Militant Salafism in Ta'iz: Three clusters and many differences

In the paper “The evolution of militant Salafism in Taiz,” activist and scholar Bushra Al-Maqtari argues that the rise of the Houthi movement and the outbreak of Yemen’s armed conflict have driven a transformation of Salafi groups in Yemen.  Since the establishment of the first Salafist center in Yemen in the 1980s, most Salafi factions have focused on charity, relief, and intellectual institutions, and have been governed by the Islamic notion of Wali al-Amr that rejected the disobedience to the ruler and distanced the movement from political action.

According to the author, the Salafi movement’s rapid transition to armed action began as a result of the Houthis’ attacks on the Dar al-Hadith institution in Dammaj, Sa’dah--the Zaydi heartland and epicenter of the Houthi movement. Over several years prior to the current war, Houthi fighters arrested and killed a number of students at Dar al-Hadith, culminating in a Houthi siege of the Salafi center, until the Hadi government finally facilitated the relocation of the institution’s students and families in 2014.   The armed invasion of Ta’iz by Houthi-Saleh forces in 2015 led to major changes in the city’s political landscape, adding to the complexities of the situation, which was also exacerbated by the failure of the transitional government to settle the issue of the Salafists who were displaced from Dammaj.

In response, Ta’iz has witnessed the emergence of several armed Salafi militias operating alongside the Popular Resistance Committees and leading anti-Houthi-Saleh efforts in the province. According to the paper, there are currently three main clusters of Salafi armed factions in Ta’iz, each of which controls a different region and has different sources of support. The first and most prominent of these clusters includes Islah-affiliated Salafi factions that have ties with the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen and fights alongside Yemeni army’s 22nd Armoured Brigade. The second cluster includes Salafi militants from Hasm Battalion, some of whom relocated from Aden to join the fight against Houthis after fighting them in both Abyan and Shabwah governorates. The third cluster is a group of apolitical Salafis who have allegedly exploited religion to gain political and social influence in the governorate, and are currently working closely with Yemeni army’s 35th Armoured Brigade and receiving direct financial support from the United Arab Emirates.  

“The stated priority for each of the three main clusters of Salafi militias in Taiz is to battle against Houthi-Saleh forces. Yet, despite the looming presence of this common enemy, the Salafi militias are engaged in their own local turf wars, in which they have sought to defend or even increase their authority at the expense of their competitors. This jockeying for position has led to frequent outbreaks of inter-factional violence, which in turn further entrench the rivalries.”

The paper notes that the continuous fight against Houthi militias and the absence of the state in Ta’iz has “created an environment in which religious extremism can thrive.”  The author argues that the prevalence of Salafi fighting groups has also opened the door to members of AQAP. Through the exploitation of the sectarian polarization triggered by the confrontation with the Houthis, extremist organizations such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda have been able to break the social siege around them and form alliances with local groups. These extremist organizations have contributed to the rising sectarianism in Ta’iz and elsewhere in Yemen by proclaiming themselves to be the defenders of Sunni Islam and actively imposing their authority on the ground. They have also been able to attract economically disadvantaged people who saw the alliance with extremist organizations as a financial lifeline.

The author concludes that the neutralization of extremist groups’ ability to impede the peace process is essential for the stabilization of Ta’iz’s security environment and to avoid turf wars among Salafi militias competing for power and resources.