The ambiguous decline of jihadist militancy in Yemen

A July 2018 policy paper by Dr. Elisabeth Kendall for the Middle East Institute explores the gradual development of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State in Yemen (ISY), and the conditions each organization require to succeed. Kendall analyzes the structures of AQAP and challenges the organization has faced. She also compares AQAP to ISY and considers their recent decentralizations. She urges key conflict actors to take actions to ultimately end the war and act now to restrict jihadist militancy in Yemen.

The first section of the paper describes the evolution of AQAP as an organization expanding its political influence and building beneath the surface. Islamic extremists found a place in government during the presidency of Ali Abdullah Saleh, in the 1980s and ‘90s, when he sought to further his political agenda by encouraging a jihad against southern socialists. The current Yemeni vice-president, General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, once supported the AQAP-linked Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, and Kendall argues these relationships suggest possible alliances between al-Ahmar’s current military structure and AQAP. In recent times, AQAP has capitalized on war and instability in Yemen to launch statebuilding enterprises. Most recently, AQAP took advantage of the security and governance vacuum Yemen after the 2015 intervention of the Saudi-led coalition by “seizing military hardware and robbing the central bank” (4).

The paper continues to outline the goals and methods of governance utilized by AQAP. Kendall attributes AQAP’s success in engaging local populations to its use of relationships with tribal leaders as leverage over communities. Firstly, AQAP rebranded itself independently from al-Qaeda Central, and aimed to share power with local stakeholders for greater local appeal. Contrary to IS in Yemen, AQAP created ties with tribes through marriage and recruitment. AQAP has sewn itself into these communities and helped nurture a culture of tolerance towards the organization, as Yemenis are more concerned by airstrikes than terrorism. The group has also advertised itself as anti-Houthi, and framed the narrative of the war as one between Sunnis and Shi'is. Additionally, AQAP introduced community development projects to repair infrastructure and offer images of stability in its territories. Lastly, the group directed efforts towards cultivating the next generation of supporters of a caliphate.

Despite these successful efforts, Kendall reports the decline of AQAP, specifically since February 2018. The group carried out 145 operations during the first six months of 2017, but saw that number decline to just 62 during the first six months of 2018. Another measure of AQAP’s decline in activity is its number of formal statements, which dropped from 17 during 2017 to none in the first six months of 2018. Kendall attributes media-production limitations to the killing and kidnapping of key members.

The next section of the paper examines the challenges that both AQAP and ISY face currently. The US has increased counterterrorism strikes, and carried out over 120 airstrikes against both groups during 2017. AQAP is also threatened by internal spies, and has instituted a “complete ban on communications via mobile phones and the internet” in an effort to halt the sharing of significant information (14). They have also faced decreasing support in communities affected by heavy drone strikes. The UAE, as it enlarges its proxy forces across southern Yemen, is also gaining what were once AQAP recruits, and AQAP is subsequently targeting UAE forces at higher levels than before. Qasim al-Raymi, the current AQAP, leader is also significantly less popular than his predecessor, and far removed from AQAP’s media presence. Since late 2017, leaders, including Raymi have remained mostly absent from public affairs, as the group claims it is “improving and developing” in this low profile (14).

Despite a weaker start, ISY faces similar challenges to AQAP. ISY has never held territory, and only arrived in 2014, when ISIS announced its expansion into Yemen. After a brief period of growth, ISY quickly began to decline, and is now overshadowed by AQAP. In 2015-16 specifically, AQAP was more attractive to jihadists because of its successes and income. ISY was also excessively brutal in comparison to AQAP, and AQAP used this to its advantage, promising not to target crowded places and issuing apologies for past acts. ISY has failed to integrate into Yemeni society, and remains largely confined to al-Baydha. The groups’ declining leadership is allowing for “more fluidity in loyalties” which can be considered a sign of weakness on both sides.

AQAP maintains the need to reassert itself, and an international attack is one way it could accomplish that. Both groups also needs to avenge the deaths caused by US drones, and no longer have an incentive to “refrain from international attacks in order to avoid attracting retaliation” (22). Senior AQAP member Khaled Batarfi has already highlighted Jerusalem, Britain, France, the Arab states and America as targets of the organization. It has also incited “lone-wolf attacks” in the US and across Europe, and encouraged “Muslims in the West to kill Americans at home” (22).

Kendall urges actors to use the current decline in activity from both AQAP and ISY to consider the underlying reasons behind jihadist militancy in Yemen. They must not only consider the appeal of these organizations to young men seeking higher purposes and local tribes looking to have their grievances addressed, but also the details of what has worked in this particular conflict, as opposed to drawing from instances such as Afghanistan or Libya. Educational peace-building initiatives, genuinely representative institutions, and enterprise-generating programs are key to developing a generation of youth ready to rebuild their nation. Kendall ends by stressing the need to end the current war. The war economy enables crime networks to thrive and allows AQAP to exploit eastward migration. She emphasizes the danger of the environment the war is creating, one that if not addressed, will allow militant organizations to re-emerge and flourish.