Conditions in Yemen appear to be ideal for the expansion of an insurgent organization like Islamic State (IS). All the normal vectors for the spread of the virus of militant Salafism are present: grinding poverty; rampant youth unemployment; a weak and most often non-existent government; and thriving dark networks that traffic in everything from weapons to people. The Saudi-led and U.S.-backed war has exacerbated all of these and made what was already fertile ground for militant Salafism far more conducive to its growth.
So why has IS failed to gain a significant foothold in Yemen? First and foremost, it is competing with what is al-Qaeda’s most agile and adaptive franchise — al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Second, the uncompromising and extreme interpretation of Islam that the IS leadership embraces is largely alien to the vast majority of Yemenis. Even those Yemenis whose views fall toward the radical end of the spectrum are unlikely to support the bloody tactics employed by IS. Third, the group’s top-down authoritarian approach to leadership and governance is an anathema to much of Yemeni society, which values collaborative leadership and a respect for traditional forms of governance.
AQAP vs Islamic State
The existence of IS in Yemen dates to the fall of 2014 when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi acknowledged that fighters in Yemen had pledged baya (a formal oath of allegiance) to him. At the time, IS was rapidly expanding across Iraq and Syria and was at the height of its popularity among militant Salafists. At the same time, AQAP was under intense pressure from Houthi and Yemeni Army forces. Beginning in November 2014, a number of mid-level AQAP operatives defected to IS in Yemen (al-Monitor, November 30, 2015). In March 2015, IS carried out its first attacks in Yemen by targeting two mosques in the capital of Sanaa (al-Jazeera, March 21, 2105). It justified the bombings by stating that the mosques were Zaydi Shia mosques used by the Houthis. In fact, the mosques — as with the vast majority of mosques in Yemen — were used by both Zaiydis and Shafi Sunnis.
The attack on the mosques was an attempt by IS to exacerbate sectarian tensions in Yemen, a tried and tested strategy that it used with considerable success in Syria and Iraq. However, in Yemen, the strategy has not worked nearly so well. This is because sectarian tensions between Zaydi Shia — a branch of Shia Islam that is closer to Sunni Islam than the Twelver Shia that predominate in Iran — and Shafi Sunnis have been exaggerated. Rather than enabling IS in Yemen to gain more recruits and support, the attacks cost it much of the limited support it had within Yemen’s community of militant Salafists.
In 2015, IS enjoyed some success in Yemen’s Hadramawt governorate, where it engaged in several battles with AQAP. However, the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which began on March 26, 2015, put pressure on the Houthis and allowed AQAP to go on the offensive across southern Yemen. AQAP captured the Yemeni port city of al-Mukalla in April 2015, where it seized large sums of money and vast stores of weapons (Yemen Times, April 6, 2015). From this point forward, AQAP was resurgent and IS, which had only just begun to gain a foothold in Yemen, was on the defensive.
During 2015 and 2016, IS continued to launch attacks on primarily civilian targets in urban environments, including its two most recent and most deadly attacks on retired and active duty Yemeni soldiers waiting to collect pensions and salaries in Aden. AQAP condemned the attacks, which collectively killed more than 100 people, and criticized IS’ excessive use of violence (al-Arabiya, December 18, 2016).
AQAP’s criticism is notable because it shows the group has learned to moderate its own behavior and realizes that such violence will undermine IS in Yemen. AQAP, more than many of the other al-Qaeda franchises, is extremely agile and continually demonstrates a willingness to learn from its mistakes. In 2013, AQAP apologized to the Yemeni people for its own attack on a military hospital in Sanaa in which 52 people were killed (al-Jazeera, December 22, 2013). Since then, AQAP has been more strategic about the targets it attacks.
Stirring up Local Tensions
In addition to being mindful of public opinion when selecting targets, AQAP has learned that its survival is contingent on gaining the support — or at least avoiding angering — of the tribal communities that live in AQAP’s areas of operation. To this end, AQAP has modified its approach and has mostly tempered its radicalism by adopting what can be called a gradualist policy. This policy means that AQAP works to gradually and carefully impose its will on those communities that it wants to govern.
In 2012, AQAP suffered one of its most severe defeats at the hands of tribesmen in Shabwa and Abyan. It had tried to impose its hardline understanding of Islamic law and to usurp the authority of the area’s tribal leadership. In response, the tribesmen formed militias and, with the help of the Yemeni Army and careful U.S. support, forced AQAP to flee the area.
IS’ even more extreme interpretation of Islam, and the indiscriminate violence that such an interpretation justifies, means that IS will find little lasting support in Yemen. Unlike AQAP, it is unlikely that IS will moderate its ideology or tactics. To do so would be to lose much of its raison d’etre. IS in Yemen’s primary critique of AQAP is that the organization is too moderate and not “Islamic” enough.
It is also unlikely that IS in Yemen will adopt a more collaborative approach to governance. Its ideology and its small size in Yemen both militate against such a shift. The group will not do as AQAP has learned to do and work within existing structures of tribal governance. Its insistence on recreating an imagined caliphate does not allow for compromise. The extreme nature of IS’ views limit its viability within Yemen where top-down authority is neither traditional nor acceptable to most.
Additionally, IS continues to use a number of foreigners as operatives which, as AQAP discovered, is problematic in Yemen. Yemenis are loathe to submit to the authority of non-Yemenis, much less the Somalis that IS in Yemen favors.
It has taken years for AQAP to learn how to effectively operate in a Yemeni context — or rather contexts, since Yemen’s socio-cultural environments are highly variable. In addition to years of experience in Yemen and a tradition of learning and adapting, AQAP is now better funded and better armed than it has ever been.
Bringing an End to IS in Yemen
AQAP has effectively and efficiently used its windfall from the war in Yemen to grow its organization and refine its capabilities. One part of its organization that AQAP has focused on expanding is its intelligence wing. In this respect, AQAP has learned a great deal from its fellow al-Qaeda affiliate, the Somalia based al-Shabaab.
Early on in its development, al-Shabaab focused on creating a formidable intelligence apparatus, the Aminyat, which has helped the group manage its relations, often violently, with Somalia’s fractious clans. It has also helped al-Shabaab penetrate and largely neutralize the IS in Somalia.
IS in Yemen is a small but porous organization that does not possess the kind of skilled operatives that AQAP does. It is likely that AQAP’s own intelligence wing has thoroughly penetrated the group.
IS in Yemen’s future is far from certain. As IS in Iraq and Syria comes under increasing pressure, there will be more harm done to the already damaged Islamic State brand. The very tactics — extreme violence, top-down authority and a focus on exacerbating sectarian tensions — that allowed IS to expand in Iraq and Syria will limit its expansion in Yemen.
In all likelihood, much of IS in Yemen’s organization will eventually either be co-opted or eliminated by AQAP.