The State Department released its annual Country Reports on Terrorism report which provides a detailed analysis of terrorist groups and counterterrorism activities around the world. The report on Yemen notes that:
“Throughout 2016, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS in Yemen (ISIS-Y) have continued to exploit the political and security vacuum created by the ongoing conflict between the Yemeni government under President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the Houthi-Saleh rebel forces.”
The authors consider Yemen a terrorist safe haven due to the continued political upheaval and subsequent security vacuum.The breakdown of the rule of law has provided an environment conducive to the growth of Islamic State (ISIS-Y) and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The report highlights:
“AQAP, in particular, has benefitted from this conflict by significantly expanding its presence in the southern and eastern governorates. It has successfully inserted itself amongst multiple factions on the ground, making the group more difficult to counter.”
While the the exact nature of ISIS-Y is still unknown, the group is known to be considerably smaller with limited access to resources when compared to AQAP.
“While ISIS-Y has demonstrated a violent operational pace, it has yet to occupy significant territory or challenge AQAP’s status as Yemen’s predominant Sunni Islamist terrorist group. ISIS-Y maintains connections to the ISIS core in Syria and Iraq, but a faction within ISIS-Y chose to publicly disagree with the group’s leadership regarding its tactics in early 2016, indicating a large rift within the group.”
The report states that the central Yemeni government was unable to execute an effective counterterrorism policy in 2016. This week, an offensive in Shabwah province to secure to oil and natural gas facilities was reportedly successful in wresting the facilities from AQAP’s control. Despite reports that the operation was conducted by Yemeni security forces, local reports indicate that these forces were actually trained by the UAE and operating outside of the Yemeni military’s chain of command. Since the beginning of the civil war, US-backed counterterrorism operations have been carried out with the support of UAE and UAE-trained troops in this way, with American special operations forces also playing a role.
As the UAE has become the primary US counterterrorism partner in Yemen, reports have emerged of forced disappearances, arbitrary detention, and torture in UAE detention centers in south Yemen. The Associated Press and Human Rights Watch released separate reports earlier this year on the abuses carried out in these sites and alleged American involvement in interrogating detainees. The State Department’s report fails to address these reports in its assessment. This failing could be due to a lack of US diplomatic presence on the ground in Yemen, which inhibits the Department’s ability to engage the local populace and verify reports such as this. The State Department should investigate these reports in its 2017 Country Reports on Terrorism and analyze the implications of such detention centers, abuse, and US involvement for US counterterrorism strategy in Yemen.
Overall, the Country Report on Yemen indicates that the longer Yemen’s civil war continues, the stronger AQAP, ISIS-Y, and other extremist groups will become. Ending the conflict in Yemen is an important first step in limiting the influence of extremist groups in Yemen. In addition to the governance failures and security vacuums extremist groups exploit in Yemen, the continued overemphasis on a kinetic operations in US counterterrorism strategy – which continue to cause civilian casualties – legitimizes AQAP’s propaganda and increases the pool from which the group can recruit. To truly address the roots of extremism in Yemen, the US must focus on dislodging these groups’ popular legitimacy by ensuring that the central government can serve the basic needs of the population and provide inclusive, responsive outlets to address local grievances and governance failures.