The Growing Separatist Threat in Yemen’s Hadramawt Governorate

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 40

View of a town in Yemen's Hadramawt governorate

Hadramawt, located in eastern Yemen, is the country’s largest governorate.  While the Hadramawt is a vast province that encompasses roughly 38,000 square miles, it is thinly populated with less than a million inhabitants. Continued stability in the governorate is critical because of the vital oil fields and oil infrastructure located there. Over the last two years, the usually quiet region has seen an increase in militant activity. In January 2008, a convoy of Belgian tourists was fired upon, resulting in the deaths of two Belgians and a Yemeni, and in March 2009, four Korean tourists and their Yemeni guide were killed by a suicide bomber, an attack that was later claimed by al-Qaeda (al-Jazeera, January 19, 2009; Yemen Times, March 15, 2009). In addition to these two widely reported attacks on foreigners, attacks on military checkpoints, oil production infrastructure and state security personnel have all increased markedly over the last two years.

In the last month, three senior officers with Yemen’s Political Security Organization (PSO) have been assassinated in the Hadramawt towns of Say’un, Foha, and Mukalla (AFP, October 14; al-Thawra, October 9; Yemen Observer, October 25).
The government has blamed the attacks on al-Qaeda, but the organization has yet to claim credit for them. The assassins, like those operating in the restive governorates of Abyan and Shabwa, worked in two-man teams mounted on motorcycles, whose presence is ubiquitous in Yemen. Since late 2009, assassins and suicide bombers mounted on motorcycles have struck across the south. In the governorate of Abyan, Yemeni authorities have sought to ban motorcycles within the towns. There have been more than 30 reported motorcycle attacks since the beginning of the year.

While there is no doubt that Salafist-inspired militant groups are active in the Hadramawt, the governorate is also home to a growing separatist movement. These separatists are largely allied with groups that operate under the umbrella organization known as Southern Mobility, which seeks the reestablishment of an independent South Yemen. In addition to the southern secessionists, the Hadramawt also hosts a growing number of what can be termed Hadrami separatists that would like to recreate an independent Hadramawt that is distinctly Hadrami in character.

The Southern Mobility Movement in the Hadramawt

Southern Mobility is a decentralized umbrella group that was formed in 2008 as a result of widespread anti-government protests across the south. Since then, Southern Mobility, while still lacking a centralized leadership structure, has evolved into the foremost secessionist organization. The core of retired People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) military officers that made up much of the original leadership of Southern Mobility called for non-violent and unarmed demonstrations. While many in the Southern Mobility movement still advocate peaceful forms of protest, it is clear that some members have taken up arms as both a defensive and offensive measure.

Mukalla, the capital and principal port of the Hadramawt governorate, has been the scene of frequent and widespread protests and strikes. Southern Mobility has a natural and growing constituency among the majority of its poor residents. Mukalla, like much of the governorate, has seen little real development relative to the Yemeni capital of Sana’a and parts of the north central highlands. Development has often been restricted to marquee projects that have little impact on the broader populace. Damaging floods that struck the Hadramawt in 2008 further aggravated the region’s already high levels of poverty and unemployment. The impact of the floods, which displaced an estimated 22,000 people, is still being felt in some areas where homes have yet to be rebuilt and critical irrigation infrastructure has yet to be replaced (IRIN, November 4, 2008). In the wake of the floods, the government promised a comprehensive response, but two years on, many communities in the Hadramawt are still awaiting the promised aid. The Southern Movement has capitalized on the government’s limited response to the floods. The many wealthy Hadramis that reside in Southeast Asia and Saudi Arabia have contributed significant funds for relief efforts, thereby removing some of the burden and responsibility from the government. However, this external aid further undermines faith in the government and buttresses an already prevalent view of the government as distant, corrupt, and ineffective. In addition, the lack of development, though not as severe as in other southern governorates, has resulted in an increased following for the southern secessionists.

A History of Division and Independence

For much of its history prior to incorporation in what became the PDRY in 1967, the Hadramawt was divided into a patchwork of fiefdoms and tribal territories. Harold Ingrams, the British Resident Adviser to the Qu’ayti Sultanate that ruled a large swath of the Hadramawt, estimated that in 1936 there were 2,000 separate governments in the Hadramawt. [1] These “governments” were made up of tribal territories governed by shaykhs, autonomous towns governed by local worthies, and the British-recognized Qu’ayti and Kathiri Sultanates. Despite the numerous divisions, a distinct Hadrami identity evolved. While the Hadramawt is etched with seasonally watered wadis, the region’s agriculture has never been able to support the entirety of its populace. Because of this, Hadramis have emigrated since the 13th century, many to the East Indies. The emigrant experience and the idea of return to the bilad (homeland) have been responsible for developing much of the Hadrami identity. An emphasis on the importance of the homeland and connections with the Hadrami diaspora are both components in what can be described as a nascent but growing Hadrami separatist movement.

Hadhrami Separatists

It is difficult to determine how well organized and widespread Hadrami separatism is in the region. It is often difficult to differentiate the Hadrami separatists from the southern secessionists that operate in the area and in Mukalla in particular. However, in 2009-2010, residents and members of what can be termed the “merchant class” often referenced the idea of a return to an independent Hadramawt. [2] Lectures and talks distributed via cassette tape frequently refer to the Hadramawt’s independent past. It is important to note that significant divisions exist within the community of Hadrami separatists; there are members who support the idea of an independent South Yemen organized along federalist lines, those who support an entirely independent Hadramawt and still others who advocate a union with Saudi Arabia. The desire for Saudi Arabia to absorb the Hadramawt is commonly expressed in light of Saudi Arabia’s relative stability and its close ties with the governorate. Residents often cite the historical example of the province of Asir, which was taken from the Yemen by Saudi Arabia in 1934.

On the operational front, the nascent Hadrami separatist movement appears to be limited to fundraising activities. Like Southern Mobility, the separatists rely heavily on the community of expatriate southern Yemenis for funding. The potential to draw on some of the wealthy members of the Hadrami diaspora should not be underestimated.  

Al-Qaeda Activity in the Region

Elements within core al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have a lengthy history of using the Hadramawt as a base of operations. In the early 1990s, a number of “Afghan Arabs” [i.e. Arab veterans of the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad] were resettled by the Saleh government in the areas around Say’un. In August 2008, Hamza al-Qu’ayti, a regional commander within al-Qaeda, was killed along with four other al-Qaeda operatives in the Hadrami town of Tarim in a shootout with Yemeni security services (Yemen Observer, August 14, 2008). The shootout followed two attacks on the police station and PSO office in the nearby town of Say’un. A convoy carrying three provincial security chiefs was ambushed near the Saudi border in November 2009 (al-Thawra, November 3, 2009). The senior security officers were killed along with two of their guards in the ambush. The Yemeni government viewed the attack as revenge for the killing of Hamza al-Qu’ayti.

While the government blamed the ambush on al-Qaeda, it remains unclear as to whether the ambush was the work of al-Qaeda or smugglers. The un-demarcated and mostly unguarded border regions of northern Hadramawt have long been favored by drug runners and smugglers. As the Saudis tighten security along their northwestern border with Yemen, the northeastern border, though far more dangerous and inhospitable due to the Rub al-Khali desert, is increasingly popular among smugglers.

The thinly populated governorate provides an ideal operational and training environment for al-Qaeda. Much like the governorates of Shabwa and Abyan, large swaths of the Hadramawt are not actively patrolled – much less controlled – by state security services. In addition to the operational advantages that the governorate provides, the Salafi-inspired militants are likely to find some of the populace, albeit a minority, sympathetic to the ideologies that inform their movement. While much of the Hadramawt has traditionally followed the more moderate Shafi’i madhhab (school of law) over the last thirty years, the far more conservative and intolerant Wahhabi sect has made significant inroads. Prior to a government crackdown three years ago, some of Yemen’s most strident imams were active in the governorate.

The extent of al-Qaeda’s connections with the separatists is difficult to assess given the decentralized structure of the various separatist organizations. The opposition in the Hadramawt to the enforced socialism and secularism of the former PDRY by members of the merchant and sada (descendents of the Prophet) classes means that, outside of Mukalla, many among the populace that support the separatists are likely to be drawn towards the faction within Southern Mobility that advocates a kind of Islamic socialism. Elements within the al-Qaeda organization could enmesh themselves among the more conservative and religiously motivated southern separatists.


As the Yemeni government focuses the bulk of its limited military resources on combating AQAP and the separatist threats in the other southern governorates, it risks losing control of large parts of the Hadramawt. Stability in the Hadramawt is critical because the region produces a significant percentage of Yemen’s oil. While many of its blocks are in decline, the Masila basin is still one of the country’s richest oil fields. The Yemeni government’s use of what is frequently regarded as the Hadramawt’s and southern Yemen’s oil wealth is often cited by separatists as one of the reasons the region must secede. Much of the rhetoric focuses on government corruption and the pilfering of oil wealth by the largely Saleh-aligned “northern tribes.” The already difficult task of protecting the infrastructure associated with oil fields, the 150 km pipeline and the handling facilities at Ash Shihr will become even more difficult if separatist and al-Qaeda allied organizations are allowed to continue to establish themselves in the region. The governorate, like the even more thinly populated neighboring governorate of Mahra, could easily become a place of refuge for both AQAP operatives and separatists seeking to escape the more limited operational environments of their home governorates. It is likely that the separatist movements in the Hadramawt will continue to expand their influence unless the Yemeni government makes a concerted effort to address the governorate’s widespread underdevelopment and unemployment.


1. See Harold Ingrams, Arabia and the Isles, London, 1942.
2. Based on conversations between residents and the author during travels in the region 2009/10.