia and its neighbors.

Arab airstrikes have pounded arms and missile stores in the capital Sanaa and other military bases in Yemen almost every day, but the firing of the Scud – an 11-meter (35-foot) long ballistic missile with ranges of 300 km (200 miles) and more – shows the country’s supply has not yet been eliminated.

Saleh, Yemen’s autocrat president from 1978 to 2012, was forced to step down amid Arab Spring street protests but retains most the army’s loyalty and has joined forces with the Houthis in combat with Hadi’s armed backers in Yemen’s south.

Saudi-owned Arabiya described overnight ground fighting along its border as the “largest attack” yet by Houthi forces and Yemen’s republican guard, a unit close to Saleh.

“It was the first confrontation undertaken by Saleh’s (Republican) guard, and coalition planes and Saudi Apache (helicopters) undertook ground fire for 10 hours,” a military spokesman told the network.

Saudi-led forces said on Friday that four Saudi troops, including an officer, were killed after an attack was launched from the Yemeni side on border areas in Jizan and Najran.

Houthi’s in Yemen are holding multiple Americans prisoner

The rebel group that has seized power in Yemen has taken at least four U.S. citizens prisoner, according to U.S. officials who said that efforts to secure the Americans’ release have faltered.

One of the prisoners had been cleared for release in recent days only to have that decision reversed by members of the Houthi rebellion that toppled the U.S.-backed government earlier this year and now controls most levers of power in Yemen.

The Americans are believed to be held at a prison in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, which has been bombed repeatedly as part of an air campaign led by Saudi Arabia aimed at dislodging the Houthis from power. The United States has provided intelligence support to that operation.

The detention of the Americans has complicated U.S. efforts to navigate the chaotic aftermath of the Houthi takeover, which displaced a government that had cooperated extensively with the United States on drone strikes and other counterterrorism operations against a dangerous al-Qaeda affiliate in the country.

U.S. officials said three of the prisoners worked in private­sector jobs and that a fourth, whose occupation is unknown, has dual U.S.-Yemeni citizenship. The officials said none of the four were employees of the U.S. government.

The Washington Post is withholding some details about the prisoners at the request of U.S. officials and relatives who cited concerns for their safety.

A fifth U.S. citizen, Sharif Mobley, is also in Houthi custody, in connection with terrorism­related charges brought against him by the previous government more than five years ago. Mobley’s incarceration has been previously reported.

The recently detained prisoners are among dozens of U.S. citizens who were either unable to leave Yemen or chose to remain in the country after the U.S. government closed its embassy in February and began pulling out its employees and U.S. military personnel.

Details of the Americans’ detention remain murky, including where they are being held and whether they are together. In part this lack of detail is because there is little if any direct exchange of information between the United States and the Houthi movement, which has frequently employed chants of “Death to America.”

With no formal contact, U.S. officials said efforts to secure the prisoners’ release have gone mainly through intermediaries, including humanitarian groups that continue to have a presence in Sanaa.

U.S. officials said there is no indication that the prisoners have been physically harmed or are being treated as hostages. Still, they expressed concern about the well-being of one of the prisoners, who began to behave erratically in recent days as efforts to arrange for his departure unraveled.

The prisoner was initially detained “because he overstayed his visa,” a senior U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. But Houthi leaders early this week cleared him for release, with flights arranged by the International Organization for Migration.

The Houthis abruptly withdrew that travel authorization on May 27, however, and accused the prisoner of having traveled without permission to “sensitive” regions in the country, the U.S. official said. Among those locations, the official said, was Abyan province in southern Yemen, which has been a stronghold for al-Qaeda fighters who are adversaries of the Houthis.

After being returned to a Yemeni prison, the American “acted as if he were mentally unstable” and removed his clothes, the U.S. official said, citing reports from sources in the Yemeni capital.

A member of the prisoner’s family declined to comment when reached by phone on Friday.

The Houthis are part of a Shiite sect that receives backing from the government of Iran. The United States and Iran are engaged in tense negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear program, and U.S. officials have denounced Iran’s detention and trial of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian. But U.S. officials said there have been no contacts with Iran over the Americans being held in Yemen.

Saudi airstrikes have reportedly killed more than 1,600 people in Yemen over the past several months.

In telephone conversations with his lawyers, Mobley has said he is being held in an area of the capital that has been targeted repeatedly. The site appears to have been struck again this week, killing 40 people, according to a statement released Friday by the Reprieve organization, which has represented Mobley.

“This raises some pretty disturbing questions about U.S. support for the bombing campaign,” said Namir Shabibi, a Reprieve official. Shabibi said that Reprieve has repeatedly asked U.S. officials to persuade the Saudis to avoid bombing Mobley’s location, but that “given the established Saudi record of hitting the same spot multiple times, there’s a high risk Sharif will be hit again.”

Julie Tate contributed to this report.