Islamic State and AQAP Could Exploit Disorder in Southern Yemen

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 23


Though the war in Yemen is far from over, the conflict is at least seemingly moving in a more positive direction as the Saudi coalition is engaging in indirect talks with the Houthis and facilitating a fragile ceasefire referred to as the Riyadh Agreement between the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and the Hadi-led government. While the Saudi coalition is working to address two of the most glaring issues in the war, another key problem has been left festering—the persistence of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State in Yemen (IS-Y). AQAP is very much still alive and has always been quick to exploit security vacuums and the moments between governance transitions. IS-Y, while not particularly strong, is still capable of playing a spoiler in the war and could see growth if the war provides the operational space.

There has been little concerted effort against AQAP since the group was pushed out of its many traditional safe havens in the coastal regions of Yemen’s southern governorates and corralled deeper into al-Bayda, Hadramawt, and Marib between 2015 and 2016. AQAP’s retreat inland was prompted more by constant pressure from UAE-trained and backed forces—which provided the bulk of the forces fighting in the south—than actions by the Yemeni military and forces loyal to President Hadi or Saudi Arabia.

Similarly, IS-Y saw its operational space shrink as UAE-backed forces secured southern governorates, cutting off IS-Y’s access to resources and its ability to recruit. As such, IS-Y was never quite able to find solid footing and gain a large, loyal following. The nascent group did, however, manage to carry out several significant attacks against government and military forces early after its formation.

Despite intermittent clashes, STC-aligned forces and Hadi loyalists had managed to maintain a level of stability and security in southern Yemen that prevented AQAP and IS-Y from operating freely or regaining territory. That fragile balance now hinges on an ambitious and high-stakes agreement that will be incredibly difficult to implement and could see a resurgence of AQAP and IS-Y activity.

Riyadh Agreement

The Riyadh Agreement calls for a significant transformation of governance structures as well as an overhaul of the management and structure of security forces in southern Yemen. This overhaul will see Saudi Arabia assume command of southern coalition forces from the UAE, the removal and redeployment of fighters from Aden, and the integration of STC-aligned forces into the Yemeni military under the defense ministry’s control. Such a complicated and contentious transition, particularly if not smoothly managed, will undoubtedly have significant implications on AQAP and IS-Y’s strength and area of operations.

The Riyadh Agreement hit its first 30-day deadline with little to no progress on the restructuring of the government and security forces. Instead, clashes between STC-aligned forces and the Yemeni military killed more than 40 people in the Ahwar district of Abyan in the final week before the deadline (Aden News, December 5). With the agreement already beginning to seemingly falter, there are two primary scenarios to consider that, should they occur, would serve to benefit AQAP and IS-Y.

The first scenario that could see resurgent AQAP and IS-Y activity is if the Riyadh Agreement completely breaks down and widespread fighting between the warring parties resumes. Key members of the STC are keen to see the agreement succeed as it serves to legitimize it as a political entity within the country’s political field, but tit-for-tat clashes by disparate southern units and the Yemeni military could easily derail the process. Additionally, moving forward, any perceived imbalance with northern forces or political figures could see the rift open once again. Similarly, Hadi and government aligned figures will be quick to respond if STC members or allied forces appear to be working in their own favor rather than toward a government set mandate. Flare ups are likely throughout the process, but a complete breakdown of the agreement would likely see more intense fighting than was witnessed in August. The resumption of hostilities could once again allow AQAP to move outside of its primary base and exploit the tumult, potentially allowing it to gather valuable resources or retake territory, particularly in the already highly contentious Abyan.

The second and equally as likely scenario is that the bureaucratic shift and change of command will lead to a fractured and less effective military force with an unclear or controversial mandate. A unified military command will undoubtedly see STC-aligned fighters being integrated alongside their hated rival, Islah. Mistrust between the two will undoubtedly create problems, as many of the recent clashes have been between STC forces and those aligned with Islah. It is also not entirely clear what the integrated military’s tactical priorities will be moving forward; will the focus be more on the Houthis or stabilizing security in the mostly pacified southern governorates. Saudi Arabia and Hadi have little incentive to take the fight directly to AQAP at its current base in al-Bayda as the group and its allied militias still act as a hedge against the Houthis. Further, the redeployment and integration of STC-aligned forces and equipment will be time consuming and will likely create security vacuums, even if only temporarily, that AQAP and IS-Y will undoubtedly continue to exploit.

AQAP and IS-Y Quick to Exploit Instability

The majority of AQAP’s claimed operations since late 2017 have centered around the Qayfa area of al-Bayda, which is coincidentally also the stronghold for IS-Y. A large percentage of AQAP and IS-Y operations over the past two years have been against one another, with each group only claiming sporadic, opportunistic attacks on the Houthis and UAE-backed southern forces. The small percentage of noteworthy attacks outside of this area, however, should not be viewed as an indication of weakness for either group, particularly AQAP.

Many of AQAP’s major territorial losses in southern Yemen over the past several years were tactical retreats rather than substantial battlefield losses and the group still commands a force estimated in the thousands. AQAP demonstrated how quickly it could exploit chaos in southern Yemen when tensions between the STC and government forces first erupted into open fighting in August. In what was its most active month in the past few years, AQAP conducted a series of deadly attacks against STC-aligned forces beyond its base in Qayfa, including an attack on the al-Mahfad army base in Abyan that killed 19 (Aljazeera, August 2). AQAP also managed to temporarily seize control of Abyan’s al-Wadea district—President Hadi’s birthplace and a previous base of AQAP operations (MEMO, September 9; Middle East Eye, September 14, 2017). AQAP has reportedly been moving back into Abyan over the past several weeks, with reports of fighters moving about more freely as tensions have mounted over the lack of progress toward the implementation of the agreement.

IS-Y is considerably less adept than AQAP, but it has also demonstrated its resilience and ability to exploit instability and operate outside of its primary stronghold in Qayfa. IS-Y claimed responsibility for a series of suicide bombings and assassinations in Aden throughout August, its first operations in the city since early 2018. Along with the claims of responsibility, IS-Y shared images reportedly depicting each one of the attacks. More recently, on December 7, IS-Y released a message and photographs claiming responsibility for the assassination of Mohammed Saleh al-Radfani, a senior commander from the STC-aligned Security Belt Forces.

AQAP and IS-Y are still operational and have preyed on the instability caused by the conflict between the STC and the Hadi-led government. The security situation in southern Yemen has not deteriorated enough yet to allow either group the ability to regain significant swathes of territory, but uncertainty surrounding the agreement and intermittent clashes will continue to create pockets of instability in the near term. There have been upwards of 13 assassinations in Aden since the 30 day deadline passed on December 5 (Middle East Eye, December 12). Looking forward, the slow implementation of the agreement will almost certainly create new security vacuums that IS-Y and AQAP will be keen to leverage to seize territory and resources, or at the least, sow further disorder through assassinations and attacks on security forces. In the worst-case scenario of a complete breakdown in the agreement, fighting between STC forces and Hadi loyalists will likely intensify beyond previous levels and create the same type of security environment that allowed both AQAP and IS-Y to control territory during the early days of the war.