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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.

1. 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.

2. 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

1. 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

2. 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

3. 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.

4. 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.
A heavily armed military convoy of the 7th Division of the Nigerian Army pass through a checkpoint at Chibok in Borno State north-east Nigeria on 25 March 2016. STEFAN HEUNIS / AFP
Report 273 / Africa

Facing the Challenge of the Islamic State in West Africa Province

Three years after Boko Haram broke apart, one faction, the Islamic State in West Africa Province, is forming a proto-state in northern Nigeria. The state should press its military offensive against the jihadists but also try undercutting their appeal by improving governance and public services.

What’s new? The Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), a splinter of Boko Haram, is growing in power and influence in north-eastern Nigeria. It has notched military successes and made inroads among Muslim civilians by treating them better than its parent organisation and by filling gaps in governance and service delivery.

Why does it matter? The resurgence of a potent jihadist force around Lake Chad means continuing conflict for Nigeria and neighbouring states, as well as ongoing peril for civilians caught in the crossfire.

What should be done? State authorities should supplement their military campaign with efforts to weaken ISWAP’s influence by improving governance and services in the north east. While the time may not seem right for comprehensive negotiations, the parties should keep channels of communication open in order to advance short-term goals like increasing humanitarian access.

Executive Summary

The Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), a splinter of Boko Haram, is growing in power and influence. From its territorial base on the banks and islands of Lake Chad, this jihadist group is waging a guerrilla war across north-eastern Nigeria and elsewhere on the lake’s periphery. By filling gaps in governance and service delivery, it has cultivated a level of support among local civilians that Boko Haram never enjoyed and has turned neglected communities in the area and islands in Lake Chad into a source of economic support. If Nigeria and its neighbouring Lake Chad states want to sever the bond between ISWAP and these communities and they should then they cannot stop with countering ISWAP in battle. They will need to complement military action by filling the service and governance gaps that ISWAP has exploited.

Displacing ISWAP will not be easy. Although the group’s methods are often violent and coercive, it has established a largely symbiotic relationship with the Lake Chad area’s inhabitants. The group treats local Muslim civilians better than its parent organisation did, better than its rival faction, Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (JAS), does now, and in some ways better than the Nigerian state and army have done since the insurgency began in 2009. It digs wells, polices cattle rustling, provides a modicum of health care and sometimes disciplines its own personnel whom it judges to have unacceptably abused civilians. In the communities it controls, its taxation is generally accepted by civilians, who credit it for creating an environment where they can do business and compare its governance favourably to that of the Nigerian state.

ISWAP’s approach appears to have paid dividends in terms of recruitment and support. With an estimated 3,500-5,000 members according to Crisis Group’s sources, it overshadows JAS, which has roughly 1,500-2,000, and appears to have gained the military upper hand over the latter. It has also caused real pain to the Nigerian military, its primary target, overrunning dozens of army bases and killing hundreds of soldiers since August 2018. As its name suggests, ISWAP is affiliated with the faded Islamic State, or ISIS, caliphate in Iraq and Syria, whose remnants count ISWAP victories as their own. ISWAP appears to be working hard to gain greater favour from its namesake organisation, and it has obtained some support already, notably in the form of training, though it is not clear how significant a boost this will afford.

ISWAP’s deepening roots in the civilian population underscore that the Nigerian government (and, to a lesser extent, those of Cameroon, Chad and Niger) cannot look purely to military means to ensure its enduring defeat. Instead, they should seek to weaken ISWAP’s ties to locals by proving that they can fill service and governance gaps at least in the areas they control, even as they take care to conduct the counter-insurgency as humanely as possible and in a manner that protects civilians.

To combat impunity among the security services, they should release the report of the panel that President Muhammadu Buhari appointed in 2017 to investigate alleged military abuses and implement those recommendations that advance accountability. They should enhance public safety in towns that are under government control in Borno and neighbouring states where ISWAP is building influence.

They should take care that in seeking to cut off ISWAP’s access to local markets they do not alienate locals by also strangling their ability to trade. And even though negotiations to end hostilities may not be a realistic prospect at this time, they should keep lines of communication open with ISWAP, focusing on practical issues such as how to get more humanitarian assistance to local communities.

These strategies certainly do not guarantee victory for state authorities over ISWAP – but they could help counteract important sources of the organisation’s strength, provide a useful complement to ongoing efforts to degrade it militarily, and at the same time channel important support to communities in the region, which sorely need it.

Dakar/Brussels, 16 May 2019

Crisis Group's West Africa Expert Vincent Foucher carries out interviews during his field research in Maiduguri, north east Nigeria, in December 2018. CRISIS GROUP / Jorge Gutierrez Lucena

I. Introduction

Since the early 2010s, the jihadist armed group Boko Haram has wielded power and influence in north-eastern Nigeria and parts of adjoining states in the Lake Chad basin. The group clawed its way back from a failed uprising in July 2009 against the Nigerian government that left more than 1,000 dead, including the group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, to re-emerge as a full-fledged insurgency under the command of one of Yusuf’s lieutenants, Abubakar Shekau, a year later.[fn]For background, see Crisis Group Africa Reports N°213, Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency, 3 April 2014; and N°168, Northern Nigeria: Background to Conflict, 20 December 2010. See also Alex Thurston, Boko Haram: The History of an African Jihadist Movement (Princeton, 2017).Hide Footnote Over the next five years, and at a particularly rapid pace between 2013 and 2015, the group seized control of much of Nigeria’s Borno state, and began operating in border areas of neighbouring Niger, Chad and Cameroon. The organisation plundered villages and bombed markets and churches, as well as mosques it deemed “infidel”. In April 2014 it staged the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok, Borno state. This mass abduction, which earned it global condemnation, was only one in a long series of violent incidents of striking brutality.

Yet, starting in 2015, Boko Haram found itself under increasing pressure from the Nigerian military and its regional allies, which fed its internal divisions, causing it to shrink in power.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°120, Boko Haram on the Back Foot?, 4 May 2016.Hide Footnote In March of that year, Boko Haram lost its self-proclaimed capital, Gwoza, to Nigerian troops, and over time, notable towns it had overrun in Borno state fell back into government hands, forcing the group back into safe havens on the periphery of Lake Chad, in the Sambisa Forest and in hills and mountains east of Gwoza.

Boko Haram’s retreat exacerbated longstanding personality clashes and doctrinal differences within the organisation. The group was still intact in March 2015 when Shekau pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and it took up the name Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP). But a year later it fractured in two. Following the lead of Mamman Nur and Abu Musab al-Barnawi, a son of Mohammed Yusuf, a number of senior leaders split off from Shekau’s forces. Nur and al-Barnawi’s faction, retaining the name ISWAP, gained recognition from ISIS and attracted a growing number of militants.

By filling a void in civilian governance and service provision, ISWAP is strengthening its hand for the future.

ISWAP’s leadership has changed in the intervening three years. In 2018 an internal dispute reportedly led it to execute Nur, and in March 2019, it announced that Abu Musab had been replaced by another (albeit unrelated) al-Barnawi, Abu Abdallah.[fn]The surname al-Barnawi means “from Borno”. It does not indicate kinship between the two.Hide Footnote Shekau remains in control of a rump faction of Boko Haram that reassumed the group’s original name, Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (JAS).[fn]Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad means “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”. It was the first official self-appellation of “Boko Haram” (generally translated from Hausa as “Western education is forbidden”), which is a derisive epithet coined by Salafi critics. This report nonetheless uses the familiar term “Boko Haram” to refer to the group before the 2016 split and to the ISWAP and JAS factions together.Hide Footnote

Neither of the two successor factions controls nearly the territory that Boko Haram once held. Their sway is limited to the marshland around and islands of Lake Chad, parts of the Mandara hills on the Nigeria-Cameroon border, and the inaccessible forests of Borno and Yobe states – terrain that provides cover from Nigerian and allied air power.

Yet the two remain potent military forces. It is difficult to estimate the two factions’ precise numbers. Each is made up of a mix of ideologically motivated combatants toting AK-47s, watchmen bearing locally produced hunting rifles, and captives acting as ammunition carriers or weapon servants. But the numbers remain significant. A Western security official estimated in February 2019 that ISWAP had 3,500-5,000 fighters and JAS 1,500-2,000.[fn]Crisis Group electronic communication, February 2019; see also “Islamic State ally stakes out territory around Lake Chad”, Reuters, 30 April 2018. A Nigerian research organisation recently produced a much higher figure for ISWAP’s numbers – between 18,000 and 20,000 fighters – apparently based on an unpublished examination of ISWAP’s combat groups built from contacts with both Nigerian military and ISWAP sources. “Survival and Expansion: The Islamic State’s West Africa Province”, Global Initiative for Civil Stabilisation, April 2019. Given the lack of detail about the methodologies and primary data used to generate both sets of figures, there is no ready explanation for the discrepancy.Hide Footnote Moreover, ISWAP has been expanding its reach. In December 2018, it overran a major military base in Baga, on the shores of Lake Chad, which the Nigerian army had recaptured in February 2015. On 23 February 2019, the day of Nigeria’s general elections, ISWAP launched its first-ever attack on Borno state’s capital, Maiduguri, firing rockets at military targets.[fn]“Boko Haram attacks reported across northern Nigeria on polling day”, Defense Post, 23 February 2019.Hide Footnote

Perhaps most worrying for Nigeria’s and its neighbours’ security is the way in which ISWAP has adapted its military tactics and policies toward civilians. This adaptation has allowed it to foster ties with local communities that its parent and parallel organisations never enjoyed. By curbing some of Boko Haram’s most wanton practices, and by filling a void in civilian governance and service provision, ISWAP is strengthening its hand for the future. The deeper it sinks its roots into the neglected communities of north-eastern Nigeria, the more difficult it may be to dislodge.

This report explores how and why ISWAP emerged from Boko Haram, how it has gained ground both territorially and politically against Shekau’s JAS faction, and how it uses guerrilla tactics to challenge regional armies, particularly Nigeria’s. It focuses in particular on ISWAP’s efforts to forge links to the rural population, and how these ties have become a source of its strength. The report considers what Nigerian and other government authorities are doing to provide their own governance and services and to encourage its own forces to conduct counter-insurgency operations humanely and in a manner that protects civilians. It also makes suggestions for how they might raise their game in order to deny ISWAP the competitive advantage that it seeks.

This report is based primarily on interviews carried out in December 2017 and March, October and December 2018 in Abuja and Maiduguri, supplemented by additional research conducted through May 2019. It reflects contributions from Crisis Group analysts working in all four Lake Chad countries. While it was impossible to get direct access to active jihadists, the report draws on interviews with civilians from the north east of Nigeria who are familiar with ISWAP because of the relations it has built with the local population and the fact that it allows people to move between areas it controls and Maiduguri. Several former Boko Haram members aware of its internal politics were also interviewed, in addition to vigilantes, diplomats, religious scholars, local and federal state officials, non-governmental organisation workers, human rights activists, and international and Nigerian security experts, as well as journalists. Lastly, the report draws on the lively debates among academics who study Boko Haram.

II. Anatomy of a Break-up

The fracturing of Boko Haram is a story of clashing personalities, military one-upmanship and political manoeuvring. A key figure in the split was the late Mamman Nur, who first gained stature in the organisation as a top lieutenant of the group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, and a rival of Yusuf’s successor, Shekau. A charismatic figure with some higher education – a rare trait in Boko Haram’s leadership – Nur married one of Yusuf’s widows. He dropped out of sight for several years following Yusuf’s death in 2009. According to some reports, while Shekau was establishing himself as Boko Haram’s new leader, Nur spent some time abroad, possibly in Somalia and Sudan, forging ties to other jihadist groups, including ISIS.[fn]One Nigerian security analyst believes that Nur had forged a direct link with ISIS in Syria. Crisis Group electronic communication, August 2018.Hide Footnote Nigerian authorities labelled Nur the mastermind of the August 2011 bombing of the UN building in Abuja, although some local sources question this claim.[fn]“UN House bombing: The hunt for Mamman Nur”, Vanguard, 4 September 2011. A Nigerian security expert and a religious scholar acquainted with Nur were sceptical of this claim. Crisis Group electronic communications, November 2018 and February 2019.Hide Footnote At some point in 2014 or 2015, he joined Shekau in his stronghold in the Sambisa forest in Borno State.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former JAS member, Maiduguri, October 2018.Hide Footnote

It was not long before Nur and Shekau clashed. As links developed between Boko Haram and ISIS, Nur and other internal critics of Shekau’s autocratic, brutal and mercurial leadership began pushing for a formal affiliation with ISIS, which was then on a winning streak.[fn]Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “The ‘Boko Haram’ allegiance pledge to Islamic State: An Ansar al-Shari‘a Tunisia connection”, Pundicity, 8 August 2018.Hide Footnote They were probably acting on a mix of enthusiasm for the newly-declared caliphate and a hope that they could use that affiliation to curb Shekau’s power. Shekau was reluctant, but he eventually bowed to internal pressure, pledging allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in March 2015.[fn]Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “ISWAP vs. Abu Bakr Shekau: full text, translation and analysis”, Pundicity, 5 August 2018. Some experts say Shekau tried to assert Boko Haram’s weak connection to al-Qaeda, through al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, as a way of dodging the pressure to rally to ISIS. Crisis Group electronic communications, December 2018.Hide Footnote

Both ISIS and the new ISWAP faction heavily promoted the raid’s success on social media in an apparent attempt to establish the new faction’s credibility.

But disputes over the group’s future were not over. In late 2015, Nur reportedly left the Sambisa enclave to establish his own camp.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former JAS members, Maiduguri, October 2018; “Boko Haram fracturing over Islamic State ties, U.S. general warns”, Reuters, 21 June 2016. Shekau mentions another splinter group trying to set up camp in late 2015 or early 2016 in Falgore forest, a reserve at the juncture of Bauchi, Kano and Kaduna states. See Abdulbasit Kassim and Michael Nwankpa, The Boko Haram Reader: From Nigerian Preachers to the Islamic State (London, 2018), chapter 74.Hide Footnote The following June, the Boko Haram council (shura) held a reconciliation meeting in the Sambisa forest, but the effort failed. Nur challenged Shekau’s leadership, as did Abu Musab al-Barnawi, who enjoyed some notoriety because he was one of Mohammed Yusuf’s surviving sons. ISIS media were already promoting al-Barnawi to replace the more rough-edged Shekau as Boko Haram’s main public figure.[fn]Al-Barnawi is an alias. His true name is Habib Yusuf. Tellingly enough, al-Barnawi’s first appearance in January 2015, was to discuss the group’s recent attack in Baga, and al-Barnawi insisted that only associates of the Nigerian state had been killed, not regular civilians. See Kassim and Nwankpa, op. cit., chapter 53.Hide Footnote Nur and al-Barnawi sent a letter to ISIS, asking for arbitration of the leadership dispute. Before an answer arrived, Shekau’s critics fled, fearing for their lives.[fn]According to a Nigerian security analyst, Shekau tried to have Nur and al-Barnawi killed after the meeting. Crisis Group electronic communication, August 2018.Hide Footnote The response eventually came to Nur, deciding in his and al-Barnawi’s favour.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

After Nur and al-Barnawi escaped the Sambisa enclave, they consolidated their own faction in Yobe state and on the banks and islands of Lake Chad in northern Borno state. They began planning their operations. Their first major independent military operation was a 3 June 2016 attack on a Nigerien base in Bosso, a town on Lake Chad close to the Nigerian border. It illustrated what would become ISWAP’s modus operandi: a raid targeting the military, capturing weapons and supplies, without civilian casualties.

Both ISIS and the new ISWAP faction heavily promoted the raid’s success on social media in an apparent attempt to establish the new faction’s credibility.[fn]Crisis Group electronic communication, security official from Niger, July 2018. Altogether, ISIS and ISWAP media put out at least five communiqués. See Rida Lyammouri, “Updated: Rundown of Boko Haram attacks on Bosso, Yébi, Diffa region in last 2 weeks”, Maghreb and Sahel, 4 June 2016 (updated 10 June 2016); “Islamic State West Africa Release: ‘Killing 35 Apostates and Injuring Approximately 70 from the Armies of Niger and Nigeria in Southeastern Niger’ – 6 June 2016”, trac.org, 7 June 2016; “New video message from the Islamic State: ‘The Raid of Niger: Coverage of the Liberation of the Nigerien Military Training Camp in the Bosso Area: Wilayat Gharb Ifriqiyyah’”, Jihadology.net, 6 July 2016; “IS’ AMAQ Publishes Infographic on West African Province’s June 2016 Attack in Bosso”, SITE, 18 July 2016.Hide Footnote Shortly thereafter, in early August 2016, the ISIS weekly al-Naba’ published an interview with al-Barnawi, mentioning that ISIS had just designated him as ISWAP’s new wali (governor). (By some accounts, Nur had voluntarily stepped aside to ease al-Barnawi’s ascent.[fn]For an annotated translation, see Alex Thurston, “Abu Mus‘ab al-Barnawi’s Interview with the Islamic State’s al-Naba’ Magazine”, Journal of Islamic Studies, vol. 36, no. 1 (2017), pp. 257–275. According to a source interviewed by the Institute for Security Studies, Nur was ISIS’s initial appointee as wali, but he stepped aside in favour of al-Barnawi. Nur, as Shekau’s long-time rival, may have thought that al-Barnawi’s prestigious lineage would make him a less controversial nominee. Crisis Group electronic communication, August 2018; Omar S. Mahmood and Ndubuisi Christian Ani, “Factional Dynamics within Boko Haram”, Institute for Security Studies Research Report, July 2018, p. 12.Hide Footnote ) Shekau soon released audio and video recordings insisting that ISIS had been tricked and that he remained the leader of jihad in the region.[fn]See Kassim and Nwankpa, op. cit., chapters 71 and 73.Hide Footnote But the split was complete, and with a military win to its credit and the effective endorsement by ISIS under its belt, the new faction emerged with a strong hand.

Although the militants who formed the new faction were united in disapproval of Shekau, there is reason to believe that they did not all see eye to eye about everything. Some wanted to carry on fighting but felt that Shekau was a hindrance; others felt caught between the rock of Nigeria’s stronger military response and the hard place of Shekau’s ruthless command and were looking to reach a settlement with the authorities. Nur himself was in the latter camp, according to a religious scholar in direct contact with him and to someone involved in facilitating discussions between ISWAP and the state.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Maiduguri, December 2018 and Abuja, March 2018.Hide Footnote This fundamental difference, muted at the time of ISWAP’s emergence, may later have contributed to Nur’s killing (discussed in section VI below).

III. A Struggle for the Mantle of Jihad

Immediately after the break-up, Shekau sent his troops after the dissenters, and the two factions clashed several times through the end of 2016.[fn]ISWAP claims that JAS harried its fighters for months following the 2016 split. See ISWAP’s list of incidents in Al-Tamimi, “ISWAP vs. Abu Bakr Shekau”, op. cit. ISWAP also went after Shekau “like the military”. See “Ex-Boko Haram ‘intelligence chief’ speaks from detention on the reason Albarnawi, Nur and other commanders split from Shekau”, Premium Times, 24 December 2017.Hide Footnote According to a former ISWAP member, dozens of ISWAP fighters were killed in one such battle in July 2016, near Chukungudu, Nigeria, on the shores of Lake Chad.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Maiduguri, October 2018.Hide Footnote ISWAP survived, defeating a number of JAS subgroups and absorbing others.[fn]On the two factions’ areas of control and influence, as well as their numbers, see the next section and Appendix C.Hide Footnote

Since then, fighting has reduced in intensity, and the two groups reportedly reached a ceasefire agreement, which included a deal for JAS to free the families of ISWAP commanders that it had been holding since ISWAP broke away. It is possible that ISIS itself, which has never disowned Shekau’s pledge of fealty, pushed for the ceasefire.[fn]Crisis Group interview, international military expert, Abuja, October 2018; electronic communication, Nigerian security expert, November 2018.Hide Footnote

Occasional clashes still occur, particularly when Shekau’s raiders seek to rob and kidnap civilians in ISWAP-controlled areas on the Nigerien and Nigerian shores of Lake Chad, as well as in the Konduga local government area in Nigeria, and ISWAP units try to fend them off.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Nigerian NGO worker, herdsmen, transport workers and charcoal traders, Maiduguri, March 2018; electronic communication, international NGO worker, September 2018. Local government areas are administrative subdivisions of states.Hide Footnote Some fighters still loyal to Shekau have formed a group on the Nigerien side of Lake Chad and have been particularly persistent raiders.[fn]According to NGO sources, in early February 2019, JAS fighters killed a number of ISWAP traders in Bague, Niger, and kidnapped some women. ISWAP later fought off the marauders and rescued the women. Crisis Group electronic communication, February 2019.Hide Footnote

While the fighting subsided relatively soon after the split, a war of words between the two groups raged until at least mid-2018. Alongside audio recordings in Hausa and Kanuri, the main local languages, the two factions put out elaborate texts in Arabic, painstakingly drawing on Islamic theology and jurisprudence to justify their respective stands and call into question – sometimes explicitly, sometimes not – those of the rival faction.[fn]Ibid., chapters 70 and 72; and Al-Tamimi, “ISWAP vs. Abu Bakr Shekau: full text, translation and analysis”, op. cit. While each faction bolstered its arguments with quotations from Islamic scripture and jurisprudence, their back-and-forth reveals deep practical disagreements about policy and strategy.Hide Footnote The Arabic publications appear targeted at an international jihadist audience.

ISWAP made clear that it, by contrast, had adopted a posture less hostile to Muslim civilians.

For their part, the ISWAP materials highlighted the ways in which the new faction sought to distinguish itself from Shekau’s. They portrayed Shekau as acting brutally, in violation of Islamic doctrine, and using methods that alienated the Lake Chad basin’s inhabitants and thus undermined support for Islamist militancy in the region.[fn]The materials deplore “the results and fruits that [Shekau’s] evil doctrines have produced”, and argue that Shekau’s violence resulted in “the people’s total aversion from the group”. See Al-Tamimi, “ISWAP vs. Abu Bakr Shekau: full text, translation and analysis”, op. cit.Hide Footnote They were especially critical of Shekau for treating Muslims living outside Boko Haram territory as infidels and thus fair game for attack.[fn]In Shekau’s eyes, anyone carrying identity papers issued by a state other than ISIS is pledging allegiance to that non-Islamic state and thus committing a capital offence against Islam. Senegalese jihadists who had spent time in JAS-held Sambisa mentioned Shekau’s stance on identity cards during their trial in Senegal in 2018. “L’accusé Omar Yaffa sur son voyage dans le fief de Boko Haram: ‘J’ai vécu une déception, je n’y ai pas trouvé ce que je cherchais’”, Le Quotidien, 19 April 2018. Based on this stance, Shekau has ordered indiscriminate bombings of Muslim crowds in government-controlled areas, including at mosques and markets.Hide Footnote ISWAP made clear that it, by contrast, had adopted a posture less hostile to Muslim civilians.[fn]In his inaugural interview in al-Naba’ magazine, published by ISIS, al-Barnawi said “whoever manifests Islam and does not manifest one of the things that violates it, we do not declare him an unbeliever, let alone declare [spilling] his blood lawful”. Thurston, “Abu Mus‘ab al-Barnawi’s interview”, op. cit. Debates about the treatment of Muslims who are not jihadist followers are a classic feature of struggles among contemporary jihadist groups. They were for a time at the heart of the dispute between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. ISWAP draws explicitly on the recent past of jihadism – for instance, likening JAS to the brutal Algerian Groupements Islamiques Armés. On the debate between al-Qaeda and ISIS, see Cole Bunzel, “From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State”, The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, Analysis Paper no. 19, March 2015. On the debate within ISIS itself, see Cole Bunzel, “Caliphate in Disarray: Theological Turmoil in the Islamic State”, Jihadica, 3 October 2017; and “A House Divided: Origins and Persistence of the Islamic State’s Ideological Divide”, Jihadica, 5 June 2018. Also see the discussion of Boko Haram’s 2016 division in Romain Caillet, “Analyse: de l’usage du takfir au Nigéria – la controverse de Boko Haram avec l’État Islamique en Afrique de l’Ouest”, Religion.info, 2 September 2016.Hide Footnote

ISWAP also levelled criticisms that appeared to target Shekau’s leadership style. It accused him of behaving in a dictatorial manner, refusing to take advice or criticism, and misappropriating the organisation’s spoils, including money and captive women.[fn]On the question of Boko Haram’s female captives, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°242, Nigeria: Women and the Boko Haram Insurgency, 5 December 2016. A forthcoming report will examine the issue of women returnees – some of whom were captives and others willing members – from Boko Haram territory.Hide Footnote It was particularly critical of what it characterised as the unjustified, secretive killings of several fellow senior militants whom Shekau saw as challenging his authority.[fn]Kassim and Nwankpa, op. cit., chapter 72.Hide Footnote ISWAP likewise questioned Shekau’s fitness for military command, saying he could not “protect the dependents and offspring of [his] soldiers” or supply his soldiers with “sufficient ammunition”.[fn]Al-Tamimi, “ISWAP vs. Abu Bakr Shekau”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

As for the materials that JAS put out, these contained a mix of defensive parrying and religious claims of its own. Shekau claimed repeatedly that ISWAP leaders had duped ISIS and sabotaged his own attempts to explain himself.[fn]Alex Thurston, “Four recent reports/translations on Boko Haram”, Sahel Blog, 16 August 2018.Hide Footnote JAS also questioned its rival’s religious bona fides. In an August 2016 message addressed to all “mujahidin” and “particularly” to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, JAS insisted that al-Barnawi did not “follow a sound doctrine from authentic Salafism”.[fn]Kassim and Nwankpa, op. cit., chapter 73.Hide Footnote

ISWAP felt threatened enough by Shekau’s jabs to put out a 120-page treatise, its longest written communication ever and its first explicit indictment of Shekau, in June 2018. The document called Shekau a “tumour” to be removed.[fn]See the annotated translation by Al-Tamimi, “ISWAP vs. Abu Bakr Shekau”, op. cit., as well as comments by Alex Thurston, “Boko Haram/Islamic State West Africa’s new history of itself”, Part 1 and 2, Sahel Blog, 23 and 24 July 2018; and Andrea Brigaglia, “‘Slicing Off the Tumour’: The History of Global Jihad in Nigeria, as Narrated by the Islamic State”, CCI Occasional Papers, no. 1, August 2018.Hide Footnote No public answer came from ISIS, and the verbal sparring has since died down, at least publicly.

Both groups, however, appear to see continuing advantage in being associated with ISIS. Shekau has never renounced his pledge to al-Baghdadi. In his public articulation of JAS’s program and creed, Shekau referred to the group as “JAS in West Africa in the Islamic State”.[fn]“The letter of jihadi sheikh Abu Muhammad Abu Bakr bin Muhammad al-Shekawi”, 5 March 2018, electronic document in Crisis Group’s possession; Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “Abu Bakr Shekau in his own words: translation and analysis”, Pundicity, 17 September 2018.Hide Footnote Since early 2017, JAS has used a combination of ISIS and JAS logos on its messages.[fn]On the logo, see Mahmood and Ani, op. cit., fn 55 and Mina al-Lami, “How Boko Haram is ripping off Islamic State branding”, BBC Monitoring, 14 November 2018.Hide Footnote More recently, JAS stepped up its outreach to the international jihadist audience with the release of several high-quality videos purporting to show its military prowess, done in ISIS style.[fn]See the page dedicated to JAS on the jihadology.net website.Hide Footnote

ISIS has shared videos that showcase ISWAP footage and include ISIS stylistic touches, indicating growing cooperation and easier communications between the two groups.

While Shekau could be mimicking ISIS without its approval, some security analysts interviewed by Crisis Group think Shekau is still courting ISIS, and that the latter is keen on reunification between the factions. Some also think ISIS has played a part in bringing about an unsteady ceasefire between JAS and ISWAP, and even pushed the two to collaborate.[fn]Crisis Group electronic communications, January and February 2019.Hide Footnote At least two attacks in January and February 2019 reportedly involved fighters from both groups.[fn]Crisis Group interview, humanitarian experts, Dakar, April 2019; Global Initiative for Civil Stabilisation, “Insurgent activities in Northeast Nigeria: 2019 elections”, Abuja, 2019.Hide Footnote Given the bad blood between the two groups, however, full reunification seems unlikely.

As for the link between ISIS and ISWAP, ISIS’s fast-growing promotion of ISWAP’s military successes – likely seen as welcome counterpoints to the collapse of its holdings in Iraq, Syria and Libya – suggests that the organisations are drawing closer. Through its communications channels, ISIS has shared videos that showcase ISWAP footage and include ISIS stylistic touches, indicating growing cooperation and easier communications between the two groups.[fn]See the page dedicated to ISWAP on the jihadology.net website.Hide Footnote Some Western sources claim that money flows from the Middle East to ISWAP (which stopped at some point in 2017 as ISIS came under severe pressure) have resumed though they remain limited.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western military, diplomatic and security officials, Abuja, December 2017 and March 2018.Hide Footnote An unspecified number of Nigerian and West African militants who fought abroad for ISIS have reportedly joined ISWAP and several civilians claim to have seen trainers of Arab origin in ISWAP areas.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, herdsmen, trader and community leader, Maiduguri, March and December 2018; electronic communications, Western military official, September 2018. Sources often insisted they saw “white” Arabs, to distinguish them from the black Arabic speakers living in the Lake Chad region. The presence of small numbers of visiting Arab militants was also reported about Boko Haram before the 2016 split, and Nur actually accused Shekau of having tried to kill some of them. Audio recording in Kanuri attributed to Mamman Nur in Crisis Group’s possession, August 2016.Hide Footnote A civilian source familiar with the region reported witnessing the departure of a convoy of ISWAP men from Baga in February 2019 to fight or train with ISIS in Libya.[fn]Crisis Group electronic communication, February 2019.Hide Footnote While it is possible that foreign fighters have contributed to the operational evolution that military experts have observed in ISWAP – from the use of improvised explosive devices (including vehicle-borne devices with custom-made armour) to new infantry tactics and quartermaster techniques – it is also possible that some or all of these were self-taught.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, international military experts, Ndjamena, 7 November 2018; Maiduguri, December 2018; Jacob Zenn, “Up-armored SVBIEDs make their way to Nigeria”, Council on Foreign Relations, 26 July 2018.Hide Footnote

IV. ISWAP Asserts Itself: Tactics, Territory and the Regional Response

A. New Tactics Bring Success

ISWAP’s military successes can be traced in part to some early good fortune but also, more enduringly, to its novel, flexible strategy and improved tactics.

After it struck out on its own, ISWAP enjoyed some breathing room from the Nigerian military. The Nigerian military was focused on Shekau because of his global profile as the Chibok girls’ kidnapper, the organiser of child suicide bombings in Maiduguri and a provocative propagandist. ISWAP’s early activities got less attention. Some observers even suspected that the Nigerian authorities had cut a deal with ISWAP, though the existence of such a pact seems unlikely given that ISWAP began attacking military targets soon after its formation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats and security experts, Abuja, December 2017.Hide Footnote

But at the same time that Shekau was drawing attention away from ISWAP, ISWAP was demonstrating that it had also learned from Shekau’s mistakes. Together with JAS, it learned from Shekau’s 2015 failure to defend his capital, Gwoza, and his broader retreat from territory Boko Haram once held, that jihadists could not at present win a conventional war and hold towns against state armies with air support. Both ISWAP and Shekau’s JAS faction understood that they had to fall back to rural strongholds offering some protection from air power – for ISWAP, the forests of Yobe and Borno states, and the marshes and island of Lake Chad – and resort to guerrilla tactics.[fn]Vincent Foucher and Jean-Hervé Jézéquel, “Forced Out of Towns in the Sahel, Africa’s Jihadists Go Rural”, Crisis Group Commentary, 11 January 2017.Hide Footnote

ISWAP’s tactics seem to have contributed to a notable drop in civilian casualties in north-eastern Nigeria since 2016, and a rise in military casualties in 2018.

Yet important differences also emerged between the two groups, notably in terms of targeting. Whereas JAS continued to stage raids to capture civilians and plunder their resources, terrorise crowded markets and mosques with suicide bombings, and conduct mass killings and abductions at roadblocks, ISWAP focused primarily on military targets as well as, to a lesser extent, civilian targets associated in one way or another with the state – eg, local officials, chiefs, vigilantes and suspected informers.[fn]For instance, according to Nigerian security sources, three suspected informers were slaughtered in the village of Kalari on 25 March 2017. “Boko Haram : la faction Barnaoui étend discrètement son emprise”, AFP, 30 March 2017.Hide Footnote While ISWAP, like JAS, would sometimes direct suicide bombers at military targets, unlike JAS, it did not send women or children on these suicide missions, and it does not attack civilian targets. And while there are outliers, by and large ISWAP units seemed to make efforts to spare civilians, and they highlighted these efforts in direct contacts with the local population, as they did when they took the town of Baga in December 2018.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, charcoal trader, Maiduguri, March 2018, and trader from Baga, Maiduguri, December 2018. With respect to the outlier incidents, much of the violence against civilians in the ISWAP-controlled area of Lake Chad seems to have to do with the presence of a JAS enclave on Nigerien territory. There may also be weaknesses of command and control in ISWAP, with some groups resorting to increased predation on civilians because of a gap in resourcing by the central command. One humanitarian source insisted that some groups were left some “leeway” to prey on civilians for funding. Crisis Group interview, humanitarian expert, Dakar, April 2019. Still a third explanation for outlier incidents, such as attempted suicide bombings at mosques in Gujba local government area, Yobe state, in May 2018, may be small groups of fighters shifting loyalties between the two main factions. “Deaths averted: Suicide bomber caught inside mosque”, Premium Times, 20 May 2018.Hide Footnote ISWAP’s tactics seem to have contributed to a notable drop in civilian casualties in north-eastern Nigeria since 2016, and a rise in military casualties in 2018, particularly after ISWAP launched a major offensive in August that year.[fn]On the evolution of civilian and military casualties, see Appendix D.Hide Footnote

ISWAP’s focus on military targets has produced certain practical benefits. After it split from Shekau, ISWAP likely suffered from weapons shortages, and frequent raids on military sites allowed it to replenish its supply.[fn]For a time, junior ISWAP militants were carrying decoy wooden guns into battle. Crisis Group interview, international military expert, Abuja, March 2018.Hide Footnote Following its repeated failed attacks on Kangarwa, a large Nigerian army base in the Lake Chad region, between August 2016 and January 2017, ISWAP adjusted tactics, selecting smaller military targets. This adjustment appears to have won it both arms stockpiles and combat experience. Since June 2018, it used these advantages to attack larger military targets again, meeting with more success.

The faction’s July 2018 raid on a battalion-sized camp (approximately 700 soldiers) in Jilli, Yobe state is a good indicator of ISWAP’s growing capabilities. The choice of target suggested that ISWAP possessed reliable intelligence about the camp’s vulnerability (the battalion was far from the centre of fighting and comprised fresh, inexperienced recruits with new equipment); effective internal coordination (the raiding party reportedly included a few hundred fighters coming from distant locations); and operational sophistication (ISWAP used captured vehicles bearing the latest Nigerian army markings and camouflage).[fn]Crisis Group electronic communication, international military expert and community leader, August 2018.Hide Footnote

Since then, ISWAP has waged many more such attacks on significant military sites, many of them successful. On 7 September 2018, it overran the town of Gudumbali – the first time since 2015 that militants had seized a local government area headquarters. Consistent with its guerrilla tactics, rather than trying to hold territory, ISWAP looted the camp and left. On 26 December 2018, it overran the twin towns of Baga and Doro Gowon, taking over major army and navy bases there. This time, ISWAP was confident enough in its defensive capabilities to maintain a presence there. The Nigerian army was overmatched and had little choice but to regroup. In December 2018, it eventually evacuated all its outposts on the lake, including Kangarwa, which it had defended fiercely in 2016-2017.

B. A Two-Zone Territorial Presence

The territory that ISWAP has staked out appears to be divided into two different zones. The group’s power is greatest in its core territory on the banks and islands of Lake Chad, where the vegetation provides some protection from aerial attack, it has permanent bases and directly governs civilian settlements. Beyond these areas is a wider zone where ISWAP projects its influence via patrols, emissaries and sympathisers who criss-cross significant parts of the northern Borno countryside.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, international NGO workers and security experts, Maiduguri and Abuja, March 2018; international NGO workers, Paris, April 2018.Hide Footnote One telling sign of its power projection is that civilians living far from ISWAP camps occasionally feel compelled to bring back fleeing captives. Another indicator is that residents of communities in the outer zone have been known to pay taxes to ISWAP, even when they are living close to a local government area headquarters controlled by the army.[fn]“Schoolgirls seized by Boko Haram tell of Christian friend’s escape bid”, The Guardian, 30 March 2018; Crisis Group interview, community leader, Maiduguri, October 2018.Hide Footnote

For now ISWAP’s focus is clearly on consolidating and extending its networks.

So far, however, ISWAP has not strayed beyond Boko Haram’s traditional territory.[fn]Before 2016, Boko Haram, too, operated in northern Adamawa and Yobe.Hide Footnote Within that territory, areas of militant control are fluid but – according to aid organisations that have sought to delineate zones where the two factions hold sway – the border between ISWAP and JAS zones seems to run through the Mafa, Dikwa and Kala Balge local government areas.[fn]56 Appendix C reproduces a map produced by Reuters based on data from the U.S. Agency for International Development.Hide Footnote It is now generally agreed that ISWAP’s reach extends well beyond the lake area, into northern Borno state, in the Alagarno forest and along the Komadugu Yobe river, and into eastern Yobe in the Farooq forest. ISWAP is present around Maiduguri, notably in the Konduga local government area. Some observers think that ISWAP operates in the north of another north-eastern state, that of Adamawa, more than a hundred kilometres south of Maiduguri. ISWAP has also carried out some attacks against Cameroonian security forces in the district of Logone-et-Chari in Cameroon.[fn]“Amaq reports 20 casualties in ISWAP attack on Cameroonian soldiers near Fotokol”, SITE, 8 April 2019.Hide Footnote

While ISWAP’s long-term ambitions are uncertain, for now its focus is clearly on consolidating and extending its networks rather than trying to establish undisputed territorial control over larger areas. Several sources report ISWAP is trying to deploy networks in Nigeria beyond the north east in classic Boko Haram fashion, notably in Taraba, Kogi and Jos states, using loans to create networks of supporters who can help for logistics.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Nigerian security official, Abuja, March 2018;Hide Footnote Also, ISWAP has links to the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel (ISGS), an ISIS franchise operating at the joint border of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. The publication in March 2019 by the ISIS media arm of a picture of ISGS fighters under an ISWAP caption seems to confirm a connection and may even suggest that ISGS is, at least in some formal way, subordinate to ISWAP.[fn]See, for instance, the tweet by Rida Lyammouri, @rmaghrebi, global jihad scholar, 4:44 am, 23 March 2019.Hide Footnote A Nigerien security source mentions the presence of a few Nigerian fighters in the ranks of ISGS (though it is not certain they are from ISWAP) and some religious scholars originating from ISGS area of operation reportedly sit on ISWAP’s shura.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Dakar, April 2019; electronic communication, Islamic scholar connected to ISWAP, March 2019.Hide Footnote Although some Western diplomats and security analysts fear ISWAP is turning its sights toward terror operations elsewhere in Nigeria or West Africa, or to mount attacks on Western interests, there is little evidence of this so far.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Abuja, March 2018.Hide Footnote

C. The Nigerian and Regional Military Response

Nigeria’s military has struggled to counter ISWAP and is now looking to enhanced regional cooperation to advance its efforts.

For the Nigerian army, the challenge has been multifaceted. On the one hand, it is facing a formidable adversary: ISWAP is more battle-ready, better trained and more rooted in the population than its parent organisation was. On the other hand, the army itself struggles to be effective. Experts describe how its troops are badly led, poorly equipped and insufficiently supplied. Army bases are poorly fortified. Troop rotation is rare, medical evacuation capacity is feeble, coordination with air support (which has occasionally been essential to repelling attacks on ground troops) is weak, and senior leadership has been slow to grapple seriously with its problems.[fn]Crisis Group interview, international military experts, Abuja, October 2018; Maiduguri, December 2018. The Twitter timelines of Nigerian security experts @PeccaviConsults, @beegeaglesblog and @DonKlericuzio are illuminating on the issue. See also Obi Anyadike, “‘Year of the Debacle’: How Nigeria Lost Its Way in the War Against Boko Haram”, World Politics Review, 30 October 2018.Hide Footnote

ISWAP’s successful attacks over the course of 2018 hit the army increasingly hard, contributing to low morale. Soldiers have staged a few protests, and there are many reports of desertions.[fn]Crisis Group interview, international military experts, Abuja, October 2018; Maiduguri, December 2018. On protests, see “Protesting Nigerian troops fire into air at north-eastern airport”, Reuters, 12 August 2018.Hide Footnote The Nigerian army typically downplays its losses, repeatedly claiming (as they did about Boko Haram before its 2016 split) that ISWAP’s attacks are “the last kicks of a dying horse”.[fn]“Army to punish troops who flee from enemy attack”, Leadership, 10 November 2018.Hide Footnote But the army’s repeated threats to punish fleeing troops and frequent rotation of commanders indicate significant internal difficulties.[fn]Ibid.; on repeated changes in command, see “Nigeria names fifth commander in under two years to lead fight against Boko Haram”, Reuters, 10 November 2018.Hide Footnote

For Nigeria to counter ISWAP militarily, it will likely need to invest more heavily in cooperative efforts under the auspices of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) – a regional command that is supposed to coordinate the troops of the four Lake Chad basin countries operating in the area (ie, Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad).[fn]On the MNJTF, see Crisis Group Briefing, Boko Haram on the Back Foot?, op. cit., p. 6-8. Crisis Group is preparing a dedicated report on the MNJTF.Hide Footnote The MNJTF has taken time to rise to the challenge that ISWAP presents. Its Operation Amni Fakhat (April-July 2018) aimed to reoccupy key positions and begin some service delivery to populations in the lake area but achieved little; ISWAP launched a massive offensive right after the operation stopped.

A new MNJTF operation, Yancin Takfi, began in March 2019. This time, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari canvassed neighbouring states for support in person, and troops from Chad, which had played a key part in the 2015 pushback against Boko Haram, entered deep into Borno state to participate. After an unconvincing start (including a three-month delay), there are indications that the Chadian and Nigerian troops, backed by massive air support, are making some headway, reaching a number of important sites in ISWAP core territory.[fn]Crisis Group electronic communications, March 2019.Hide Footnote It remains to be seen whether they can hold their positions on the lake as the rainy season approaches (it begins in July), creating operational challenges for the MNJTF, which is a heavier, less agile force than ISWAP.

V. Building a Jihadist Proto-State

While ISWAP owes its relative strength in part to its break from Shekau’s most brutal tactics, it also has benefited by cultivating the economic strength and favour of communities in its territory through the provision of a semblance of justice and governance that was otherwise lacking.[fn]Asked about ISWAP, Nigerian military officers tend to deny its specificity. They thus told Reuters: “We are not interested in the faction. What has that got to do with it?” and “They are not a government; they kidnap girls from schools”. “Islamic State ally stakes out territory around Lake Chad”, Reuters, 30 April 2018. See also “What we know about Boko Haram’s new leader, Abu Musab al-Barnawi”, Vanguard, 7 August 2016.Hide Footnote

One way in which ISWAP has governed in its core areas has been through its own brand of “Islamic justice”. It has created a sense of security among locals that distinguishes ISWAP from its parent and parallel organisations – and from the Nigerian state, which was never very responsive in the Lake Chad basin. Notwithstanding the draconian nature of its punishments (described below), many civilians are grateful that they seem to have brought about a drop in crime. They note for instance that banditry, and particularly cattle rustling, a major problem on the lake, has disappeared from ISWAP areas. ISWAP also helps resolve disputes between herders and others: its local chiefs (amirs) allocate grazing lands, adjudicate allegations of trespassing and impound errant cattle, which herders can retrieve for a fee.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, community leader and herdsmen, Maiduguri, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Herdsmen and traders who operate in the Lake Chad area also mention that ISWAP closely monitors its combatants’ behaviour toward civilians. One Nigerian NGO worker noted that ISWAP ordered its fighters not to bear arms when visiting places deemed safe.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Maiduguri, March 2018.Hide Footnote Reflecting a local perception that ISWAP (in contrast to JAS) tolerates unaffiliated Muslim civilians, one Fulani herdsman said, “Dawla [the Arabic word for “state”, which is a reference to ISWAP] is trying to be friendly to people. They don’t kill. … They insist that jihad is not against people who say ‘la illah illa Allah’ [the first words of the shahada, the Islamic creed]. Only against people in uniforms”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, herdsmen, Maiduguri, March 2018. Locals often use the Arabic word for state, dawla, to designate the organisation and its territory.Hide Footnote An ISWAP amir reportedly ordered the execution of a fighter who had murdered a civilian in the Nigerian part of the Lake Chad basin. And in the Komadugu-Yobe area, ISWAP allegedly purged fighters who were kidnapping civilians for ransom; the expelled fighters formed a small splinter group.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, herdsmen, fish traders and community leader, Maiduguri, March 2018; electronic communications, international NGO worker, August 2018.Hide Footnote

To be sure, aspects of ISWAP’s approach to law and order are extraordinarily harsh and violent. It metes out the full range of punishments it believes the Quran to mandate, including cutting off the hands of alleged thieves and killing adulterers, though some units are reportedly more lenient than others. It meets perceived threats to its fiscal base (fishing without authorisation, failure to pay requisite taxes) and security (using mobile phones in areas where they are forbidden, which is interpreted as spying) with brutal beatings, sometimes even executions.[fn]On at least two occasions, dozens of fishermen were killed for fishing in waters claimed by ISWAP. “Bodies of 42 fishermen butchered by Boko Haram pulled from Lake Chad”, International Business Times, 15 June 2016; “Boko Haram kills 31 fishermen in Lake Chad”, NAN, 8 August 2017.Hide Footnote And it also polices public morality and worship, prohibiting smoking and drug use, and compelling both attendance at and the manner of prayer. But overall its system of justice is less draconian than Shekau’s or the unified Boko Haram’s before 2016.

Another step ISWAP has taken relates to social services, which the settlements where ISWAP exerts influence tended to lack. ISWAP seeks to provide Islamic education (Western-style education is banned) and basic health care. ISWAP has at its command a number of medical specialists, both militants and captives, who serve not just fighters and their families, but also local civilians, sometimes for a fee, sometimes for free. The group procures medicine in raids on health centres or purchases it in Cameroon and Nigeria’s Yobe state. ISWAP can organise the transfer of seriously ill patients to hospitals in neighbouring countries. The improvement in access to health care has been particularly felt around Lake Chad, where previously it was minimal.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, community leader, herdsmen, and international and Nigerian NGO workers, Maiduguri, March 2018; and international NGO workers, Paris, April 2018.Hide Footnote More recently, for both public health and religious reasons, ISWAP engaged in a program of latrine construction in some of the localities it controls. It also allowed humanitarian workers to proceed with polio vaccinations in its area of influence, though these campaigns have long been controversial in northern Nigeria.[fn]Some Muslims in the north believe that the polio campaigns are a conspiracy to sterilise them. Elisha P. Renne, “Polio Vaccination, Political Authority and the Nigerian State”, in Christine Holmberg, Stuart Blume and Paul Greenough (eds.), The Politics of Vaccination: A Global History (Manchester, 2017). ISWAP’s overall attitude toward humanitarian NGOs is mixed. It tolerates humanitarian workers, including expatriates, operating in its areas of influence, though not in its core areas. Crisis Group interviews, international and Nigerian NGO workers, Maiduguri, March 2018; and Paris, April 2018. But it can also at times seize humanitarian assistance or ransack health centres. In March 2018, furthermore, ISWAP killed and kidnapped several humanitarian workers in Rann, who happened to be at an army base. It later executed two of the workers, both nurses working for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Several NGO sources suspect that the killings were not ideologically motivated, but instead related to the ICRC’s part in controversial negotiations occurring at the time. Crisis Group interviews, Maiduguri and Abuja, December 2018. In another incident, on 8 October 2018, ISWAP killed two Nigerians who were carrying out a survey for an NGO. It seems that the men were ex-soldiers working as subcontractors for a local private security company – they had maps and GPS apps. ISWAP probably saw them as spies. Some international security sources, however, express concern that ISWAP may be developing an interest in taking expatriates hostage. In November 2018, a group of fighters attacked a work party of a French company drilling boreholes in the Nigerien region of Diffa, not far from the border with Nigeria. It is not clear that the fighters belonged to ISWAP, however, and a group loyal to Shekau is known to operate in this area.Hide Footnote

Security personnel monitor the entrance to an IDP camp on the outskirts of Maiduguri, north east Nigeria, in December 2018. CRISIS GROUP / Jorge Gutierrez Lucena

ISWAP’s approach toward local civilians has helped create an environment from which it can draw economic sustenance. ISWAP levies taxes, and though it does not seem to have a unified tax policy, most civilians with direct experience interviewed by Crisis Group seem to consider ISWAP’s taxation acceptable as a reasonable fee for services rendered, notably the provision of public safety. They see ISWAP’s system as more predictable and less exploitative than the various levies that competing government officials, civilian and military, exact.[fn]Reported categories include the kharaj, a yearly head tax on all adult males; ushr, a tax on inheritance; and jangal, a tax on cattle sales; as well as taxes on trade in fish and charcoal. Crisis Group interviews, herdsmen and fish traders, Maiduguri, March 2018; journalist, Abuja, March 2018; international NGO workers, Paris, April 2018; electronic communication, journalist, August 2018. According to one source, a herder pays the cash equivalent of one 30th of his herd to be allowed to graze on the lake during the dry season, and an additional 3,000 to 5,000 nairas ($8-13) to sell a head of cattle. Another source said fishermen had to pay 3,000 to 4,000 nairas ($8-11) for a fishing permit when they met a patrol. Farmers on the lake are expected to hand out 10 per cent of their produce, but the rate can go up to 30 per cent in other areas.Hide Footnote One herdsman described ISWAP’s tax collectors as scrupulous in their calculations and unlikely to abuse contributors.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Maiduguri, March 2018.Hide Footnote A Fulani community leader deplored, however, that the tax had gone up in the course of 2018.[fn]Crisis group interview, Maiduguri, October 2018.Hide Footnote

By forging ties with civilians, ISWAP maintains its capacity to buy food, fuel and medicine as well as sell its produce, which includes charcoal, cattle, hides and fish. It encourages traders to do business in areas it controls, asking them to bring goods in high demand and to sell products in ISWAP-controlled markets to its members and to local civilians. To encourage traders to supply its markets, it does not cap the prices they can command for the goods they bring into ISWAP’s territory.[fn]Crisis Group interview, trader, Maiduguri, December 2018.Hide Footnote At roadblocks, ISWAP militants sometimes seize the goods they need, but they often pay compensation, sometimes at high prices – a good way to keep the supply coming. The group seems particularly keen to buy fuel, which it needs for mobility.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, transport workers and Nigerian NGO workers, Maiduguri, March 2018. From interviews and media accounts, it seems that ISWAP has many more trucks, cars and motorbikes than JAS, whose fighters increasingly ride horses or camels or even walk. ISWAP’s better relations with civilians probably allow for better fuel supply.Hide Footnote

Reinstating an old Boko Haram policy, ISWAP reportedly extends micro-loans to local youth and farmers.

Reviving rural trade is also part of ISWAP’s policy to attract displaced persons back to its areas, as reflected in its propaganda videos that show well-stocked markets, fat cattle and bountiful crops. These videos circulate in displaced person camps, as a means of convincing the uprooted to resettle under ISWAP’s protection. Women living under ISWAP are advising their relatives living in camps in Maiduguri to come to the Lake Chad area, insisting that they will find decent wages there as agricultural labourers, as well as matrimonial opportunities.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Nigerian security official, Abuja, December 2017; Crisis Group electronic communication, trader, March 2019; Idayat Hassan, “The danger of a better-behaved Boko Haram”, IRIN, 21 August 2018.Hide Footnote Reinstating an old Boko Haram policy, ISWAP reportedly extends micro-loans to local youth and farmers.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomat, Abuja; and international development worker, Maiduguri, March 2018.Hide Footnote In the Lake Chad area, it sets caps on the retail price of local agricultural products, so as to ease access to basic food items for all. As a result, food prices are reportedly low, with a sack of maize selling for 3,500 nairas ($9) on the lake, compared to 11,000 nairas ($28) in Maiduguri.[fn]Crisis Group interview, trader, Maiduguri, December 2018; Crisis Group electronic communication, NGO worker, February 2019.Hide Footnote ISWAP reportedly digs wells and distributes seeds and fertilisers to farmers; farmers who use motor pumps can apparently procure fuel. According to various reports, agricultural production in ISWAP-controlled areas has risen substantially over the last year.[fn]“Islamic State ally stakes out territory around Lake Chad”, Reuters, 30 April 2018.Hide Footnote

VI. ISWAP After Nur

Internal differences that likely characterised ISWAP from its beginnings have gained in importance. They created the backdrop for its 2018 execution of founder Mamman Nur and the ensuing leadership shuffle, which has not yet fully come to rest.

While the reasons for Nur’s execution by members of ISWAP in August 2018 are still not well understood, they appear to be at least partly an outgrowth of a rift between a militant sub-faction that views ISWAP’s future as bound up in continuing conflict with the Lake Chad states, and others within the organisation who favour looking for an exit from the conflict. Nur was in the latter camp and, to this end, had played a key role in Swiss-mediated talks that some members of ISWAP quietly conducted with the Nigerian government.

It appears that a hostage-taking incident at the beginning of 2018 might have accentuated this rift.[fn]Although ISWAP seeks to distinguish itself through its better treatment of civilians, its conduct is not always consistent, and the group has taken hostages, for example, to use as chits in prisoner swaps with local authorities and to extract cash ransoms. In October 2016 and May 2017, talks under the auspices of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs led JAS to release some of the 276 girls whom Boko Haram had abducted from a school in Chibok in April 2014. On 10 February 2018, talks conducted through the same channel secured the release of three lecturers from the University of Maiduguri taken by ISWAP the previous July. On the same day, Shekau released another set of hostages.Hide Footnote On 19 February 2018, ISWAP fighters swept into the town of Dapchi in Yobe state and abducted 112 schoolgirls and one boy. On 21 March, following talks with the Nigerian government, the fighters released 107 of their hostages, leaving only one in captivity (five of the original 113 died during capture).[fn]Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°137, Preventing Boko Haram Abductions of Schoolchildren in Nigeria, 12 April 2018. Leah Sharibu, the girl still in captivity, remains so reportedly because she refuses to convert to Islam and thus can be enslaved according to ISWAP’s version of Islamic law. It is nevertheless clear that she has value as a hostage.Hide Footnote Though there were undocumented reports to the contrary, both the government and ISWAP denied that ISWAP had received a ransom. As Crisis Group has previously reported, ISWAP claimed that it was making a good-will gesture, and the government suggested that the group was concerned about jeopardising the talks that had been underway, which it said included the possibility of a ceasefire.[fn]Crisis Group Briefing, Preventing Boko Haram Abductions of Schoolchildren in Nigeria, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Whether because hardliners wanted to make clear their opposition to these talks, or because they blamed Nur for another aspect of how the Dapchi incident was handled, or for another reason altogether, ISWAP’s leadership caused him to be detained and executed after the March 21 release.[fn]Crisis Group electronic communications, Nigerian and international security experts, July and August 2018; “Senior Boko Haram figure reportedly killed by allies”, The Guardian, 14 September 2018.Hide Footnote

Since Nur’s death, ISWAP has seen further changes in its top ranks, which are now more dominated by hardline militants. Two ISWAP commanders who had been rivals of Nur and are reputed for their fierceness, Abubakar Mainok and Mustapha Kirmima, soon emerged as new leading figures in the organisation. And although Abu-Musab al-Barnawi remained wali for the remainder of 2018, in March 2019, an audio recording disseminated by ISWAP announced that ISIS had ordered him replaced by the similarly named but unrelated Abu Abdullah ibn Umar al-Barnawi.[fn]See the translation in a Twitter thread by Abdulbasit Kassim, @ScholarAKassi1, leading Boko Haram scholar, 10:44 am, 11 March 2019.
 Hide Footnote

Theories about the reason for this possible change in leadership (which ISIS has not confirmed at the time of this writing) include speculation that Abu Musab was deemed too junior to lead the organisation as it grappled with the aftermath of Nur’s execution, or that his close connection to Nur was a problem, or that there was suspicion of his efforts to engage jihadi contacts in Mali, presumably affiliated to al-Qaeda.[fn]Crisis Group electronic communications, Nigerian security analyst, March 2019; Islamic scholar and trader familiar with ISWAP, April 2019.Hide Footnote One Nigerian security analyst suspects that the leadership struggle is not over, but two sources report that Abu Musab has moved on by leaving ISWAP to establish his own group.[fn]Crisis Group electronic communication, 11 March 2019. Tweet by Ahmad Salkida, @A_Salkida, journalist, 2:22 am, 16 March 2019. Crisis Group electronic communication, Islamic scholar familiar with ISWAP, 5 May 2019.Hide Footnote Even among those who have stayed under Abu Abdullah and ISWAP, there are reports of tensions. An Islamic scholar familiar with the group thus mentions that Nur’s former supporters “are with the new ameer [chief in Arabic], but they are not with him truly”.[fn]Crisis Group electronic communication, 5 May 2019.Hide Footnote

Moreover, in addition to grappling with the foregoing dynamics, ISWAP faces ethnically-driven internal tensions as well. Although its leadership has been largely ethnic Kanuri, ISWAP has recruited significantly among lacustrine communities, notably the ethnic Buduma, many of whom earn a living from fishing. Visitors to the Lake Chad area mention that militants of Buduma origin are pushing for more influence in the movement. Some Buduma may be keen on using their weight in ISWAP to gain ground vis-à-vis competitors for the lake’s resources, such as Kanuri traders and Fulani herdsmen. (Soon after the fall in late 2018 of Baga, a major fish market, Buduma fighters established exclusive control over the town.[fn]The Kanuri form a relative majority of the population of northern Borno and much of the leadership of Boko Haram hails from that community. They were the core of the Islamic kingdom of Kanem-Borno that projected power over the region for centuries until the colonial era. The Buduma are a minority centered on the Lake Chad, and have long stood at the periphery of Kanem-Borno, converting to Islam only lately. See Christian Seignobos, “Boko Haram dans ses sanctuaires des monts Mandara et du lac Tchad (2017)”, Afrique contemporaine, no. 265 (2018), pp. 99-115. The Kanembu, an ethnic group related to the Kanuri with a strong presence on the Chadian side of Lake Chad, and thus often described in Nigeria as “Chadians” or “Francophones”, are apparently also involved in the push to curb Kanuri influence.Hide Footnote )

It is still too early to get a full sense of how the changes in ISWAP’s upper ranks, or the other tensions with which it is grappling, will affect the way it conducts itself. ISWAP’s new militant core is in all likelihood less well disposed towards talks than Nur. One indicator of its attitude may be its murder last fall of two nurses working for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has long played a role in supporting negotiations.[fn]“Nigeria: Boko Haram executes second female aid worker”, Al Jazeera, 15 October 2018. On the ICRC’s part in hostage releases, see “ICRC’s role in Chibok schoolgirls’ release”, Deutsche Welle, 21 October 2016.Hide Footnote

But notwithstanding these developments, ISWAP appears to be maintaining its fundamental business model. Residents of the Lake Chad basin report that – aside from increased pressure to pay taxes – little has changed in ISWAP’s behaviour toward Muslim civilians.[fn]Crisis Group electronic communications, diplomats, academics and security experts, October and November 2018; Crisis Group telephone interview, community leader, November 2018.Hide Footnote Whether Abu Abdullah ibn Umar al-Barnawi, if he is indeed the new wali, is committed to continuing this model remains to be seen.

See the translation in a Twitter thread by Abdulbasit Kassim, @ScholarAKassi1, leading Boko Haram scholar, 10:44 am, 11 March 2019.Hide Footnote

VII. Taking on ISWAP’s Challenge: Complementing the Military Approach

The crisis in north-eastern Nigeria is about more than the military balance of power, as underscored by the support ISWAP has won by creating a proto-state providing a measure of governance and services. If the Lake Chad states hope to dislodge the group and prevent its expansion, they therefore will have to do more than challenge ISWAP in battle. To make inroads, authorities will need to demonstrate that they can fill gaps in governance and service provision in areas of weaker ISWAP influence.

One place to start is in better policing abuses committed by state security personnel. ISWAP gets credit from the local population for its efforts to regulate its own fighters’ behaviour – an area where regional governments do not have strong reputations. The Lake Chad states, and particularly Nigeria, cannot afford to sit idly by as ISWAP’s reputation in this domain grows and theirs diminish. New scandals keep emerging about security force misconduct in the four Lake Chad countries. In 2018, female internally displaced people (IDPs) accused security personnel of demanding sex for food in certain camps in Nigeria, while a video surfaced showing soldiers executing two female Boko Haram suspects and their children in the small town of Zelevet, Cameroon.[fn]“Nigerian soldiers raped us – IDPs confirm Amnesty International report”, Daily Post, 5 June 2018; “Anatomy of a killing”, BBC News, 23 September 2018.Hide Footnote

To better compete with ISWAP, the Lake Chad states should also tackle persistent problems in food, water and health-care delivery, particularly in the IDP camps of Nigeria’s north east.

Nigeria and the MNJTF member states will need to step up efforts to hold accountable troops who commit such abuses – and do so visibly. So far, the effort has been lagging; it took intense media pressure (including a searching investigation by the BBC) for Cameroon to arrest the soldiers suspected in the Zelevet killings.[fn]“Brutality against women and children: head of state orders investigation”, Cameroon Tribune, 13 August 2018.Hide Footnote Nigeria has taken some steps to redress impunity among security forces, but to date these have been inadequate. Although in 2017, President Buhari appointed a panel to investigate the military’s alleged human rights abuses, its report, submitted in December 2017, has yet to be made public. The president should release it and swiftly act on any recommendations that serve the purpose of accountability. Likewise, the Nigerian military should as a matter of course publicise its court-martials for soldiers accused of abusing civilians. This step would help remind soldiers of their obligations and educate civilians about their rights.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local government official, Maiduguri, March 2018; former Boko Haram member and victim of abuse, Maiduguri, October 2018; international humanitarian law expert, Abuja, December 2018.Hide Footnote

A second area where the Nigerian government in particular should step up its efforts is in the provision of public safety. It faces a steep hurdle: federal authorities lack access to and therefore cannot presently provide law and order in the portion of rural Borno state under ISWAP influence. But they can start to focus on towns under their control, and where they should be seeking to gird the population against being won over by ISWAP. The introduction of both civilian authorities to help administer these towns and a substantial police presence to help keep them safe is a necessity. As the Buhari administration commences its second and final term, it should take to heart that better protecting the public in north-eastern Nigeria is key to containing and weakening ISWAP.

Thirdly, to better compete with ISWAP, the Lake Chad states should also tackle persistent problems in food, water and health-care delivery, particularly in the IDP camps of Nigeria’s north east. Two years ago, after a visit to the Bama camp, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) sounded the alarm about miserable living conditions there, leading to a steep increase in humanitarian assistance to the region. But even that increase was insufficient. In late 2018, MSF was still calling on the Nigerian authorities to improve nutrition and health care in that same camp.[fn]Compare “Critical humanitarian situation unfolding among internally displaced people in Bama, Borno state”, MSF, 17 August 2018; to “At least 24,000 displaced people in dire health situation in Bama”, MSF, 22 June 2016.Hide Footnote The fewer services the IDP camps receive from state authorities, the more prone they are to become fertile ground for ISWAP recruitment.[fn]Crisis Group has collected testimonies about former associates of Boko Haram – including both voluntary and coerced members – who had returned to either JAS or ISWAP after time spent in IDP camps because they found camp conditions so miserable. Crisis Group interviews, IDPs, Maiduguri, October and December 2018; Crisis Group interview, humanitarian worker, Abuja, October 2018.Hide Footnote

Fourthly, regional authorities should be careful that in their efforts to hobble ISWAP economically, they do not exacerbate the hardships of local communities and create ill will among residents. For example, authorities have struggled to find a good way to stop ISWAP from drawing resources from the markets that ring Lake Chad, which it does by sending its own produce there for sale, taxing goods, and procuring food supplies and manufactured products. The Lake Chad states responded by banning or limiting the trading of certain items (notably fuel, smoked fish and red pepper) and closing certain markets and trade routes that the militants frequent or tax. Yet these instruments are overly blunt, as cutting off trade inflicts economic pain that can drive locals to support militants. It also puts the military in a bad light, as the local population suspects them of using the bans to actually monopolise the trade to their own profit. Niger and Chad have both alleviated the trade restrictions. Nigeria should follow.

One line of effort that may not seem promising for the time being – particularly given the events surrounding Nur’s death, the increasing influence of hardliners within the faction, and the likely internal sense of momentum created by ISWAP’s recent military successes – is the pursuit of substantial negotiations that might lead to an end to fighting. But Nigerian authorities and international partners should keep channels of communication with ISWAP open, at least to test whether there might be ways to improve humanitarian access for NGOs and, where appropriate, organise prisoner exchanges. Though ISWAP is ambivalent about these channels at present, and authorities may face criticism for even limited engagement, they could be helpful in the short term and create openings for more substantial discussions in the longer run.

VIII. Conclusion

ISWAP poses a particular challenge to the Lake Chad states because it represents more than aggressive fighters, rumbling pickups with mounted guns or proclamations of the caliphate’s rebirth. It is filling a gap left by decades of poor governance and neglect in the region. It has cultivated stronger ties with local residents than Boko Haram ever could by helping recover lost cattle, settling disputes over grazing and fishing rights, fending off rustlers, providing care to expectant mothers in rural areas, and imposing swift if terrible justice upon criminals, sometimes including when they are ISWAP members.

ISWAP is often cruel and arbitrary, even with civilians whose support it ostensibly seeks to gain. But for now, in the eyes of many locals, what it has to offer is often better than what came before. The frontier governance and rudimentary services it provides have allowed it to build networks, spread its influence, muster resources and bleed the region’s armies – all while keeping the core territory it must hold modest and working successfully to attract ISIS support.

ISWAP may not achieve its goal of maintaining jihad in the Lake Chad area, much less expand it further afield. Its project is hampered by challenges and contradictions: Shekau is still around; Nur’s death has shaken some of its members; political and ethnic tensions could rip the group apart; and the limited support ISIS can offer may make little difference. The Lake Chad states are finally mounting a stronger counter-insurgency campaign. But for now, in both north-eastern Nigeria and neighbouring states, ISWAP continues to sink roots in various communities and to become a part of residents’ lives. This, too, is an essential part of the battle.

Dakar/Brussels, 16 May 2019

Appendix A: Map of Nigeria

Appendix B: Map of the Lake Chad Basin

Appendix C: JAS and ISWAP Zones of Influence

Appendix D: Monthly Fatalities Associated with Boko Haram Conflict, 2011-2019: Civilians vs. Soldiers