The protracted and ongoing civil conflict in Yemen has brought to the fore a range of regional threats, both old and new. Most prominently, Yemen’s multisided battle space has already allowed al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its locally branded affiliate Ansar al-Shari’a to regain ground across the country. However, in a less noticed development, militants aligned with the Iraq and Syria-based Islamic State group officially entered Yemen’s crowded jihadi scene in November as Wilayat al-Yemen, or “Province of Yemen.” The group’s existence was made public on November 13, when the Islamic State’s Syria-based leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced via an audio message titled “Despite the Disbelievers’ Hate” that he had accepted coordinated oaths of allegience from fighters based in Yemen, as well as in Libya, Egypt and Saudi Arabia (Al-Monitor, November 14). Although much remains unclear about the Islamic State’s nascent presence in Yemen, the group is clearly gaining strength there, increasing in size and audacity, and beginning to pose a significant threat to the country and even to other jihadist factions.
The Islamic State’s Expansion Into Yemen
Aside from statements of support from low- to mid-level AQAP members, the Islamic State had no significant operational footprint in Yemen until the Houthis, Zaydi Shi’a rebels from the country’s north, began wresting control of the capital Sana’a from the government in late 2014. During this period, the Islamic State apparently made a calculated decision to move into Yemen to exploit the deepening security void and the favourable sectarian dynamics. Prior to the Houthi takeover of the capital, and subsequently much of the country, conflicts in Yemen, even areas with a long-standing AQAP presence, largely lacked the sectarian connotations the Islamic State typically requires to thrive. However, the fact that an Iranian-backed Shi’a minority group had seized control of a majority Sunni country has now allowed the Islamic State to frame the conflict as part of the broader Sunni-Shi’a conflict and to build its support base accordingly, as it has done successfully in Iraq and Syria.
In terms of the group’s structure, al-Baghdadi often publicly appoints a wali, or governor, after accepting oaths of allegiance from pro-Islamic State groups (known as wilayat-s or “provinces”) throughout the region. However, unusually, there has been no public appointment of an overall wali for Wilayat al-Yemen. Well-informed commentators, most notably Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen, have identified the wali as Abu Bilal al-Harbi, a Saudi national reportedly known for being an adept recruiter and scholar of Islamic law (BuzzFeed, July 6). However, these claims could not be independently verified. One reason for the lack of a publicly-identified wali could be because the group’s leader is non-Yemeni, for instance, a Saudi Arabian, or that he lacks the necessary military, tribal, personal or religious credentials.
Although the group’s leadership is unclear, Wilayat al-Yemen’s organizational structure is further divided into several other sub-wilayat-s. At least seven separate sub-wilayat-s, falling under Wilayat al-Yemen, have claimed responsibility for attacks in Yemen since the beginning of the year—Sana’a, Ibb and Taiz (the “Green Brigade”), Lahij, Aden, Shabwa, Hadramawt and al-Bayda. The internal structure of these sub-wilayat-s is unclear, but each presumably has their own leadership structure capable of operating autonomously, as is the case in Syria and Iraq.  If the group continues to expand its geographical footprint in Yemen, more wilayat-s (and sub-wilayat-s) may yet be announced.
The exact composition of the Islamic State’s ranks in Yemen is also a grey area at this stage, but it likely consists of some of the same disaffected Yemeni AQAP members who had previously signaled their support to the organization when it was still known as the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (Yemen Times, August 19). For instance, in a video titled “Messages from Lions of the Peninsula,” which the Islamic State’s Wilayat Shabwa sub-group distributed via Twitter on May 29, Saudi fighters from the group threatened to return to Saudi Arabia and conduct attacks against the state.  The video suggests that the Yemeni branch of the Islamic State also has several Saudis among its ranks or that members of the Wilayat Najd, named after a region in Saudi Arabia, are training together in Yemen. There is also evidence to suggest some level of coordination between the group and Islamic State branches both in Yemen and further afield. For instance, Wilayat al-Yemen released an audio message to al-Baghdadi and was accepted into the group’s global ranks at the same time as the pledge of a Saudi branch, Wilayat Najd. This indicates some level of coordination, either between the core Islamic State and each group that pledged allegiance to it, or between the various groups that released the coordinated audio messages (even allowing for Najd and Yemen wilayat-s being co-located). Furthermore, on May 22, sub-group Wilayat Sana’a and Wilayat Najd conducted seemingly coordinated attacks at Shi’a mosques in Sana’a and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province respectively (Middle East Eye, May 22). However, despite an outpouring of online and verbal support for the Wilayat al-Yemen branch from global Islamic State affiliates such as those in Raqqa, Syria and Ninewah, Iraq; it is unlikely Wilayat al-Yemen has so far drawn a significant number of foreign fighters other than those from neighboring Saudi Arabia, although this could clearly change.
Targets, Propaganda and Strategy
Although the extent to which the war in Yemen is driven by sectarian issues is contested, the Islamic State’s Wilayat al-Yemen is clearly seeking to drive the conflict in that direction. The targets, tactics and propaganda of each Yemeni sub-wilayat reflect the Islamic State’s global strategy and its overarching narrative of Sunni-Shi’a conflict. The Yemeni branch’s propaganda has so far focused on recruiting followers in Yemen and abroad, on denouncing the Zaydi Houthis and on claiming to be the protector of the country’s Sunnis.
Wilayat Sana’a claimed the first attacks by the Islamic State’s Yemeni branch on March 20, after twin suicide bombings targeted pro-Houthi mosques in Sana’a (al-Bawaba, March 20). In south Sana’a, one suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest inside the Badr mosque and a second bomber detonated his device as worshippers fled towards the facility’s main gate. Meanwhile, in the northern part of the city, two suicide bombers used the same tactics to target the al-Hashoosh mosque. The two attacks killed at least 137 people and wounded more than 300 others, making it the deadliest terrorist attack in Yemen’s history. The overtly sectarian nature of the attacks shocked the nation and both the Houthis and former President Abdu Rabbu Mansur Hadi, whose forces are battling the Houthis, issued statements condemning the violence (The Guardian, March 21).
Just three days after the attack, Wilayat Sana’a published photos of the militants responsible for the bombings. All four militants were Yemeni, and at least three hailed from Ibb Governorate, suggesting coordination between Wilayat al-Yemen’s sub-groups. The photo series and accompanying message was part one of a new series titled “Convoy of the Martyrs.”  The attached message said that the operation was just the “tip of the iceberg,” and the Islamic State would “cut off the arm of the Safavid [Iranian] project in Yemen.”
Almost a month later, on April 23, Wilayat Sana’a released the first video produced by the Yemeni branch of the Islamic State (al-Arabiya, April 26). The video depicted more than a dozen fighters conducting training exercises in an unidentified desert setting while their apparent leader issued statements threatening further attacks against the “tyrannical Houthis.” The nine-minute video, titled “Soldiers of the Caliphate in the Land of Yemen,” depicted the group as a well-equipped and organized fighting force. The fighters were dressed in matching camouflage uniforms, firing brand new weapons with what appeared to be two recent model Toyota Hiluxes—a vehicle favored by Islamist militants across the world. The Islamic State’s wilayat-s in Yemen and elsewhere have since produced at least half a dozen more such videos with varied themes to promote the new Yemeni front. Although the messages vary, all of the videos share the stylish production quality that has become indicative of Islamic State propaganda.
As the above indicates, Wilayat Sana’a was the first announced Islamic State sub-group in Yemen and is by far the most potent and also seemingly most inclined to attack mosques associated with the Houthis. By contrast, the Green Brigade, which operates in Ibb and Taiz, has claimed several attacks on Houthi military positions, including a bombing in Yarim on April 23 that killed five Houthis traveling in a military vehicle.  Meanwhile, Wilayat Shabwa has claimed several more attacks, some of which have been deliberately gruesome, such as the beheading of 15 Yemeni soldiers in Azzan (a town with a long history of Islamist militancy) on April 14, which was depicted in a video later disseminated via Twitter (Ababil Net, May 1). While media attention has largely focused on Islamic State operations in Sana’a, each wilayat has carried out several successful attacks against targets ranging from Shi’a mosques and Houthi positions to pro-Hadi elements of the Yemeni military. The brutality of the attacks has varied by wilayat, but the overall narrative and their primary targeting of the Houthis has not.
Competition With AQAP
Although AQAP undeniably remains Yemen’s largest and most potent Sunni Islamist militant group, the Islamic State’s wilayat-s in Yemen are beginning to pose a direct threat to AQAP’s predominance. For instance, AQAP and the Islamic State are both now vying for influence over anti-Houthi Sunni tribes and militias, in many of the same regions. There has yet to be any large-scale open conflicts between the two organizations, but as both expand their areas of influence, their operations will increasingly overlap. Competition for vital resources such as financing, weapons and recruits has already fueled conflict between al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates elsewhere in the world, most notably in Syria, and this pattern is liable to now recur in Yemen. If the Islamic State’s highly sectarian message begins to gain traction in Yemen, AQAP may also attempt to compete by framing their operations in a more sectarian light. In addition, AQAP could also become increasingly willing to attack religious targets and employ gruesome Islamic State-like tactics that the group has previously denounced (even while carrying out its own attacks and killings of suspected spies, for instance, in al-Mukulla earlier this year).
As the war continues and the Houthis’ progressively more indiscriminate attacks affect more and more Sunni civilians, there is a risk that the Islamic State’s sectarian arguments will appear increasingly valid to local people, particularly in the absence of more legitimate protectors, such as the divided and effectively defunct Yemeni military and police force (El-Balad, July 2). The Islamic State’s Yemeni branch has yet to reach critical mass, although its operational tempo has increased significantly in the past several months, and its attacks and propaganda output are likely to continue to multiply. The organization’s rate of expansion is, however, largely contingent on its ability to play the sectarian card and on the group being left un-molested; for instance, the Saudis, despite expending a huge amount of resources and munitions against the Houthis, have not yet successfully targeted the Yemeni branch of the Islamic State. If such trends continue, the Islamic State’s front in Yemen could continue to expand exponentially until the group faces or provokes significant resistance, either from rival jihadist or Sunni groups, from local tribes, from the regional powers or the international community.
Brian M. Perkins is an International Security Analyst and freelance journalist specializing in terrorism and sectarian violence.
1. Based on a combination of press releases and claims made by pro-Islamic State Twitter accounts. For example, see https://twitter.com/btaralhtrme/media.
2. The twitter account that first disseminated the video has since been suspended, as Twitter has purged some 20,000 pro-ISIS accounts this year. The video can be seen here: https://archive.org/details/ansar004_yandex_1.
3. Original Twitter account @aljanoub_95 has since been suspended. Photograph series can be found here: https://yemennow.net/news537724.html.
4. The Islamic State’s al-Bayan News Bulletin for April 23, 2015.