Various observers of Yemeni political dynamics have rightly highlighted that what we generally call the Yemen civil war is, in reality, three separate yet overlapping conflicts. The first one is the multi-sided civil war, namely the conflict opposing the internationally recognised government of President Abu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, supported by the Saudi-led coalition and a plethora of various local militias and UAE’s proxies, against the Houthi movement. Then, there is the regional dimension of this conflict, in which Saudi Arabia and Iran represent the main players. And last, but not least, there is the war against the jihadist organisations of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State (IS) in Yemen, which since the beginning of the hostilities in March 2015 have exploited the consequent security vacuum and the collapse of the Yemeni army to strengthen their respective positions.
The war against jihadist groups in Yemen is the longest-running among the three, rooted in the so-called War on Terror unleashed by the United States after the 9/11 attacks (the first US drone strike carried out against AQAP in Yemen dates back 2002). Despite the intensity of this intervention went through different phases over the last 17 years, counter-terrorism initiatives in Yemen have never managed to completely defeat AQAP. This is partially because they focussed on an exclusively military approach, without taking into considerations the myriad of socio-economic problems entangling Yemen, and partially because the difficulty to permanently sever AQAP’s strong and deep local roots. The organization’s capability to morph and adapt its aims according to conditions on the ground is a further explanation of the group’s longevity, a dynamic that has been quite visible over the course of the current conflict.
During the first phase of the Yemeni civil war, AQAP largely remained on the sideline, prioritizing territorial control over fighting the Houthis and what remained of the Yemeni army. At the peak of its territorial expansion in February 2016, the group was in control of nine Yemeni towns (the biggest was al-Mukalla, Hadramawt’s provincial capital), occupying an area larger than the one it held in 2011, when the group attempted its first experiment of local governance in Abyan during the anti-Saleh popular uprising. AQAP’s advances in 2011 were later reverted by four consequent army offensives in 2012 and 2013, which forced the group to retreat in the canyons and highlands of Shabwa and Hadramawt and deprived the group of its previous operational capabilities.
AQAP territorial control in southern Yemen was mainly aimed at recovering financially and cementing its relationships with local Salafist-leaning tribes, which were pivotal for the efforts to replenish its ranks by having a pool of new recruits from those local Sunni tribes opposing both the Houthi takeover of power and the consequent Saudi-led intervention. Therefore, this was not an attempt to establish a local Emirate and challenge the Caliphate proclaimed by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq in June 2014. When AQAP and its local branches seized the town of al-Mukalla in April 2015, for instance, they did not rush to declare an Islamic Emirate or to announce the establishment of Sharia-compliant institutions to run the city. Rather, the group formed an administrative body made up of tribal figures – the Hadhrami Domestic Council (HDC) – to govern the city and to gradually consolidate its strength, building support among southern Sunni tribes.
This process of transformation continued in October 2016, when AQAP started to be actively engaged in the civil war against the Houthi militia. AQAP began to openly fight alongside local Sunni tribes in areas such as Ibb, Taiz and al-Bayda, forging opportunistic relations with them. Pro-government militias in central Yemen accepted AQAP presence either because of its superior organizational efficiency and fighting skills or because of ideological proximity (a case in point is the Salafist-leaning Abu Abbas militia in Taiz), ultimately allowing AQAP to enter new areas such as Taiz or Radaa (al-Bayda governorate), where its presence in the past was extremely limited. By portraying its engagement against the Houthis as an effort to defend Yemeni Sunnis from the “Shia aggression”, AQAP’s long-term strategy is to carve out an influence in these new areas through its gradualist approach to governance and exploit the “Sunni versus Shia” rhetoric to cement its relationship with local Sunni and Salafist tribes.
By contrast, in Abyan and Hadramawt provinces, two of the group’s historical strongholds, AQAP is engaged in insurgent and asymmetrical tactics targeting the military forces allied with Hadi government and those militias trained and founded by the UAE. The strategy of AQAP here is evidently aimed at undermining any attempt to restore government authority and preserving that “state of chaos” and anarchy that has allowed it to recover and thrive. Furthermore, the group’s approach has gone through a strategic adjustment during the course of the conflict once again. At first, AQAP avoided antagonising the coalition across southern Yemen, out of concern that this would have exposed local tribes to US or coalition military retaliation, jeopardising its support base.
In November 2016, however, AQAP started to portray the Emirati forces and those Yemenis who fight under the UAE umbrella as “infidels”, announcing the legitimacy of the jihad against them in response to multiple counter-terrorism offensives spearheaded by the UAE since then. Most of AQAP’s attacks, according to data collected by the author, continue these days to target UAE backed militias, mainly those belonging to the Security Belt forces or the Hadrami and Shabwa elite forces, a mix of conservative hard-line militias drawing fighters from southern Yemen and overseen and trained by the UAE.
Paradoxically, the remaining of AQAP’s attacks, rather than being concentrated against the Houthis, are directed towards another jihadi entity, the Islamic State wilaya, or province, in Yemen. The group, emerged in Yemen in November 2014, has never managed to impose itself into the Yemeni context despite its propaganda has been trying to project a magnified image of its presence there: on one side, this occurred because IS has been inapt to compete with a more locally rooted group such as AQAP; on the other, due to the difficulties to receive foreign fighters from the outside and the lack of integration in the local tribal milieu. The jihadist “faida” started in mid-2018, triggered by local disputes and rivalries, and it continues to be concentrated in al-Bayda (the only province where IS appears to be active at the moment), where the two groups exchange mutual accusations of apostasy and deviation from the “true jihad”, mounting almost weekly attacks against each other.
In the short term, this AQAP/IS infighting, coupled with constant UAE counter-terrorism pressure, has the potential to debilitate the two jihadist organisations. Looking further away, however, as the civil war still drags on without any political solution in the horizon, and while coalition supported forces continue to attract strong accusations of blatant human rights violations, the future for AQAP and IS in Yemen might well be promising. AQAP has any incentive to preserve its strategic adjustment and continue to focus on the local front of its jihadi struggle, but it could exploit the space of manoeuvre provided by the civil war to set the stage for a further recalibration of its aims, reincorporating that global element for which the group had been widely known. Moreover, AQAP could ultimately bring what remains of IS in Yemen under its umbrella. In more than 25 years, AQAP has proved to be a learning organisation able to adapt itself to conditions on the ground. An endless civil war is just what the group needs to have this process facilitated.