Shiite Huthi rebels drive a truck past a flag of Ansar al-Sharia in Almnash, Rada, which was once the main Yemeni stronghold of this local arm of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. 22 November 2014. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi
Report 174 / Middle East & North Africa

Yemen’s al-Qaeda: Expanding the Base

Thriving on conflict, sectarianism, and local opportunism, al-Qaeda’s affiliates are stronger than ever in Yemen. To shrink their growing base will require better governance in vulnerable areas, not treating all Sunni Islamists as one enemy, and above all ending Yemen’s civil war.

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Executive Summary

The Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda (AQ) is stronger than it has ever been. As the country’s civil war has escalated and become regionalised, its local franchise, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), is thriving in an environment of state collapse, growing sectarianism, shifting alliances, security vacuums and a burgeoning war economy. Reversing this trend requires ending the conflict that set it in motion. This means securing an overarching political settlement that has buy-in from the country’s diverse constituencies, including Sunni Islamists. As this will take time, steps must be taken now to contain AQAP’s growth: improving governance in vulnerable areas, disaggregating Sunni Islamist groups and using military tools judiciously and in coordination with local authorities. These efforts will be imperilled if states interested in fighting AQAP and Yemen’s nascent Islamic State (IS) branch, such as the U.S., take military actions that ignore the local context and result in high civilian casualties, like the Trump administration’s 29 January 2017 raid on AQAP affiliates in al-Bayda, or fail to restrain partners who tolerate or even encourage AQAP/IS activities.

Prior to Yemen’s 2011 popular uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, AQAP was a small yet lethal branch of AQ, focused primarily on Western targets. With at most several hundred members, it had limited local appeal and was both sustained and constrained by complex and sometimes contradictory relationships with the governing authorities and tribes. A primary security concern for the West and especially the U.S., AQAP was a sideshow for most Yemenis, at times tolerated by the government and routinely used by local elites for financial and/or political advantage. It was far less threatening to state stability than growing regime infighting, southern separatist sentiment or Huthi militancy in northern areas.

AQAP and, later and to a much lesser extent, a new outcrop of IS, emerged arguably as the biggest winners of the failed political transition and civil war that followed. AQAP adapted to the rapidly shifting political terrain, morphing into an insurgent movement capable of controlling territory and challenging state authority. Its main success derives from its demonstrated pragmatism: working within local norms, forging alliances with Sunni allies, assimilating into militias and embedding itself in a political economy of smuggling and trade that spans the various fighting factions, including the Huthi/former President Saleh alliance. It has at times controlled territory in the country’s south and appears ever more embedded in the fabric of opposition to the Huthi/Saleh alliance, dominant in the north, that is fighting the internationally recognised, Saudi-backed interim government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

IS, with its more brutal tactics, has been less successful in gaining recruits or capturing territory, but war has opened space for it to operate in places that have experienced sectarian-tinged violence, such as the southern port city of Aden. There, the group has turned its sights on the Hadi government and local security personnel through assassinations and bombings that have, indirectly, benefited the Huthi/Saleh front by weakening its common enemies and repeatedly underscoring the lack of security in Aden, the government’s temporary capital.

Virtually all local and foreign fighting parties in Yemen claim to be enemies of AQAP and IS, yet all have contributed to their rise. The Huthis, who as Zaydi/Shiites are AQAP’s primary ideological enemies, strengthened their foes through their February 2015 military push into predominantly Shafai (Sunni) areas, allowing AQAP to present itself as part of a wider “Sunni” front against Huthi/Saleh expansion. The Huthi/Saleh bloc’s willingness to conflate the Sunni Islamist party Islah and southern separatists with AQ and IS does not help. Their opponents, especially a gamut of Salafi fighting groups that the war has pushed to the foreground, as well as their Gulf backers, have poured fuel on the fire, at times crudely labelling Huthis as Iranian proxies who are part of a “Shiite agenda” in the region.

The logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, coupled with a long legacy of politicians using jihadists in power struggles against foes, has allowed AQAP to forge tacit alliances with a range of anti-Huthi/Saleh forces. The Saudi-backed coalition’s almost single-minded focus on defeating the Huthi/Saleh bloc has been a boon to AQAP, which has controlled territory unimpeded for stretches of time, in the process indirectly gaining weapons from the coalition and mining new funding streams by raiding banks and controlling ports. The United Arab Emirates dislodged AQAP from its Mukalla stronghold in April 2016, but such successes are fragile and could easily be reversed in the absence of more effective and inclusive governance.

The evolution of AQAP into an insurgent force with the ambition and capacity to govern territory, showing pragmatism and sensitivity to local concerns, does not negate the international risk posed by the group. AQ’s long-game strategy, combined with the immediate benefits from Yemen’s war, means that it, along with its local affiliates, will likely outlast the swift global rise of IS and its Yemeni subsidiary, which has pursued a more aggressive approach. The continuation of an increasingly fractured conflict greatly enhances AQAP’s unprecedented ability to expand local support and amass financial and military resources. Countering its gains poses a complex long-term challenge and will require an urgent yet measured response, focused on bringing the civil war to a negotiated end.

Recommendations

To reverse AQAP/IS gains

To all Yemeni and regional belligerents:

  1. End the war by agreeing to a ceasefire followed by negotiations toward a political settlement that contains: 
    1. buy-in from a full range of Yemeni stakeholders, including Sunni Islamists (the Islah party and Salafi groups willing to participate in politics) and groups with a regional base, such as Hiraak in the south;
    2. recognition of the need for regional autonomy, particularly for the south, and creation of a mechanism to determine the future state structure; and
    3. interim security arrangements in various war-torn localities under the state umbrella but with local buy-in.
       
  2. Avoid sectarian language and end media campaigns and mosque sermons that label adversaries in sectarian terms. 

To donor governments assisting Yemenis in combatting AQAP/IS:

  1. Engage in regular assessments of local and regional partners who may at times tolerate or even encourage AQAP/IS activities for political or economic gain, and press them to change course, threatening to suspend counter-terrorism cooperation if they do not.
     
  2. Decouple development from counter-terrorism assistance to reduce the incentives for the (current or future) Yemeni government to benefit financially from AQAP/IS’s presence.
     
  3. Enhance security measures at ports and border crossings with an increased maritime security focus on AQAP/IS sea supply routes along vulnerable coastlines.
     
  4. Encourage and support Track-II and local civil society efforts to heal inter-confessional divides, building on Yemen’s history of tolerance.
     
  5. Where there are opportunities to open lines of communication with AQAP leaders independent of tribal or political elites, those should be explored and if possible used to help de-escalate violence.

To states and groups operating in areas previously under or vulnerable to violent jihadist control, especially, but not limited to, the Hadi government, government-linked militias and the United Arab Emirates:

  1. Prioritise basic security, justice – particularly quick and transparent dispute resolution – and service provision.
     
  2. Disaggregate rather than conflate various Sunni Islamist groups by:
     
    1. including Islah in local governance and security initiatives; and
    2. communicating and negotiating with supporters of Ansar al-Sharia (AQAP’s local insurgency arm), who may not adhere to AQAP’s global ideology, and work to separate them from AQAP by addressing their legitimate locally- grounded grievances.
       
  3. Use military and policing tools judiciously and in compliance with local laws and norms by:
     
    1. avoiding heavy-handed military campaigns in cities and, when possible, working with local leaders to negotiate violent jihadists’ exit from urban areas, as happened in Mukalla; and
    2. using local forces against AQAP/IS when possible, but without creating legally unaccountable militia structures outside the state’s umbrella; bringing local militias, including popular committees, the Security Belt forces and the Elite forces in Hadramout, fully under government authority and under a legal system that ensures transparency and protects human rights.

To the Huthi/Saleh bloc:

  1. Disaggregate rather than conflate various Sunni Islamist groups, and work with those willing to engage in peace talks and operate within the political process.
     
  2. Refrain from military advances into predominately Shafai/Sunni areas that can only further inflame growing sectarian tensions and provide fodder to AQAP/IS propaganda.

Brussels, 2 February 2017

I. Introduction

This report examines the nexus of regional and local factors fuelling al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State (IS)’s gains in Yemen. It builds on Crisis Group’s comparative study of the evolving global jihadist landscape, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, by exploring the case of Yemen as a subset of this milieu.[fn]This report will follow the use of the term “jihadist” as explained in Crisis Group Special Report N°1, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016: “The root of the word ‘jihad’ in Arabic refers to striving in the service of God. Many Muslims find its use in the context of political violence imprecise and offensive. It reduces a complex religious concept, which over centuries has taken many, often peaceful forms, to war-making. In the view of the vast majority of Muslims, today’s ‘jihadists’ pervert Islam’s tenets. It is hard, however, to escape the term. First, the groups this report addresses mostly self-identify as ‘jihadist’…. Secondly, while jihad has long been an element of virtually all schools of Islam, a nascent ‘jihadist’ ideology has emerged that is more than a reflection of this history …. Though big differences exist between ‘jihadist’ groups, they share some ideological tenets: fighting to return society to a purer form of Islam; violence against rulers whose policies they deem in conflict with Islamic imperatives (as jihadists understand them); and belief in a duty to use violence when Muslim rulers abandon those imperatives. Our use of ‘jihadist’ is not meant to add legitimacy to this interpretation or detract from efforts to promote alternative interpretations”. As in the Exploiting Disorder report, this report examines only a subset of jihadist groups, namely Sunni jihadists, in this case, AQAP and IS in Yemen.Hide Footnote In many ways, AQAP’s and IS’s rapid growth in Yemen follow regional trends. The collapse of Yemen’s Arab Spring transition and the chaos that followed have catalysed their expansion, providing them with new political opportunities, money, weapons and recruits. As in Syria, Iraq and Libya, growing enmity between regional states, mainly Saudi Arabia and Iran, has fuelled sectarian tensions and led them to prioritise traditional rivals over violent jihadists, in some cases leveraging the latter as proxies.

Yet, the challenge that AQAP and IS present in Yemen is embedded in the country’s unique history and local political dynamics that both sustain and limit them. A record of regime co-optation of and collaboration with jihadist groups means that AQAP in particular is already intertwined with political actors and integrated into the economy. This creates obstacles in suppressing the group in that these actors may have incentives to use it to advance their own political and economic interests. Yet as AQAP is a Yemeni organisation with legitimate local demands – justice provision, services, jobs – efforts could be made to co-opt it and weaken its transnationally focused leadership by addressing these local grievances. Devising effective policy options for countering AQAP – or IS – cannot be based on a cookie-cutter approach but requires attention to both regional factors and local idiosyncrasies, lest the problem be aggravated, not overcome.

II. Al-Qaeda in Yemen

Yemen has long grabbed headlines as a hotbed for al-Qaeda (AQ) activity, and indeed it holds a special place in jihadist eschatology.[fn]According to a hadith (saying of the Prophet Mohammed), during the end of days, “Out of Aden-Abyan will come 12,000, giving victory to the [religion of] Allah and His Messenger. They are the best between me and them”. Musnad Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal hadith collection, vol. 3, no. 379.Hide Footnote Its common caricature is as the Middle East’s “wild west”, where gun-toting tribesmen, rugged mountains, weak governance and a deeply religious, rural population offer a breeding ground for outlaw groups. This stereotype not only risks oversimplification but can result in incorrect assumptions about AQ (that tribal areas necessarily provide safe haven, government actors are automatically the group’s foes or AQ cannot thrive equally in urban areas) and problematic, even counterproductive, policy prescriptions.[fn]“A False Foundation? AQAP, Tribes and Ungoverned Spaces in Yemen”, Combating Terrorism Centre, September 2011.Hide Footnote

Western analysis tends to explore AQ’s relationship with local tribes but less often examines the group as a tool for Yemen’s political elite to resort to subterfuge for financial and military gain.[fn]Gregory D. Johnsen, The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia (New York and London, 2012), and Sarah Philips, “The Norm of State-Monopolised Violence from a Yemeni Perspective”, in Charlotte Epstein (ed.), Against International Relations Norms (forthcoming, 2017), are notable exceptions.Hide Footnote Yemenis, by contrast, view domestic political dynamics as fundamental to understanding and countering AQ and similar jihadist groups.[fn]Yemenis generally identify three factors in facilitating Sunni radicalisation and AQAP expansion. The spread of ideas from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the 1960s and 1970s, and from Saudi Arabia through support for religious schools in the 1980s and the return of Yemeni migrant workers in the early 1990s, allegedly formed an ideological foundation for groups such as AQAP. The second factor is poverty. Most important for many interlocutors is state orchestration of jihadist groups for political and financial gain. Crisis Group interviews, Yemeni politicians, journalists and analysts, September 2010-August 2016.Hide Footnote

The history of AQ and related movements in Yemen is tied to both domestic politics and shifting trends in global jihadism. In the early 1990s, fighters from the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad, known as Afghan Arabs, returned – as part of the first wave of global jihadist violence after the end of the Cold War – just as north Yemen (the Yemen Arab Republic) unified with the socialist south (the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, PDRY) to form the Republic of Yemen.[fn]“Afghan Arab” is used to describe the non-Afghan Muslims from Arab, and some non-Arab, nations who travelled to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets. Those who subsequently travelled to Yemen included non-Yemenis as well as returning nationals.Hide Footnote While most Arab states were turning against Islamists, Sanaa continued to align with them.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°8, Yemen: Coping with Terrorism and Violence in a Fragile State, 8 January 2003.Hide Footnote Islah, a Sunni Islamist party created in 1990 and encompassing the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood, provided a political outlet for many returnees as it formed a governing coalition with President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) following elections in 1993. More militant Afghan veterans – such as Tariq al-Fadhli – joined with southerners to form the Islamic Jihad Movement (IJM). On 29 December 1992, IJM leader Jamal al-Nahdi attempted to kill U.S. marines in Aden, the first AQ-linked attack targeting the U.S.[fn]IJM was the first formal Islamist group in Yemen with ties (financial and personal, not organisational) to Osama bin Laden and AQ in Afghanistan, known as “al-Qaeda Central”. Bin Laden later took credit for the failed bombing. Al-Nahdi was arrested but escaped from prison.Hide Footnote

During this time, jihadists and the Saleh regime were aligned against the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP). Prior to the 1994 north-south civil war, Afghan Arabs allegedly killed YSP cadres with the help of northern-linked security services.[fn]The killings – at least 150 between 1990 and 1994, according to the YSP – were a key instigator of the war. Brian Whitaker, The Birth of Modern Yemen (e-book, 2009); and Noel Brehony, Yemen Divided: The Story of a Failed State in South Arabia (London, 2011).Hide Footnote In the war, Saleh and his senior military commander, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (who married al-Fadhli's sister and today is Yemen’s vice-president aligned with the Saudi-led coalition confronting the Huthi/Saleh alliance), used the Afghan Arabs as a proxy. Following a quick and decisive northern victory, some IJM members were given positions in the GPC and security services.[fn]During the 1994 war, al-Fadhli was made a colonel in the Yemen army. After the civil war, al-Nahdi joined the GPC’s governing organisation, the permanent committee, and Saleh appointed al-Fadhli to the upper house of parliament. Gregory D. Johnsen, The Last Refuge, p. 51.Hide Footnote  

In the mid-1990s, a second wave of global jihadist violence saw AQ focus on attacking what it called the “far enemy”. In Yemen, AQAP’s precursors started doing the same. IJM remnants and others who refused co-optation by the state gathered under Yemeni Afghan veteran Zain al-Abidin Abubakr al-Mihdar to create the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army (AAIA), the first jihadist group with a transnational agenda. It pledged support to Osama bin Laden and engaged in international messaging.[fn]The AAIA, probably created between 1994 and 1997, was known under various names inspired by a hadith, including the Army of Aden-Abyan and the Islamic Army of Aden. In a message to Agence France-Presse (AFP) in August 1998, it replicated bin Laden’s declaration calling for “total war” on U.S. interests in Yemen. AQAP propaganda referred to the AAIA in 2010.Hide Footnote

Although AAIA’s influence dwindled in the late 1990s, jihadist attacks on Western interests increased. On 12 October 2000, an explosives-laden skiff rammed into the USS Cole, a U.S. warship docked off Aden port, killing seventeen marines. AAIA claimed responsibility, but the mastermind behind the attack was Abd-al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi AQ member who was bin Laden’s head of operations in the Gulf. The attack propelled Yemen into the spotlight as a critical state in the U.S. fight against AQ. Under U.S. pressure, Yemeni authorities rounded up scores of suspects – but not al-Nashiri.[fn]Four months later, Saudi officials reportedly spotted al-Nashiri in Sanaa with the deputy director of the PSO. “Yemen, an uneasy ally, proves adept at playing off old rivals”, The New York Times, 19 December 2002. Ahmed Abdullah al-Hasani, head of the navy at the time of the Cole attack, said its perpetrators were “well known by the regime and some are still officers in the national army”. “Britons’ killers ‘linked to Yemeni army chief’”, The Sunday Times, 8 May 2005.Hide Footnote Following the 9/11 attack in the U.S. and to avoid political isolation, Saleh moved decisively against AQ, largely defeating it by the end of 2003.

That year, the U.S. invasion of Iraq inspired a new generation of fighters (a third wave of global jihadism) that revived and altered AQ’s Yemeni branch. In February 2006, 23 AQ members escaped Sanaa PSO prison. Among them were Nassar al-Wuhayshi and Qasim al-Raymi, both of whom later became AQAP founding members.[fn]Several prison officials, including warden Salah al-Muradi, were arrested on suspicion of facilitating the escape. “Yemen: Al-Qa'ida escape”, U.S. embassy Sanaa cable, April 2006, as published by WikiLeaks, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/06SANAA973_a.html. The timing raised questions, as Yemen had just lost $300 million of aid from the U.S. and the World Bank.Hide Footnote The event once again focused U.S. attention on the country as a front-line state against AQ. In 2007, funding from the U.S. Defense Department to Yemen increased to $26 million from $4.3 million the previous year.[fn]U.S. funding soared to $67 million in 2009 following two attacks on the U.S. embassy in Sanaa in 2008, and to $155.3 million in 2010, which U.S. officials said was largely due to AQAP’s attempted bombing of the U.S.-bound passenger jet on Christmas Day, 2009. “Yemen: Background and U.S. Relations”, Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, 1 November 2012. “Report to Congressional Committees”, U.S. Government Accountability Office, February 2012. This pattern of increased funding in response to attacks demonstrated the financial and military gains the state could make from AQ’s activities.Hide Footnote Yet, between 2007 and 2009, Sanaa and Washington were distracted by, respectively, the conflict with the Huthis and the war in Iraq, allowing a new generation of AQ leaders under al-Wuhayshi to rebuild the organisation from scratch.[fn]Crisis Group email interview, Gregory Johnsen, 10 January 2017. Al-Wuhayshi became the emir, or leader, of AQ in the land of Yemen (AQLY) in June 2007. On 13 March 2008, AQLY renamed itself AQ in the Southern Arabian Peninsula (AQSAP). AQLY/AQSAP carried out attacks against Western interests, including oil facilities in Hadramout and Marib in 2006, the U.S. embassy in 2008 and South Korean tourists in Marib in 2009.Hide Footnote In January 2009, they formed AQAP from the merger of AQ’s Yemeni and Saudi branches. AQAP launched high-profile attacks against Western interests and the Yemeni security and intelligence forces, especially in the south.[fn]Prior to 2009, there were two AQ groups: AQSAP (the renamed AQLY) and a splinter group, the Yemen Soldiers Brigade, quickly wiped out by Saleh in 2008. Following attacks in Saudi Arabia between 2003 and 2006, a crackdown pushed many Saudi members into Yemen, resulting in the franchises’ coalescence. The group’s founders included non-Yemenis and individuals with close ties to AQ Central’s leadership. Al-Wuhayshi’s leadership – as former secretary to Osama bin Laden and a native Yemeni – combined the valuable attributes of someone with both local ties and a strong connection to AQ’s leadership and its transnational aims.Hide Footnote

By 2011, AQAP was seen in the U.S. as AQ’s most lethal branch, but its influence in Yemen was still circumscribed.[fn]The U.S. put its membership at “several hundred” in 2010 and at “a few thousand” in 2011. “Briefing by Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano, assistant to the president for counterterrorism and homeland security, Brennan, and Press Secretary Gibbs”, White House Office of the Press Secretary, 7 January 2010. “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” in “Country Reports on Terrorism 2011”, U.S. State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, 31 July 2012.Hide Footnote Saleh walked a fine line: balancing the U.S. drone campaign against AQ’s leadership and the local population’s resentment toward perceived violations of national sovereignty and the causalities from these strikes.[fn]Notably, a missile attack on al-Maajala in Abyan governorate on 17 December 2009 killed 41 civilians. The Yemeni government claimed responsibility, but photographs of remnants of U.S.-made bombs disputed this. In 2010, Saleh reportedly told General David Petraeus, then U.S. Central Command chief: “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours”. “General Petraeus’ meeting with Saleh on security assistance, AQAP strikes”, U.S. embassy Sanaa cable, January 2010, as published by WikiLeaks, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/10SANAA4_a.html.Hide Footnote AQAP was a relatively small component of the domestic balance of power, used by the state to win financial and military support from the U.S. While a top priority for the West, AQAP was far less important for the state and most Yemenis than the growing strength of the Huthis (a revivalist movement in the north based on Zaydism, a version of Shiite Islam), separatist sentiment in the south and an increasingly brittle regime in Sanaa.

III. The Fourth Wave

A. Fertile Ground for Jihadism

Yemen’s fourth wave of jihadist violence is its most potent because of the underlying currents propelling it, including state collapse and sectarianism.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Exploiting Disorder, op. cit.Hide Footnote While IS’s ideological innovations and territorial gains dominate the fourth wave in other parts of the Middle East, in Yemen, AQAP has taken the lead, evolving and adapting in the rapidly shifting post-2011 environment. Its expansion has roughly occurred in two phases: the first in the wake of the 2011 popular uprising against Saleh and the second in the context of a failed political transition and the subsequent war.

A. Uprising

During the uprising, AQAP evolved from a primarily internationally focused jihadist organisation to one with a significant local insurgency component, seeking to strike deeper roots into Yemeni society and establish territorial control. In 2011, it created a parallel group, Ansar al-Sharia (AAS, “Supporters of Islamic Law”), to widen its domestic appeal and separate its local component from its international brand, which many Yemenis view as a regime instrument, infamous for its attacks against the West and likely to trigger a military backlash, especially from the U.S., against communities that support it.[fn]Sheikh Abu Zubayr Adel bin Abdullah al-Abab, a senior AQAP religious official, explained: “The name Ansar al-Sharia is what we use to introduce ourselves in areas where we work to tell people about our work and goals, and that we are on the path of Allah”. Recorded 18 April 2011, posted on YouTube 25 April 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=js_fbKJN23s.Hide Footnote The move also attempted to address the organisation’s long-running “double-bind” of balancing global objectives – targeting the West and expelling unbelievers from the Arabian Peninsula – with its need to address local grievances, such as corruption and lack of effective justice.[fn]Vahid Brown presents this double-bind as the interplay between two inter-related tensions: the global/local dichotomy, which illustrates the friction between the global range of AQ’s stated plan and the local concerns of those it seeks to win over; and the global/classical dichotomy, in relation to AQ’s concept of violent jihad as the only course of action, an extremist interpretation contested by more authoritative and influential clerical proponents of a classical definition of legitimate jihad. Vahid Brown, “Al‐Qa’ida Central and Local Affiliates”, in Assaf Moghadam and Brian Fishman (eds.), “Self-Inflicted Wounds Debates and Divisions within al-Qa’ida and its Periphery”, Combating Terrorism Center, 2010, pp. 69-100.Hide Footnote In practice, AAS acts as a local insurgent arm and domestic diffusion brand, while AQAP continues to call for strikes against the West, particularly by encouraging “lone-wolf” attacks.[fn]AQAP is hierarchical, structured around a senior leadership whose members are dispersed over committees and councils (such as the media, security and military committees and the Shura council, which advises AQAP’s emir and reports back to al-Qaeda Central). This structure, along with creating a consultative mechanism, allows it to better absorb the impact of assassinations. From 2013 until his death in June 2015, AQAP emir al-Wuhayshi played an additional role as AQ Central’s “general manager” and second-in-command under Ayman al-Zawahiri. The military committee functions as the insurgency’s command structure. Mid-level leaders are province (wilaya) commanders, known as emirs, along with district and city commanders under provincial command. AQAP propaganda regularly refers to these commanders, who are not limited in movement and operations as their title might suggest, as AAS. Jalal Baleedi, killed in February 2016, was both a mid-level AQAP commander and a senior AAS leader. AQAP and AAS have separate media wings for propaganda releases, but these outlets often collaborate. At entry level, AAS recruits are not required to pledge allegiance (bay’a) to AQAP, but senior commanders are. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, Yemeni analysts and journalists, AQAP members, Yemen, 2011-2016. For the purpose of this report, AQAP and AAS are used interchangeably except when AAS has expressly profiled itself separately. AQAP’s calls for “lone-wolf” attacks underline its continued desire to carry out international operations but may also indicate frustration at its lack of international prowess in recent years. According to a U.S. government official, “AQAP’s ability to balance both local and global objectives has been the key to its sustained relevance and a persistent threat to U.S. interests. AQAP has prioritised a ‘Yemen-first’ approach as the societal instability is far too advantageous for them …. That said, there has been an increase in AQAP’s calls for lone operatives to target the west in its social media, Telegram Channels, and newer traditional media such as Inspire Guides”. Crisis Group email interview, January 2017.Hide Footnote

Under the AAS banner, AQAP captured several towns, including the capital of the southern province of Abyan in May 2011, and governed these areas for more than a year.[fn]This went against Osama bin Laden’s advice in a letter to AQAP leader al-Wuhayshi. Bin Laden also expressed concerns about getting bogged down in the focus on the “internal enemy”, in this case the Yemeni government, rather than on the “far enemy”. SOCOM-2012-0000016, in “Letters from Abbottabad”, Combating Terrorism Center, 3 May 2012.Hide Footnote In keeping with AQ’s global strategy, it has increasingly pursued a gradualist approach, beginning with establishing acceptance among the local population, with the aim of gaining its active support and having civilians join in defending AQAP-controlled territory. This local backing and territorial control – with the aim of creating multiple emirates that should ultimately lead to the creation of a caliphate – would subsequently offer potential for AQAP to launch attacks outside Yemen.[fn]Ayman al-Zawahiri, “General Guidelines for Jihad,” As-Sahab Media, 14 September 2013. This is AQ’s blueprint for a more restrained strategy with an emphasis on localism. AQ groups in Syria, most notably Jabhat al-Nusra, have pursued such tactics. And like its Yemeni counterpart, in July 2016 al-Nusra disassociated itself from the AQ brand and changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS). See Crisis Group Middle East Report N°155, Rigged Cars and Barrel Bombs: Aleppo and the State of the Syrian War, 9 September 2014.Hide Footnote

Initially, AQAP suffered a setback under Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, Yemen’s transitional president, who took power from Saleh as part of a political deal known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative in February 2012. In May 2012, a combination of Yemeni security services and local militias, known as Popular Committees, ousted AQAP from Abyan, ending its first experiment with governance.[fn]Although fighting on the same side as government troops, the “Popular Committees” were mostly southern secessionists and openly opposed Hadi. By 2014, Huthis used the same name for their militias.Hide Footnote Reeling from its defeat, it switched back to asymmetrical attacks, which became more sophisticated and larger in scale than before 2011.[fn]These attacks included: a 21 May 2012 suicide bombing in Sanaa that killed more than 100 soldiers; a 30 September 2013 storming of the military’s Zone-2 headquarters in Mukalla, which AQAP militants held for two days; and a similar attack on the defence ministry in Sanaa on 5 December 2013 that left more than 50 dead and included an assault on al-Urdi hospital inside the compound that killed seventeen patients and staff, for which AQAP later apologised.Hide Footnote The interim president also gave the U.S. carte blanche to pursue its drone campaign against jihadists. Yet, military moves against AQAP proved woefully inadequate in the face of expanding political opportunities.

B. Derailed transition

By 2014, Yemen’s political transition was buckling under the weight of corruption and political infighting. The national dialogue conference, a transition cornerstone aimed at constitutional reform, failed to resolve pivotal issues, including the future state structure. In this environment, the biggest winners were the Huthis, a Shiite movement and militia that had previously fought six rounds of conflict with the Saleh regime (2004-2010). They presented themselves as political outsiders opposed to the GCC initiative, which had divided power between established political parties.

Over the course of the transition, the Huthis upended the military power balance in the north by defeating Sunni Islamist and tribal opponents, including an alliance of Salafi fighters, Islah members, Ali Mohsen-aligned military forces and the powerful al-Ahmar clan (no relation to Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar) from the Hashid tribal confederation, in a series of battles in 2013 and 2014.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°154, The Huthis: From Saada to Sanaa, 10 June 2014.Hide Footnote They also forged an alliance with their former enemies, Saleh and his GPC supporters, who felt marginalised by the GCC-led transition and sought revenge against the Mohsen/Ahmar/Islah alliance that had joined the 2011 popular uprising.

With support from the GPC, the Huthi militia captured Sanaa in September 2014. By February 2015, a dispute over the constitution prompted them to oust the Hadi government. One month later, alarmed by the Huthis’ military advances, which they attributed to Iranian meddling, Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Sunni Arab states, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), backed by the U.S., UK and France, launched a military intervention and imposed a naval and air blockade to reinstate the Hadi government.[fn]For an overview of the Huthi coup, the group’s expansion southward and the Saudi-led military intervention, see Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°45, Yemen at War, 27 March 2015.Hide Footnote

As Yemen plunged into war, AQAP and IS flourished. AQAP declared war against the Huthis in early 2011, but then rarely acted on its strong rhetoric, carrying out only a handful of attacks.[fn]The most notable AQAP attack against the Huthis was the car bombing of a Huthi festival on 24 November 2010 that killed 23 people. AQAP claimed responsibility, stating it had killed the Huthis’ spiritual leader, Badr-al-Din al-Huthi. They also claimed a follow-up attack on 26 November targeting a convoy on its way to al-Huthi’s funeral. AQAP’s Sada al-Malahem magazine, 15 February 2011.Hide Footnote This changed in 2014, as Huthi forces broke out of their Saada stronghold. By mid-December 2014, AQAP had claimed responsibility for 149 attacks against the Huthis in fourteen governorates in less than 90 days.[fn]Oren Adaki, “AQAP claims 149 attacks in Yemen since late September”, The Long War Journal (www.longwarjournal.org), 19 December 2014.Hide Footnote  Al-Bayda, a crossroads governorate between north and south that borders eight provinces, was a focus of these assaults, as the Huthis moved into the area in October under the pretext of fighting Daesh (the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), a term the Huthis have used loosely to characterise a wide range of their opponents.

At the same time, IS, an AQAP competitor, took advantage of increasing sectarianism and violence. It made its Yemen debut on 20 March 2015 in four coordinated suicide attacks against mosques frequented by Huthis in Sanaa, a day after fighting broke out between Saleh loyalists and Hadi-aligned fighters in Aden. The IS bombings provided justification for the Huthi push into Aden as a necessary fight against the growing security void, which the Huthis viewed as intentionally created by their political rival, President Hadi, and filled by AQ and other violent jihadists.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Huthi supporters, August and September 2015.Hide Footnote

Only a week after the Saudi-led coalition began attacking Huthi-Saleh forces from the air, AQAP moved once again to capture territory, this time in the eastern governorate of Hadramout. Unchallenged by local military units, it easily took control of the provincial capital, Mukalla, and large swathes of the province’s coastline.[fn]AQAP denied it had seized Mukalla, saying instead it had been a “Sunni tribal takeover” by the “Sons of Hadramout”. However, local residents and the international community regarded Mukalla as an AQ-controlled city from April 2015 to April 2016. This report refers to AQAP as having seized the city, which it then controlled through local administrative bodies, some of which included non-AQAP members. The name AAS is not referred to in this context, as it was used by neither residents nor the militants to describe themselves during this period.Hide Footnote There, it exhibited improved governance skills by applying lessons learned from its previous experience in Abyan. AQAP held Mukalla for over a year, as the coalition was fighting Huthi/Saleh forces elsewhere.

After nearly two years of war, AQAP/AAS is now deeply enmeshed in the on-going battle against the Huthi/Saleh bloc on a number of fronts, including al-Bayda, Shebwa, Marib, Jawf and Taiz governorates. Its numbers, while difficult to assess, have swelled, reaching approximately 4,000 by 2015 according to U.S. State Department estimates.[fn]Compared to 1,000 in 2014. “Country Reports on Terrorism 2015”, U.S. State Department, 2 June 2016.Hide Footnote Equally importantly, its staying power has grown through a vast war chest. It also has acquired a wide range of new weaponry, including heavy weapons from Yemeni military camps or acquired indirectly from the Saudi-led coalition, which has been supplying arms to a range of anti-Huthi fighters.[fn]AQAP has reportedly plundered thirteen army units across Yemen since March 2015. “Midterm update of the Panel of Experts on Yemen established pursuant to Security Council resolution 2140 (2014)”, unpublished report, August 2016. Eyewitnesses reported seeing tanks seized by AQAP from Mukalla’s two military bases being transported toward northern Hadramout, destination unknown. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, Mukalla, March 2016.Hide Footnote While AQAP was forced to withdraw from Mukalla in the face of a UAE-led, U.S.-assisted military campaign in April 2016, the group is far from defeated and has instead relocated to adjoining governorates or blended into the local population. It continues to exercise on-again, off-again control of areas in Abyan and neighbouring Shebwa.

IS has not seized territory, and its following remains small.[fn]In May 2016, a U.S. State Department official estimated IS numbers in Yemen at around 150. Crisis Group interview, Washington, May 2016. A suicide bomber from Aden said in a phone call with friends shortly before his June 2016 death in Mukalla that IS’s Yemen membership was as low as 70. Crisis Group consultant phone interview in former capacity, friend of the suicide bomber, 27 June 2016.Hide Footnote Yet, it has found fertile ground in cities such as Aden, which suffered sectarian-tinged violence in the aftermath of the Huthi takeover and subsequent removal. IS has taken credit for a number of high-profile attacks against both Huthi forces and the Hadi government and its allies in the south.[fn]Including for two suicide bombings against Yemeni security personnel in Aden that killed 57 on 10 December 2016 and over 50 on 18 December 2016.Hide Footnote

B. Drivers of AQAP and IS Expansion

A. Opportunity in chaos

An important factor in AQAP’s steady gains has been its ability to capitalise on the near-collapse of weak state institutions, particularly the security services. In the past, the Yemeni state at times lent tacit support to violent jihadist groups for political or financial gain. Yet, prior to 2011, there were limits to AQAP’s activities. The group never, for example, held or governed territory. This changed in 2011 when state security services split, one side remaining loyal to Saleh and the other, led by Ali Mohsen, joining protests against him. This fracturing accelerated during the 2015 war. Now, members of the security services are either fighting with the Huthi/Saleh front or the Saudi-led coalition or staying at home. In this environment, not only is there no unified effort to put AQAP on a leash, but the group can step into local political and security vacuums.

Each time AAS has captured significant territory, there has been little or no resistance from the security services, regardless of the latter’s political alignment. This was the case, for example, on 29 May 2011 when militants took over Zinjibar, Abyan, and later five more towns across Abyan and Shebwa provinces. Some observers suggest that Saleh’s allies were preoccupied with the battle for Sanaa as the uprising unfolded and the army split. Local residents in Abyan, who witnessed AQAP’s territorial gains, said security forces abandoned their positions and handed over municipal buildings to barely a handful of militants.[fn]Zinjibar residents said that fewer than a dozen men took control of the town with minimal, if any, effort to repel them. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, Aden, Jaar and Zinjibar, 30 and 31 May 2011, 22 and 23 May 2012 and 13 and 14 June 2012.Hide Footnote Saleh’s opponents viewed the Abyan events as a ruse by the besieged president to persuade his international allies to support him and to draw attention from events in Taiz, where, on the same day, his forces had razed an anti-government protest camp, killing and injuring more than 270 demonstrators.[fn]Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, Yemeni political analyst, Sanaa, June 2011; Yemeni politician who defected from Saleh’s GPC party, Sanaa, 12 June 2011. Defected general Ali Mohsen said Saleh had “handed over Abyan to terrorist gunmen”. Quotes in al-Hayat, June 2011. For details of the Taiz crackdown see, “No Safe Places: Yemen’s Crackdown on Protests in Taizz”, Human Rights Watch, 6 February 2012.Hide Footnote Whatever the reasons for the swift takeover of southern cities, security services failed to act and thus AQAP became the major beneficiary.

In Mukalla, too, state security forces were either unwilling or unable to oppose an AQAP takeover in April 2015. Local residents reported that they failed to put up a fight when the group entered the town and even prevented tribal fighters from stopping it.[fn]Army commanders fled the Zone-2 military headquarters in Mukalla to join the 27th mechanised brigade at al-Riyan airbase, north east of the city. When local tribal fighters attempted to enter the city to fight AQAP, they were blocked by the military, who preferred negotiating their safe withdrawal; clashes ensued between soldiers and tribal fighters. At the time of the takeover, soldiers’ and commanders’ loyalties were murky. The military commanders of Zone-2 and the 27th mechanised brigade were Hadi appointees. Yet, many of the troops in the area are affiliated with Saleh or Ali Mohsen. AQAP allowed the soldiers to leave as long as they deposited all but their personal weapons; it provided transport and cash handouts to them; and it encouraged them to continue to collect their government salaries in Mahra, a neighbouring province, and northern Hadramout, but made them pledge not to fight AQAP or AAS in the future. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, soldier and army officer present on the 27th mechanised brigade base in April 2015 and evacuated by AQAP, Hadramout, 15 March 2016; Mukalla resident party to the negotiations between AQAP and the army, 14 March 2016; Sheikh Amr bin Habrish, head of the Hadramout Tribal Confederacy, PetroMasila, 15 March 2016.Hide Footnote

Equally important, once in control of cities, AQAP/AAS has presented itself as a viable and indeed better alternative to the state by providing more reliable services and dispute adjudication. In Abyan between May 2011 and 2012, AAS provided services such as water and electricity, as well as education and an efficient justice system based on Sharia (Islamic law), and went as far as compensating families which had lost their homes to U.S. drone and airstrikes. AAS’s popularity was clearly based on its comparatively efficient governance more than on its ideology.[fn]Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, imam of Jaar central mosque, local lawyer from Jaar, teenage girls and their mothers, male Jaar residents, Jaar, Abyan, May 2012.Hide Footnote

After being evicted from Abyan, the group applied lessons from its experience there to Mukalla. It further softened its approach by socialising with residents and refraining from draconian rules.[fn]AQAP executed spies, but permitted women to be outside their homes after dark. AQAP leader al-Wuhayshi wrote to the leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) after the group’s withdrawal from Abyan in 2012 to give advice on how to govern. This included tips on the implementation of Islamic punishments. He wrote: “Try to avoid enforcing Islamic punishments as much as possible, unless you are forced to do so”. “The al-Qaida Papers”, Associated Press, February 2013.Hide Footnote As part of this effort, it put in place a local ruling council – the Hadramout National Council (HNC) – rather than instituting direct rule.[fn]The fifteen members of the HNC also included local dignitaries (some of whom had served on the pre-existing local Council of Sunni Scholars) and prominent non-AQAP Hadramis. According to a resident, “The council [HNC] is widely viewed as a front to legitimise AQAP’s hold on power, but locals see it as an acceptable way to deal with the outside world”. Crisis Group interview, April 2015; consultant interview in former capacity, Mukalla, March 2016.Hide Footnote AQAP appointed local members as religious police. It also launched infrastructure projects, provided social services, such as food distribution for families in need and medical supplies and equipment for hospitals, and staged community events and street festivals.[fn]Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, AQAP officials, residents, Mukalla, March 2016. AAS’s propaganda channel, al-Atheer, released pictures and videos of its community work. These efforts extended to areas under its control in Abyan and Shebwa.Hide Footnote The infamous rayat al-sudaa’, AQ’s black banner, was hard to find in the city, and by order of AQAP’s then-leader, al-Wuhayshi, it was not displayed during the militants’ takeover.[fn]AQAP’s then-spokesman spent considerable time trying to persuade international media that it was not AQAP or AAS seizing the city, but a Sunni tribal takeover led by the so-called “Sons of Hadramout”. This may have been an attempt to avoid drawing U.S. airstrikes, which later killed the spokesman and other senior AQAP leaders in Mukalla. Crisis Group consultant multimedia interview in former capacity, AQAP spokesman Muhannad Ghalleb, April 2015.Hide Footnote

Residents in AQAP-controlled areas, while not supporting the group’s ideology, have regularly praised its prioritisation of security, basic services and a mechanism to resolve grievances, such as long-running land disputes.[fn]Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, civilians living in AQAP-controlled territory, Abyan and Hadramout, 2011-2016.Hide Footnote According to a Mukalla resident in 2015:

We view the [Hadramout National] Council positively, because it has managed to continue to pay government salaries …. It has kept public services at a much better level than what is available in the rest of the county …. The AQAP judicial system is fair and swift and therefore preferred over the government’s corrupt system. Many prominent cases that had lingered for years were resolved in a single day.[fn]Crisis Group email interview, Mukalla resident, April 2015.Hide Footnote

AQAP also avoided a bloody fight to hold territory once it became clear that Saudi-led forces, especially the UAE, were determined in May 2016 to drive the group out. Its experience in Abyan in 2011-2012 had taught it that defending territory in a conventional conflict against foreign-backed forces was costly and risked alienating local populations it had spent months winning over. AQAP reportedly arranged its exit from Mukalla in coordination with coalition-allied forces prior to the UAE/Yemeni government assault.[fn]Members of the Saudi-led coalition and supporters of the Hadi government argued there was no agreement with AQAP to allow its fighters to leave the city. Instead, they said, AQAP fled, possibly with local help in the face of the impending UAE/Yemeni military onslaught. Crisis Group interviews, August, September 2016. However, AQAP officials said they received ample advance warning of the coming offensive and the fact that it would be preceded by airstrikes, and began sending their fighters out a month in advance. A former HNC member said AQAP coordinated its withdrawal with the coalition in Riyadh to allow a westward retreat. The eventual push by coalition-supported troops beginning on the night of 23/24 April 2016 was preceded by several days of airstrikes targeting empty AQAP military camps and facilities. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, AQAP officials, former HNC member, Mukalla, March 2016; AQAP official, April 2016; and phone interviews, residents of Mukalla, witnesses in coastal Shebwa, April 2016.Hide Footnote

B. Huthi expansion, sectarianism and new alliances

Arguably, AQAP has most benefited from a combination of Huthi military expansion and growing sectarianism, as these have opened new opportunities for forging local alliances. Huthi inroads in predominantly Shafai/Sunni areas south and east of Sanaa sparked a series of opportunistic alliances with a range of anti-Huthi forces, who called themselves “resistance fighters”.[fn]When anti-Huthi forces pushed south in 2015, local guerrilla forces became known as the “Southern Resistance” in the fight for Aden and southern governorates. In Taiz, these fighters identify as “the Resistance”. Although all fighting on the Yemeni government’s side, these paramilitary forces are not by default pro-Hadi government. In the south, the name specifically denotes the armed separatist movement Hiraak. The southern resistance consists of local residents taking up arms to defend their homes, as well as former soldiers of the PDRY.Hide Footnote This happened on key battle fronts such as Taiz, Marib and al-Bayda, all provinces of the former north Yemen. It also happened in territories of former south Yemen, including Aden, before Huthi/Saleh forces were pushed out in July and August 2015.

The majority of anti-Huthi/Saleh fighters do not share AQAP’s ideology but reject northern/Zaydi domination. In the south, fighters are predominantly separatists, often leftist in orientation. Their tacit alliance with AQAP broke down as soon as Huthi/Saleh forces had been driven out of Aden. Indeed, both AQAP and IS started attacking their erstwhile tactical friends. In response, southern security forces, with the help of the UAE, have launched a number of military operations against them.

More importantly, growing sectarian sentiment has provided political/social space for groups such as AQAP and IS to recruit and establish more durable footholds in local communities. Yemenis are quick to point out that Zaydism and Shafaism (a Sunni school of jurisprudence) are relatively tolerant, have converged over time to the extent that Zaydis and Shafais pray in each other’s mosques, and do not have a history of violent relations. In the past, even AQAP acted pragmatically in light of these social constraints by avoiding direct confrontation with the larger Zaydi community and instead focusing its critique on Twelver Shiites, predominant in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.[fn]Barak Barfi, “AQAP’s Soft Power Strategy in Yemen”, CTC Sentinel, November 2012.Hide Footnote Yet, Yemen’s legacy of tolerance is becoming a casualty of the civil war, and AQAP is taking advantage.

The Huthis and their opponents share responsibility for the growth in sectarian sentiment. The Huthis often conflate Islah, Salafi groups, southern separatists and others with AQAP and IS, referring to all of them as takfiris, al-Qaeda or Daesh.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Huthi representatives, June, August and September 2015; consultant observations in former capacity, Aden, Taiz, Sanaa and Saada, May-November 2015.Hide Footnote They justify their original push south from Sanaa by the need to fill the security void and associated threat posed by Daesh/AQ, which they said were gaining strength and allied with Hadi.[fn]Crisis Group consultant interview in former capacity, Huthi representative, Sanaa, May 2015. Crisis Group phone interviews, Huthi supporters, May-June 2015.Hide Footnote However, at that time, IS did not exist in Aden. It was the war, triggered by the Huthis’ capture of Sanaa, and subsequent chaos that gave rise to the group. In other governorates, such as al-Bayda, the Huthis’ military progress had a similar catalysing effect on sectarianism.[fn]A researcher from al-Bayda noted that, prior to the Huthi advance into the governorate, any differences between local mosques concerned political affiliation: GPC versus Islah. As conflict spread, however, mosques began to segregate along Shafai versus Zaydi lines. Crisis Group consultant interview in former capacity, Abdulsalam al-Rubaidi, Sanaa, 11 November 2014.Hide Footnote

The layering of Saudi-Iranian competition in the Gulf onto Yemen’s civil war has further amplified the sectarian dimension, with the Saudis accusing the Huthis of being Iranian proxies, a charge echoed by Hadi supporters.

In addition, the alliance with Saleh and his networks, which are strongest in the Zaydi highlands, has reinforced a common perception among their opponents that the war has a north/Zaydi versus south/Shafai dimension.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Salafi politician, Aden, February 2015; Yemeni businessman, Sanaa, March 2015; phone interviews, adviser to Hadi government, October 2015; Yemeni activist from Ibb, November 2015.Hide Footnote Sectarian language is common among anti-Huthi fighters. They accuse the Huthis of harbouring an agenda that either includes the promotion of Zaydis, and particularly Hashemites (a subset of Zaydis claiming to be descendants of the Prophet Mohammed), or converting to Twelves Shiism. Some even refer to them as rawafedh (“rejectionists”) and murtadeen (apostates), terms laden with anti-Shiite connotations.[fn]The term rawafedh is used by some Salafis and Wahhabis to denote Shiites for their rejection of what Sunnis consider the legitimate line of succession from the Prophet – the issue that gave rise to the Sunni-Shiite split. In this line of thinking, Shiites are then also murtadeen, apostates from the true belief.Hide Footnote The layering of Saudi-Iranian competition in the Gulf onto Yemen’s civil war has further amplified the sectarian dimension, with the Saudis accusing the Huthis of being Iranian proxies, a charge echoed by Hadi supporters.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Yemeni government officials and GCC diplomats, May and June 2015; “Arab states send complaint letter against Iran to the UN”, al-Arabiya English, 13 November 2016. For a review of growing sectarianism see Farea al-Muslimi, “How Sunni-Shia Sectarianism is Poisoning Yemen”, Carnegie Middle East Center, 29 December 2015.Hide Footnote

AQAP has purposefully blurred the lines between its followers and the wider Sunni and anti-Huthi population. In August 2014, AAS leader Jalal Baleedi led an unusually brutal attack in Hadramout against unarmed soldiers he accused of being Huthis, and then warned of a sectarian war if the Huthis were to take Sanaa.[fn]Baleedi led a team of fighters in the beheading of four and shooting execution of ten off-duty soldiers in Sayoun, Hadramout, in August 2014, claiming they were Huthis. In response to journalist Iona Craig’s question, AQAP ideologue Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi later denounced such beheadings in a video release billed by the group as their “first international press conference”, Al-Malahem Media, 8 December 2014. Baleedi’s association with IS is a point of confusion in Yemen. In Exploiting Disorder, op. cit., Crisis Group reported that Baleedi had pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi based on reports from a Yemeni consultant and Yemeni media sources. However, when he died in February 2016, it became apparent he had remained loyal to AQAP. AQAP released an audio eulogy from its leader, Qasim al-Raymi, who had replaced al-Wuhayshi, and subsequently it produced a lengthy propaganda video of a “Special Forces Battalion” training centre named in Baleedi’s honour.Hide Footnote When that happened, AQAP promptly called all Sunnis to arms.[fn]AQAP chastised Sunni leaders’ support for the “rafidi” Huthi takeover and made a call to arms for Sunnis. “Statement Regarding the Crimes of the Huthi Faction Against the Sunnis”, with the strapline “A Call to Sunnis, AQAP official statement disseminated by AAS social media channels, 23 September 2014.Hide Footnote

As the conflict has unfolded, AQAP has used the pretext of a “Sunni” defence against the “Shiite” Huthis to blend with local tribes and Salafi sympathisers. A senior AQAP official compared the Huthis’ “Shiite” control of Yemen after they captured Sanaa with a Shiite-dominated Iraq after the U.S. overthrew Saddam Hussein; contended that AAS was the only remaining Sunni defence in southern governorates against Huthi expansion after the Hadi government fled into exile and the military collapsed; and that one of AQAP’s main roles was to provide military experience and expertise to local tribesmen, saying: “We are as one with the [Sunni] tribes like never before. We are not al-Qaeda now. Together we are the Sunni army”.[fn]The senior AQAP official repeatedly reiterated AAS’s position as gathering “Sunni tribesmen” against what he called Yemen’s takeover by Shiites. Crisis Group consultant multimedia interviews, AQAP senior official, September 2014 and April 2015.Hide Footnote

The group’s strategy of blurring lines between core membership and sympathisers has also allowed it to extend its reach broadly into local communities. The creation of AAS in particular lowered the bar for would-be recruits by enabling them not to bind themselves to AQAP and its ideology through a formal pledge of allegiance (bay’a).[fn]In AQAP’s case, bay’a is a pledge of allegiance that formally binds an individual to the organisation, itself tied by bay’a to AQ Central. The concept of bay’a goes back to the time of the Prophet Mohammed, who expected bay’a from his followers. By comparison, a mere pledge of support does not imply a binding relationship.Hide Footnote AQAP has similarly used the “Sons of” designation for affiliate groups, as in its takeover of Mukalla. There, it presented the Sons of Hadramout as a local Sunni collective brought together to fight the common Huthi enemy. A senior AQAP official quipped that it was Western obsession with labelling that had motivated the group to use the “Sons of” tag: “You [Westerners] call us all sorts of names and the names may change. But to us, we are all Muslims, we are all brothers”.[fn]According to AQAP, the Sons of Abyan and Sons of Hadramout (in addition to other geographically-linked “Sons of” groups) are not full AQAP/AAS members but “might become so in the future”. They receive basic military training and religious teaching with a specific mandate of fighting the Huthis. They have not pledged allegiance to AQAP. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, AQAP official, Yemen, April 2015, April 2016. Other analysts have put the difference down to little more than semantics. “The Hadramawt: AQAP and the Battle for Yemen’s Wealthiest Governorate”, The Jamestown Foundation, 10 July 2015. The exact relationship between AQAP and the “Sons of” movements is unclear. The opaqueness of the “Sons of” groups allows greater opportunity for AQAP to act as a sleeper movement, particularly after its withdrawal from territory, to be activated at an opportune moment.Hide Footnote

C. AQ as priority number two for regional actors

In prosecuting the war, the Saudi-led coalition has relegated confronting AQAP and IS to a second-tier priority. Its stated primary rationale has been to roll back Huthi gains and reinstate the Hadi government, which requested the military intervention. Saudi motivations to enter the war were based on their perception that the Huthis, as alleged Iranian proxies, posed an existential threat, and on internal political dynamics in which a successful intervention in Yemen would boost the prospects of its main architect, Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman.[fn]A reason cited less often is that Saudi Arabia and the UAE saw a need to manage a Sunni uprising against the Huthi/Saleh alliance. Crisis Group interviews, Saudi official, Yemeni businessman with Saudi ties, June 2015. According to a UAE official, the UAE and Saudi Arabia were forced to act to prevent a Syrian-style civil war, a scenario in which Sunnis, lacking protection or backing, would turn to groups such as AQAP or IS for support. Crisis Group interview, May 2015.Hide Footnote

This prioritisation, much to the U.S.’s frustration and embarrassment, has facilitated AQAP’s efforts to blend in with the anti-Huthi opposition, which has given it access to weapons and new sources of income. During AQAP’s occupation of Mukalla, it robbed state banks, looted weapons caches and embedded itself in the local economy. AAS has regularly fought alongside Saudi-led coalition forces in their effort to dislodge Huthi/Saleh forces from Aden and other parts of the south, including Taiz, indirectly obtaining weapons from them.[fn]Crisis Group consultant observations in former capacity, Aden, May-August 2015, Lahj, July, August 2015, Taiz, September 2015; consultant interview in former capacity, Adeni doctor taken by UAE troops to treat AAS fighters in a military camp, Aden, July 2015. AAS’s media wing has also released several videos over the course of the conflict purportedly showing AAS members taking part in fighting against the Huthis during the battle for Aden and Abyan in 2015, as well as Taiz in 2015-2016 and al-Bayda in 2016. Wilayat Aden, September 2015: https://justpaste.it/ADEN; Wilayat Abyan, June 2015: https://justpaste.it/ltlz; Wilayat Taiz, January 2016: http://tinyurl.com/jn62seb.Hide Footnote

It is only in southern territories from which Huthi/Saleh forces have been removed that the UAE, in particular, has begun to confront AQAP and IS, working with a variety of southern groups. In Aden, they have worked with some success with the security chief and governor to drive AQAP and IS from the city.[fn]Both AQAP and IS were prepared for the eventual reversal, taking full advantage of the Saudi-led coalition’s fight against the Huthi/Saleh bloc to stockpile money and weapons. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, AQAP members, Mukalla, March 2016; AQAP supporters, Aden, August 2015. Both groups gathered heavy weapons left behind by retreating Huthi/Saleh forces. In preparation for expected later confrontations with UAE troops and allied forces, IS was also able to acquire UAE-supplied armoured vehicles for suicide bombings against coalition forces. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, two field commanders of anti-Huthi resistance forces and colonel commanding the Decisive Salman Brigade, Aden, July and August 2015.Hide Footnote The UAE and local allies, supported by a small group of U.S. military advisers, also retook Mukalla in April 2016 without serious fighting and have a continued troop presence there.[fn]Official Saudi-led coalition statements indicated that 800 AQAP militants were killed in the “battle for Mukalla”. AQAP said that twelve of their fighters were killed at a checkpoint on the edge of AQAP-controlled territory (some 100km outside Mukalla), but that no lives were lost in the withdrawal from the city. Crisis Group consultant multimedia interview in former capacity, April 2016. A commander of Hadrami soldiers taking part in the offensive said they killed around twenty AQAP militants at the checkpoint marking the northern entry to their territory and no fighting took place inside the city. Crisis Group consultant phone interviews in former capacity, April 2016.Hide Footnote Similar efforts to evict AQAP/ASS from Abyan and Shebwa have been less successful; AQAP and AAS fighters have repeatedly re-emerged in areas they had vacated or, in some cases, never fully left.

Saudi-led coalition statements that fighting the group is a top priority and announcements of military victories against AQAP in the south are belied by events.[fn]In May 2016, during UN-sponsored peace talks between Yemeni parties in Kuwait, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said that the coalition’s priority had shifted from the Huthis to AQ. “Saudi FM: Fighting al-Qaeda is now a priority in Yemen”, al-Arabiya English, 14 May 2016.Hide Footnote In northern Yemen, where the battle against Huthi/Saleh forces continues, the coalition has engaged in tacit alliances with AQAP fighters, or at least turned a blind eye to them, as long as they have assisted in attacking the common enemy. Indeed, three Hadi associates have appeared on a U.S. Treasury list of “global terrorists” for allegedly providing financial support to, and acting on behalf of, AQAP.[fn]These include: Abd al-Wahhab al-Humayqani, one of Hadi’s delegates to UN peace talks in Geneva in June 2015, Nayif Salih Salim al-Qaysi, governor of al-Bayda, and Hassan Ali Ali Abkar, a militia commander and member of the Consultative Council from Jawf. “Treasury Designates Al-Qaida, Al-Nusrah Front, AQAP, And Isil Fundraisers And Facilitators”, U.S. Department of the Treasury, 19 May 2016; and U.S. Department of the Treasury, Resource Center, Counter Terrorism designations, 7 December 2016.Hide Footnote The focus on the Huthis in some ways makes short-term sense for Saudi Arabia, where the threat of Iranian encirclement resonates widely domestically, as opposed to the threat from Sunni extremists, which is a more complicated sell, given local pockets of sympathy and support. Yet, AQAP also seeks to topple the Saudi monarchy, which it views as corrupt and tied to the West, a threat that grows as the organisation gains ground in Yemen.

In the south, where the UAE has shifted its priorities to fighting AQAP/IS, its efforts are complicated by the latter’s ability to find temporary safe havens when needed. Moreover, lack of a unified southern leadership or plan to address security and governance challenges in chronically neglected and impoverished governorates like Abyan and Shebwa continues to provide a receptive environment for violent jihadist groups. According to a resident of Jaar:

A successful strategy for combating al-Qaeda should focus on governance and service provision. Ideologically, AQAP and IS don’t have much in the south. In Jaar, however, many young people have joined Ansar Sharia because they are poor, have little education and see no future for themselves. Ansar provides these young people with an income and a purpose.[fn]Crisis Group interview, September 2016.Hide Footnote

As long as the war, infighting among southern elites and chronic governance challenges continue, the much publicised military initiatives against AQAP and IS will probably not amount to more than temporary victories.

D. The war economy

AQAP’s progress is also in no small part the result of its financial gains. During the evolving conflict, the group has expanded its war chest by raiding banks and controlling seaports and smuggling routes. Its most successful feat was its looting of the Mukalla bank in April-May 2015, which netted approximately 24 billion Yemeni riyals ($111 million).[fn]A U.S. strike sometime between May and August 2015 reportedly destroyed 9 billion Yemeni riyals ($41 million). Crisis Group consultant interview in former capacity, former security official, Mukalla, March 2016. In addition to central bank funds, local bankers estimate that AQAP acquired about 6 billion Yemeni riyals (approximately $24 million) and more than 20 million Saudi riyals (approximately $5.3 million) from commercial banks on 2 April 2015. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, Mukalla, April 2016.Hide Footnote It also imposed import levies at the Mukalla and Ash-Shihr seaports, collecting a fee for every litre of fuel and every cargo container offloaded.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Mukalla resident, phone interview, April 2015; north Yemen tribal sheikh, Hadrami politician, September 2016.Hide Footnote Ironically, much of the imported fuel found its way to northern markets, which were largely cut off from the outside world by the Saudi-led coalition embargo, through a chain of local intermediaries who purchased fuel in Hadramout for resale to Huthi/Saleh forces.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, Mukalla resident, August 2016.Hide Footnote

A UAE official described Mukalla as “al-Qaeda’s lungs”, and indeed the loss of the port was a significant blow to its funding stream.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UAE official, Abu Dhabi, December 2016.Hide Footnote Yet, the effects of controlling Mukalla for over a year will not fade quickly. AQAP’s accumulated revenues enhance its ability to purchase military hardware and attract recruits. It already offered its fighters in 2011 a salary higher than that of government soldiers, and its new financial resources can exercise an even more significant pull on impoverished young men.[fn]AQAP/AAS paid a $200 monthly salary to fighters compared to $140-150 for a regular Yemeni soldier. Crisis Group consultant multimedia interview in former capacity, AQAP member, March 2016. Four male residents in AQAP/AAS-controlled territory said that it enticed many local recruits primarily with the financial reward, not through religious or ideological persuasion. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, Abyan, May 2012.Hide Footnote

C. IS versus AQAP

Beginning in November 2014, a nascent IS branch put itself on the Yemen conflict map through spectacular attacks against a variety of protagonists, including both the Huthis and the Hadi government. Like AQAP, IS has benefited from state collapse, Huthi expansionism, regional states’ preoccupation with Iran and a burgeoning war economy. More than AQAP, however, IS is also a product of growing sectarianism and extreme levels of violence, which have radicalised young men and made them susceptible to its recruitment. Most importantly, its appearance in Yemen is tied to its successes in Iraq and Syria. At the same time, its influence in Yemen has been circumscribed by AQAP’s long history, military prowess and local support.

On 13 November 2014, shortly after the September Huthi takeover of Sanaa, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced IS in Yemen.[fn]Seven local branches announced themselves shortly afterwards, operating in ten governorates: Saada, Sanaa, al-Jawf, al-Bayda, Taiz, Ibb, Lahj, Aden, Shebwa and Hadramout. A handful of young men posted pictures on social media purportedly declaring an unverified eighth local branch in Mahra governorate in September 2016.Hide Footnote Initially, IS’s meteoric rise in Syria and Iraq produced a similar momentum in Yemen. Numerous AQAP members defected to it, including senior ideologues such as Sheikh Mamoun Hatem and the prominent religious cleric Abdul-Majid al-Hitari.[fn]Hatem was an early vocal IS supporter on social media. His defection was confirmed by AQAP’s spokesman, who said that although Hatem was “no longer one of us [AQAP], he is still our brother”. Crisis Group consultant interview in former capacity, October 2014. Hatem returned to AQAP in 2015 and was killed in an apparent U.S. drone strike in Mukalla on 11 May.Hide Footnote This trend was helped by a number of U.S. assassinations of AQAP ideologues, including Harith al-Nadhari, Ibrahim al-Rubaysh, and Nasser al-Ansi, between January and April 2015, and their leader al-Wuhayshi in June 2015.[fn]These senior ideologues were crucial to providing theological arguments against joining IS. While al-Wuhayshi was not a theologian, he was a very popular, astute and much-respected figurehead of the group. After his death, an undetermined number of AQAP members were said to have defected to IS. Crisis Group consultant multimedia interviews in former capacity, Shebwa tribal leaders, July, August 2015. The senior ideologues were also veteran AQ members with experience garnered in Bosnia, Afghanistan and the Philippines. This old guard appears to still hold significance to AQAP. They were featured posthumously in an AQAP propaganda video in December 2015.Hide Footnote

IS also took advantage of the 2015 battle for Aden. Four months of heavy fighting that left thousands dead fuelled the radicalisation of young men and accelerated the group’s rise. It was quick to deploy its own “journalists” among the youth to spread its ideology through videos and propaganda songs.[fn]Some local youth in Aden and Little Aden (an area to the west of Aden city) referred to IS recruiters as “propagandists” who distributed videos by smart phones and promoted IS social media, and who told the youth in the streets about IS and its work. Others used the word “journalist” to describe these activities. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, Aden, August 2015.Hide Footnote This tactic proved fruitful, as a significant portion of IS’s young suicide bombers targeting UAE and UAE-supported forces in Mukalla in April 2016 hailed from Aden. These recruits continued to carry out high-profile attacks, including a suicide bombing against a government military recruitment centre in the port city on 29 August 2016 that killed over 60.

AQAP responded to IS’s rise by trying to contain the group. Initially, it downplayed the threat by refusing to respond to journalists’ questions about IS’s very existence.[fn]According to a senior AQAP official, referring to IS: “AQAP is not responsible for Ansar al-Dawla [Defenders of the State] actions. But they are our brothers and we would help them”. The same official (later killed in a U.S. drone strike) refused, on orders from al-Wuhayshi, to comment on IS’s first attack in March 2015 against mosques in Sanaa. Crisis Group consultant multimedia interviews in former capacity, November 2014, March 2015.Hide Footnote Later, AQAP leaders publicly criticised IS, denouncing its attacks on mosques, which they contrasted with their own reputed sensitivity to local norms. They also engaged in a broader media campaign, ridiculing IS and al-Baghdadi, its self-proclaimed caliph.[fn]AQAP denounced “Baghdadi’s group” as being “based on nothing but a lie … sin, and a blend of ignorance, deviation and desire”. AQAP video release, 1 November 2015.Hide Footnote While they have been quick to praise attacks by persons claiming to act on IS’s behalf in the West, there is no evidence that the two groups have collaborated in any way, including by sharing intelligence.[fn]On 23 June 2016, AQAP’s al-Malahem media arm published the first “Inspire Guide” analysing an IS-linked operation on a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, U.S., on 12 June 2016. A second edition on 21 July 2016 praised the IS-linked attack in Nice, France, a week earlier.Hide Footnote

Their [Islamic State] brutal tactics, including mass killings and mosque bombings, and their relatively autocratic style, are at odds with societal and tribal norms.

IS’s Yemen leadership, unlike AQAP’s, consists mainly of non-Yemenis and its members appear to have been with IS in Syria and Iraq; they brought to Yemen the same strategy of embedded networks of informants and local propagandists that contributed to the group’s successes there.[fn]IS uses these networks to increase its sympathisers and determine whom they can trust and whom to eliminate when taking territory. They rise up when the group moves in from the outside to jointly take control of a place. Paranoia among southerners that Huthi/Saleh forces were using this type of infiltration to retake Aden (after they were evicted in July-August 2015) prompted southern military forces to expel many northerners.Hide Footnote Despite, or possibly because of, their leaders’ international credentials, they have struggled to establish a broad base of support in Yemen. Their brutal tactics, including mass killings and mosque bombings, and their relatively autocratic style, are at odds with societal and tribal norms.

In December 2015, IS faced an internal mutiny when fifteen senior figures and 55 fighters accused their leader, the governor (wali) of Yemen province, of violating Sharia. They listed a number of infringements, including the wrongful dismissal of soldiers, failure to provide basic supplies during a battle in Hadramout, committing “injustices against the weak” and refusal to adhere to a Sharia ruling against an IS regional commander. A contemptuous written response from IS’s central leadership in Syria/Iraq demanded obedience.[fn]The defectors included three members of the group’s Sharia committee: Sheikh Abu al-Shayma al-Muhajir, Sheikh Abu Muslim al-Mansour and Sheikh Abu Hajar al-Adani, in addition to the “province’s” military commander, Abu Aassim al-Bika, and the security chief. In their letter titled “A Statement of Defection from the Wali of Yemen” and published online on 15 December 2015, they reaffirmed their allegiance to IS leader in Syria, while announcing their defection from their wali. On 19 December 2015, Abu Ubayda al-Hakim, a member of the Shura Council of the Caliphate in Syria/Iraq, responded to the complaint by supporting Yemen’s wali and stated that by disobeying their local leader the group had renounced their pledge to al-Baghdadi.Hide Footnote Rejecting the letter, all 70 members left the group. On 24 December, an additional 31, including three senior figures, released a statement joining the rebellion and renouncing the IS leader in Yemen.[fn]Three senior figures – Sheikh Salman al-Lahiji and Rawaha al-Adeni from the Security Committee, along with a member of the Preaching Committee, Abu Hafs al-Somali – led the mass defection that included a local security official and 27 members from Abyan, Aden, Shebwa and Hadramout. They stated that they remained loyal to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but IS in Syria rejected this. “Dissent in the Islamic State’s Yemen Affiliates: Documents, Translation & Analysis”, Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, 29 February 2016, http://www.aymennjawad.org/2016/02/dissent-in-the-islamic-state-yemen-affiliates.Hide Footnote

IS continues to carry out suicide bombings in the government-controlled cities of Aden and Mukalla and also engages in assassinations of local security and intelligence personnel that have a significant impact. After the UAE-led forces retook Aden from the Huthi/Saleh bloc in July 2015, these killings increased, the majority claimed by IS’s media channels. This and repeated IS suicide bombings of military recruitment centres and mass gatherings of soldiers collecting salaries have led many southerners to view IS as part of a historical pattern in which northern political elites use violent jihadists as a tool in asymmetric warfare against the south.[fn]The northern political elite is viewed by many southerners as comprising factions on both sides of the post-2011 divided regime. This includes individuals such as current Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Islah party figures and, in the view of some, even President Hadi. Crisis Group consultant observations in former capacity; and interviews, Hiraak activists, Aden and Mukalla, August 2015-December 2016.Hide Footnote

AQAP’s strategy of gradualism, relative respect for local norms and integration with local Sunni populations has been far more successful. Its longstanding presence and well-established networks across the country have given it a clear upper hand.

D. Salafi Militias

While AQAP and IS dominate headlines, a range of Salafi militias are an increasingly important part of Yemen’s Sunni militant milieu.[fn]Labelling individuals and Yemen’s rapidly expanding number of armed groups is fraught with problems. Fault lines between groups are increasingly unclear and many have no visible structure. Individuals and fighting factions often assume tribal, political and religious identities simultaneously. Attempts at simplification are often misleading while making any future reintegration of armed groups problematic. The label Salafi is similarly vulnerable to these errors and underlines the need for disaggregation. “Salafism” is used here in its broadest sense: a Sunni movement that seeks to revive “original” Islam by drawing on the so-called pious ancestors (salaf al-salih). Increasing fragmentation throughout the civil war has resulted in open conflict between Salafi strands.Hide Footnote Yemen has long housed a variety of Salafi groups.[fn]The Salafi spectrum there has historically comprised three main strands: quietist, jihadist and activist (harakiya). Quietist, scholastic or missionary Salafis are apolitical, reject parliamentary politics and, in theory, give allegiance to existing authority. Salafi-jihadists advocate violence against religious and political enemies. And activist Salafis are more inclined to challenging authorities through the political process. Crisis Group consultant phone interview, Laurent Bonnefoy, July 2016. See Laurent Bonnefoy, Salafism in Yemen: Transnationalism and Religious Identity (London, 2011). See fn 1 for Crisis Group’s definition of “jihadist”.Hide Footnote Prior to the war, most were non-political and non-violent. Some, like the al-Rashad party, embraced politics and were closely associated with Islah. As the Huthis expanded southward, however, many took up arms against them. The earliest indications of this were in 2013, when the Huthis fought Salafis from the Dar al-Hadith religious institute in Dammaj, Saada.[fn]Muqbil al-Waddii, a Saudi-educated Saada cleric and convert from Zaydism, established Dar al-Hadith institute in the heart of Zaydi territory in the late 1970s with funding from Saudi Arabia. Salafi proselytising there, itself arguably a product of socio-economic grievances against advantages given to Zaydi elites, particularly Hashemites (descendants of the Prophet), is a core grievance that sparked Zaydi revivalism in the 1980s and later gave impetus to the Huthi movement. Crisis Group Middle East Report N°86, Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb, 27 May 2009.Hide Footnote Although the Huthis emerged victorious in January 2014, fighters from Dammaj and another religious institute in Kitaf, Saada, regrouped and are now fighting the Huthis on a number of fronts.

Opportunistic alliances forged by the Saudi-led coalition have propelled Salafis to prominence. In Aden, they act with UAE support as state-sponsored, irregular security forces. As the battle for that city reached its peak in July 2015, the UAE worked with Hashem al-Syed, a former Dar al-Hadith student, to lead Salafi fighters there. After Huthi forces were pushed out, another little-known Salafi, Bassam Mehdhar, became the UAE’s main beneficiary. In 2015, the al-Mehdhar Brigade, based in Sheikh Othman and Mansoura districts, acted as a local security force. In October 2016, the group joined other Saudi-supported Yemeni forces in crossing the Saudi-Yemeni border in an attempt to push into Saada, the Huthi stronghold.[fn]This new battlefront is a very personal fight for many Salafis, who are seeking revenge for being forced out of the Dar al-Hadith institute.Hide Footnote

Another group, the Security Belt forces, a UAE-supported militia established by presidential decree in May 2016 to help secure Aden and led by Nabil Mashwashi, a former South Yemen army commander, appears to have a significant Salafi component. Prominent Salafis, such as Hani Bin Baraik, a minister of state and figurehead of the group, tend to be anti-Islah which, just as their UAE backers, they suspect of collusion with AQAP.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, coalition member, Adeni journalist, Dubai, September 2016. Many Salafis in the south are anti-Islah also because they see the party as northerners opposed to the south’s secession.Hide Footnote

In Taiz, the lines between Salafi and AQAP/AAS fighters are blurred.[fn]A former AQAP member said: “Taiz has been a special case in the Yemen war because AQAP has been able to successfully embed itself in the opposition to the Huthis there from the beginning, but those fighting are not AQAP core members”. Crisis Group interview, September 2016.Hide Footnote As in Aden, Salafis are at the forefront of Saudi-led coalition-sponsored efforts to repel Huthi advances. Among the city’s myriad factions, one of the more notorious groups, acting with UAE-supplied weapons and armoured vehicles, is led by another former Dammaj student, Adel Abdu Farea, also known as Abu al-Abbas. His followers have included the Humat al-Qi’dah (Protectors of the Faith), a group responsible for the destruction of a seventeenth-century tomb in July 2016 and the burning of books belonging to Yemeni Christians. Al-Abbas’s men have clashed with another group led by a Salafi sheikh, Sadeq Mahyoub, which is loyal to the Saudi-sponsored tribal sheikh Hamoud al-Mekhlafi. Saudi Arabia also sponsors the al-Hassam (Decisiveness) Brigade, which was founded by Adnan Ruzayyk al-Qumayshi, who left Dammaj in 2014, and is now led by Salafi figure Ammar Jundobi.[fn]Crisis Group consultant phone interviews in former capacity, local residents, political activists, journalist from Taiz and Aden, August 2016.Hide Footnote

Allegations abound regarding possible AQAP/IS links to a number of Salafi groups, but the exact connection is unclear.[fn]Yemeni observers have linked the al-Hassam brigade to AQAP. Crisis Group interviews, Taiz politician, August 2016; prominent Sheikh from the Hashid tribal confederation, September 2016. Others claim links between AQAP or IS and Abu Abbas, with similar observations about connections with other individuals and factions. Crisis Group consultant phone interviews in former capacity, Taizi activists, journalist, September 2016.Hide Footnote Since December 2016, Salafi and other resistance militias have nominally been integrated into the Yemeni army while remaining separate in reality.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ammar al-Jundobi, Decisiveness Bridge field commander, Taiz, January 2017.Hide Footnote

Yemen’s Salafi movement is undergoing a rapid transformation, shaped by the war and new sources of patronage. It is unclear how relationships between AQAP and various Salafi groups will develop and what, if any, political ambitions the latter have beyond defeating the Huthis. Their growth into a pivotal player in the civil war elevates the need for their representation in any political resolution, especially if they are to play a role as an alternative, among religious conservatives, to AQAP or IS. Thus far, the growth of Salafi militias appears to be feeding into AQAP’s narrative of a Sunni defence against the Huthi takeover, while contributing to AQAP’s aim of blurring the lines between AAS, its local insurgency arm, and Salafi groups in areas where they have been fighting alongside each other.

The UAE complicates this picture: it supports Salafi groups and, according to numerous Yemeni sources, has tried to either suppress or marginalise Islah because of that party’s links to the Muslim Brotherhood, which it bans domestically.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, GPC supporter, December 2016; Taizi politicians, November 2016; Adeni journalist, September, December 2016. Crisis Group consultant phone interviews in former capacity, Islah-aligned, pro-unity Mukalla residents, October 2016.Hide Footnote Islah, like Islamist groups actively engaged in politics across the Arab world, can play an essential role as firewall against radicalisation in Yemen. While the UAE officially supports its inclusion in any political settlement, its intolerance of Islah in practice risks pushing young men who might have chosen politics into the arms of the very violent jihadist groups the UAE wants to quash.

IV. Reversing the Gains

Yemen’s war has created vast new opportunities for AQAP, a relatively minor player before 2011, and has given rise to the Yemeni wing of IS. While U.S. drone attacks and other military action have dealt repeated blows, AQAP is thriving in the context of state collapse, sectarianism, shifting opportunistic alliances and a war economy, with fresh recruits and more sources of weapons and income than ever before.

At a regional level, the undertow of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry drives sectarianism and incites radicalisation on both sides of the war. Without de-escalation between them, it risks becoming an extension of a wider competition between, on one side, Iran and its allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – with Russia also playing a role – and the predominantly Sunni powers of the Saudi-led coalition, backed by Western states, including Israel. Dialling back this regional enmity is a vital priority.

Within Yemen, achieving a sustainable ceasefire and nationwide political settlement should be the priority. To reverse the growth of AQAP and IS will require a political settlement that is truly inclusive, provides a mechanism for addressing demands for local autonomy and outlines interim security arrangements that are accepted by local communities while operating under the umbrella of the state.

Including a range of Sunni Islamists, particularly Islah and Salafi groups prepared to engage in politics, in power-sharing arrangements would give them a stake in national politics and a viable political outlet as opposed to marginalising them and potentially pushing some toward violent jihadism. Many Yemenis have turned to violence because they view a Huthi/Saleh-dominated state as a threat to their survival. Overcoming zero-sum perspectives requires, as a first step, a compromise in which each side can be part of the government and security apparatus.

Addressing demands for regional autonomy would also be crucial to rolling back AQAP. The group has astutely carved out space in political battles between opposing regional sentiments by forging de facto alliances with other Sunni groups against Huthi/Saleh forces and embedding themselves in the war economy. For their part, Huthi/Saleh forces have used AQAP and IS as a convenient excuse to advance into predominantly Sunni territory, thereby exacerbating the problem.

Southerners in particular routinely downplay the AQAP/IS influence in southern areas, viewing them as tools in the hands of powerful northerners, particularly Saleh and Mohsen.[fn]At times, this perception has served as a powerful motive for locals to assist in evicting AQAP from their areas, and the UAE-backed offensive in southern Hadramout in April 2016 utilised it. This local view of AQAP greatly contributed to the success of efforts by intelligence agencies in routing members who went into hiding after the April offensive. Hadramout residents, through information they provided to security forces, contributed to the capture of several leading figures, including AQAP’s emir of Ash-Shihr in May 2016 and a senior ideologue in Hadramout in October 2016, and the discovery of weapons caches. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, Hiraak activists, Mukalla, March 2016.Hide Footnote Assassinations of southern intelligence and security officials, both before the Saudi-led intervention and after the Huthi/Saleh forces’ removal from southern governorates five months later, have heightened their suspicions of them as an extension of a historical pattern of instrumentalising Islamists for political score-settling.

At the same time, AQAP and IS have exploited opportunities in the south when the Huthis were the proximate enemy. Even after the latter’s defeat there, some parts of the southern resistance fought with AAS against Hadi’s forces, which many viewed as corrupt.[fn]From February to March 2016, AAS and renegade fighters from the southern resistance fought together against Hadi forces in the Mansoura district where AAS had a base. Three of them, who were listed by the Hadi government as wanted AQ members, acknowledged they were fighting alongside AAS but denied being members. They cited corruption and cronyism as primary grievances against the government. The jihadists were eventually pushed out, with some leaving through negotiations. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, Aden, March 2016.Hide Footnote These dynamics, which allowed AQAP/AAS to capitalise on local animosity toward the central government, are likely to continue as long as demands for regional autonomy remain unaddressed.

Clear interim security arrangements are a critical part of any effective settlement. This issue has been a sticking point in UN-led negotiations. The Hadi government and its GCC backers insist on close implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2216 (2015), which calls on Huthi/Saleh forces to withdraw from areas they captured and to disarm. The Huthi/Saleh bloc, however, argues for the establishment of a new government first, of which they would form an integral part, and then the withdrawal and disarmament of all militias, not just their own.

After 22 months of war, the Huthi/Saleh bloc emphasises that there is no functioning state led by the Hadi government to hand authority to. Even in areas “liberated” from Huthi/Saleh control, authority is diffuse, often resting with local militias. As such, abrupt withdrawals of Huthi/Saleh forces from areas they control could open a security void for AQAP and IS to exploit. Yet, their continued presence in contested areas and dominance in the north, to the exclusion of other constituencies, exacerbates communal tensions that radical groups could also take advantage of.

In the short term, Yemen needs clear interim security arrangements that are tailored to local political realities. Areas like Taiz will be most difficult to tackle, as warring forces are positioned in close quarters on the battlefield and can each claim acceptance from certain parts of the local community. Bringing together locally accepted combatants under the umbrella of local authorities acting on behalf the state would be ideal, at least until the overarching issues of military-security reform and disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration can be addressed nationally.

Reaching an inclusive overall settlement to end the war offers the best chance to undercut AQAP’s prospects, but such a settlement may not be feasible. Even if the UN is able to broker a deal, it is unlikely to result in a quick end to this multifaceted conflict with regional dimensions. Yemenis and their external backers should, therefore, look for measures, such as those that follow, that could still go some way toward curbing AQAP/IS expansion.

Addressing state orchestration of jihadist groups. AQAP and IS are part of a domestic/regional power struggle marked by shifting alliances in which they tend to be no one’s primary enemy. Following the 2011 political unrest and the Huthis’ 2014-2015 military advance southward in alliance with Saleh’s forces, the jihadists’ traditional channels of influence and co-optation became divided, leaving AQAP activities theoretically open to exploitation by various regime and ex-regime forces in the ensuing civil war. Because of this, Western governments and regional states should continuously re-evaluate the motivations of Yemeni actors and their external backers to counter AQAP/IS. While it is often difficult in Yemen to discern who may or may not be using AQAP/IS to their advantage, states involved in the conflict should be willing to regularly assess their partners and put pressure on them to change course if they are found to be tolerating or encouraging the growth of AQAP/IS to achieve tactical objectives.

In addition to routine evaluation of allies’ actions, it is important in principle to decouple development assistance from counter-terrorism aid to the Hadi government and any other government that may emerge from a political settlement, thereby limiting the extent to which they can benefit financially from AQAP/IS’s presence. Failure to acknowledge and address this state-jihadist interaction would likely further alienate the population, which often views AQAP, or more recently IS, at least partially as political leaders’ tools, from policymakers.

Improving governance in areas previously under, or vulnerable to, militant control. A key aspect of AQAP’s ability to gain initial acceptance has been its proven pragmatism: instituting effective governance and addressing a long-neglected population’s pressing concerns. It has prioritised providing security, basic services and a judicial system able to resolve grievances, such as long-running land disputes, showing itself as a viable, better alternative to the state.

For a post-conflict government to successfully counter AQAP, it would have to provide better governance, with local ownership over decisions, in areas previously under AQAP control and/or that are vulnerable to them. As a priority, this includes quick and non-corrupt dispute resolution, security provision rather than predatory score-settling and basic services such as electricity and water.

Aden stands out in many ways as an example of what not to do. When Huthi/Saleh fighters were evicted in July 2015, the exuberance of military victory was not followed by a similar enthusiasm for instituting governance. More than a year later, local authorities reestablished the city’s central prison and opened unofficial detention facilities, but failed to put in place a functioning court system. Even as some residents are supportive of the governor’s and security director’s efforts to restore order, many complain of corruption by government officials and of continued insecurity, a function of a security service divided along intra-southern lines of competition.[fn]Security services under the Aden governor and security chief function as a state within a state. Tensions are high between them and forces aligned with Hadi and his interior minister, Hussein al-Arab. The Security Belt forces technically fall under the interior minister, though the degree to which he controls them is questionable. All factions are competing for Emirati patronage and support. Overlaying the competition is a historical division from the 1986 civil war in which a group from the current governorates of Dalia and Lahi won over their adversaries, mainly from Abyan and Shebwa. Hadi and al-Arab are associated with the latter, while the Aden governor and his security chief are associated with the former. Crisis Group consultant interviews, more than a half a dozen Aden residents, the Aden governor and Aden security chief, Aden, January 2017.Hide Footnote

The experience in Abyan is a cautionary tale of how working through local militias without a clear plan for incorporating them into the state security forces or deploying them to help stabilise areas retaken from jihadists can backfire. Local militias known as popular committees were central to the U.S.-supported pushback against AQAP/AAS in Abyan and Shabwa in 2012. Their use yielded the short-term gain of driving AQAP out, but as the only force in charge of security they contributed to local tensions, entrenched exclusionary patronage networks and were vulnerable to infiltration by violent jihadists, who used them as a cover to establish networks for future resurgence. As a Zinjibar farmer put it, “I would not trust the Popular Committees even to watch over my goats”.[fn]The farmer said he knew Popular Committee members who had been AAS members. Crisis Group consultant interview in former capacity, Aden, June 2012. There were exceptions, notably in northern Abyan areas such as Lawder, where local militias were well-liked and more representative of local communities. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, local residents, Lawder, May 2012. For more information, see Iona Craig, “End of Emirate?”, IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, September 2012.Hide Footnote

After several cycles of evicting AQAP/AAS from towns in Abyan, only to see them return, residents still complain of the government’s lack of attention to services and governance. According to a resident of Jaar, the UAE and its local partners, most of which seek southern separation, had some success in pushing AQAP into the neighbouring governorate of al-Bayda in 2016, but there are still far too few government-provided services and an unmet desire for governance.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, Jaar resident, September 2016.Hide Footnote

Mukalla appears to show improvement. In April 2016, locally recruited ground forces and UAE troops, with U.S. support, retook territory through what appeared to be a largely negotiated withdrawal of AQAP forces that spared the population a bloody battle. Some Hadramis say that the population is now working with the UAE and local security forces to identify and apprehend remaining AQAP supporters in the city and that services, such as water and electricity, are working well.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Hadrami politicians, Abu Dhabi, October 2016; phone interviews, Mukalla resident, November, December 2016.Hide Footnote Still, the success was almost immediately followed by accusations of corruption, cronyism, arbitrary detention and torture by the new authorities and security forces. Non-secessionist residents and those politically aligned to Islah continue to complain of unlawful arrests, torture and disappearances at the hands of the new Elite security forces (a group similar to the Security Belt in Aden that is composed of local fighters trained by the UAE) and UAE troops.[fn]Crisis Group consultant phone interviews in former capacity, Islah-aligned, pro-unity Mukalla residents, May, June and October 2016. See also ‘“We lived in days of hell”: Civilian Perspectives on Conflict in Yemen’, Center for Civilians in Conflict, January 2017, p. 31.Hide Footnote

Disaggregating rather than conflating Sunni Islamist groups. AQAP is an internally diverse organisation with varying layers of support among the local population and shifting alliances. Its efforts to blend in with the larger Sunni community and to ease affiliation requirements (especially the loyalty oath) expand its influence even as they leave it vulnerable to efforts to peel off supporters motivated less by its global agenda than by local political or economic grievances.

Protagonists on both sides of the war have at times been quick to label a wide range of Sunni Islamists – from Islah to various Salafi and other fighting groups – as AQAP, instead of acknowledging clear differences between them. As a southern fighter from the “February 16” militia (one of many southern insurgent groups), listed by Aden’s security directorate as a wanted AQAP member, stated:

We are not al-Qaeda but joined with them to fight [Security Director] Shalal because we have no choice. We fought and died for our city for six months and they offered us nothing in return. They gave positions to their friends and families, stole money meant for us and treated us like garbage to be thrown away or burnt.[fn]Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, “February 16” fighters, Mansura, Aden, March 2016.Hide Footnote

In addition, there is far too little effort to disaggregate AAS rank and file from AQAP core members. As a politician from Abyan noted:

Ansar al-Sharia was born of al-Qaeda but is different. Most Ansar followers in Abyan are local. Many are young men who are very poor with no prospects. You can strike agreements with them and pull them away from al-Qaeda. After al-Qaeda was removed from Abyan, Ansar supporters stayed behind. It is important to give them [political and economic] opportunities.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, September 2016.Hide Footnote

Understanding who can be negotiated with and convinced to peacefully participate in political and social life is tricky and a shifting target that requires buy-in and expertise from local communities. But in Yemen’s fractured political environment, it is a critical component of limiting AQAP’s growing reach.

Using military tools judiciously. At times military force is a necessary component of confronting AQAP/IS, but it should be used judiciously, in coordination with local actors and in a way that respects local laws and norms, lest it produce a political and social backlash to AQAP/IS’s advantage. Military campaigns, whether carried out by Huthi/Saleh forces or the government, that have targeted real or alleged AQAP/IS operatives with conventional force have often devastated local infrastructure and communities, while arguably setting back the cause of curtailing AQAP/IS influence. A tactic that has proved more effective is the threat of force combined with local negotiations with militants to encourage core AQAP supporters to leave areas, particularly cities, thereby sparing population centres widespread destruction and taking the fight against combatants unwilling to negotiate to less-populated areas. For the most part, this happened in Mukalla, and with considerable success.

The type of force used against AQAP/IS is also important. In Yemen, foreign troops, particularly Western ones, and even fighters from a different region of the country, risk antagonising local populations that view them as invaders. Even when local fighters are used, they can become part of the problem if they are operating outside of a clear legal framework. Many local residents saw as predatory some Popular Committees in Abyan, Security Belt forces in Aden and Elite forces in Hadramout.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, Aden resident, November 2016; consultant phone interviews in former capacity, Islah-aligned, pro-unity Mukalla residents, October 2016.Hide Footnote

Drones, too, should be used judiciously and in coordination with Yemeni authorities so as not to violate sovereignty. While the Hadi government and the civil war have given the U.S. virtual carte blanche to pursue its drone campaign, tactical success in killing key operatives and ideologues has not stopped the organisation’s rapid growth. Their use raises the additional risk of replacements becoming increasingly hard-line. For example, al-Wuhayshi’s successor, al-Raymi, is widely regarded as far more ruthless than his predecessor.

While drone strikes’ impact is difficult to assess, many Yemenis suggest that they are counterproductive, breeding anti-U.S. and anti-Yemeni government sentiment when civilians are killed, which can radicalise victims’ families. This is especially the case with U.S. “signature” strikes that are based on patterns of behaviour, without knowing the identity of the targeted individual.

What went wrong in the deadly raid on al-Qaeda in Yemen?

Richard Atwood, Director of Crisis Group's New York Office, speaks with Hari Sreenivasan about the 29 January U.S. raid on al-Qaeda in Yemen. PBS NewsHour

The first military actions by the Trump administration in Yemen bode poorly for the prospect of smartly and effectively countering AQAP. A 29 January 2017 U.S. Special Forces raid in al-Bayda governorate, a critical battleground between pro- and anti-Huthi forces, killed a U.S. commando and several prominent tribesmen associated with AQAP, but also according to local sources many civilians, including at least ten women and children.[fn]“Yemeni civilians killed in first US raid under Trump”, Al Jazeera English, 31 January 2017.Hide Footnote The use of U.S. soldiers, high civilian casualties and disregard for local tribal and political dynamics – many killed were local tribesmen motivated by the internal Yemeni power struggle as much as or more than AQAP’s international agenda – plays into AQAP’s narrative of defending Muslims against the West and could increase anti-U.S. sentiment and with it AQAP’s pool of recruits.[fn]

V. Conclusion

AQAP and IS are unique in being the only two of many warring parties in Yemen which are at least ostensibly enemies of the conflict’s two main antagonists: Hadi-aligned forces and the Huthi/Saleh bloc. They are also in the incongruous position of being the conflict’s greatest beneficiaries, thriving in the context of state collapse, growing sectarian polarisation, fluid alliances and an expanding war economy. They are part of a regional trend of religiously-justified violence that is making conflict resolution evermore elusive. Yemen’s regionalised civil war shows little sign of abating. Instead, this multifaceted struggle looks set to deepen confessional divides – not previously a focal point of conflict – to the benefit of AQAP and IS and detriment of the country, its people and global security.  

Brussels, 2 February 2017

Appendix A: Map of Yemen

Map of Yemen International Crisis Group/Based on UN map no. 3847, Rev. 3, January 2004.
Huthi (Ansar Allah) security forces stop in Marran, Saada, north Yemen. January 2014.

Truce Test: The Huthis and Yemen’s War of Narratives

Adversaries of Yemen’s Huthi rebels say they will never negotiate in good faith. Others think they might, given the right mix of incentives. With a nationwide truce in place, diplomats should give the latter hypothesis a shot.

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What’s new? A two-month truce and reconfiguration of executive powers in Yemen’s internationally recognised government represent an opportunity, if not for peace, then at least for negotiations aimed at achieving it. But getting to talks will require overcoming a barrier many see as insurmountable: dialogue with the Huthi rebels.

Why does it matter? The Huthis remain an enigma to many outsiders but are instrumental to a negotiated solution. They have given few signs of late that they will make compromises necessary to end the war, but efforts to engage them stand a better chance than further isolation of convincing them to do so.

What should be done? Diplomats will need both carrots and sticks to bring the Huthis in from the cold. International stakeholders should establish a working group to make overtures to Sanaa and prepare for inclusive Yemeni-Yemeni talks to chart a way out of the conflict.

Executive Summary

A whirlwind of events has opened a small window of opportunity, if not for peace, then for a shift from violent competition to political negotiations in Yemen. This moment is a litmus test for two hypotheses about the Huthi rebels who have controlled Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, since 2014. The first, advanced by their rivals, holds that the group is an extremist organisation in thrall to Iran that is incapable of engaging in good faith, let alone making the compromises needed to end the war. The second posits that the Huthis (aka Ansar Allah), presented with the right mix of incentives and a realistic peace proposal, will come to the table, even if only to give themselves a reprieve from fighting and economic privation. In any case, the fact is that the war will not end without the Huthis’ acquiescence. With a nationwide truce in place, diplomats should reach out to the Huthis, seeking their approval of an extended truce and their participation in inclusive intra-Yemeni talks aimed at bringing seven years of terrible conflict to a close.

The UN announced it had mediated the truce on 1 April after shifts on the ground brought the military balance close to equilibrium for the first time in several years. Less than a week later, Saudi Arabia engineered the ouster of  Yemen’s internationally recognised president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who over the course of the conflict had turned from a deeply imperfect vessel of state legitimacy into an impediment to both prosecuting the war and finding pathways to peace. Hadi’s replacement, a presidential council consisting partly of prominent leaders involved in fighting the Huthis, along with political elites close to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, presented the Huthis with both confirmation of Saudi influence over the government and a more credible negotiating counterpart, as the UN sought to translate the truce into dialogue about ending the war. Days after the council’s appointment, the UN envoy, Hans Grundberg, travelled to Sanaa in an effort to extend the truce and lay the groundwork for political negotiations.

Earlier in 2022, the Huthis had made headlines by claiming responsibility for missile and drone attacks on the United Arab Emirates in response to gains made by UAE-backed anti-Huthi forces on the battlefield. The strikes were a reminder that, after more than 100,000 deaths, the war remains a threat both to millions of lives inside Yemen and to the Gulf region’s stability. They also reignited a debate over the nature of the Huthi movement. The Huthis’ rivals say they are a theocratic Iranian proxy that rules through fear and harbours expansionist ambitions. The Huthis paint themselves as revolutionaries and plucky underdogs in a Saudi-led war of aggression. They claim that they have been sincere in their efforts to end the war and have clearly stated their terms, but that until now their adversaries’ counter-proposals have been unrealistic.

Neither narrative provides a full picture of the Huthis or life in areas they control. The Huthis tell a story of a revolution with democratic intent thwarted by Saudi-led airstrikes and siege warfare. But the Yemen war is a civil war first and foremost. The Huthis neglect to mention that many Yemenis are not on their side and that those fighting them on the ground are resisting their rule rather than acting as guns for hire. For their part, the Huthis’ rivals say the group is hellbent on installing a caste-based theocratic order, pointing to Huthi attacks on populated areas and police state tactics as examples of their extremism. But they downplay the war’s human toll in Huthi-controlled areas and local leaders’ excesses in areas under the government’s nominal sway. Their backers, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, focus on Huthi cross-border attacks, demanding that the U.S. assist them in ending the Huthi (and, they say, Iranian) threat to the Gulf security. But they seek impunity for the carnage their own bombardment has caused.

Recent Huthi gains – and losses – on the ground, their latest attacks on the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the truce and the push for a political settlement have brought renewed urgency to questions about who the Huthis are, what they want and how to bring them to the negotiating table. ­­For some, the answer is to isolate and pressure them militarily and economically. For others, it is to find the right incentives to bring them in from the cold, for example, by meeting longstanding Huthi demands to lift restrictions on the Red Sea port of Hodeida and reopen Sanaa International Airport to commercial flights.

As part of the truce both of these conditions have now been met, on paper and in a limited form: the agreement allows two flights per week to land in Sanaa and eases the embargo on fuel shipments arriving in Hodeida. Whether that is enough to get the Huthis to the table is about to be put to the test. But first, its terms must be honoured – at the time of writing, almost a month into the truce, wrangling over passport control had prevented the inaugural flights from arriving. The Huthis, for their part, also need to make compromises to sustain and expand the truce: they need to restore road access to the city of Taiz that they have besieged for the past seven years.

Whatever happens next, efforts to end the war must grapple with four main considerations related to the Huthis. The first is the fact that, until early 2022, they appeared to be winning the war for Yemen’s northern highlands and that they remain the dominant power in the country’s most populous areas, including Sanaa. The second is that the risk of more Huthi strikes on Saudi Arabia and the UAE – and the menace to maritime trade around Yemen – will remain constant as long as the war continues. The third is that, even if the war is a multi-sided struggle that can only be brought to a close through a wider peace process, it cannot end without an understanding between Saudi Arabia and the Huthis, with the former deeming intolerable a settlement that would leave the group in absolute control, closely aligned with Iran and armed with medium- and long-range weapons.

The fourth and final factor is that the Huthis’ domestic rivals reject the notion of living in a Huthi-dominated state and, in many cases, have vowed to fight on in the event of a settlement that does not address their fears. Even the most fervent of anti-Huthi Yemenis perceive that they may soon have no choice but to broker some kind of settlement with the Huthis that upholds the status quo, given that Riyadh is widely understood to be set on finding an exit from the conflict. Yet, absent a shift in Huthi military and political tactics, many in this camp predict, instead of a peace process, a prelude to a new phase of war in the event that some kind of interim settlement can be achieved.

An end to the war’s current phase could be in sight ... but not necessarily an end to Yemen’s civil strife.

An end to the war’s current phase could be in sight, in other words but not necessarily an end to Yemen’s civil strife. External actors will need to use both incentives and pressure to bring all parties to the bargaining table. But it is hard to see how the Huthis, in particular, can be convinced to negotiate without a permanent end to what they see as the Saudi-led siege of the areas they control. With these restrictions now temporarily lightened as part of the truce, mediators need to mount a diplomatic surge on Sanaa to ensure that the group feels heard, as well as to tell them what the outside world expects from them.

It is important to calibrate the aims of this effort carefully. Diplomats will need to be realistic about the limits of the Huthis’ capacity for compromise, particularly around power sharing and when it comes to their relationship with Iran. The immediate goal should not be a hastily assembled comprehensive deal and a rush to settling the war’s most divisive issues, regional and international security concerns. Rather, it should be to make the Huthis part of a Yemeni-Yemeni dialogue made up not just of regional players’ favourite politicians, but of the broad range of social constituencies who can build peace.

Sanaa/New York/Brussels, 29 April 2022

I. Introduction

Yemen’s civil war has reached its most consequential inflection point in four years. On 1 April, the UN envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg, said he had secured a truce between the Huthi rebels who control much of the country’s north, including the capital Sanaa, and their rival, the internationally recognised government, led at the time by Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Hadi endorsed the truce after sustained pressure from the Saudi-led coalition that has backed his government with political and air cover since 2015. Less than a week later, again likely impelled by Riyadh, Hadi announced that he was ceding executive power to a new Presidential Leadership Council, the chair of which, Rashad al-Alimi, would be the new head of government and supreme commander of Yemen’s armed forces. Shortly afterward, Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed closed a series of talks in Riyadh with a statement conceding the failure of military efforts to defeat the Huthis and pledging to sue for peace with them instead. Yemenis in the anti-Huthi camp see a Saudi hand behind the whole sequence of events.

A series of escalations preceded this renewed push for peace. By the autumn of 2021, the Huthis had consolidated a commanding battlefield position and appeared poised to seize the oil-rich governorate of Marib. Then, in January and February 2022, in response to military setbacks, the Huthis launched missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia and, for the first time in three years, the United Arab Emirates, accusing the latter of re-entering the Yemen fray after its announced withdrawal in 2019.[fn]Houthi missiles target Saudi Arabia and UAE as escalation grows”, Al Jazeera, 24 January 2022. In July 2019, the UAE announced that it was ending its participation in front-line combat. It has continued, however, to advise and assist its Yemeni allies.Hide Footnote The Saudi-led coalition retaliated with intense air raids on Sanaa and other parts of the Huthi-controlled northern highlands, reportedly killing dozens of civilians and knocking out service from the country’s main internet provider for several days.[fn]Celine Alkhaldi and Mostafa Salem, “Airstrikes kill 70 people and knock out internet in Yemen”, CNN, 21 January 2022.Hide Footnote Riyadh mooted bombing the Huthi-controlled Red Sea port of Hodeida as well, while Abu Dhabi petitioned the U.S. to restore the Huthis’ designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, rescinded a year earlier. The Huthis threatened to hit additional sites in the UAE and lobbed more projectiles at Saudi oil, gas and other infrastructure.[fn]Yemen rebels threaten more attacks after firing missiles on UAE, Saudi Arabia”, France 24, 24 January 2022.Hide Footnote

Combined, these developments tipped the war into the closest thing to a mutually hurting stalemate in the past five years. Military breakthroughs for UAE-aligned forces in Shebwa and Marib governorates in January hampered the Huthis’ two-year campaign to seize Marib and tipped the war back toward equilibrium after it had begun to tilt toward the Huthis.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°84, After al-Bayda, the Beginning of the Endgame for Northern Yemen?, 14 October 2021.Hide Footnote Cross-border escalations increased the risk of inflaming regional tensions, complicating both efforts to find a negotiated way out of the war and the stop-start discussions about restoration of the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). A Huthi strike causing civilian casualties in the UAE could have cemented international resolve to keep the movement isolated, re-energised Saudi-Emirati support for its foes and broadened opposition to a revived JCPOA. A U.S. re-designation of the Huthis as terrorists would have raised fresh barriers to mediation with the group, while deepening Yemen’s economic woes and humanitarian plight.[fn]See Crisis Group Commentary, “Yemen Should be a Factor in U.S. Yemen Policy”, 8 October 2020.Hide Footnote

The formation of the new presidential council also created a new political paradigm. The Huthis mock the council as little more than a “reshuffling of mercenaries” backed by Saudi Arabia.[fn]In a 7 April tweet, Muhammad Abdelsalam, the group’s main negotiator, wrote: “The path to peace is by stopping the aggression, lifting the siege and leaving the foreign forces from the country, and without that, a desperate attempt to reshuffle the ranks of the mercenaries to push them towards further escalation, and our Yemeni people are not concerned with illegal measures issued outside the borders of their homeland by an illegal party”. See tweet by Muhammad Abdelsalam, @abdusalamsalah, 9:05am, 7 April 2022.Hide Footnote Indeed, the council is widely understood to have been selected by Riyadh. The Huthis thus see merely another twist in a Saudi-led plot to control Yemen. The way the council was formed has robbed it of some of the international legitimacy afforded to Hadi, who was elected in a UN-overseen, single-candidate ballot in 2012. Many other Yemenis, meanwhile, fear that Riyadh will be able to force the council to bargain with the Huthis in a way it could not while Hadi was president. While questions linger over how it was put together, the council is more representative than the Hadi government was of the range of factions that control territory and battle the rebels on the ground. The Huthis likely recognise that the council’s members are collectively far more popular among ordinary Yemenis than the isolated and widely derided Hadi, and thus a more formidable opponent and, potentially, a more credible negotiating partner.

Saudi, Yemeni and Western diplomats say the door is open to negotiations but question whether the Huthis will walk through it.

Saudi, Yemeni and Western diplomats say the door is open to negotiations but question whether the Huthis will walk through it. In their eyes, the Huthis have missed other such chances. In 2021, for example, the Huthis might have gained from a more measured approach, as world powers appeared to be growing accustomed to the idea of long-term Huthi dominance in north-western Yemen. Instead, the group sought to strike a decisive blow by taking Marib. Such frustration, however, points to an unavoidable truth: the Huthis’ buy-in – indeed, all the conflict parties’ buy-in – remains fundamental to stopping the fighting. Yet the longer the war has gone on, the bigger the gap has become between the Huthis and their rivals, the more each group has fallen back upon polarising rhetoric and rejected accommodation, and the harder it has become to find middle ground. Should the truce expire and fighting resume as before, the gap will grow wider still.

As for the Huthis, they have, notwithstanding their recent losses, become more confident in their position – and more entrenched in their narrative of the war – during the last seven years of aerial bombardment, for the last six of which they lacked a direct transport route to the outside world. From 2020 until the 1 April truce, the appeal of winning the war for Yemen’s north outmatched the group’s desire even to ameliorate what it terms the siege of its areas. For years, the Huthis have blamed the lack of political progress on their rivals’ unyielding nature, arguing that their pragmatic proposals for peace have been rebuffed or met with unrealistic demands for their surrender. They say they are subject to a scheme to subordinate Yemen to Saudi Arabia and, by extension, the West. This bias too will harden, should the truce fail to yield lasting benefits.

The clashing theories about the Huthis after the truce point to another truth: much of what is said about them generates more heat than light. Outsiders generally struggle to parse the questions of who the Huthis are and what they want, when so much of what is written about them focuses on their ideology and ties to Tehran.

This report aims to supply some better answers to these questions. It is based on research conducted in Yemen between 2014 and 2020, and remotely between 2020 and 2022, and includes interviews with around 60 people: Huthi leaders and supporters, Yemeni government officials, local politicians, journalists, academics and researchers, as well as representatives of Middle Eastern and Western governments. It analyses the rival camps’ respective narratives about the group in light of ground realities. Lastly, it proposes ways for international policymakers seeking a sustainable end to the war to overcome the conundrum the Huthis present.

Streets of Huthi-controlled Sanaa, Yemen, July 2019. CRISIS GROUP / Peter Salisbury

II. Who Are the Huthis?

A. Religious Roots

The Huthis are a religious, political and military movement widely described by other Yemenis and Western media with the generic term, “Huthi”, the family name of the movement’s founder, the late Hussein Badr al-Din al-Huthi, and his brother, Abdul-Malik, the group’s current leader. The Huthis refer to their movement as Ansar Allah, or Partisans of God. Hussein was a Zaydi Shiite cleric from a long line of religious scholars in Saada governorate in Yemen’s north.[fn]Zaydism is a branch of Shiism distinct from Jaafarism (also known as Twelver Shiism, found in contemporary Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon). Its religious elites, who claim descent from the Prophet Muhammad, ruled northern Yemen under a system known as the imamate until the 1962 revolution. Zaydis represent approximately one third of Yemen’s estimated 30 million citizens, the majority of whom are Shafei, one of the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence. For additional background on Zaydism, see Crisis Group Middle East Report N°86, Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb, 27 May 2009.Hide Footnote Like his father and brothers, he was part of a group of Zaydi intellectuals, scholars and politicians who sought to defend Zaydi identity from what they perceived as encroachment of “Wahhabi” Sunni practices from Saudi Arabia.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote During a stint in parliament from 1993 to 1997, al-Huthi was part of a Zaydi revivalist movement focused on youth education. He then studied theology in Sudan.[fn]Maysaa Shuja al-Deen, “Yemen’s War-torn Rivalries for Religious Education”, in Frederic Wehrey (ed.), Islamic Institution in Arab States: Mapping the Dynamics of Control, Co-optation and Contention (Washington, 2021).Hide Footnote Upon his return to Yemen in 1999, al-Huthi began to promote a doctrine focused on ending Western influence over the Islamic umma, or community, and restoring Islam to what he said was its pure, original form.[fn]Husein al-Huthi, Durus min Wai Ashura [Lessons of the Ashura Revelations] (Ṣaada, 2002); and “The Houthi supervisory system”, The Assessment Capacities Project, 17 June 2020.Hide Footnote Taken together, his worldview, political agenda and religious program is known to his supporters as the “Quranic march”.

Revivalism like al-Huthi’s was common among the Sunni and Shiite Islamist movements that gained popularity in the 1980s and 1990s.[fn]Al-Huthi, in line with many of his Islamist contemporaries, argued that Western policies toward the Middle East, and especially the invasion of Afghanistan and the “war on terror”, were primarily designed to advance Western, Jewish and Christian claims on the region. Al-Huthi advocated against absorbing Western ideas into Muslim culture and for restoring the umma through a return to the Quran’s core messages.Hide Footnote But other Yemenis saw dangerous undercurrents in al-Huthi’s teachings.[fn]Tik Root, “Yemen’s Houthi rebels defy years of war and repression”, BBC, 18 June 2013.Hide Footnote His principal innovation was to marry modern Islamist ideas with Zaydi jurisprudence. Zaydism is similar to mainstream Sunnism, particularly when compared to Twelver Shiism, in all but a few aspects. It teaches, for instance, that the umma must be led by a sayyid who is deemed part of the ahl al-bayt, meaning a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad via his daughter Fatima and her husband Ali. All descendants of the Prophet’s Bani Hashim clan, known as Hashemites, have high status in Zaydism, though lower than the ahl al-bayt.[fn]Barak A. Salmoni, “Regime and Periphery in Northern Yemen: The Huthi Phenomenon”, RAND Corporation, 2010.Hide Footnote Zaydism also promotes rebellion against “unjust rule”.[fn]Hamad H. Albloshi, “The Ideological Roots of the Ḥuthi Movement in Yemen”, Journal of Arabian Studies, vol. 6, no. 2 (2016).Hide Footnote Al-Huthi, meanwhile, described the need for an alam al-huda, or guiding eminence, to give political and religious leadership (which he saw as indivisible) to Muslims.[fn]Hussein al-Huthi, Al-Sirakh fi Wajh al-Mustakbirin [Outcry in the Face of the Oppressors] (Ṣaada, 2002). See also Alexander Weissenburger, “Al-Mawaddah al-Khalidah? – The Huthi Movement and the Idea of the Rule of the Ahl al-Bayt in Yemen’s Tribal Society”, in Marieke Brandt (ed.), Tribes in Yemen: An Anthology; and Ahmed Abdeen, “Zaidiyyah: The Shia sect closest to the Sunnis”, Fanack, 3 December 2020.Hide Footnote He excoriated the Yemeni state’s ties to the “unjust” West.[fn]Al-Huthi, Al-Sirakh fi Wajh al-Mustakbirin, op. cit.; and Nadwa al-Dawsari, “The Houthis and the limits of diplomacy”, Middle East Institute, 6 May 2021.Hide Footnote

In Yemen, al-Huthi’s teachings sparked fears of Zaydi efforts to restore not just religio-cultural practices, but also social divides of the past.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Yemen: Defusing the Saada Timebomb, op. cit. See also Abdulkareem Ghanem, “Addressing Social Fragmentation in Yemen”, Sanaa Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1 March 2019.Hide Footnote His family were part of a religio-political aristocracy that backed the Zaydi imams’ rule in northern Yemen for a millennium, until the 1962 revolution.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Yemen: Defusing the Saada Timebomb, op. cit.Hide Footnote Sayyid families like al-Huthi’s dominated civic and spiritual life up to that date.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote The republican state that replaced the imamate taught that the sayyids ran a caste system, separating Hashemite “masters” from the “serfs” comprising the rest of society. It periodically warned of Hashemite plots to restore the old order under the guise of overthrowing tyranny. Many Zaydi families converted to Sunnism in what amounted to a political rejection of the old order as much as a religious transformation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Islah officials, tribal leader, Sanaa, 2014.Hide Footnote

Formerly influential sayyid families like the Huthis perceived that they, as a group, their religio-cultural practices and their regions suffered deliberate neglect during the republican era.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Islah official, Sanaa, September 2014; Yemeni academic, Amman, January 2021.Hide Footnote Many perceived that the state was promoting Salafist Sunni teachings that attacked Zaydism as impure, as part of efforts to dilute their influence.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Yemen: Defusing the Saada Timebomb, op. cit.Hide Footnote After decades of relative harmony between Zaydis and Sunnis of the Shafei school of thought, intellectual sparring and physical clashes between zealous Salafists, including foreigners who had travelled to Yemen to study, and Zaydis became more common in the 1990s, particularly in Saada.[fn]Christopher Boucek, “War in Saada: From Local Insurrection to National Challenge”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 2010.Hide Footnote From the late 2000s onward, intra-regime rivalries and unrest in parts of Yemen led to growing dissatisfaction with the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who bolstered his position by working closely with the U.S. and other Western powers on projects related to the so-called war on terror. In this atmosphere, segments of Yemeni society found al-Huthi’s messages attractive.

Others suspected that al-Huthi’s vision of a “Quranic march” was simply a thinly veiled effort to reinstate the imamate – with some openly accusing him of having this agenda. Many observers also perceived in al-Huthi’s description of a spiritual guide a corollary to Iran’s system of religious guardianship (vilayet-e faqih), even if al-Huthi called neither for an end to the republic nor restoration of the imamate. Nor did he explain what a “true” Islam might look like or give a full account of his notion of a guiding religious eminence.[fn]Al-Huthi criticised the republican system but did not advocate for overthrowing it or specify what alternative form of government he might prefer. Nor did he claim the right to leadership for himself or call for reinstitution of the imamate. Huthi representatives today present the “guiding eminence” as a new model of spiritual leadership that defies classification but is not comparable to the Yemeni imams of old or the supreme leader in Iran.Hide Footnote

The matter remains ambiguous, sustaining such suspicions. In recent years, Huthi officials have offered a series of answers to questions about the guiding eminence’s putative function, stressing claims that the position is entirely new and incomparable to past religious or political offices. They have repeatedly denied that they seek to instal a caste system based on descent from the Prophet.[fn]Abdulmalik al-Ijri, “Ansar Allah Group: Discourse and Movement (A Socio-Cultural Study)”, 2021. Al-Ijri, one of the group’s representatives in Muscat, describes the movement as something entirely new and not comparable with the imamate or other systems of religious governance, and denies that the group seeks to create a social caste system with sayyids at the top, citing the prominent roles played by several non-sayyids or Hashemites in the group. Of the figure of the eminent guide, he writes: “An eminent guide (the model person), according to the Houthis, does not take the traditional image of a cleric or an expert in the interpretation of texts or giving fatwas. Nor is his a purely spiritual rank such as the rank of a holy man in the Sufi tradition; nor does his rank give him legislative powers such as those of the twelve imams of the Jaafari tradition; and nor is his office an executive presidency like that of the imam in the Zaydi tradition”.Hide Footnote But they have yet to clearly explain what role such a person (widely assumed by other Yemenis to be Abdul-Malik al-Huthi) would occupy in a post-war state.[fn]Al-Huthi, Al-Sirakh fi Wajh al-Mustakbirin, op. cit.Hide Footnote For Western observers, the slogan Hussein al-Huthi coined in 2002, echoing a chant used by Iranian revolutionaries in the 1970s and 1980s – “God is great! Death to America, death to Israel! Curse the Jews! Victory to Islam!” – was sufficient proof that he held extreme views, was aligned with Tehran and was pushing his followers to adopt Twelver practices.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb, op. cit.Hide Footnote

B. The Huthis at War

The Huthis’ rise to power in 2014 is often depicted as something of an overnight success for the group. But for its members it capped a decade of struggle that began in the first of six wars with the Saleh regime in 2004. The army killed Hussein al-Huthi in the first of those wars and Abdul-Malik later assumed the helm of what became a rebellion against government forces in Saada and neighbouring governorates, along Saudi Arabia’s southern border.[fn]Barak Salmoni, Bryce Loidolt and Madeleine Wells, “Regime and Periphery in Northern Yemen: The Huthi Phenomenon”, RAND Corporation, February 2010.Hide Footnote Support for the group grew as much in opposition to the Saleh regime’s heavy-handed military response as it did in support of the Huthis’ message, which mixed nationalist calls for defence of Yemeni culture with appeals to holy war.[fn]Saleh and al-Houthi alliance: circumstantial settlements and structural cracks”, Al Jazeera, 20 November 2017.Hide Footnote Seeking regional and Western support, the regime argued that the Huthis were receiving financial, logistical and material support from Iran, a claim that Western governments greeted with scepticism, but that appeared credible to Saudi leaders.[fn]Marieke Brandt, Tribes and Politics in Yemen: A History of the Houthi Conflict (Oxford, 2017).Hide Footnote Riyadh intervened in the sixth Saada war after alleging that Huthi fighters had mounted an incursion into Saudi Arabia.

In 2011, the Huthis participated in the popular uprising against Saleh’s regime, while tightening their grip on Saada.[fn]Peter Salisbury, “From outcasts to kingmakers”, Foreign Policy, 10 October 2014.Hide Footnote The group then took part in the 2012-2014 political transition that followed Saleh’s ouster, including the broadly inclusive, UN-overseen National Dialogue Conference.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote But the movement rejected some of the conference’s outcomes, including a controversial decision that would have divided the state into six federal regions. After launching a series of protests, ostensibly over fuel subsidy reforms, the Huthis stormed into Sanaa in September 2014.[fn]How Yemen’s capital Sanaa was seized by Houthi rebels”, BBC, 27 September 2014.Hide Footnote They did so in quiet concert with Saleh – who, sensing an opportunity, had re-entered the political scene – as well as a considerable portion of Yemen’s armed forces and parts of the state bureaucracy aligned with the former president.

The Huthis first signed a deal with the interim president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, designed to prevent further fighting and allow for the transition’s completion. But within months, after mutual recriminations over non-compliance with the deal’s terms and a push by Hadi to ratify a new constitution as part of the transition, the group had placed Hadi and his cabinet under house arrest and moved to consolidate control of the rest of the country.[fn]Yemen’s Western-backed president flees house arrest in Sana’a”, The Guardian, 25 February 2015.Hide Footnote The alliance thus pulled off a partly successful, slow-burning coup.

Yemen soon fell into civil war (of which some Yemenis argue persuasively the Huthi takeover of Sanaa was the starting point). In February 2015, Hadi, who had announced his resignation a month earlier (later claiming he did so under duress), escaped imprisonment and fled to Aden, where he rescinded his resignation and called for outside intervention to prevent a Huthi-Saleh takeover of all Yemen.[fn]Yemen’s Hadi flees to Aden and says he is still president”, Reuters, 21 February 2015.Hide Footnote The Huthis responded by dissolving parliament and founding a Supreme Revolutionary Council to oversee state operations; and they marched south, east and west alongside Saleh loyalists to seize Aden and much of the rest of the country. In March 2015, Saudi Arabia, citing Hadi’s call, formed a military coalition to restore his government to power.[fn]Houthi militia installs ‘presidential council’ to run Yemen”, Middle East Eye, 13 February 2015. The Saudi-led coalition nominally included nine countries from the Middle East and Asia. In reality, the majority of its operations were led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.Hide Footnote Some, but not all Saudi officials were convinced that the Huthis were a proxy for Iran, their long-time foe, and spoke of pushing back against Iranian expansionism.[fn]Saudi officials from late 2014 onward had begun to tell diplomats that they would not permit formation of a “Hizbollah on our southern border”. Crisis Group interviews, Western diplomats, Sanaa and Riyadh, September-October 2014 and March 2015.Hide Footnote The UN Security Council codified outside powers’ support for Hadi and Riyadh in April 2015 through Resolution 2216, demanding that the Huthi-Saleh alliance surrender all the territory and arms it had seized, as well as allow Hadi to return to Sanaa.[fn]“UN Security Council Resolution 2216 (2015)”, S/RES/2216 (2015), 14 April 2015.Hide Footnote

Seven years later, the Huthi-led de facto authorities remain ensconced in Sanaa, governing much of Yemen’s north-western highlands and Red Sea coast, where more than twenty million people, roughly 70 per cent of the population, live. The Huthi-Saleh alliance, which seemed like a marriage of convenience from the start, worked to the Huthis’ benefit more than Saleh’s. The Huthis killed the ex-president after a schism in December 2017. Since then, the Huthis have developed a vice-like grip over state institutions, while shunting aside Saleh’s pre-2011 ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), their ostensible partner in the Supreme Political Council, which they formed to supersede the Supreme Revolutionary Council in 2016. Saleh’s former military, tribal and political allies, as well as GPC members, have either joined the Huthis’ de facto authority, fled into exile or become part of the anti-Huthi camp inside Yemen.[fn]The Huthis did not need to start from scratch in running state institutions after entering Sanaa, because GPC figures from Saleh’s time stayed in their positions. Over time, Huthi allies gained increasing prominence in the main institutions, gradually bringing staff under their control.Hide Footnote Saleh’s nephew, Tareq, who fought alongside the Huthis until 2017, now leads a UAE-backed armed faction on Yemen’s Red Sea coast. He is part of the new presidential council.

Repeated UN mediation initiatives have failed to persuade either the Huthis, the Hadi government, Riyadh or the multitude of forces battling the Huthis on the ground to agree to a deal to end the war.

Repeated UN mediation initiatives have failed to persuade either the Huthis, the Hadi government, Riyadh or the multitude of forces battling the Huthis on the ground to agree to a deal to end the war. Each side blames the other for the conflict’s continuation, arguing that its adversaries make unrealistic demands that make compromise impossible.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East Reports N°167, Yemen: Is Peace Possible?, 9 February 2016; N°216, Rethinking Peace in Yemen, 2 July 2020; Peter Salisbury and April Alley, “Peace is Possible in Yemen”, Foreign Affairs, 11 November 2019; and Crisis Group Briefing, After al-Bayda: the Beginning of an Endgame for North Yemen?, op. cit.Hide Footnote The reality is that the pendulum of intransigence has swung between the two sides, depending on their relative positions on the ground. More than three years have now passed since the rival parties met face to face in Sweden, in December 2018, the longest stretch since the war began.

III. A War of Narratives

Narratives of the war’s roots are contested. All parties profess a defensive posture, accusing rivals of being the aggressors.

A. The Anti-Huthi Narrative: Pro-Iran, Pro-Imamate Extremists

Lined up against the Huthis are two broad factions, which largely make up the membership of the new Presidential Leadership Council. The first is a network of Saudi-backed groups loosely tied to Islah, Yemen’s main pre-war Sunni Islamist political party, and parts of Saleh’s GPC that took Hadi’s side at the beginning of the war. The second is a collection of UAE-aligned forces, including but not limited to the pro-independence Southern Transitional Council (STC); mainly Salafist-led forces, known as the Giants Brigades; the Republican Guards led by the Huthis’ erstwhile ally, Tareq Saleh, the former president’s nephew; and, as of 2022, emerging authorities in Shebwa governorate.

Each of these groups has reason to fear and castigate the Huthis.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Rethinking Peace in Yemen, op. cit.Hide Footnote Islah leaders paint them as enemies of the republic who seek to restore the imamate, while a number of Salafist leaders increasingly depict the conflict as a Sunni-Shiite sectarian struggle.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Islah officials, Marib, Istanbul and by telephone, January 2020 and January 2022; Salafist leader, Aden, March 2019.Hide Footnote Like Islah, Tareq Saleh’s group says the Huthis seek to end the republic his uncle oversaw, but people in his circle and the anti-Huthi GPC camp portray the differences between Islah and the Huthis as posing a choice between “the caliphate and the imamate”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, member of Saleh’s Republican Guards, July 2021.Hide Footnote STC leaders, meanwhile, view the Huthis as just one of many interchangeable northern groups seeking to “occupy” southern Yemen.[fn]Crisis Group interview, GPC official, Cairo, January 2020.Hide Footnote

Yet the core narrative about who the Huthis are and what they represent is quite uniform. Anti-Huthi Yemenis, Saudi Arabia and its regional allies, and many foreign powers involved in Yemen describe the Huthis’ September 2014 power grab as an Iran-backed coup.[fn]Issa Nahari, “The Yemen war is more complicated than Biden thinks”, The Independent, 25 March 2021. Increasingly anti-Huthi narratives elide Saleh’s role in convincing tribal and military forces to help the Huthis enter the capital, in part due to efforts to rehabilitate Saleh’s family and the GPC as a counterbalance to the Huthis.Hide Footnote They frame the war as both a conflict between the Huthis and government forces and an internationally approved albeit Saudi-led intervention to restore Yemen’s rightful sovereign authority to power in the face of Huthi aggression.[fn]Sultan Barakat, “Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen: moral questions”, Brookings Institution, 31 March 2015 (Arabic).Hide Footnote In support of this argument, they pointed until April 2022 to UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which affirms Hadi’s legitimacy and calls on the Huthis and their allies to hand over the territory and arms they control to the Hadi government.[fn]Faisal Edroos, “Yemeni FM’s remarks at Sweden peace talks trigger anger in Sanaa”, Al Jazeera, 6 December 2018.Hide Footnote After Hadi’s ouster, Yemeni officials have begun to argue that Hadi has been replaced in a Yemeni-led process, endorsed by the ex-president and blessed by the country’s major political parties. The Yemeni government has sought to have the UN Security Council recognise Rashad al-Alimi, the Political Leadership Council’s chair, as Yemen’s new head of state.

Yemenis in the anti-Huthi camp, Saudi officials and some, but not all of Riyadh’s Arab allies characterise the Huthis as extremists.

To date, Yemenis in the anti-Huthi camp, Saudi officials and some, but not all of Riyadh’s Arab allies characterise the Huthis as extremists who believe Hashemites have a “divine right” to rule over everyone else.[fn]A politician from Marib governorate said, “Huthi ideology is war against the people in the pursuit of divine rule and the imamate. … They think they are chosen by God. If there would be just a political disagreement between us and them, we could reach a solution. But that’s not the case. The Huthis think that only the Prophet Muhammad’s ancestors can rule”. Crisis Group interview, tribal leader, Marib, January 2020. Some Yemeni scholars worry that such claims seek to perpetuate anti-Hashemite sentiment, as they present all Hashemites as exogenous to Yemen (Yemen’s Hashemites arrived in two waves in the tenth and thirteenth centuries and are sometimes characterised as “Adnani”, or northern Arabian Arabs, in contrast to Yemen’s “Qahtani”, southern Arabian Arabs), and as supporting the two-tier “master-serf” relationship with non-Hashemites described above.Hide Footnote The Huthis’ rivals portray life in Sanaa today as unbearable due to highly repressive militias that police every facet of day-to-day activity. The Huthis, their opponents say, enforce conservative norms, such as gender separation in public spaces and bans on music and certain forms of dress, and stifle freedom of expression, often brutally. These critics say arbitrary beatings, arrests, torture, extortion and executions by Huthi forces are the norm in the territory the group controls, at times equating Huthi rule with that of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). They describe the Huthis’ battlefield practices, which include use of mortars, missiles and landmines in civilian areas, as well as deployment of child soldiers, as crimes under international law and proof of the group’s propensity for “terrorism”.[fn]Saeed al-Batati, “Calls grow to restore Houthis to US list of terrorist groups”, Arab News, 20 January 2022.Hide Footnote The Huthis, they say, approach negotiations in bad faith, seeing them simply as an opportunity to regain strength at moments of military weakness.

Others focus on the Iran angle.[fn]Iran-backed Houthis’ attack on Abu Dhabi sends messages to Gulf region and the US”, The Arab Weekly, 19 January 2022.Hide Footnote Most in the government camp, and now all Saudi officials, frame the Huthis primarily as an Iranian proxy, arguing that the group has little if any autonomy from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).[fn]Houthi strikes and ‘Iran’s messages’”, Al-Hurra, 1 February 2022.Hide Footnote They say the Huthis are slowly absorbing Twelver Shiite doctrine and transforming Yemeni society into a facsimile of Iran’s system of religious guardianship, with Abdul-Malik al-Huthi at the helm.[fn]Have the Houthis become Twelver Shiites?”, Arab Post, 2 February 2022 (Arabic). Most Shiites in the world are Twelvers, that is to say, they believe that unified political and religious leadership of the umma, passed from the Prophet Muhammad to his son-in-law Imam Ali and then to a succession of eleven more imams (the Shia are shiat Ali, or “followers of Ali”). Twelver eschatology holds that the twelfth imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, went into occultation in the ninth century and will return to establish an Islamic state upholding peace and justice. Zaydis are Fivers rather than Twelvers: they believe Zayd ibn Ali was the fifth imam, rather than his half-brother Muhammad al-Baqir, as is the convention in Twelver practice. Zaydism teaches that the imams after the first three, Ali, Hassan and Hussain, were not infallible. It is less doctrinally critical of the first three caliphs whom the Sunni tradition considers to have taken charge of the umma after the Prophet’s death, considering them misguided rather than sinful in their rejection of Ali’s leadership. They do not share the more developed theory of the imamate embraced by Twelvers. In the view of Zaydi scholars, these differences explain the more tolerant Zaydi approach to Sunnis, which Sunnis reciprocate, and the peaceful coexistence of Shafei Sunnis and Zaydi Shia in Yemen. See Salmoni, “Regime and Periphery in Northern Yemen: The Huthi Phenomenon”, op. cit.Hide Footnote This second contention feeds into a broader narrative about Iran and its allies in the so-called Axis of Resistance, which posits that Iran-aligned groups exist only because of Iranian support.[fn]The Axis of Resistance: origin, development and unity of destiny”, Al-Mayadeen, 6 July 2021 (Arabic).Hide Footnote

Both threads of thought present the Huthis as dangerous fanatics whose rule is incompatible with modern statehood and regional stability. Because the Huthis do not believe in the co-equal existence of all people and repress all dissent, many in the anti-Huthi camp argue, their ideology precludes the possibility of an equitable political settlement in much the same way that National Socialism did in Nazi Germany, or the short-lived ISIS “caliphate” did after 2014. A popular argument is that it is impossible to negotiate with the Huthis, leaving no option but to pursue the group’s total surrender or at least to apply sufficient military pressure to force it into significant concessions, including the handover of arms and territory. Those who say the Huthis are an Iranian proxy present them purely as a non-state armed group that attacks civilians indiscriminately in pursuit of Tehran’s goals. By their logic, it follows that if the Huthis can be separated from Tehran, or (better still) Iran’s own wings can be clipped, the Huthis will collapse.

Such rhetoric may be, at least partly, designed to rally domestic and international support for the war effort to defeat the Huthis. Indeed, the shift in tone that accompanied the push toward a political settlement in April suggests that Riyadh, at least, believes that a workable modus vivendi may be possible. Yet the views outlined above are also received wisdom among many Yemenis, and as discussed below, the Huthis’ behaviour at times serves as a form of confirmation bias. For this reason, even if the parties can reach a political settlement, pervasive mutual mistrust will test its durability.

Anti-Huthi forces on the outskirts of Hodeida city during heavy fighting in the area, Yemen, September 2018. CRISIS GROUP / Peter Salisbury.

It does not help matters that the Huthis mainly refer to the Yemeni forces arrayed against them as either opportunists working for the Gulf monarchies or extremists allied with ISIS or al-Qaeda (who they say are on the Saudi payroll). They often threaten to turn the battlefield into a “graveyard of mercenaries”.[fn]“Yemen’s western coast to turn into cemetery for aggressors: Ansarullah”, Tasnim News Agency, 5 August 2018.Hide Footnote Sometimes, however, they display forbearance, exhorting “misguided” fighters on the other side to agree to truces, or even return to their fold in Sanaa. They also reach out to rivals via a reconciliation committee that makes a great show of welcoming defectors back to the capital.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Huthi officials, Sanaa, July 2019 and September 2021; Maribi tribal leaders, January 2020 and September 2021.Hide Footnote Such tactics predate the war. While the group touts its successes in this regard, it rarely mentions that it has yet to convince swathes of the population of its good intentions. In Marib, the central city of Taiz and southern Yemen, among other places, the residents deeply distrust the Huthis.

The group’s struggles with rivals in Marib and Taiz are due in no small part to fresh memories of its brutality on the battlefield. The Huthis have shelled cities, particularly Taiz and the southern port of Aden, planted tens of thousands of landmines, and fired mortars and ballistic missiles at what locals say are civilian gatherings in populated areas.[fn]Yemen: Dozens killed in Houthi attack on Aden military parade”, Al Jazeera, 1 August 2019.Hide Footnote They have also allegedly recruited thousands of child soldiers (their rivals have also enlisted children, albeit in smaller numbers).[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, Sanaa residents and visitors to the city, December 2021 and January 2022.Hide Footnote

B. The Huthi View of Themselves: Revolutionary Underdogs

The Huthis’ version of events is radically different. In their account, they are the plucky underdogs resisting the Saudi “total war” aimed at bombing and starving them into submission. They blame corrupt Western powers and a biased UN for giving the Saudi-led effort a veneer of legitimacy, not just with Resolution 2216, but also by repeatedly portraying Huthi peace proposals as fake and dispositive of intransigence.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Huthi officials, Sanaa and by telephone, July 2019, March 2020 and November 2021; and Huthi representatives, Muscat, September 2019, April 2020 and January, September and November 2021.Hide Footnote Huthi officials say they launched a popular revolution against a venal government under Western control in September 2014.[fn]Mohammed Ghobari, “Houthis block Yemen army chief, accuse president of corruption”, Reuters, 16 December 2014.Hide Footnote They argue that in 2015, once they had installed a revolutionary government in Sanaa in cooperation with other political forces, and after Hadi had fled the country, Saudi Arabia launched a war of aggression, seeking to return the country to the vassal status it had endured before 2014.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Huthi officials, Sanaa and by telephone, July 2019, March 2020 and November 2021; and Huthi representatives, Muscat, September 2019, April 2020 and January, September and November 2021. See also “Abdul-Malik Al Houthi: We accept peace and refuse to surrender”, RT, 18 December 2021 (Arabic).Hide Footnote The Huthis view themselves as having consistently sought peace, offering realistic proposals in keeping with realities on the ground.

In this version of events, the Huthis have prevailed in a defensive war despite international backing and political cover for a brutal military assault, accompanied by what they term the siege of their areas: the closure of Sanaa’s airport and a trade blockade (which more accurately amounts to restrictions on trade, fuel in particular, entering Hodeida).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Huthi officials, Sanaa and by telephone, July 2019, March 2020 and November 2021; and Huthi representatives, Muscat, September 2019, April 2020 and January, September and November 2021. See also Crisis Group Middle East Report N°231, Brokering a Ceasefire in Yemen’s Economic Conflict, 20 January 2022.Hide Footnote The Huthis and their supporters see efforts to present the war as merely a civil conflict as part of an international plot to subjugate Yemen. They continue to see the UN as complicit in this effort. “This is a war of outside aggression and the UN still calls it a civil war”, a prominent Sanaa-based Huthi supporter said, adding that the only internal conflicts before 2015 were occurring between Yemeni elements being paid by different parts of the Saudi-led coalition.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Huthi supporter, Sanaa, September 2021.Hide Footnote

In the war’s early days, some in the Huthi camp acknowledged that this narrative was not the whole story. They said the movement might have to make compromises to end the war, up to and including allowing Hadi to return to Sanaa as president for an interim period, and that it might have to accept a smaller role in government once the conflict ended. But as the group has become more powerful and at the same time more isolated and inward-facing – the government and the Saudis cut off international flights to Sanaa in 2016 and few Huthi officials have left the country since, while diplomatic visits to Sanaa have slowed to a trickle – its members’ private views of the war have come to fully match its public rhetoric.

When confronted with allegations of human rights abuses or misrule, Huthi representatives retort that theirs is a revolutionary state that seeks to build an open, pluralistic and just society in Yemen, with any missteps the result of pressures generated by external aggression.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Huthi officials, Sanaa and by telephone, July 2019, March 2020 and November 2021; and Huthi representatives, Muscat, September 2019, April 2020 and January, September and November 2021. In 2019, the de facto authorities – now under the rule of the Supreme Political Council established in 2016 alongside a Salvation Government, with both bodies including GPC members – published “National Vision for the Modern Yemeni State”. In this document, the de facto authorities laid out a ten-year strategy for turning Yemen into a free, thriving, inclusive, democratic and republican state that external powers would accept. This state would have separation of powers and a constitution. It would be based on “the principles of Islam and the teachings of the Islamic Sharia”. “National Vision for the Modern Yemeni State”, Republic of Yemen, 25 March 2019.Hide Footnote Huthi officials argue that Ansar Allah, and its members’ ideology, is separate from the state and that it would not seek to set state policy in the future if it is not part of the country’s political leadership.[fn]A Huthi representative said, “We need to separate between the ideology of Ansar Allah and of the state. The Yemeni state will not necessarily adopt the policies or the worldview of Ansar Allah. Our slogan is a popular slogan, not the slogan of institutions”. Crisis Group telephone interview, April 2021.Hide Footnote The Huthis are also keen, meanwhile, to contrast life in the areas under their control, which they paint as orderly and secure, to that in areas held by their rivals, which they say is chaotic because what they call the “hotel government” residing largely in Riyadh is remote, uncaring and incompetent.[fn]Huthi officials and supporters are quick to note the deterioration in security and living conditions in areas under the Hadi government’s nominal control, particularly during periods of fighting between the pro-independence Southern Transitional Council and government forces – nominal allies against the Huthis – and the currency crisis. Between 2020 and 2022, the Yemeni riyal plummeted in value to less than 1,700 to the U.S. dollar in government-controlled areas, while it remained largely stable at 600 to the dollar in Huthi-held areas. See Crisis Group Report, Brokering a Ceasefire in Yemen’s Economic Conflict, op. cit.Hide Footnote Their increasingly authoritarian tendencies allow for this stability, supporters argue, and are a feature, not a bug, of their efforts to stabilise the country and uproot extremist groups like al-Qaeda.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Huthi officials, Sanaa, July 2019; Huthi representative, Muscat, September 2019. Crisis Group telephone interview, Huthi-affiliated journalist, February 2022.Hide Footnote

IV. Huthi Rule

Part of the challenge of understanding the Huthis is that the de facto authorities in Sanaa and the movement in its current form are more of a complex and shifting coalition sustained through a mix of ideology, incentives and threats than a monolithic entity with one unified agenda. The Huthis tightly control an alliance of northern political, military and tribal groups nominally overseen by the Supreme Political Council, but in reality by Abdul-Malik al-Huthi and an inner circle of confidantes. Most, though not all, of the alliance’s constituent parts are drawn from Yemen’s Zaydi-majority northern highlands, and most, though not all, senior Huthi officials are Hashemites.

Not all Huthi allies share the group’s worldview. A key factor in driving Yemeni groups to join hands with the Huthis is nationalist sentiment, coupled with a sense that Hadi betrayed Yemen – even committed treason – when he invited the Saudis to intervene. Senior commanders and other officials in the coalition say they are not part of Ansar Allah, but rather are fighting a patriotic, defensive war alongside the Huthis.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, military officials, Sanaa and by telephone, July 2019, August 2020 and September 2021.Hide Footnote Some are angry that Saudi and Hadi government officials attempt to minimise the suffering caused by seven years of economic blockade and airstrikes.[fn]Yemeni minister criticizes the role of Saudi Arabia and the UAE”, Al Jazeera, 5 May 2019. They also argue that painting the de facto authorities as purely “Huthi” serves to sideline other political forces in Sanaa. Huthi officials and allies describe accusations that they seek to instal a dynastic theocracy, which often come from rivals backed by absolute monarchies in the Gulf, as a bizarre double standard. Crisis Group interviews, Sanaa, July 2019.Hide Footnote

But it is the Huthis who are the decision-makers. The Huthi movement’s core is made up of adherents of Hussein al-Huthi’s teachings and his brother Abdul-Malik’s pronouncements, since becoming leader. Local observers describe concentric circles of influence within the movement, with Abdul-Malik at the middle, surrounded by the “2004 Huthis” who fought the Saleh regime in the first round of combat. Important, but less powerful, are those who joined the revolt during the five subsequent bouts of war. In the outermost ring, are those who lent the group political support during this period.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, 2014-2021. Local media reports say the main decision-making group within the movement is a jihadist council made up of key military and security leaders. See “Who are the Houthis? The hidden structures and key leaders who actually run the organisation”, Almasdar Online, 14 March 2022.Hide Footnote

There are tensions – and competing factions – within the [Huthi] movement.

There are tensions – and competing factions – within the movement, which often have less to do with distinct points of view on the conflict or Yemen’s future than with particular personalities who seek greater power and influence within the Huthi system. Huthi representatives say such frictions are a feature of a system that bases itself on consensus rather than a sign of trouble. They claim that all matters of strategy are subject to robust debate among members of an advisory council consisting of political and military leaders with Abdul-Malik al-Huthi, who is the final arbiter of any disputes.[fn]Abdul-Malik al-Huthi makes all the major decisions, creating a bottleneck made worse by his seclusion for security reasons, which sometimes slows communication with him, and by the sheer range of issues with which the authorities are dealing.Hide Footnote Some in this group appear to believe in a maximalist set of goals, up to and including marching on Jerusalem to restore Muslim control of the city. Others are concerned simply with enhancing the group’s power in Yemen.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, current and former Huthi officials and supporters as well as observers, July 2014-February 2022.Hide Footnote

The Huthi-dominated Supreme Political Council issued a National Vision for the Modern Yemeni State in 2019 that prescribes a pluralistic and democratic society.[fn]National Vision for the Modern Yemeni State”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Yet Huthi rule is clearly autocratic. The group has fostered formal and informal structures in which their movement and its leader can claim to be just one constituency, while exerting considerable influence over a state whose bureaucracy they put in place and a society they have engineered in their image through a network of mushrifeen, or supervisors, who have penetrated every aspect of daily life. Huthi leaders now run the education system and oversee re-education in Islamist ideas for civil servants and even tribal leaders.[fn]Yemen: The Huthi supervisory system”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Should the war end with the Huthis still in charge of the areas they now control, Abdul-Malik al-Huthi would not need to be president or even party leader in order to keep wielding such clout. Instead, in a power-sharing settlement, he could use his group’s position in state institutions, the extension of the Saleh-era patronage system and the threat of rebellion against “unjust” rule to advance the group’s agenda.

Mindful of such a scenario, many Yemenis rightly worry about how the Huthi-led Sanaa authorities would govern in peacetime, particularly in the event that they win the war and reign unopposed. They speculate that even the limited freedoms Sanaa residents have now will vanish. Yemenis who have closely interacted with the group over the course of the war largely share a common view of what will happen if the war continues. The Huthis are likely to become ever more militant and insular in their worldview, imposing stricter and stricter rules on society and becoming ever more paranoid about outside influence.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, 2021-2022.Hide Footnote When in mid- to late 2021 the Huthis appeared to have the upper hand on the ground, even sympathetic local observers argued that the group would become more repressive if it were to prevail.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

As much as they complain of misrepresentation by their rivals, the Huthis rarely acknowledge that those fighting them might have legitimate fears or grievances of their own. The Huthi narrative of interstate conflict elides the fact that people in large parts of Yemen have taken up arms to keep them out. Arguably, the group has reached the political boundaries of the lands they can reasonably expect to rule (where Zaydi highland ways meet the Shafei customs of middle Yemen, in al-Jawf and Marib to the east, al-Bayda, Ibb and Taiz in central Yemen, and along the Red Sea coast).

All that said, the Huthis’ rule is not uniform. Outside the capital, they appear to have adapted their methods to local circumstances and social norms. This approach is close to that of the Saleh regime after the ex-president rose to power in 1978.[fn]At least one academic has called this approach “neopatrimonialism”. Sarah Phillips, “Yemen: Developmental Dysfunction and Division in a Crisis State”, Developmental Leadership Programme, February 2011.Hide Footnote In areas where the Huthis’ support was already strong, such as Saada, parts of Hajja, rural Sanaa and Dhammar, they have indeed been able to impose their own conservative mores. But in areas they have taken over since 2020, they have focused instead on working with and restructuring tribal leadership, and even demonstrating improved economic governance.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, Ibb and Dhammar residents, July-August 2021; former Hajja resident and Hawban (Taiz) resident, January 2022.Hide Footnote

Anti-Huthi media focus on the group’s attitude toward women, which they describe as retrograde and comparable to that of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Visitors to Huthi-controlled lands broadly agree, though they paint a more nuanced picture of Huthi practices regarding gender in Sanaa, the country’s historically more cosmopolitan capital. The Huthis have cracked down on mingling of the sexes, imposed conservative rules for women’s dress and banned women from travel without a mahram, or male escort. In select parts of the capital, albeit fewer than before the war, men and women can mix in cafés and shopping malls, but not as freely as they used to.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Sanaa residents, Sanaa and by telephone, January 2020, September and November 2021 and January 2022. Crisis Group telephone interviews, former residents who had recently visited Sanaa, September and November 2021, and January 2022.Hide Footnote The Huthis have allowed many women-owned businesses to keep operating, in keeping with their general promotion of entrepreneurship. Moreover, the war itself has pushed women out of public life throughout Yemen, not just in Huthi-held areas. But the trajectory is clearly toward an increasingly constricted role for women in society. Women’s rights activists and civil society leaders are deeply worried that the Huthis will further restrict women’s rights if they stay in power.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, current and former Sanaa residents, Amman and Dubai, August 2021 and January 2022. A Sanaa-based women’s rights activist said, “I worry about the role of women in public life. Women were trying before 2014, before 2011 even, to change [social norms]. We have lost the battle everywhere. Right now, they [the Huthis] are busy with the war, but if they were not busy, I wonder how they would behave toward women”. Crisis Group interview, Sanaa, January 2022.Hide Footnote

People in the streets of Huthi-controlled Sanaa, Yemen, July 2019. CRISIS GROUP / Peter Salisbury

In general, the Huthis’ record of social and political tolerance is poor. Groups aligned with Islah, other political parties and various Salafist tendencies function inside Huthi-controlled territory, but under tight observation and with no real say in governance.[fn]Summing up the social dimensions of Huthi rule, a former Sanaa resident who has visited the city regularly over the course of the war said, “I lived in Riyadh in the 1990s and, to be honest, it wasn’t much more closed and conservative than Sanaa is now. As a foreign man, you rarely saw a woman and the religious police forced you to the mosque when they saw you on the street at prayer times. There was no political conversation”. Crisis Group telephone interview, January 2022. The same person added that, while Riyadh has become much more cosmopolitan over the past two decades, Sanaa has become increasingly conservative since 2014.Hide Footnote Minorities, like the country’s Baha’i population, have seen state persecution, already prevalent before the Huthi takeover, intensify.[fn]See “Another year of impunity in Yemen”, Reliefweb, 5 January 2021.Hide Footnote Yemen’s Jewish community, always small but once vibrant, has dwindled to as few as four people, with the Huthis’ rivals blaming the group’s anti-Semitic rhetoric for the exodus.[fn]Gabe Friedman, “Yemen’s Jewish population, once over 50,000, drops to below 10”, Haaretz, 1 April 2021.Hide Footnote While mistreatment of these minorities derives from a wider set of social problems, the Huthis clearly promote anti-Semitism, as evidenced by the teachings of Hussein al-Huthi.[fn]Albloshi, “The Ideological Roots of the Huthi Movement in Yemen”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Huthi leaders moderated some of their language during the transitional period but have become more blatant in their discrimination against Jews since then, even if they frame their use of language as a critique of Zionism and Israel.[fn]In a March 2022 interview with Lebanon’s al-Mayadeen television channel, for example, a senior Huthi official said, “I think what happened to Ukraine is the result of the evil-doing of the Jews. This is proof that when a Jew is the leader of a country it results in war. … If the president of Ukraine was someone else rather than that Jew, perhaps they would not have ended up in war”. “Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi of the Yemeni-Houthi leadership: Ukraine is at war because it is led by a Jew; we are worried that the goal of the war is to exhaust Russia”, MEMRI, 14 March 2022.Hide Footnote

V. The Iran Dimension

The Huthis reject others’ characterisation of them as an Iranian proxy and claim to receive only political support from Tehran.[fn]A Huthi official said, “We have relations with Iran. This is normal. We hope to have relations with all countries. The conflict has been driven by outsiders – foreigners – and by attempts to satisfy those outside of Yemen. But Yemen is not at any time part of Iran. People use information from the internet to build things up and there is a huge exaggeration about Iranian support in Yemen”. Crisis Group interview, Sanaa, July 2019.Hide Footnote Yet members also proudly describe Ansar Allah as an increasingly significant player in the Axis of Resistance that stands up to perceived Israeli and U.S. hegemony in the Middle East, an alliance of Iran, Syria, Hizbollah and, at times, Iraq’s al-Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) paramilitary groups and the (Sunni Islamist) Palestinian movement Hamas that controls Gaza.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Huthi officials, Sanaa and by telephone, July 2019, March 2020 and November 2021; and Huthi representatives, Muscat, September 2019, April 2020 and January, September and November 2021.Hide Footnote Iranian officials similarly say they back the Huthis politically, but publicly deny providing military or material aid to the Huthis’ de facto authority in Sanaa – although in private they have come closer to acknowledging their role.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Iranian official, Tehran, 16 April 2020.Hide Footnote

Some Huthi insiders acknowledge growing Iranian and Axis of Resistance influence, particularly on a core of key Huthi military leaders, who in turn often sway Abdul-Malik al-Huthi’s thinking, and especially also with respect to the group’s regional ambitions.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Huthi officials, Sanaa, July 2019.Hide Footnote But they dismiss the idea that this influence amounts to an Iranian takeover, pointing to several instances when the group ignored Iranian cautions in order to make military or political advances.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Huthi officials, Sanaa, July 2019. See also Vincent Durac, “Yemen’s Houthis – and why they’re not simply a proxy of Iran”, The Conversation, 19 September 2019.Hide Footnote The notion of asserting reach outside Yemen is likewise controversial in the movement. In September 2019, the Huthis claimed responsibility for a missile and drone attack, likely authored by Iran or Iraq-based Iranian-backed forces on oil and gas facilities in Saudi Arabia.[fn]Humayra Pamuk, “Exclusive: U.S. probe of Saudi oil attack shows it came from north – report”, Reuters, 19 December 2019.Hide Footnote The claim is said to have led to intense debates within the top leadership over the wisdom of taking credit for another country’s actions.[fn]Ben Hubbard, Palko Karasz and Stanley Reed, “Two major Saudi oil installations hit by drone strike, and U.S. blames Iran”, The New York Times, 15 September 2019.Hide Footnote Huthi insiders have pointed to their January attacks on the UAE, which Iranian officials have told Abu Dhabi their government did not sanction, as proof of their independence from Tehran.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Huthi-aligned politician, Sanaa, January 2022.Hide Footnote

Yet a growing body of evidence points to the deepening ties between the Huthis and the Axis of Resistance, especially Iran. The Huthis now have diplomatic representation in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran (emissaries are also based in Muscat, Oman), where they enjoy close relations with Iranian officials and Iran-aligned groups in the various countries’ political systems.[fn]Houthi diplomatic battle to achieve ‘legitimacy’”, The New Arab, 22 October 2020 (Arabic).Hide Footnote In 2020, Tehran announced that it had sent an ambassador to Sanaa, who regional media outlets and the U.S. government claimed was an IRGC commander.[fn]US announces terror sanctions against Iran’s ‘ambassador’ to Houthis in Yemen”, Arab News, 9 December 2020.Hide Footnote Local media reports claim to have evidence that Iranian and Lebanese Hizbollah commanders are working in Yemen.[fn]When asked to supply the evidence, anti-Huthi Yemenis point to online news items that make claims that are hard to substantiate. They also mention a video disseminated in 2020 that purports to show a Lebanese Hizbollah commander discussing the group’s support for the Huthis (Huthi allies claim the video is falsified). Lastly, they cite statements of appreciation for the Huthis from Iranian and Hizbollah leaders.Hide Footnote When the ambassador, Hasan Irlu, died from what Iranian and Huthi-aligned media said was a COVID-19-associated illness, he was reportedly replaced by the top IRGC official in Yemen.[fn]Bashir al-Bakir, “The departure of the Iranian ambassador in Sanaa: The beginning of the transformation in the Yemeni war”, The New Arab, 28 December 2021 (Arabic).Hide Footnote

It is ... self-evident that the Huthis enjoy significant Iranian material and technological support.

It is also self-evident that the Huthis enjoy significant Iranian material and technological support. While, at the start of the war, Huthi fighters largely used weapons from the Yemeni state’s stockpiles, including ballistic missiles, mortars, automatic rifles and landmines, they are now regularly pictured carrying Iranian-made small arms. The group also says it has built its own workshops, producing long-range missiles, as well as drones that can travel distances of up to 1,300km.[fn]See, for example, “Letter dated 25 January 2022 from the Panel of Experts on Yemen addressed to the President of the Security Council”, 25 January 2022.Hide Footnote Western and regional officials and arms control experts assert that new Huthi weapons systems, including attack drones and long-range missiles, are based on Iranian designs and could not have been developed domestically.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western officials, 2018-2022; Emirati officials, Abu Dhabi, 9 March 2022. A Western arms control expert, formerly an investigator with the UN Panel of Experts, said, “When you look at weapons development, it’s pretty extraordinary. To go from non-state to state-like actors with weapons that threaten a neighbouring state in three years is quite impressive. There is clear Iranian support, but the actual depth of influence is hard to parse. But obviously the longer the war lasts, the more embedded the Huthis become, not just with Iran but also with wider networks of the Axis of Resistance”. Crisis Group interview, London, January 2022.Hide Footnote Material and know-how from Iran needed to construct long-range drones and missiles, which the Huthis now use frequently, are an important part of their leverage with Saudi Arabia and its international allies. Regional and international intelligence officials further claim that Huthi fighters travel outside the country for training with Iran-backed groups, which is corroborated by sources in Iraq.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Beirut, 2018 and 2019; Baghdad, September 2019. See also “Maat Group: Houthi confessions of being trained by Hezbollah”, video, YouTube, 1 March 2018 (Arabic).Hide Footnote

For the Huthis’ Yemeni and regional rivals, all this evidence amounts to incontrovertible proof that the Huthis are an Iranian creature that still takes direction from Tehran.[fn]The Huthis are “100 per cent” controlled by Iran, a Saudi official said. Crisis Group telephone interview, January 2022.Hide Footnote Saudi officials reject the accusation that the Saudi-led intervention has driven the Huthis closer to Iran and the Axis of Resistance.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, Saudi officials, January 2021 and February 2022. Many Yemenis in the anti-Huthi camp see the increasingly overt relationship, not as something that has evolved, but as a constant from the 2000s onward. They view any effort to suggest that Iranian support has grown incrementally as deliberately minimising Iran’s long-term role. They likewise dismiss the notion that additional factors, like Saleh’s support for the Huthis in 2014, might have helped the group’s power grow. Crisis Group interviews, anti-Huthi GPC and Islah supporters, Cairo and Amman, January 2022. From their side, Huthi officials cast cross-border attacks as being driven largely by a domestic rather than a regional political calculus. Often, Huthi officials said, missile attacks on Saudi Arabia and other targets are a response to airstrikes or other attacks on tribal territory or property held by Huthi-aligned rivals, who would see the movement as weak if it did not reciprocate. But biased international media, they said, present these attacks as Iranian-directed in order to undermine the group’s legitimacy in Yemen and across the region. Crisis Group interviews, Huthi officials, Sanaa, July 2019; Huthi representative, Muscat, January 2021. Indeed, some Huthi supporters argue that the group is a co-equal to Iran in the Axis of Resistance and that Abdul-Malik al-Huthi may emerge as the network’s leader if the group can expand its regional footprint. Crisis Group telephone interviews, Huthi supporters, July and September 2021; former Huthi supporter, September 2021.Hide Footnote To argue that Tehran has been behind the Huthis all along, they point to occasions in 2016, 2019 and 2020-2022, when they say the Huthis spurned de-escalation and peace initiatives on Iranian instructions.[fn]Hebshi Alshammari and Mohammed al-Kinani, “Houthi rejection of Saudi peace plan is based on ‘flawed notion’’’, Arab News, 29 March 2021.Hide Footnote

From their side, Huthi insiders find it frustrating when external reports attribute their attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE to Iran’s regional agenda, in part because they see this notion as designed to minimise Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s roles, and to cast the Huthis and Iran as the primary belligerents responsible for the conflict’s atrocities. “Do they know we are at war?”, a Huthi leader quoted Abdul-Malik al-Huthi as saying in response to a Western diplomat’s explanation that many outsiders perceive attacks on Saudi Arabia as Iran-sponsored.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Huthi official, Sanaa, July 2019.Hide Footnote Huthi officials further reject the idea that Iranian pressure will convince them to change their strategic approach and are often angered by diplomats’ meetings with Iranian officials to discuss initiatives to end the war.[fn]When, in 2021, reports emerged of Saudi-Iranian dialogue – including news that Riyadh had asked Tehran to help end the cross-border attacks from Yemen – a Huthi supporter responded with contempt, arguing that Iran had no sway over the movement. Crisis Group telephone interview, September 2021.Hide Footnote

The Huthis control an important chunk of territory and pose a consistent threat to Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, the UAE.

Iran clearly also benefits from the relationship. Increasingly embedded in the Axis of Resistance, the movement clearly serves Tehran’s interests both as a symbol of struggle against Western incursions and as a strategic asset, regardless of the level of autonomy from Iran the group enjoys. The Huthis control an important chunk of territory and pose a consistent threat to Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, the UAE. Observers in Iran say what likely started as a speculative bet on the Huthis has turned into a beneficial relationship.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Iranian journalist, February 2022.Hide Footnote

Yet Iran’s influence also has limits. While depriving the Huthis of Iranian support would, over time, significantly weaken their international leverage, it would not drive them out of Sanaa or compel them to sue for peace. The Huthi authorities and military forces have absorbed Saleh-era state structures, institutions and staff, and earn considerable revenues from taxation and distribution of goods like fuel, albeit likely not enough to support long-term governance.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Brokering a Ceasefire in Yemen’s Economic Conflict, op. cit.Hide Footnote While Tehran can help the Huthis accelerate their attacks, and at times convince them to ease up, it probably cannot throw on the brakes, forcing the group to stand down. Iranian officials are careful to highlight their limited ability to secure concessions or changes in behaviour from the Huthis every chance they get. “We can’t force them to do something they don’t want to do”, said one. “They have their own grievances and objectives on the ground”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Iranian official, London, 11 November 2021.Hide Footnote Nor would a complete halt in Iranian support for the Huthis – which in any case appears highly unlikely given their strategic value – mean their immediate or near-term collapse.

That said, the relationship’s ambiguity will always lead observers to perceive overlap between Huthi and Iranian objectives so that, in their minds, the Yemen conflict is tied up inextricably with wider Middle Eastern tensions. Two cases in point were the January and February attacks on the UAE. For many Western officials, the question of Iranian command and control vis-à-vis the Huthis is moot. “Without Iran there would have been no attacks on Abu Dhabi, because the Huthis would not have the technological capabilities to launch the attacks”, a senior U.S. official said. “So, Iran cannot hide behind ambiguity and claim it is not to blame”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, U.S. official, January 2022.Hide Footnote An Emirati official said, meanwhile, “While we continue discussions with Iran, we know that the weapons used by the Huthis come from Tehran”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Emirati official, Abu Dhabi, 9 March 2022.Hide Footnote

VI. “What Do They Want?”

The Huthis express constant frustration at being portrayed as barriers to peace.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Huthi officials, Sanaa and by telephone, July 2019; Huthi representatives, Muscat, November 2021 and January 2022.Hide Footnote Since at least 2019, their leaders have proposed a broad plan to end the war, which they present as a peace deal. The initiative comprises a ceasefire, the withdrawal of foreign troops from Yemen, and a transitional period of dialogue and a peace agreement followed by reconstruction. Huthi officials mooted the plan in 2019, made it public in 2020 and then transmitted it to Riyadh by letter via Omani officials in 2021.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, Huthi officials, November 2020; Huthi representatives, October 2021; and Omani official, October 2021. See also “Payment of compensation … the latest Huthi conditions to stop the war”, The New Arab, 30 September 2021 (Arabic).Hide Footnote In about 2020, they added two pre-conditions to any ceasefire or dialogue: reopening Sanaa International Airport and ending restrictions on Hodeida port.

The Huthis ... see the war and the intra-Yemeni power struggle as two separate if interlinked issues.

While diplomats are pleased to hear that the Huthis want a ceasefire and dialogue, they have doubts about what these terms mean in practice. The Huthis, as described above, see the war and the intra-Yemeni power struggle as two separate if interlinked issues. They seek to end the war (with Saudi Arabia) and what they term the siege of their areas, before resolving what they describe as an internal crisis sparked by the Saudi intervention.[fn]Coalition truce in Yemen … Huthis accuse Saudi Arabia of manoeuvring to continue the war”, Al Jazeera, 9 April 2020.Hide Footnote For this reason, by a ceasefire the Huthis do not mean an end to ground fighting but a halt to Saudi airstrikes and a withdrawal of foreign forces from Yemen, in exchange for an end to their cross-border attacks. They believe that their authorities, or a neutral outside party, like Oman, should lead transitional talks among Yemeni factions designed to bring the parties into harmony with the Sanaa authorities, in particular in “rejection of the aggression and in support of Yemen’s independence and sovereignty”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Huthi official, January 2022.Hide Footnote The Huthis also believe that Saudi Arabia, as the principal belligerent in their view, should underwrite the cost of reconstruction in post-war Yemen.

These ideas have long been non-starters for their rivals. For the Saudis, they would entail conceding victory to the Huthis for no political gain. For the Yemeni government, they would, in effect, mean ceding power to the Huthis. For anti-Huthi forces inside and outside Yemen, lastly, they would imply that the odds of a Huthi-dominated Yemen would increase significantly.

Yet the Huthis have thus far seen no value in the counter-proposals on offer. Saudi Arabia has in the past said it is willing to consider a large political role for the Huthis, but only if the latter first sever all ties with Iran and provide guarantees on border security, including a buffer zone that cuts into Yemeni territory. The Huthis argue that both measures would violate Yemeni sovereignty.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Huthi representative, Muscat, April 2021; and Crisis Group telephone interviews, Western diplomats, 2021-2022; Saudi official, March 2021.Hide Footnote Before the formation of the presidential council, the Hadi government demanded that the group lay down its arms and cede territories it has taken during the war, although many in the government camp said they would contemplate much deeper compromises than this stance suggested.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Yemeni government official, Riyadh, September 2021.Hide Footnote Huthi officials are deeply irritated that the Saudis and their favoured Yemeni politicians are treated as peacemakers despite having made overtures that the Huthis view as “unrealistic” and, indeed, appear largely disconnected from the balance of force on the ground.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Huthi representative, Muscat, April 2021.Hide Footnote

It is not clear if the UN-brokered truce, itself a reflection of the mutually hurting stalemate that emerged in early 2022, Hadi’s ouster and the formation of the presidential council are clear signals that the Huthis, or the new government, think now is the right time to negotiate an end to the war. The truce included provisions for a limited number of fuel shipments to enter Huthi-controlled Hodeida and two direct commercial flights a week to Sanaa from Cairo and Amman. In other words, it is a limited form of the “lifting of the siege” that the Huthis demand. Saudi and Yemeni officials say they will now make a sincere effort to broker a political settlement with the Huthis and that the ball is in their court, while the Huthis say they are open to “realistic” offers.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Huthi representative, Muscat, April 2022.Hide Footnote But already the government and the Huthis have struggled to find the common ground needed to reopen the airport, despite the near-universal popularity of this aspect of the truce among Yemenis.[fn]“First commercial flight out of Sanaa in six years postponed”, Al Jazeera, 24 April 2022.Hide Footnote More important than rhetoric is the Huthis’ apparent softening toward the UN and other mediators. Huthi representatives held a series of meetings with UN and regional officials in March and April, and in late April, the group permitted Grundberg to travel to Sanaa before meeting with a delegation of Omani officials.[fn]Samy Magdy, “UN envoy arrives in Yemen’s capital for talks with rebels”, AP, 11 April 2022.Hide Footnote

The coming months likely represent a litmus test of the Huthis’ – and the Saudis’ and the new presidential council’s – intentions.

For this reason, the coming months likely represent a litmus test of the Huthis’ – and the Saudis’ and the new presidential council’s – intentions. Diplomats agree that the Hadi government made no workable proposal for peace. But many accuse the Huthis of being insincere in their initiatives, making maximalist demands that they know their rivals will reject out of hand.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, diplomats, September, October and November 2021.Hide Footnote Mediators who have worked directly with the Huthis note that they are skilled negotiators, capable of responding to, and engaging on, substantive detail when they so choose.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, mediators with experience working with the Huthis, January and February 2021.Hide Footnote When the Huthis stonewall, these mediators suspect their motives. The Huthis’ proposals also ignore their rivals’ concerns and do little to instil confidence that they would be prepared to share power. Some diplomats say the Huthis have become increasingly transactional in their relations with the outside world, blocking the last two UN envoys to Yemen from entering the country when they did not deliver on key Huthi demands, including releasing fuel shipments prevented from arriving in Hodeida.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, UN official, February 2022.Hide Footnote

Outsiders often find it hard even to meet Huthi representatives. Yemeni, as well as UN and other foreign mediators note that the Huthis are authorising fewer and fewer officials to discuss political questions with outsiders outside of largely symbolic formal meetings.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, 2021-2022.Hide Footnote Just two officials, one in Muscat and the other in Sanaa, handle most such interactions. This practice has insulated the group’s other members from outside views of the conflict and made diplomacy with the group more difficult. It is not clear what the group’s objective might be in thus limiting access to its members. In 2021, when the Huthis appeared to be close to seizing Marib, some diplomats felt the group was confident that it would not need to negotiate to achieve its goals.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, 2021-2022.Hide Footnote

Huthi-controlled areas are also increasingly isolated, leading some Yemenis to argue that the group is building an almost hermetically sealed police state in which their narrative of resistance to outside aggression reigns supreme. The Huthis operate a “walled garden” economy, security networks and governance that function well, in part because they are separated from the rest of the country by front lines and difficult transport routes.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Brokering a Ceasefire in Yemen’s Economic Conflict, op. cit.Hide Footnote “Closing Sanaa airport may prove to be one of the biggest mistakes the coalition and the government ever made”, a Yemeni researcher who has travelled frequently to Sanaa said. “It means that other voices and other ideas struggle to make themselves heard at qat chews in Sanaa, and the Huthis end up hearing only their own voices”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Yemeni researcher, Amman, January 2021.Hide Footnote The airport’s reopening during the truce may bring the Huthis into closer contact with the outside world, though it is too early to tell if it will have positive or lasting effects.

VII. An International Dilemma

International and Yemeni mediators have sought for years to find a workable set of arrangements for stopping the fighting in Yemen. For some time, achieving this end has required reconciling four key factors, all of which require Huthi acquiescence. The first is the fact that until early 2022 the Huthis appeared to be winning the war for Yemen’s northern highlands. The second is that, as long as the war continues, regional security and trade will be under threat, particularly with respect to prospective Huthi attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE and maritime traffic in sea lanes around the Arabian Peninsula. The third is that, as long as the status quo endures, the war cannot end without an understanding between Saudi Arabia and the Huthis, with the former deeming intolerable a settlement that would leave the Huthis in absolute control, closely aligned with Iran and armed with medium- and long-range weapons.[fn]The Saudi position has softened considerably over the course of the war. Officials in Riyadh no longer believe the Huthis can be uprooted entirely, but they also cannot countenance the idea that the Huthis would have complete control of northern Yemen. Crisis Group telephone interview, Saudi official, January 2022.Hide Footnote The fourth factor, finally, is that the Huthis’ Yemeni rivals – who it should be remembered are the ones fighting the Huthis on the ground – cannot accept the idea of life in a Huthi-dominated state.

A man stands amongst wreckage of his store in Huthi-controlled Sadaa, Yemen, October 2015. CRISIS GROUP / Peter Salisbury

Faced with this knot of challenges, foreign officials perceive few good policy options. They have increasingly sought a “least bad” solution that establishes a modus vivendi, first between the Huthis and Yemen’s neighbours, principally Saudi Arabia, and secondly between the Huthis and their domestic rivals, primarily the internationally recognised government (and of course between the Huthis and other outside powers). Yet, until the 1 April truce, even this limited objective proved unattainable and if the truce ends in a return to the status quo ante, it could become even harder to reach. Until 2020, the challenge was often that Riyadh and the Hadi government were making maximalist demands – in effect, the Huthis’ surrender – that ignored realities on the ground. But once the Huthis began bearing down on Marib governorate in 2020, it was their turn to present maximalist demands – in effect, a complete withdrawal by Saudi Arabia and its local and regional allies from Yemen, with no guarantees in place for Riyadh’s or rival Yemeni groups’ long-term security, apart from vague nods toward cooperation and dialogue.

Foreign officials find it increasingly frustrating that, in their view, the Huthis would stand to benefit greatly from engagement and compromise, but forego any opportunity to pursue such a path. By late 2021, there was growing albeit grudging international acceptance that the group would dominate northern Yemen for years to come. But, in some officials’ views, the Huthis have hurt their own prospects by constantly behaving in ways that lead to an outcry abroad, chilling diplomacy, for example, by launching missile attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE or a ground offensive.[fn]A Western official who previously advocated for greater dialogue with the Huthis said, “Basically, if they had played things smarter, they would have had pretty much everything they want. But every time we reach out to them and we think we are getting somewhere, they fire missiles at Riyadh. And then it becomes much harder to do anything more”. Crisis Group interview, October 2021.Hide Footnote They complain that the Huthis have chosen to close themselves off from the world, for example by refusing to permit the last two UN envoys to travel to Sanaa regularly and arresting local U.S. embassy staff.[fn]“The United States Condemns the Houthi Detention of Yemeni Staff of the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a and Breach of Embassy Compound”, U.S. State Department, 19 November 2021.Hide Footnote The Huthis, a U.S. official said, “are isolating themselves”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, U.S. official, Washington, February 2021.Hide Footnote As described above, the Huthis reject such claims as propaganda designed to paint a misleading picture of the war.

Until 2021, diplomats had hoped that “carrots” – confidence-building measures in the form of reopening and lifting restrictions on trade entering the Huthi-controlled Sanaa airport and Hodeida port – might convince the group to engage in a ceasefire and political talks. But they grew sceptical of such an approach’s utility. Between 2019 and April 2022, the Huthi position on these measures shifted: where, at first, they were pre-conditions to a truce and talks, then they became pre-conditions to talks about a truce and talks.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Huthi officials, Muscat and Sanaa, 2019-2021.Hide Footnote The group’s rivals, and some officials and commentators in Western capitals, say this development bolsters their long-time argument: the Huthis will bargain in good faith only when their opponents wield “sticks” – high levels of military and political pressure. Some say the group must be completely defeated in battle before it will compromise.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Yemeni government officials, Cairo and Riyadh, 2021.Hide Footnote For this reason, many Yemeni observers see the truce as a prelude to more fighting and the Huthi opponents among them hope that mediators’ push for talks will fail so that the Presidential Leadership Council can attempt a unified military campaign.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, anti-Huthi Yemeni politician, April 2021.Hide Footnote

This frustration explains why, for instance, the U.S. seriously thought about – and may again consider – reinstating the Foreign Terrorist Organization designation of the group in early 2022, despite fears about the humanitarian impact, and why UN Security Council members agreed to a resolution labelling the Huthis a “terrorist group” in February.[fn]See Peter Salisbury, “Ending war in Yemen requires talk, not labels”, Foreign Policy, 1 March 2022.Hide Footnote Officials in Washington felt they needed to signal their displeasure with the group and build leverage with them. But the re-designation conversation also demonstrates the limits of outsiders’ influence over the group: it appears that all they can do is impose that designation, which would amount to harsh collective punishment of the twenty million-plus people living in Huthi areas, with little hope of changing the group’s behaviour.[fn]Crisis Group Statement, “The U.S. Should Reverse Its Huthi Terror Designation”, 13 January 2021.Hide Footnote As Crisis Group has detailed elsewhere, other economic measures designed to hurt the Huthis have largely rebounded on Yemen’s civilian population.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Brokering a Ceasefire in Yemen’s Economic Conflict, op. cit.; and Crisis Group Statement, “The U.S. Should Reverse Its Huthi Terror Designation”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The UN truce and the formation of the presidential council represent a major test of Huthi rhetoric.

The UN truce and the formation of the presidential council represent a major test of Huthi rhetoric. By the truce’s terms, the Huthis should receive, albeit in a limited form, what they have asked for in the past to make a ceasefire work. While they may deride the presidential council, the Huthis must recognise that it is more credible among ordinary Yemenis than Hadi was. Further, if the council’s members work together – a big if, given the historical differences among them – they could pose a significant military threat to the Huthis in the future. The Huthis are also clearly signalling greater openness to negotiation, likely because they have struggled to take Marib and are more financially constrained than they would perhaps admit. In mid-April, Grundberg travelled to Sanaa to meet the Huthi leadership for the first time since becoming envoy. There, he pushed them to prolong the truce and enter dialogue with their rivals. Yet one trip by one man is unlikely to tip the balance of the war toward peace.

VIII. A Way Forward?

Like most wars, Yemen’s conflict has fuelled competing narratives of grievance. Each party seeks to depict its own story as principled and to smear others as partisan. The Huthis focus on Saudi and Emirati airstrikes and what they term the siege of their areas, and the Hadi government’s complicity in both strikes and siege. But they ignore many Yemenis’ legitimate fears of Huthi rule. Saudi Arabia and the UAE highlight Huthi cross-border attacks, while anti-Huthi Yemenis point to Huthi attacks on villages and cities, as well as the actions of the Huthis’ police state. They have often claimed that the Huthis are so extreme that no one can negotiate with the group. Yet this rhetoric gives the impression that the only conceivable outcome of the war is a total victory over the Huthis, something that seven years of fighting, bombardment and economic conflict have not come close to achieving. The new presidential council appears to publicly acknowledge this last point. Others continue to argue that the answer is severing Iranian support for the Huthis, without clearly articulating what that would mean in practice.

Amid all the destruction in Yemen, there is plenty of blame to go around. All parties have prosecuted the war with near impunity.

Amid all the destruction in Yemen, there is plenty of blame to go around. All parties have prosecuted the war with near impunity. The UN Human Rights Council’s decision in September 2021, under pressure from Riyadh, to disband the Group of Eminent Experts it formed in 2017 to monitor alleged war crimes has hardly helped.[fn]“Statement by Group of Experts on Yemen on HRC rejection of resolution to renew their mandate”, UN Human Rights Council, 8 October 2021.Hide Footnote The Huthis see such actions as vindicating their claims that the UN is “hijacked” by Saudi interests; many Yemenis on all sides feel that whoever rules over them is unlikely to be held to account. Mediation thus requires addressing both the interests and the emotions of the conflict parties and Yemeni citizens in a way that fosters trust. The question for the principal mediator in Yemen, the UN, is how to do that. To de-escalate the conflict, the UN will need to address Huthi, other Yemeni, Saudi, Emirati and international fears regarding their respective rivals’ intentions sufficiently that they would consider compromises.

Three things can be done. The first is ending the Huthis’ isolation, at least in part. Diplomats working on the Yemen file need to make a serious effort to engage the group, well beyond short, irregular trips to the capital. In the wake of the Huthis’ attacks on the UAE, some commentators in Washington and the Gulf have argued for heavier political pressure on the Huthis and more ostracism.[fn]Gerald M. Feierstein, “Yemen: Ending the War, Building a Sustainable Peace”, Middle East Institute, 20 January 2022.Hide Footnote Yet it is not clear how much more external parties can punish the Huthis and what constructive purpose that tactic would serve. Isolation has created a “filter bubble” in Sanaa in which Huthi officials and followers repeat their own rhetoric unexamined. The group has now survived eighteen years without much contact with the outside world and it is not clear why it could not stay hunkered down in perpetuity, especially given the support it receives from Iran and other Axis of Resistance players.

Foreign officials should travel to Sanaa, meet with as wide a range of interlocutors as possible, listen to what the Huthis have to say and explain outsiders’ perspectives on the conflict to them, without endorsing any one side’s narrative. These should be officials whom all sides respect and see as neutral. Crisis Group has long called for founding an international working group on Yemen to form a united front with a division of labour under UN auspices. Forming this working group and composing a consistent set of messages for transmission to the Huthis on ending the war and building peace should be priorities.

Efforts to end Sanaa’s isolation would be bolstered by opening the city’s airport to at least some commercial international flights, as the truce calls for, and keeping it open, allowing Yemenis to come in and out of the capital carrying news of the outside world, and allowing informal mediators to meet with senior Huthi officials. Although the truce stipulates the airport be reopened, the agreement is limited to two flights per week and is timebound. Further, no flights had actually arrived in Sanaa at the time of publication. An announced first flight out of Sanaa, scheduled for 24 April, did not take off because of a dispute between the Huthis and the government over passports issued by the Huthis in Sanaa. It was no surprise. Years of stalled negotiations have shown that this task will not be easy, in part because of running disputes between the Huthis and their opponents over where flights should connect to and who should oversee airport security and passport control.

The UN should keep trying to convene inclusive Yemeni-Yemeni consultations, regardless of the conflict’s status.

Second is trust-building among Yemenis. The UN should keep trying to convene inclusive Yemeni-Yemeni consultations, regardless of the conflict’s status. Many Yemeni groups, including the Huthis (with caveats), now say they want such dialogue, and UN member states and the new envoy himself appear to favour it as well. Shuttle negotiations have not worked and it is clear that Yemenis’ fears will not be allayed until they are able to talk freely among themselves. No rule says the envoy cannot start bringing senior officials together outside Yemen in an effort to close the gaps between the parties, even if a ceasefire and formal talks seem far away. Such discussions would need to include Huthi representatives and take place in a neutral country.

It is also clear that regional dialogue could improve the prospects of peace in Yemen. De-escalation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and between Iran and the UAE, would likely help these countries develop confidence that their local allies can and should meet to talk. Iranian talks with the UAE went on despite the Huthi attacks on the country in January and February, with the two countries careful to protect their dialogue. “We want to talk to Iran, so we’ll continue, despite the attacks”, said an Emirati official.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Emirati official, Abu Dhabi, 9 March 2022.Hide Footnote Saudi-Iranian talks, which centre largely on Yemen, are slow-moving. In the last round in September 2021, the two sides reportedly agreed to a roadmap toward resolution of the Yemen conflict, which they reportedly discussed at an apparently productive meeting on 21 April in Iraq.[fn]“Scoop: After 7-month hiatus, Iran-Saudi Arabia talks set to resume in Iraq”, Amwaj, 19 April 2022.Hide Footnote Riyadh has pushed for guarantees from Tehran that it will stop arming the Huthis, contain their cross-border attacks and curb their advances in Yemen. Iran, as noted above, says it can ask the Huthis for concessions but cannot compel them to say yes.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Iranian official, London, 11 November 2021.Hide Footnote Tehran could certainly encourage the Huthis to come to the negotiating table, but it will not be able to guarantee how they will conduct themselves in talks.

Outside powers should be clear-eyed about the outer limits of such interactions. The Huthis are highly unlikely to suddenly shift from their alliance with the Axis of Resistance toward deeper cooperation with Western powers in the coming months or years. Nor is it clear – and will not become so, absent concerted efforts to bring them into a wider Yemeni-Yemeni dialogue – whether they are ready to compromise to the extent necessary to reassure their rivals. As for how the Huthis rule, they may temper their more hardline instincts in order to gain social approval, but it is impossible to predict how a group that, for much its existence, has been at war would behave once it became the dominant governing faction in peacetime.

Once the airport is open, it will be time for the Huthis to open themselves up to the world and show they are serious about peace.

As for the Huthis themselves, the group has long claimed that it seeks peace with other Yemenis, regional powers and the world. With the war at something approaching military equilibrium, their rivals unifying and the economy in freefall, it would be to their benefit to prove that point and, at a minimum, buy themselves some breathing room. But no outreach will work if they refuse to receive diplomats in Sanaa or to allow them to meet with a wide array of important social and political figures in the capital. Once the airport is open, it will be time for the Huthis to open themselves up to the world and show they are serious about peace. Similarly, at some point, the Huthis will have to recognise that other Yemenis’ perspectives on the war have value and that fears of their rule cannot be overcome via rote rejections of rivals’ claims. One way of doing so would be to move swiftly to shore up the final pillar of the UN truce – joint efforts to reopen the main roads connecting Taiz city with the rest of Yemen, which the Huthis have cut off since 2015.

But ameliorative measures will only go so far toward reducing the mistrust among Yemenis. One way to begin addressing this issue is to make UN-led mediation efforts more inclusive. Crisis Group has long advocated for a more inclusive UN-led process in Yemen, one which includes not just established and emerging political elites, but youth, women, civil society and other nongovernmental organisations. Encouragingly, Grundberg, the new envoy, has signalled his commitment to expanded negotiations and has launched a process of consultations. The excitement of the moment notwithstanding, he should follow through on these longer-term projects, while at the same time redoubling efforts to bring in the Huthis.

IX. Conclusion

The current juncture represents a chance to at least halt the fighting in Yemen. Stopping the shooting will require a leap of faith and understanding. The Huthis, like all parties to the Yemen war, present themselves as victims of circumstance. Contrary to what their rivals say, there is some truth to this tale. The group’s core went through several rounds of war between 2004 and 2010 in which the state abducted and tortured its members, while also pummelling civilian areas in the northern highlands. Yet, as the Saada wars proceeded, and later as the present war escalated, the group began resorting to these very same tactics. Today, it presides over a police state of the kind it claimed to stand against. Saudi Arabia similarly has played up Huthi misdeeds, while seeking to whitewash its own brutal actions. The truce notwithstanding, the war is likely to drag on until all parties acknowledge at least some of each other’s grievances and accept the necessity of compromise. Until that day, Yemen’s catastrophe will keep deepening.

Sanaa/New York/Brussels, 29 April 2022

Appendix A: Map of Yemen