Reports yesterday of a bomb killing followers of 'Abd al-Malik al-Huthi as they gathered for 'Eid al-Ghadir marked what will likely be the opening of another round of war in northern Yemen. The attack—which may or may not have been a suicide bombing—was immediately blamed on al-Qa‘idah in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but that group has not yet claimed responsibility. The Ghadir holiday is celebrated exclusively by Shi‘i Muslims, so it is easy to assume a sectarian motive to such an attack. But AQAP is always quick to claim its actions; the government tried to tie al-Qa‘idah to the bombing of a Zaydi mosque a few years ago, but the group denied it. It is more likely that this attack is related to hostilities that have been ongoing since early November between "Huthi" rebels and pro-government tribes.
It is likely that the current violence will spiral into open war between the rebels and the central government, as it has done six times before since 2004. But I can imagine another possibility, given the wider situation in Yemen today: it could be that the government, or pro-government paramilitary groups (which have ties to Saudi Arabia as well as to the Yemeni military) are trying to incite a war between al-Huthi's followers and AQAP.
The level of pressure on President Saleh's regime from the US, UK, and other international powers to focus on AQAP makes it unlikely that the President and his inner circle would seek a new war with al-Huthi now, as Saleh's international allies have warned him repeatedly to keep the north under control. And while al-Qa‘idah affiliates in Iraq and elsewhere have targeted Shi‘is, this has not happened before in Yemen. Moreover, AQAP is very busy at the moment working to disrupt the US war effort and the central government, so it makes no sense for them to pick a fight with al-Huthi. AQAP has done a great job building support and sympathy from (some of) the public; while some tribes and networks are certainly alligned against al-Huthi, and while anti-Zaydi sentiments are still prevalent in parts of the country, launching a campaign of sectarian violence would not earn AQAP any friends in Yemen.*
In some rare situations, a conspiracy theory yields the most likely answer. This is one of those situations. The Saleh regime knows that its US-supported war against AQAP is going poorly, and is, in the long run, not winnable. It also knows that the United States will not grasp that reality any time soon, and will continue to push for, and to fund, more and more counter-terrorism operations. But the more the US and Saleh push, the weaker their position becomes. So it makes a great deal of sense for Saleh to try to pit al-Huthi against AQAP, and thus distract and weaken both enemies without risking his own resources.
If I'm right about this (I'll admit it if I'm not), the US would be making a horrible mistake if it were to go along with this program, wittingly or not. American envoys should have been talking to al-Huthi years ago, but that's not going to happen. The Obama administration can, however, avoid an even bigger catastrophe than the one it already faces in Yemen by making sure President Saleh refrains from any more of his infamous balancing acts, which always end in misery for the Yemeni people and more power for himself.
Let's all just hope I'm wrong.
P.S. Since this post originally went up, a second bomb killed Huthi supporters en route to the funeral of Badr al-Din al-Huthi, father of 'Abd al-Malik and Husayn al-Huthi and one of the intellectual fathers of the broader Zaydi revival movement.
[*EDIT: Brian O'Neill has been saying for a while that one of AQAP's main goals right now is to recruit "serious jihadis" from abroad. I think he's right, and it is likely that some foreign fighters would be drawn to an anti-Shi‘i campaign. But as much as it wants foreign recruits, AQAP can't survive without local support, which would evaporate if the group were to take on ethnic cleansing as its raison d'etre. I think they know better.]