Tribes, Salafists and Separatists: Yemen’s Changing Political Landscape

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 25

While parts of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime attempt to ensure their survival, Yemen’s multitude of opposition, tribal, and newly formed anti-government groups continue to vie for a role in whatever government might follow Saleh’s administration. As these various groups jockey for position in Sana’a, most of Yemen is suffering from ever increasing levels of political instability that threaten the ability of a future transitional government to reassert even limited state power.

After almost five months of protests and more than 400 dead, a way forward for Yemen has yet to be determined. The June 3 bombing of a mosque within the walls of the Presidential Palace by as yet unknown assailants and the subsequent departure of President Saleh to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment has done little to move the country toward the establishment of a transitional government. While Yemeni Vice President Abed Rabbu Mansur Hadi has officially become acting president in Saleh’s absence, it is unclear how much, if any, power Hadi wields. Hadi, who has always been a marginal figure within the regime, is being challenged by President Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, who heads the Republican Guard, and other members of the Saleh family.

The Saleh Regime Fights for Survival

Rumors in Yemen run the gamut from “President Saleh is due to return within days,” to “President Saleh has finally agreed to formally cede power,” but meanwhile the struggle between anti-government forces and the remains of the Saleh regime continues (Khaleej Times, June 18). Following the mosque bombing that injured his father, Brigadier Ahmed Ali Saleh and his forces occupied the Presidential Palace. Acting president Hadi remains at his office in the Defense Ministry, guarded by troops loyal to defected Major General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar (see Terrorism Monitor Brief, June 16).

Most of the members of what is left of President Saleh’s inner circle are backing Ahmed Ali Saleh, though to what end remains unclear. Ahmed Ali Saleh does not have enough support within the Sanhaan (Saleh’s tribe), let alone among Yemenis in general, to succeed his father. While Ahmed Ali Saleh commands the relatively formidable Republican Guard, his military assets would only enable him to assert control over a small percentage of Yemeni territory. However, the Republican Guard is well trained and has the most advanced equipment of any of Yemen’s army units. It is unique in Yemen, in that it has a tight and formal chain of command that is well staffed. While the Republican Guard is not powerful enough to enable Ahmed Ali Saleh to succeed his father, it does put him in a strong position as a power broker and guardian of Saleh family interests, both political and financial.

In addition to the Republican Guard, the Saleh regime retains control of the Yemeni Air Force through the command of President Saleh’s half-brother, Muhammad Saleh al-Ahmar. Control of the air force is of the utmost importance to the Saleh regime due to its ability to project power and punish those deemed enemies through punitive bombing. As a member of President Saleh’s generation, Muhammad Saleh al-Ahmar is part of what may be considered the old guard within the Saleh regime. He has not always been on the best of terms with Ahmed Ali Saleh, who is still regarded by many within the regime as something of an upstart who has not served his time. It is certain that Muhammad Saleh al-Ahmar is being actively courted by both the opposition and, more importantly, by rival factions within the Sanhaan, notably the Qadhi clan, which is largely aligned with General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar.

Regardless of whether or not his father returns to Yemen, Ahmed Ali Saleh and those close to him are preparing to fight while negotiations continue. The Republican Guard has reinforced its positions in and around Sana’a, Aden, and Taiz. All sides in the conflict continue to stockpile weapons and reposition arms (al-Tagheer, June 18). Negotiations between acting president Hadi and the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), Yemen’s coalition of opposition groups, are ongoing while the part of the Saleh regime led by Ahmed Ali Saleh seems intent on trying to regain control while thwarting any attempts to install a transitional government.

Moving Further Away from the Center: South Yemen

In many of the former governorates of what was the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), efforts are underway to form transitional councils, both at the local and regional level. While the Republican Guard controls parts of Aden, much of south Yemen’s security and governance are now dependent on these local councils and civil defense organizations. Most of the Saleh regime’s military assets in the south have fled, defected, or been called away to Sana’a, Aden and Taiz. The lack of troops loyal to the Saleh regime has emboldened many southern groups dedicated to the secession of south Yemen.

While the leadership of the Southern Mobility Movement (SMM) maintains that it is dedicated to the peaceful resolution of what are deemed “southern issues,” armed groups reportedly aligned with the SMM are patrolling some parts Mukalla and Aden, as well as manning checkpoints on the Aden to Mukalla and Mukalla to Seyun roads. An army colonel loyal to the Saleh regime was killed in Aden by a car bomb on June 16 (Yemen Post, June 16). While no group has claimed credit for it, the attack is likely a harbinger of what will come as various groups operating in the south attempt to assert control and settle scores. However, it should also be noted that much of the fighting in the south is between defected troops (many of whom are aligned with defected generals Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar and Mohammed Ali Mushin) and troops loyal to the Saleh regime.   

While increased local control in the south is arguably a move in the right direction, the longer Yemen remains without a viable central government, the more entrenched secessionist groups and ideas will become in the south. The ongoing battle for power between parts of the Saleh regime and the al-Ahmar family (the leaders of the Hashid tribe and tribal confederation) is looked upon by southerners as a northern affair that does not involve them. Despite the rhetoric of some members of the SMM, secession is not a viable option for south Yemen. The Yemeni economy, especially its energy sector, is interwoven. However, the fighting between what are primarily northern political and military powers will continue to fuel the already popular idea that secession is the answer to the south’s problems.

Houthi Control of Sadah

Despite years of fighting between Yemeni troops and Houthi rebels (followers of a strident interpretation of Zaydi Shi’ism), the largely Houthi controlled governorate of Sadah is now one of the most stable parts of Yemen. After the 2009-2010 round of war between the Houthis and the Yemeni armed forces, the government informally ceded control of much of the governorate to the Houthis. Since the outbreak of the anti-government protests, the Houthis have acted to consolidate their control of the town of Sadah, the governorate of Sadah, and parts of the neighboring governorate of al-Jawf. The Houthis have been careful to cultivate and cement their relationships with a number of clans and parts of tribes that are opposed to the Saleh regime. Many of the members of these clans and tribes do not subscribe to the Houthis’ interpretation of Zaydism but have aligned themselves with the Houthis for political reasons.

Apart from a few border posts, the Yemeni armed forces have almost no presence in Sadah and the local government is almost entirely administered by Houthi-led councils. The Houthis’ nominal political party, al-Haq (a member of the JMP), has indicated that it and the Houthis are willing to participate in a unity government (Mareb Press, March 21; al-Tagheer, April 10). While the Houthis now enjoy a considerable degree of autonomy, that autonomy is not likely to be ceded without another costly war and the Houthis may prove more amenable to inclusion in a unity government than many of the groups operating within the Southern Mobility Movement (SMM).

An AQAP Takeover in Abyan?

It was widely reported by the Western and Arab media that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had declared the southern governorate of Abyan to be an “Islamic Emirate.” This announcement reportedly followed the looting of a small munitions factory by militants in the town of Ja’ar in March (Yemen Post, March 28). Since then, fighting in the governorate of Abyan has intensified. The port of Zinjibar in Abyan is now deserted and much of it has been leveled by artillery and aerial bombardment after its occupation by militants.  Most of its population has fled as have thousands of other residents of Abyan. A camp has been set up near Aden for some of the roughly thirty thousand internally displaced persons (IDPs).

While AQAP has a presence in parts of Abyan and the neighboring governorate of Shabwa, it is doubtful that it has the ability to take and hold a town, let alone a governorate. Some of the militants fighting in Abyan have identified themselves as members of Ansar al-Shari’a (Supporters of Islamic Law). This group certainly has ideological overlaps with AQAP and it almost certainly hosts members with ties to AQAP. However, the conflict in Abyan is more complex than just AQAP or even Islamic militants fighting against the regime.

The conflict in Abyan is in fact multidimensional and highly political. The Saleh regime has long maintained ties with a range of militant Salafis. The links go back to the late 1980s and early 1990s when the “Afghan Arabs,” mujahideen who had fought in Afghanistan, began returning home to Yemen. Many of these men were incorporated into the Yemeni armed forces and security services. The Afghan Arabs and militant Salafis played key roles in covert actions against the PDRY before unification in 1990 and again in the 1994 civil war that erupted when the south tried to secede. More recently, the Saleh regime recruited and deployed militant Salafis against the Houthis, whom the Salafis regard as heretics.

In a recent interview, Major General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar accused the Saleh regime of orchestrating much of the AQAP threat and of allowing Islamic militants to take over parts of Abyan in order to manipulate the West, especially the United States (al-Hayat, June 12; see Terrorism Monitor Brief, June 17). As one of the key figures in the “re-integration” of Afghan Arabs and militant Salafis, this is a subject that Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar knows a great deal about. The Saleh regime, like many regimes, is well aware of the versatility and usefulness of terror and terrorist groups. The threat of AQAP has been lucrative in terms of the millions in military aid provided by the United States, and the Saleh regime’s role as a partner in the “global war on terror” has earned it a great deal of international legitimacy. The threat of militant Salafis in areas like Abyan should not be downplayed but oversimplification is just as dangerous.

The conflict in Abyan could easily spread to other governorates as more tribesmen and even members of various separatist groups join in the fighting. Now that the United States is involved through its drone attacks on suspected militants, the conflict will almost certainly take on new dimensions as cycles of revenge are started and encouraged. The most recent drone attack, one of 18 reportedly launched in the month of June, resulted in six dead civilians (Yemen Post, June 18).


While the situation in Yemen may appear dire, outside of Abyan, violence has been relatively limited. This is not to downplay the deaths of well over 400 protesters, but it is in many ways a testament to the restraint of the Yemeni people. Most of the anti-government protesters have easy access to a wide range of weapons, yet most have continued their peaceful protests even in the face of escalating levels of violence.

Even the opposing factions of the Yemeni armed forces have so far refrained from all but limited skirmishes. This restraint is likely due in part to the traditions of tribal law which have developed to limit and mitigate conflict and loss of life. It is also due in part to many Yemeni’s keen awareness of what will happen if their country descends into civil war. The specter of neighboring Somalia stands as a stark reminder of what could happen. However, the longer Yemen remains without a real government, a government that aims to unify the country, the more likely civil war and fragmentation becomes. At some point the restraint shown by the vast majority of Yemeni people will be overwhelmed by the political and economic pressures being placed on the country.