The high profile operations that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has carried out in the last five months in Yemen have demonstrated that the group’s battle against Yemen’s central government and security forces is far from over. Attacks such as the coordinated suicide assault on a Ministry of Defense compound in Sana’a on December 5, 2013 that killed 52 people or the suicide attacks against the local Security Department headquarters in Aden in December and the Aden headquarters of the Army’s 4th Division in April are the most evident displays of the group’s strength in the midst of an insurrection. These major operations are backed by dozens of smaller operations targeting security personnel across Yemen’s southern and central provinces (National Yemen, December 5, 2013; al-Tagheer [Aden] January 1; April 2). This surge in AQAP operations comes in a critical juncture for the Yemeni state, which is already facing the steady advance of the Zaydi Shi’a Houthi movement towards Sana’a. The Houthis are an amorphous group based in the northern province of Sa’ada, acting along the dual lines of a religious movement trying to revitalize Zaydism and an insurgent group fighting for more ambiguous goals. The group cites economic, religious and political marginalization as their main grievances against the central government, whereas the latter accuses the Houthis of attempting to re-establish the Yemeni Imamate with support from Iran.
Jihadist activities in the south and the rapid expansion of Houthist influence beyond Sa’ada Governorate represent the most complex security challenges for the central government since 2011, when both actors began to exploit the new space opened by the uncertain Yemeni transition to consolidate and extend their positions. While the government reacted to AQAP’s activities with a series of military ground offensives and a steady campaign of airstrikes that inflicted serious blows to the group but failed to erode its capabilities, Sana’a has dealt with the Houthist expansion with an ineffective strategy of containment. On the one hand, this different approach is partially related to the different nature of both groups. Although the Houthis have not abandoned their rebellion, they did embark on a process of political engagement after the removal of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012, whereas AQAP clearly has no accepted political role or voice in the country. The government seems inclined to avoid a new armed confrontation with the Houthis after having engaged in six indecisive wars with the movement in northern Sa’ada from 2004 to 2010.
The government inaction has allowed the Houthis to consolidate their grip over Sa’ada and expand their presence across Hajjah, al-Jawf, Dhamar and Amran governorates. Since 2011 an intermittent conflict has occurred in those provinces between the Houthis, various tribal clans and Sunni Salafists over local issues and territorial control. From October 2013 to February, the fighting has been centered mainly in Sa’ada and Amran (see Terrorism Monitor Brief, February 21).
The conflict has since moved close to Sana’a and has seen Houthi militants battling security forces. At the end of February, the Houthis attempted to seize control of government installations in Hazm, the capital of al-Jawf, attacking an army patrol guarding a building, killing two soldiers and injuring three (Almasdaronline, February 28). In March, Houthi militants ambushed an army post in the Hamdan district of Sana’a, killing two other soldiers and injuring four (Kamaranpress.net, March 14). This incident has not been the only one in the Sana’a area, as Houthis and Sunni tribesmen had already fought in the Arhab district, only 35 kilometers north of Sana’a International Airport (al-Ahram [Cairo] February 6; Akhbaralyom.net, February 7). In April, the Houthis took over an army base in Amran after fighting left ten dead on both sides (Almashad-alyemeni.com, April 9).
The fact that the Houthis brought their militants close to Sana’a, coupled with the government’s hesitation in moving against the group even when government forces were attacked, has boosted the impression of a weak state facing an increasingly defiant opponent. This feeling was further reinforced when President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi asked the Bani Matar tribe to help defend Sana’a from a potential Houthi attack (Almasdaronline, March 17). Although a Houthi offensive on the capital seems highly improbable given that such a move could trigger a broader conflict, the group’s mobilization in the capital is nevertheless underway. This was confirmed when security forces recently blew up a weapons depot belonging to the Houthis containing about 300 RPGs in al-Jeraf (northeast of Sana’a), only one of the places where the group is believed to store its weapons in the capital (Aden Post, April 14; Albaldnews.com, April 16).
It is against this backdrop that AQAP recently joined the growing chorus of voices that have criticized the government for failing to halt the Houthist expansion. On March 30, AQAP released a statement accusing the Yemeni government of being involved in a “conspiracy” to empower the Shi’a Houthis against the Salafists and urged Sunnis to “wake up and realize the extent of the conspiracy” (Hournews.net, March 30). The group also announced the formation of a new brigade, Ansar al-Shari’a in the Central Region, tasked with fighting the Houthis and halting their expansion (Hournews.net, April 1; Almashad-alyemeni.com, April 2).
AQAP has voiced its hostility towards the Zaydi movement on several occasions in the past. In 2011, the late deputy AQAP leader Saeed al-Shihri called for jihad against the Houthis and last November the group vowed retaliation after Houthi militants besieged the Salafist Dar al-Hadith religious school in Dammaj (Sa’ada governorate) (Yemen Post, January 20, 2011; Yemen Times, November 14, 2013). AQAP has also managed to sporadically target the Houthis in the north, most notably in May 2012, when a suicide bomber targeted a Houthi mosque in al-Jawf, killing 14 people (Yemen Post, May 25, 2012).
However, the group’s reputation was highly damaged after the December 5, 2013 attack on the Ministry of Defense complex. That attack also targeted a hospital located within the compound and killed unarmed medics and patients, causing outrage even amongst the group’s sympathizers and ultimately pushing AQAP to officially apologize (Yemen Times, December 24, 2013).
Reports of an alleged jihadist camp discovered in al-Jawf, where around 300 fighters are receiving militant training in anticipation of an imminent offensive against Houthis and security forces, leave open the prospect of an open confrontation between the two groups in the near future (Yemensaeed.com, April 8; Barakish.net, April 9). In the same vein, the recent arrests by Yemeni authorities of Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard operatives accused of helping the Houthis to set up militant training camps indicate that the Zaydi movement has no intention of laying down its weapons. There is little doubt the Houthis would fight any AQAP attempt to weaken its new position of power (Hournews.net, April 22; Almashad-alyemeni.com, April 24). In this scenario, the arc of instability crossing the country would be further extended, reducing the ability of the central government to contain further political-sectarian violence.
Ludovico Carlino is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of International Politics at the University of Reading, specializing in al-Qaeda and its affiliated movements. He obtained a MA in Analysis and Terrorism Prevention from the University of Madrid and is currently Director of the International Terrorism program at CISIP, the Italian Center for the Study of Political Islam.