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Military Strikes Are No Simple Answer to al-Qaeda’s Rise in Yemen
Military Strikes Are No Simple Answer to al-Qaeda’s Rise in Yemen

The Huthis: From Saada to Sanaa

Continued fighting between Huthis and their various opponents could lead to a major conflagration, further undermining the Yemen’s troubled political transition.

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Executive Summary

The power balance in Yemen’s north is shifting. In early 2014, Zaydi Shiite fighters, known as the Huthis or Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), won a series of battles, in effect consolidating their control over Saada governorate, on the border of Saudi Arabia, and expanding southward to the gates of the capital, Sanaa. Now a patchwork of shaky ceasefires is in place, albeit battered by bouts of violence. Tensions are high between Huthis and their various opponents – the Ahmar family, Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (no relation to the Ahmar family) and his military allies, Salafi fighters, and the Sunni Islamist party, Islah, and their affiliated tribes. Fear is growing that an escalation could draw the state into a prolonged conflict. To head off a conflagration, the parties must turn the inchoate understandings reached during the country’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC) into an implementable peace plan.

Renewed violence comes at a sensitive time in the country’s transition. In January 2014, Yemenis completed the NDC, which produced a blueprint for far-reaching political reforms. But the plan is aspirational at best. The country has until January 2015 to complete drafting a constitution and a referendum approving it, before holding parliamentary and presidential elections later in the year. Obstacles are many, including a weak, divided government; a desperate economic situation; and deteriorated security. Widespread violence would imperil the transition by undermining the state’s already weak authority and its embryonic political consensus. The status quo is already doing so, albeit more slowly.

Fighting in the far north is nothing new. Between 2004 and 2010, when the Huthis fought six rounds with the government, they were political and military underdogs, confined primarily to Saada governorate, with ill-defined demands and no clear political agenda. But the 2011 uprising against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh changed the country’s political dynamics, propelling the Huthis onto the national stage. Today, they have taken advantage of state weakness and political infighting to expand their popular support and territorial control in the north, including all of Saada governorate, where they run checkpoints, secure roads, collect taxes, oversee local government administration and administer justice. As the government has scant authority, they have become a virtual state within a state in these areas.

By joining the NDC, they gained a seat at the national bargaining table, where they advocated popular positions, including a federal state based on democratic principles, political pluralism, religious freedom and balance of powers. Their reputation as outsiders – opposed to Saleh-era power brokers and the widely disliked transition government – won them additional support, even outside their traditional base in the predominately Zaydi north. The result is a shifting coalition of competing streams – religious, tribal and even leftist – cooperating under an anti-establishment umbrella, the overall character of which has yet to be hashed out. Whether the group will emerge as a party, a social movement, an armed militia or some combination thereof will depend on how the transition is managed.

Huthis claim that their expansion is locally driven. Yemenis, they say, welcome them because they are frustrated with old regime forces, including the Salehs, Ali Mohsen, Islah and the Ahmars. With their foes, they claim, determined to violently halt the peaceful spread of their ideas, they insist on retaining their weapons, at least for now, to prevent a state controlled by their enemies from crushing them.

Opponents contrast the Huthis’ inclusive rhetoric with their often repressive tactics. Critics routinely accuse the group of wanting to reinstate, by force, a theocracy similar to the Zaydi imamate of Yemen’s past. Some go further, claiming that the Huthis have turned away from their Zaydi roots toward Twelver Shiism – to which Iran’s Shiites adhere – and are serving Tehran’s agenda. As the Huthis have gained ground, an increasingly wide array of Yemeni stakeholders have grown wary, demanding that they immediately relinquish heavy weapons and form a political party as proof they are serious about peaceful competition.

The situation is combustible. Emboldened by recent victories, the Huthis may overplay their hand and miss a chance to consolidate gains through compromise. Their opponents, who show no sign of giving in, are pushing state intervention to roll back Huthi advances. President Abdo Robo Mansour Hadi’s government is at risk of being pulled into a conflict that it cannot win militarily, especially while it fights an emboldened al-Qaeda branch. Southern separatists also are watching developments in the north closely; should the military become embroiled there, they could seize the opportunity to advance an independence bid.

The NDC agreements, while a helpful starting point, cannot halt the creeping violence. They did not fashion a clear consensus around the issues driving the fighting, such as power sharing and the division of the country into six federal regions. Some elements, like disarmament of non-state actors, are dangerously vague, lacking timetables and enforcement mechanisms.

In April 2014, President Hadi initiated talks with Huthi leader Abd-al-Malik al-Huthi about ending the recent fighting and implementing the NDC. But Hadi and UN Special Envoy Jamal Benomar must go further and transform the NDC conclusions into an implementable peace deal. The talks must include, at least informally, additional stakeholders: high-level representatives of the General People’s Congress (GPC, former President Saleh’s party), Islah, the Ahmars, Ali Mohsen and Salafis. Any realistic peace plan will need to satisfy the core concerns of belligerents and guarantee them with enforcement mechanisms. Three elements are critical:

  • National and local power sharing until elections can be held. This should include a consensus government that would ideally comprise Huthi representatives, with ministers chosen on the basis of professional skill and political affiliation.
     
  • Disarmament. The Huthis should agree to a detailed, sequenced program for transferring weapons to the state in exchange for government steps to improve its neutrality, especially of the security services. Disarmament, first of heavy and then medium weaponry, must apply to all non-state actors. To promote transparency and implementation, all sides could agree to a monitoring framework.
     
  • Guarantees of freedom of religious belief and peaceful political activities. As a first step, the Ahmars, Islah, Salafis and Ali Mohsen should explicitly accept the Huthis’ right to propagate their religious views and pursue peaceful political activities. The Huthis should do the same for others and form a political party.

Negotiating the details and sequencing of implementation are far from easy. The parties were unable to do so during the NDC, which succeeded in no small part because difficult decisions were delayed. Yemen no longer has this luxury. At stake is not only a relapse into violence, but the country’s fragile transition.

Yemeni security forces gather in Aden's Mansura district, where a car bomb was used by suspected al-Qaeda fighters to target the city's police chief on 1 May 2016. AFP/Saleh Al-Obeidi

Military Strikes Are No Simple Answer to al-Qaeda’s Rise in Yemen

High civilian casualties from the latest U.S. counter-terrorism raid in Yemen risk aggravating rather than helping to resolve a conflict that is the principal reason for the growth of al-Qaeda in the devastated country. 

The first counter-terrorism raid authorised by U.S. President Donald Trump over the weekend targeted al-Qaeda in Yemen. How effective was the operation, and what is known about the new administration’s broader strategy on Yemen? 

The raid in al-Bayda, a key battlefront in Yemen’s civil war where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its local affiliate Ansar al-Sharia (AAS) are embedded in the conflict, is a good example of what not to do. The use of U.S. troops and the high number of civilian casualties – local sources report that at least ten women and children were killed – are deeply inflammatory and breed anti-American resentment across the Yemeni political spectrum that works to the advantage of AQAP. The raid ignores the local political context, to the detriment of an effective counter-terrorism strategy. The tribesmen targeted had links to AQAP/AAS, yet many, if not most of them, were motivated less by AQAP’s international agenda, including targeting the West, and more by a local power struggle in which AQAP is viewed as an ally against the Huthis (a Zaydi/Shiite militia) and fighters aligned with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. At a local level, the raid not only plays into AQAP’s narrative of the need to violently oppose what they claim is a U.S. war against Muslims, but it also gives AQAP an opportunity to accuse the U.S. of assisting Huthi/Saleh forces in the fight for al-Bayda, an accusation that will likely resonate with the anti-Huthi/Saleh population in this area. This is ironic, because the U.S. is assisting Saudi Arabia in bombing Huthi/Saleh forces. 

It is too early to determine what, if any, broader strategy the Trump administration has in Yemen. On counter-terrorism, it seems he will continue former President Barack Obama’s policy of relying heavily on drones and special operations. Yet drone attacks have shown limited effectiveness and a propensity to backfire politically when they cause high civilian casualties. Although they have dealt repeated blows to AQAP by killing key leaders and ideologues, they have failed to stop its rapid growth – in large part because the opportunities provided by the war outstrip its losses 

How serious is the threat posed by the Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda? 

AQAP is stronger than it has ever been. While Islamic State has dominated headlines in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa, in Yemen, al-Qaeda has been the success story. Over the course of the country’s failed political transition and civil war, it has exploited state collapse, shifting alliances, a burgeoning war economy and growing sectarianism to expand its support base, challenge state authority and even govern territory at times. It has morphed into a local insurgency, attaching itself to a larger “Sunni” opposition to the Huthi/Saleh alliance and pursuing a strategy of gradualism by avoiding aggressively offending local norms and by working with local communities to improve services and swift provision of justice. AQAP is embedded in a war economy that spans the various political factions, including Huthi/Saleh fighters, and it has obtained new resources by raiding banks, controlling the port of Mukalla for over a year, looting army bases and indirectly obtaining weapons from the Saudi-led, U.S.-backed coalition that is supporting the internationally recognised Yemeni government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi against Huthi/Saleh forces. 

Although AQAP has pursued a “Yemen first” strategy of addressing local grievances and blending into local conflicts, it continues to balance local and global objectives, calling for attacks, particularly “lone-wolf” attacks, against the West. There is debate about the degree to which the group poses a risk to the U.S., in particular, but a long-term threat remains.

Who are AQAP’s friends and enemies in Yemen? 

Yemen’s political elites have a long history of collaboration with and co-optation of Sunni jihadist groups, including AQAP. This creates obstacles to combating the group, as elites have the ability and sometimes an interest in using it for their own financial or political gain. On the other hand, given that AQAP and its local affiliate, AAS, are primarily Yemeni organisations with legitimate local grievances – lack of justice provision, services and jobs – there are opportunities to weaken its transnationally-focused leadership by addressing these domestic concerns. 

While virtually all Yemeni and regional belligerents claim AQAP and IS as their enemies, they have all contributed to their rise. The Huthi/Saleh front’s military push into predominantly Sunni areas has opened vast opportunities for AQAP and IS to insert themselves into a broader “Sunni” opposition. The Huthi/Saleh side has a counterproductive propensity to conflate a range of opponents, including southern separatists, the Sunni Islamist party Islah, AQAP, and Islamic State. For its part, the anti-Huthi bloc has operated on the principle of the “enemy of my enemy is my friend”, only turning on AQAP and IS once the Huthis are pushed out of territory. The Saudi-led coalition has focused on the Huthi/Saleh advance, which it views as part of Iranian expansionism, as priority number one, allowing AQAP to govern large territories for extended periods and reap the attendant financial benefits. In April 2016, coalition forces from the United Arab Emirates dislodged AQAP from Mukalla, for instance, but the group was not defeated and merely melted away into the hinterland. Meanwhile, it profits from continuing conflict, especially along the front lines. In short, AQAP is in the paradoxical position of being the enemy of all parties yet arguably the war’s biggest beneficiary. 

Last week, UN Envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed briefed the Security Council and recommended an immediate ceasefire. How close are the parties to reaching any agreement to halt the fighting?

There is little chance of reaching a settlement at the moment, largely because the Saudi-led coalition and the Hadi government appear determined to secure military gains along the Red Sea coast before returning to meaningful talks. In October, the Huthi/Saleh alliance agreed to negotiate based on the terms of the “Kerry plan”, which combined security and political compromises allowing for Huthi/Saleh withdrawals from Sanaa, phased disarmament, and the formation of a national unity government in which they would be part. But it was unclear how far they would compromise on details of withdrawal and disarmament that are important to the Saudis and their allies. Ultimately, the intervention from then Secretary of State John Kerry proved too little, too late, as the Hadi government rejected the plan, an indication of its understanding that the Obama administration was a lame duck unable to press the Saudis toward a peace deal. Now efforts to restart negotiations are effectively dead. Although the UN remains an essential umbrella under which to negotiate a settlement, after three rounds of failed peace talks and numerous ceasefire attempts, it has lost credibility on all sides and is unlikely to revive meaningful negotiations absent a change in the main belligerents’ calculation as to what constitutes an acceptable compromise. 

If the prospects for bringing the war to a negotiated settlement remain distant, what can be done in the near term to limit the threat posed by al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups?

The most effective way to reverse AQAP’s gains is to address the conditions that made these possible, by ending the war through a durable, inclusive political settlement. As this is a distant prospect, there are several steps that could reduce the group’s influence. For states and groups operating in areas currently or previously under AQAP control, such as the Hadi government, affiliated militias and the United Arab Emirates, these measures include: prioritising basic security, service and justice provision, especially quick and transparent dispute resolution; disaggregating rather than conflating the wide range of Sunni Islamist groups; and using military and policing tools judiciously and in accordance with local norms and laws. For the U.S. and other governments interested in fighting AQAP, it means being willing to evaluate and constrain local and regional partners who may tolerate or even encourage AQAP/AAS for their own political or economic gain. It also means avoiding heavy-handed military action outside of a political strategy, such as the 29 January raid in al-Bayda, which is likely to aggravate rather than mitigate the problem. The Huthi/Saleh bloc could help by avoiding further military incursions into predominantly Sunni areas, which have inflamed sectarian tensions and fuelled AQAP and IS propaganda. All Yemeni and regional belligerents should refrain from labelling enemies in crude sectarian terms.