Stoking the fires
No other actors have benefited more from Saudi intervention in Yemen than extremist groups like al-Qaida and Islamic State (IS). Part of Saudi Arabia′s strategy to avoid putting their own troops on the front lines is to air-drop weapons and money to local militants fighting the Houthis – which comprise a range of actors including tribal forces, Islah Party members, pro-Hadi popular resistance committees and some Southern separatist wings.
According to local witnesses in Taiz, Abyan and Aden, Saudi Arabia has allegedly airdropped weapons and money to militants who at times fight alongside al-Qaida, including Abyan fighters under the leadership of Abdul Latif al-Sayed, a former al-Qaida leader fighting with the popular resistance committees loyal to Saudi-backed President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi.
Such support has benefited al-Qaida, which continues to fight Houthis in the central provinces of Aden, Abyan, Shabwah, Mareb and Taiz. Saudi Arabia has also indirectly supported al Qaida′s efforts by allowing them to solidify territorial control in other areas. In Mukalla, al-Qaida looted military bases and banks in April 2015 and declared the city an Emirate. There, the group has been able to govern alongside a local tribal council under the leadership of Khaled Batarfi and even launched a new local paper, Al-Masra. Mukalla is the fifth largest city in Yemen, capital of the oil rich Hadramout province and has a strategic oil harbour that is now run by al-Qaida, with all its revenues going to the militants.
However, rifts within al-Qaida have grown more pronounced since Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the group′s top leader in Yemen, was killed by a U.S. drone strike in June 2015, leaving behind a power vacuum. Clashes erupted during a meeting between followers of Jalal Beleidi, a prominent al-Qaida leader in Abyan and those of Abdul Latif al-Sayed, a former al-Qaida leader who rebranded himself as a leader of the popular resistance committees and whom Beleidi blamed for al-Qaida′s expulsion from Abyan in 2012. Beleidi′s followers ambushed Sayed′s car, leading to violent clashes between the two factions in the streets of Zinjibar.
These divides within the group are compounded by disagreements between Emirati and Saudi officials over which anti-Houthi militants are too extreme to support. Most anti-Houthi militants, politicians and activists are from Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist groups, whom Saudi Arabia′s new leadership is content to support. Yet these are explicit enemies of the UAE, which has for years sparred with domestic and international branches of the Brotherhood and designated the Brotherhood, IS, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Houthis as terrorist groups in November 2014.
In August 2015, for instance, Saudi airdrops to tribal leader Hamoud al-Mekhlafi – a leader of anti-Houthi popular resistance committees who fights alongside al-Qaida militants in Taiz – caused the UAE to delay the advance of its armoured tanks from Aden to Taiz in protest. Likewise, in Aden, the UAE has refused to support any Muslim Brotherhood figures and even publicly accused the Islah Party of stealing the humanitarian aid the UAE Red Crescent supplied to displaced people. The UAE is instead fighting these groups by supporting southern separatists.
Playing into IS' hands
The internal conflict within al-Qaida (and between Saudi Arabia and the UAE) is of increasing benefit to Islamic State. Frustrated young men who are inclined to join extremist groups become all the more so when they see jihadist leaders in conflict with each other. Internal disputes make these youth spurn those involved as not real jihadists.
Thus the dispute within al-Qaida is increasingly driving young men to IS – which is more united, as it is a new organisation. Furthermore, as a declared enemy of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Islamic State is removed from their rift over al-Qaida and the Brotherhood. The new group with its new name has not yet developed affiliations with regional or international parties conflicting over Yemen, giving them a greater sense of legitimacy among some Yemenis.
Since the start of the war, Islamic State has successfully targeted about ten mosques in Sanaa and Saada, killing hundreds of Zaidi and Shafii attendees. On 6 October 2015, IS appeared even more powerful when four suicide bombers using stolen armed vehicles as car bombs attacked two joint Saudi/UAE military command bases and killed fifteen people in the Qasr Hotel in Aden, hoping to target Prime Minister Khaled Bahah and his ministers shortly after they returned from their exile in Riyadh.
More recently, IS has ramped up its attacks in Aden. On 6 December 2015, they assassinated Jaafar Mohammed Saad, the governor of Aden; one day later they also assassinated Mohsen Alwan, chairman of the Aden-based anti-terrorism court and two senior intelligence officers. This has helped them advance their vision of the ″Aden-Abyan Province″ that would serve as an IS capital in Yemen. More recently, on 28 January an IS car bomb exploded near Hadi′s presidential palace in Aden, killing twelve.
For now, Islamic State′s influence remains mostly confined to Sanaa, Bayda and Aden, though they are gaining support in other Houthi-controlled areas in the northwest. But reversing these advances will be particularly difficult, as Islamic State and al-Qaida gain greater support among Salafist groups angered by their defeats at the hands of the Houthis – making the Saudi gambit particularly dangerous in the long term.
© Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 2016