The United States has declared the fall of the Islamic State’s (IS) physical caliphate in Syria, but the group has found fertile ground outside of Syria and Iraq. The group has fared particularly well in some locations and struggled to expand in others, but even in some of the locations that have proved difficult for expansion, the group has managed to persist. This has notably been the case in Yemen, where the group initially burst onto the jihadist scene, before eventually fizzling out to a core group based in Yemen’s al-Bayda governorate.
While the IS branch in Yemen (IS-Y) has faced significant challenges in maintaining expansive operations across the country, it has proved rather resilient in al-Bayda and continues to pose a threat to the country’s internal security. IS’ persistence creates a complicated and challenging dynamic in Yemen. First, and most obviously, its mere existence presents another jihadist group for local and international actors to confront. Second, its operations have already, and will likely continue to, have a multifaceted effect on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The war in Yemen initially proved to be a boon for AQAP as the group’s ranks swelled and its territorial control expanded, but the past two years have seen significant territorial reversals. One of the most active AQAP groups is currently based in al-Bayda, the same area as the most active group of IS-Y (Terrorism Monitor, September 21, 2018). It is no coincidence that the two have found freedom of movement in al-Bayda, as the governorate has historically been a base of operations for AQAP. The area is currently one of the less active fronts between the Houthis and anti-Houthi forces and is not as closely controlled by UAE-backed security forces.
Over the past year, IS-Y and AQAP’s operations have mostly consisted of tit-for-tat attacks against one another in the Qayfa region of al-Bayda. The focus of the two group’s propaganda output has similarly followed this trend, with each group claiming successful attacks against the other and trying to seize the moral high ground in the eyes of locals. Meanwhile, attacks on Houthi forces and civilian targets have waned as the two have become embroiled in their own fight.
On the surface, it is easy for analysts to view a scenario in which two jihadist groups are focused primarily on defeating one another as a positive, but the situation on the ground and the long-term implications are becoming far more nuanced as the fight continues. At present, it appears unlikely that either group will defeat the other any time soon, but what is clear is that the skirmishes between the two have disrupted local lives and are forcing some to choose between the two. Both groups have ramped up recruitment efforts and propaganda over the past year. Most notably, IS-Y released a nearly 30-minute video on April 1 calling for Muslims to join the group and “disturb the lives of disbelievers” (Jihadology, April 1) Meanwhile, local groups aligned with the tribes in Qayfa have allegedly aligned with AQAP to hunt down and confront IS-Y fighters and leaders after the group destroyed a local well and other agricultural resources (Jihadology, March 28).
The attack on tribal resources is a significant development as IS-Y’s lack of sensitivity to local contexts, including its often-brutal tactics, are partially to blame for its relative dissolution in other areas of Yemen. If the group continues such attacks, it might quickly find itself more at odds with locals and an AQAP increasingly bolstered by local partners. This scenario would not necessarily result in the defeat of the group in al-Bayda, but instead could push the group to other corners of Yemen, once again allowing AQAP to be the preeminent group there and facilitating its return to typical targeting patterns and activities. Meanwhile, IS-Y would continue to pose a threat to Yemen’s internal security.
While it is positive that the two sides are not striking government or civilian targets as frequently as in the past, neither side is likely to defeat one another in the near to medium term. In fact, the two groups have seemingly not been significantly degraded in this area and could both see short- or longer-term gains as they compete for local support or acquiescence. Conversely, the decline of one group would likely mean the strengthening of the other. It is unclear if IS-Y’s call for recruits to travel to Yemen will be successful, but it does indicate it is actively seeking to not only draw in locals but is also attempting to appeal more broadly to those outside of Yemen, a tactic less commonly employed by AQAP. IS-Y’s targeting of vital tribal resources has already led some groups closer to AQAP. While many tribes will only align with the terrorist group against a common enemy, time spent fighting for a common goal often results in some individuals more formally joining AQAP or the formation of a deeper understanding between formal AQAP members and locals.