HOUTHIS CONTINUE TO CONSOLIDATE CONTROL IN YEMEN
During the last fortnight, Yemen’s Houthi movement has continued to expand and consolidate its control over the country’s central and western regions, as well as in the capital Sana’a. In particular, the group pushed further southwards to capture Radmah in Ibb province on October 29, and eastwards to Marib, on the fringes of the Empty Quarter desert. The group had earlier captured the western Red Sea port of Hodeidah on October 15. In a sign of their growing confidence, Houthi leaders have also brushed off threats of UN sanctions. “We are not afraid of the United Nations or any tyrant entity,” said Abdul-Malik al-Houthi in a public speech (Press TV [Tehran], November 4).
As well as seizing territory, the Houthis have also continued to attack and harass their long-time Sunni rivals, Islah (the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood). In Ibb city, on October 31, Houthi fighters attacked Islah’s provincial headquarters, leading to fighting in which at least three people were killed (Middle East Online, November 1). Two days later, on November 2, armed Houthis raided two Islah buildings in Sana’a, kidnapping three students. A Houthi spokesman said that the various raids had been conducted as part of a search for weapons. In a related move intended to strengthen their support in Sana’a at the expense of Islah and its supporters, the Houthis have also been offering tours of General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar’s opulent house to demonstrate the wealth enjoyed by the former regime. Mohsen, a pro-Islah ex-ally of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and a long-standing opponent of the Houthis, had fled to Saudi Arabia when the Houthis seized the capital in September. Separately, the Houthis’ political coalition, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), has sought in recent days to strengthen its overall political position by building stronger relations with southern separatist groups, notably offering them increased ministerial positions in the government (Yemen Times, November 4).
At the same time, however, the Houthis have continued to encounter significant resistance during recent weeks as they move beyond their traditional, mainly rural, strongholds in Yemen’s remote north. In the Jebal Ras area of Hodeidah governorate, in western Yemen, several days of fierce fighting took place in early November between the Houthis and hardline Sunni militants (al-Bawaba, November 4). Heavy fighting with militants from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) also occurred in late October in al-Baydha governorate, notably around al-Manaseh (Yemen Times, October 27). Meanwhile in the key central city of Taiz, Houthi fighters were deterred from entering the city after the local military commander entrenched his forces in the area and the city’s governor refused the group’s requests to enter the city (SABA News Agency [Sana’a], October 27]. In another blow, Muhammad Abdul-Malik al-Motawakal, a centrist politician from the Union of Popular Forces party, who had recently mediated between the Houthis and the country’s government, was assassinated in Sana’a on November 2. In southern Yemen too, the Houthis’ overtures to local leaders have not been always welcomed; a group of 15-20 Houthi tribesmen were arrested by local militias as they arrived in Aden governorate on October 31 and they remain detained by the local authorities (Yemen Times, November 4). These developments underline that while the Houthi movement continues to make significant territorial and political gains throughout much of Yemen, it is facing increasing political and military resistance as it moves out of its traditional strongholds, a trend that is likely to continue in coming months.
ISLAMIC STATE SUPPORTERS SURFACE IN AFGHANISTAN
On October 20, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Interior (MoI) announced that several individuals had been arrested for writing “Long Live ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria]” on the walls of Kabul University in the capital and at some other locations and that investigations were underway (Bokhdi News Agency, October 20). A month earlier, officials in Ghazni province had reported the presence of groups of insurgents with Islamic State flags and uniforms in the province’s Andar district. Ghazni’s deputy governor, Muhammad Ahmadi, said that these groups had taken control of some roads and had searched travelers (Tolo News, September 21).
Although the extent of any nascent Islamic State influence in Afghanistan remains unclear, members of the group, including the leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, were present in Afghanistan in the late 1990s when al-Qaeda had training camps in various parts of the country. Sources close to Afghan officials have said that al-Baghdadi had traveled to Afghanistan along with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq until his death in 2006 (Tadbirkhabar.com, July 15).
These long-standing links between al-Qaeda and Afghanistan, dating back to Arab jihadists’ involvement in fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during 1980s, mean that the emergence of an Islamic State branch in Afghanistan cannot be dismissed. In addition, given that the Taliban and its affiliated groups such as the Haqqani Network, have adopted the most radical salafi-deobandi interpretations of Islam during the last decade – as evidenced by their widespread use of suicide attacks – it is indeed possible that some of these groups may swear allegiance to al-Baghdadi if Islamic State influence continues to spread in the country.
Already a video has been distributed through social media purporting to show a group of 20 Afghans announcing their loyalty and allegiance to al-Baghdadi, saying that their total group of 5,000 fighters will be the Afghan branch of the Islamic State organization (Shafaf.ir, October 19). However, while the Islamic State’s online supporters have welcomed this announcement, their opponents – such as the Syria-based al-Nusra Front and Musa al-Ghanami, a prominent Saudi pro-jihadist preacher – have cast doubt on the video’s claims. For instance, they question why only 20 of the purported 5,000 militants appeared in the video.
Regardless of the video’s authenticity, these developments nonetheless give clear notice that the Islamic State organization’s influence may be spreading to Afghanistan, including Kabul. While the emergence of potential Islamic State supporters in the country is unlikely to have any short-term implications, it raises questions about the longer-term trajectory of Afghanistan after the planned withdrawal over the bulk of international military forces from the country in the coming months. It also underlines that during the last few years the shift of Afghanistan’s society towards increasingly conservative forms of Islam and away from the traditional Hanafi school of Islam, may be making the country even more receptive to radical forms of Islam in the years ahead.
Waliullah Rahmani is a security and political affairs expert specializing in terrorism, insurgency, Afghanistan-Pakistan affairs and Islamic movements.