Islamic State

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.

August 29-September 4: Death toll updated to 10,000; Houthi delegation visits Iraq

Monday, August 29A car bomb struck a military facility in Aden’s Mansourah district, killing at least 60 people and injuring dozens more. The attack, claimed by the Islamic State group, targeted conscripts of the Popular Resistance.

UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen Jamie McGoldrick released a statement expressing his concern for the devastating impact the recent surge in fighting is having on Yemeni civilians. McGoldrick reports that seven people were confirmed dead following Friday’s Saudi airstrike on a market in Baqim in Sa’dah province, while attacks from Yemen across the Saudi border have “caused an unconfirmed number of civilian casualties.”

“In addition to fighting and insecurity, the continued closure of Sana’a airport to commercial flights is having serious implications for patients seeking urgent medical treatment abroad, given the inability of the national health system to treat all medical cases...Initial statistics from the national airline indicate that thousands of people cannot leave while many others remain stranded outside of Yemen…”

A Houthi delegation arrived in Baghdad to meet with Iraq’s foreign minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. The purpose of the delegation’s visit was to push for the recognition of their recently-formed governing council while also updating al-Jaafari on the latest developments in Yemen’s conflict and peace talks.

Tuesday, August 30 UN Humanitarian Coordinator Jamie McGoldrick told a news conference in San’a that 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen since the war began 18 months ago. The updated death toll, which is significantly higher than the 6,000 figure that is frequently cited, is based on official information from medical facilities in Yemen. McGoldrick provided no breakdown of the number of civilian deaths, which has previously been reported at 3,800.

Amnesty International is condemning Obama’s unprecedented arms deals with Middle Eastern governments that routinely violate humanitarian law. US weapons sales to Saudi Arabia since Obama took office in 2009 amount to $110 billion.

“One of the unspoken legacies of the Obama administration is the extraordinary uptake in the amount of U.S. weapons and military aid that are provided to major U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt that have terrible records when it comes to human rights,” Sunjeev Bery, advocacy director for Middle East and North Africa issues at Amnesty International USA, told Salon.

Wednesday, August 31 An imam living in Sa’dah was killed along with 16 members of his extended family during a Saudi airstrike on his home, according to a Reuters witness, a medic, and a resident.

“‘The air raid happened in the morning and because the house was made of mud, it took us until noon to be able to dig the bodies out,’ said Nayef, a resident who helped remove the rubble to recover the bodies.”

The Saudi military spokesman says that the coalition was checking if the report is true, and will conduct an investigation if the incident is verified.

UN Special Envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed said that a recent military escalation following the collapse of the peace talks is fueling the spread of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group in the country. The envoy says that a renewed cessation of hostilities is needed to return to negotiations and end the war.

The last US manufacturer of cluster munitions, Textron, announced that it has ceased production of the widely-banned weapon, following a White House order last May to stop the shipment of CBU-105 (cluster bombs)  to Saudi Arabia. The blocking of the sale was at least partly due to pressure from human rights groups that have documented Yemen’s civilian casualties caused by cluster bombs.

Textron spokesman Matthew Colpitts told Foreign Policy that the decision to end production was “due to the current regulatory challenges and in light of reduced product orders.” The company also said that, “The current political environment has made it difficult to obtain...approvals."

Thursday, September 1 The seventh annual Cluster Munition Monitor report outlines the usage of cluster bombs in Yemen (p. 24 of report), Syria, and other conflict zones.

“HRW and Amnesty International have documented evidence of at least 19 cluster munition attacks in the conflict involving the use of seven types of air-delivered and ground-launched cluster munitions produced in three countries...None of the states participating in the Saudi Arabia-led coalition—Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Pakistan, Qatar, Sudan, UAE—are party to the Convention (banning) Cluster Munitions.”

Friday, September 2 In an interview with a Houthi-run quarterly magazine, Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, the leader of the rebel group, accused the United States of providing logistical support and political cover for Saudi-led air strikes on Yemen.

Al-Houthi also told the Houthi-run magazine that his group was open to a peaceful solution.

"The hurdle facing negotiations and dialogue is that the other party wants to achieve through the talks what it wanted to achieve through war, not understanding that the path of dialogue and peace is different to the path of war," he said.

Sunday, September 4 Saudi Arabia’s civil defense agency says that cross-border shelling from Yemen killed a woman and injured two other civilians. Attacks from Yemen on Saudi Arabia’s border, along with airstrikes in Yemen carried out by the Saudi-led coalition, have intensified since peace talks were suspended in early August.

June 27-July 3: IS attacks kill dozens, Kuwait talks adjourn for Eid

Monday, June 27Three bomb attacks by the Islamic State group on Yemeni government forces killed 38 and wounded 24 in Mukalla on Monday, according to medics and security sources.

The first explosion occurred as an attacker detonated his suicide vest at a checkpoint near Mukalla, while the second blast was from a car bomb at the city’s military intelligence headquarters. The last was an improvised explosive device which went off as soldiers were preparing to break fast for Ramadan.

Representatives from the Houthi delegation and the Hadi government announced plans to suspend talks in Kuwait in time for Eid al-Fitr, the end of the holy month of Ramadan. They will reportedly return to talks in mid-July.

One of the negotiators, a minister in Hadi’s government said "the return to the talks is meant to save face after reaching a deadlock."

The deadlock he is likely referring to is the refusal of the Houthis to meet the demands of the Hadi government and UN Security Resolution 2216 which would require them to relinquish their seized weapons and territory before a unity government is formed.

Tuesday, June 28 A Saudi-led airstrike in Houthi-controlled Ta’iz killed upwards of 25 people, including at least 10 civilians, according to security officials. The strike also wounded eight civilians. Most of the victims were shoppers or storekeepers in the area.

A report by Reuters explains how the UAE’s role in Yemen has evolved from targeting the Houthis to implementing what some see as an effective new strategy in counterterrorism. The UAE has apparently proven itself to be one of America's most important allies in fighting Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

“Retired General Anthony Zinni, former chief of U.S. Central Command, told Reuters the UAE was ‘a top military’ in the region and ‘exponentially more capable than its size might indicate...It has also shown the ability to hang in there despite casualties ... (The UAE) has proven its willingness to fight alongside the U.S. and coalitions.’”

Wednesday, June 29 Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are calling for the removal of Saudi Arabia from the United Nations Human Rights Council due to the country’s “gross and systematic violations of human rights.” The groups accuse Saudi Arabia of obstructing justice for possible war crimes and demand that the country’s membership be revoked until it ends its “unlawful attacks in Yemen.”

Both groups, among a number of other organizations, have documented violations of humanitarian and international law committed by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, including the targeting of civilian areas and the use of internationally-banned cluster bombs.

Peace talks in Kuwait, which started two months ago, adjourned for two weeks for Eid al-Fitr, and are set to resume on July 15.

"The two delegations will use the coming two weeks to meet their respective leaderships," UN Special Envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed said in a statement.

"(They) will then return to Kuwait with practical recommendations on how to implement the necessary mechanisms that will enable them to sign a peace accord and thus end the conflict in Yemen."

Thursday, June 30 In response to the demand by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that Saudi Arabia be suspended from the UN’s Human Rights Council, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the council Faisal Trad said that his country is “keen” to abide by international law and assist humanitarian organizations.

"With regard to Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the coalition (are) keen to abide by international humanitarian law and apply the highest international rules of engagement which corresponds with international regulations," Ambassador Trad wrote.

Saudi Arabia was recently charged in a UN report with being the group responsible for the highest number of child deaths in Yemen in the past year, but was quickly removed after Saudi officials threatened to withdraw funding from UN-sponsored programs if it was not taken off the blacklist.

The Houthis and Hadi’s government have exchanged a total of more than 700 prisoners, including more than 50 children, since the start of the peace talks two months ago, the UN special envoy for Yemen said. Most of these prisoner exchanges have been coordinated by local and tribal officials. Details of each exchange, including the number released by each side, was not provided.

Friday, July 1 The Obama administration released on Friday internal estimates showing that up to 116 civilians have been killed during US strikes against suspected terrorists in the past seven years. The estimates, which have not previously been released, include strikes by manned and unmanned aircraft outside combat zones, such as Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and Libya. Estimates by independent organizations of civilian casualties as a result of such strikes place the death toll much higher.

The number of civilians killed in strikes in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan were not announced by the government. Between 2,372 and 2,581 so-called “combatants” were killed in the non-combat zones over the same period.

The report comes as security officials and Yemeni tribesmen say that at least three suspected al-Qaeda militants were killed in a drone strike in Shabwa on Thursday.

Saturday, July 2 Seven Houthi fighters and three pro-government forces were killed in clashes in Nihm district, east of San’a, according to security officials.

Houthi-run Yemen News Agency said the violence erupted when Houthi forces "repulsed an attempt by pro-government forces to advance to Yam Mount, east of Nihm district.”

Al Jazeera reports on the 200,000 civilians impacted by the 15-month-long Houthi siege on Ta’iz. The city is experiencing a severe shortage of food, water, fuel, and medical supplies. Thirty-seven out of the 40 hospitals in Ta’iz have been forced to close and aid organizations say they are regularly prevented from delivering essential supplies to the city.

Sunday, July 3 Mareb Press reports that Yemen’s government has announced that, in the case of the Kuwait talks failing, peace will be imposed by force. Meanwhile, a prominent member of the Houthi delegation foresees a military escalation in the coming days.

“Spokesman for the Yemeni government Rajeh Badi said in an interview with Al Jazeera that the Houthi militias and forces loyal to ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh only understand the language of force, adding that the Yemeni government realized that the Houthis only came to Kuwait to legitimize the coup.”

A member of the Houthi delegation reportedly expects the military escalation during Eid al-Fitr, which would "aim to undo the progress of the Kuwait talks."

February 28-March 6: Attacks in Aden challenge claims of government control

February 28Militiamen reportedly clashed with soldiers guarding the presidential palace in Aden on Sunday. A local official said the attackers, affiliated with the Southern Movement, wanted to speak with officials inside the palace regarding compensation for guards killed in the previous month’s attack at the palace. The gun fight erupted when the guards refused their entry.

Ban Ki-moon called on Sunday for a prompt and impartial investigation into Saturday’s Saudi-led airstrike on a market in Nihm that killed at least 32 civilians--among the highest from a single bombing in recent months.

February 29 A comprehensive embargo on arms transfers that could be used by any of the warring parties in Yemen must be immediately imposed by all states, said Amnesty international on Monday, adding that "the world has not only turned its back on the people of Yemen; many states have actually contributed to their suffering, supplying the weapons and bombs that have been used to unlawfully kill and injure civilians and destroy homes and infrastructure."

March 1 A letter by Osama bin Laden denouncing Saleh’s government and his "collusion" with the US was published(PDF) on Tuesday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. In his letters, bin Laden refers to the Houthis as “the real danger to the area” and criticizes Saleh for “compliance with [America’s] request to stop the war against the Huthi...and to concentrate efforts on targeting the free Mujahidin.”

March 2 Saudi newspaper Okaz published an interview with Hadi on Wednesday in which he discusses his decision to appoint Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and the role of Western countries in Yemen’s conflict. Hadi also claims that his forces now control 85% of Yemen. He mentioned in the interview that Saudi’s King Salman has agreed to let Yemen join the GCC, “but only without Saleh and the Houthis.” He went on to cite four different occasions when Saleh tried to assassinate him.

Meanwhile, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has said that its staffers are scared to continue working in one of its facilities in Sa'dah after two airstrikes were carried out nearby by the Saudi-led coalition. However, MSF confirmed on their Facebook page the next day that they are still operating at every facility in Yemen, including in Sa'dah.

March 3 Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin warned on Thursday that the war in Yemen could be “a very long conflict which will have even more dramatic results” due to the insistence of Hadi’s government on conditions for a ceasefire. Churkin said that the Saudi-backed resolution adopted last year, which demands that Houthi forces withdraw from all seized territory "is being used essentially to continue the military campaign."

UN aid chief Stephen O'Brien warned countries on Thursday to not take any steps that could reverse the recent increase in emergency aid provided to Yemen. "In recent months, there has been a significant increase of fuel and other life-saving imports through Yemeni ports, and it is critical that every effort be made by all member states concerned to encourage, and not hinder, that trend," O'Brien told the UN Security Council.

March 4 Gunmen stormed a retirement home on Friday in Aden’s Shaykh Othman district, killing 16, including four nuns. Pope Francis and Yemen’s UN mission condemned the attack, calling it “a cruel and heartless act.” The UN mission suggested that IS militants were responsible, but no one has yet claimed responsibility, although al-Qaeda denies any involvement.

It was reported on Friday that banks have cut credit lines for traders shipping food to Yemen. The shipments, sometimes worth millions of dollars, are now considered too risky for many lenders.

A Friday drone strike on a car in Shabwah province killed four suspected al-Qaeda militants on Friday. Al-Qaeda brochures were reportedly scattered across the road after the car burst into flames.

Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UN Abdallah al-Mouallimi said on Friday that he is concerned about the worsening humanitarian situation in Yemen but doesn’t see the need for a Security Council resolution addressing it. The ambassador claimed that the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs told his office that it doesn’t believe the council’s intervention is needed, but the OCHA said they could not comment on that. “There are reports here and there about what the Security Council is up to,” al-Mouallimi said. “We continue to believe that a political solution is the only way to resolve the Yemeni crisis.”

March 5 Gunmen in Aden’s al-Mansourah district opened fire on a vehicle on Saturday, killing police Colonel Salem al-Milqat and his aide.

March 6 Former US ambassador to Yemen Stephen Seche published an op-ed in the Boston Globe on Sunday explaining how the US-supported Saudi war in Yemen is in fact empowering the extremist Islamist groups that the US wants to defeat, especially IS. Seche argues that the ongoing war will have a profound impact on regional economy and global security.

AQAP and IS benefit from Yemen's war - Gregory Johnsen

Writing in the CTC Sentinel, Yemen specialist and AQAP expert Gregory Johnsen argues that Yemen's ongoing war is benefiting both AQAP and local Islamic State affiliates, though the two groups are often at odds with each other. According to Johnsen, AQAP is taking advantage of the power vacuum that prevails in most of the country, but they're also taking advantage of the conflict in other ways:

As Saudi air strikes target Houthi fighters and military units loyal to former President Salih, AQAP can move into the newly cleared territory. In December 2015, AQAP did just that, retaking two of the towns in Abyan that it had held in 2011 and 2012.[9] In the town of Ja`ar, which had previously served as the group’s de facto capital, AQAP killed the deputy commander of the city’s Popular Committee and reestablished control over Ja`ar, which AQAP refers to as Waqar....

AQAP has also dispatched fighters to conflict zones such as Taiz, where they join the local resistance against the Houthis and make local allies. One of AQAP’s primary goals is to integrate itself into Yemeni society. By fighting the Houthis alongside Yemenis, AQAP is creating new alliances, which its leaders believe will serve them well in the future....Prior to the Saudi-led bombing campaign, AQAP appeared to be in trouble. This is no longer the case. The group is acquiring more territory and, once again, is growing.

Local Islamic State supporters are taking advantage of another resource created by the war: sectarianism.

Just like in Iraq, where Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the group’s spiritual founder, sparked a sectarian civil war by bombing Shi`a mosques, the goal in Yemen seems to be a radicalization of the religious landscape and the grafting of a sectarian war on to the country. The initial attack in March 2015 targeted what the Islamic State later claimed were “Shi`a mosques” in Sana`a....

The Islamic State’s primary goal throughout 2016 will be to further divide the country through sectarian attacks, recreating an Iraqi-style Sunni–Shi`a civil war in Yemen. The more sectarian the war becomes, the stronger the Islamic State will grow as it seeks to portray itself as the true defender of Sunni Islam.

Johnsen predicts that, in addition to fighting the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition, AQAP and IS will likely go to war against each other in the coming months. He also warns that both organizations might increase their efforts to strike targets outside of Yemen, in order to boost their reputation and gain recruits.

Read the full article here.