Since October 2016, Islamic State (IS) has increasingly been on the defensive. The terrorist group is losing territory in northern Syria – including the historic town of Dabiq lost to Syrian rebels – and is likely to lose the northern Iraqi city of Mosul to Iraqi forces in the coming months. Meanwhile, the group’s Libyan affiliate is close to losing the entirety of its stronghold in Sirte.
While defeating IS in Iraq and Syria is one of the most pressing international security challenges facing the world, equal attention should be paid to the terrorist group’s regional affiliate in Yemen (IS-Y). IS Yemeni affiliate is steadily growing in strength, so much so that when the offensives on Mosul and Raqqa are finally over, IS leadership, as well as the rank-and-file, could potentially relocate their operations to Yemen.
It is essential then for the United States and its counter-IS coalition partners develop a military strategy to eliminate IS-Y before it can fully mature.
The Origins of Islamic State in Yemen
The presence of IS in Yemen was first openly acknowledged two years ago when, on November 9, 2014, an Arabic-language audio recording titled The Yemeni Bay’a to the Islamic State surfaced online. In the recording, a group of jihadist fighters in Yemen vowed to follow in the footsteps of Muslim Prophet Muhammad “to exhibit obedience to God and the Prophet who taught us to be united, we announce our allegiance and obedience to Caliph Ibrahim bin Awad bin Ibrahim al-Qurashi al-Husseini [a.k.a. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi]” (Archive.org, November 11).
Four days later, on November 13, 2014, al-Baghdadi acknowledged this affiliate (Bawabit al-Harakat al-Islamiya, April 29). Since then, IS-Y has been building a strong presence in a number of Sunni-dominated locales in the Aden, Hadramawt, Sanaa, Taizz, Lahij, Shabwah and al-Bayda governorates.
Three reasons are likely to have motivated the timing of al-Baghdadi’s announcement. The first is related to IS as an aspiring global terrorist organization – its weekly Arabic-language publication, al-Naba, calls for fighting the “unbelievers wherever they are on Earth until they become believers” (al-Naba, Issue 14, January 18). The second is related to the idiosyncrasies of the Yemeni conflict, particularly the collapse of governance and lack of security that followed the Houthis’ capture of the capital Sanaa in September 2014. This situation had presented IS-Y with the opportunity to brand itself as the savior of Sunnis who felt targeted and humiliated by the Zaidi/Shia Houthis.
The third is related to reported internal divisions inside the Yemen-based leadership of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) (Al-Jazeera Arabic, February 19). Potential AQAP recruits are less likely to be attracted to a disunited jihadist program, and subsequently are more willing to join the more visibly successful IS.
Leadership and Strategy
The most well-known IS-Y leader is Nashwan al-Adeni (a.k.a. Abu Salman), the wali (governor) of IS-Y’s wilyat in Aden. His name suggests origins in the Aden governorate, but little is known about IS-Y’s leadership or chain of command. Information is also scarce on IS-Y’s rank and file, but it is probable that its top leadership is made up of former AQAP members, who are mainly Yemeni and Saudi nationals with an intimate knowledge of Yemen.
Nurturing IS-Y is part of the strategy of the group’s parent organization for building a global caliphate. This strategy rests on attempting to mobilize Muslims to engage in jihad against unbelievers in the West and alleged apostate states in the Muslim world, and it relies on brutal violence and a use of social media far more sophisticated than that employed by other terrorist organizations (al-Naba, Issue 16, February 1).
Yemen has great significance to IS’s apocalyptic worldview (al-Wafid, December 21).  According to some readings of Islamic theology common to both Shia and many Sunni schools of thought, a leading figure by the name of al-Yamani will appear at the end of time to aid the movement of al-Mahdi al-Muntazar in ridding the earth of evil. Al-Muntazar will appear in the last days, along with the Messiah, to create a universal government compatible with the moral values of Islam. His movement will intellectually and militarily takes on unjust movements and systems around the world. Al-Yamani is to lead the movement in Saudi Arabia.
More prosaically, Yemen is strategically important for IS. Its shared border with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would mean IS could potentially use Yemen as a base for spreading disorder across the border to the Kingdom. It is also central to IS’ strategy of exhausting its enemies by creating multiple frontlines and meshes with the aspirations of imposing a global caliphate (al-Naba, Issue 16, February 1).
IS-Y is intent on undermining efforts by the internationally recognized Republic of Yemen Government (ROYG) to build a stable Yemeni state. It employs a narrow set of tactics to this end, including targeted assassinations of government officials and security personnel, suicide attacks, and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks (al-Naba, Issue 36, June 21; al-Naba, Issue 24, March 28; al-Naba, Issue 18, February 16).
IS-Y’s attacks principally target the ROYG security forces and, to a lesser extent, Houthi forces and allied military units loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The violence is not indiscriminate. An analysis of attacks claimed by IS-Y shows they calculated and coordinated as part of a strategic campaign to bleed the fledgling ROYG in order to carve out territory.
Since December 2015, al-Naba has published details on at least 21 IS-Y attacks in Yemen. Of these, 18 targeted the ROYG security forces. In some of its attacks, IS-Y was able to carry out sophisticated operations with suicide bombers. This was evident in an attack on a military recruitment center in Aden City carried out on August 28, which left 60 people dead and dozens more wounded. In what was one of the most deadly and sophisticated attacks by IS-Y to date in Yemen, an IS-Y fighter bearing the nom de guerre Abu Sufyan al-Adeni drove a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) through a number of security checkpoints to the recruitment center before detonating his explosives (al-Naba, Issue 45, August 29).
Such attacks indicate IS-Y’s capabilities to conduct large-scale, mass causality operations, but the group has also conducted targeted killings against security officials, particularly in Aden City, the ROYG’s temporary capital. Assassinations claimed by IS-Y include that of police colonel Marwan Abu Shawqi in Aden City’s al-Mindarah neighborhood; the killing of National Army commander, Colonel Badr al-Yafe’i in Aden City; the killings of officers Hafez al-Baiti and Wisam al-San’ani of the Sheikh Othman Police Department Investigative Unit in Aden City’s al-Mansourah’s District; and the killing of officer Salim al-Hasani, also of the Sheikh Othman Police Department Investigative Unit (al-Naba, Issue 29, May 02; al-Naba, Issue 30, May 10; al-Naba, Issue 36, June 21; al-Naba, Issue 41, August 02).
Differences With AQAP
While displaying many of its parent body’s violent traits, IS-Y appears to have also made a number of organizational adjustments that distinguish it from IS and its rival AQAP in Yemen.
Unlike IS and AQAP, IS-Y appears to largely exempt civilians from its attacks. Though this is perhaps due to the group’s limited interactions with locals, it reduces the chances of friction and conflict with the local population.
In fact, IS-Y appears to have little interest at all in the local population. Unlike AQAP (or IS in Iraq and Syria), IS-Y does not concern itself with providing day-to-day services as a matter of policy. On a number of occasions IS-Y has criticized, in writing, such soft-power strategies on the part of AQAP. When AQAP paved some local roads and distributed insecticides, IS-Y condemned the work, likening the group to a commercial company. For IS-Y, social services and interactions with locals are a distraction from its jihadist program. IS-Y has even attributed the AQAP’s decline to its strategy of “[governing] by worldly rules, trying to please people [and] forgetting to please God” (al-Naba, Issue 30, May 10).
IS-Y sees engagement with the needs and desires of the local population as loaded with potential confrontation when those needs and desires are not met. Locals might also influence the targets of the groups’ attacks. IS-Y has criticized AQAP for “fighting the enemies of the locals, not those of its own, leaving untouched the tyrants of infidelity, that are the new [Yemeni] government and its soldier,” which may explain why IS-Y is particularly focused on targeting ROYG security forces.
IS-Y has been able to expand in the midst of a deteriorating security situation caused by the ongoing conflict between the Houthis and their allies, and the ROYG. Sectarian strife and security disarray, prompted by the Houthis’ capture of the capital Sanaa in 2014, has afforded IS-Y the opportunity to thrive.
The group is likely to expand farther as the conflict, exacerbated by Saudi Arabia’s intervention, drags on. Peace talks have seen little progress, but even if a relative peace can be brokered it is likely that IS’ presence in Yemen would be unaffected. The group appears able to coexist with local Sunnis, who are adamant the Houthis have no political future in Yemen.
IS-Y will pose a growing threat to efforts to build reliable state institutions in Yemen. The current government seems unable to deliver on its security promises, including in its own capital. It also appears unable to carry out serious reforms to institutions wrecked by decades of bad governance under the regime of former President Saleh and years of civil strife.
With international attention focused on Iraq and Syria, there has so far been only limited interest in IS-Y. However, that will need to change going forward, and a preemptive political-military strategy must be developed to contain the group before it is too late.