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Yemen Conflict Alert: Last Chance to Prevent a Destructive Hodeida Battle
Yemen Conflict Alert: Last Chance to Prevent a Destructive Hodeida Battle
Yemeni pro-government forces gather at the south of Hodeida airport, in Yemen's Hodeida province on 15 June, 2018. AFP

Yemen Conflict Alert: Last Chance to Prevent a Destructive Hodeida Battle

The fate of Hodeida hangs in the balance as UAE-backed Yemeni forces poise for what will be a prolonged and destructive battle to expel Huthi rebels. A real but fleeting opportunity exists to avert catastrophe through a UN-mediated solution that safeguards all sides’ interests.

The battle for Hodeida is reaching the point of no return. UAE-backed Yemeni forces are poised to begin operations to take this Red Sea port and city of 600,000 from Huthi rebels. This is the final, fragile moment in which it may still be possible for UN-led negotiations to prevent a destructive fight that is likely to exacerbate dire humanitarian conditions and further delay broader negotiations to end the war.

Both the Huthi rebels who control Hodeida and the Saudi-led coalition that is backing an assault to wrest it from them say they want to avoid a battle for the port and city centre, but their negotiating positions remain far apart. Hopes now lie with the newly appointed UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths, who is attempting to find a middle ground. Griffiths has a real but limited opportunity to succeed due to three converging dynamics. First, the Huthis, under military pressure, have for the first time expressed openness to UN management of Hodeida port, Yemen’s largest gateway for imports. Second, the UAE, which is leading the military push on behalf of the Saudi-led coalition, would prefer to avoid urban combat that would almost certainly see its forces suffer considerable losses and prompt intense international scrutiny for aggravating an already dire humanitarian situation. And third, there is growing concern among international stakeholders, including the U.S., that a pitched battle for the port and city could have devastating humanitarian and longer-term political consequences.

The Huthis and the coalition will both have to compromise [...] The stakes are about as high as they could be.

Finding a solution means bridging the sides’ competing positions. The Saudis and Emiratis accuse the rebel movement of using the port to smuggle weapons into Yemen and diverting customs revenues to their war effort. They want the Huthis out entirely. For their part, the Huthis have offered to turn over management of the port to the UN and jointly manage security, but have said they will not fully withdraw from Hodeida. The Huthis and the coalition will both have to compromise. Their respective allies should vigorously press them to accept a negotiated settlement for the port and city as the best and only tolerable option.

The stakes are about as high as they could be. Successful UN mediation toward a mutually acceptable solution that safeguards all sides’ vital interests regarding Hodeida could be the basis for a settlement not only for the port, but also for the wider conflict between the Huthis and the coalition. Conversely, failure would not only seriously undermine prospects for such talks, but also – once fighting enters the city – render a consensual deal over the Huthis’ presence in the port and the question of how it will be managed largely impossible. Hodeida can either prove to be the beginning of the end to Yemen’s war or the start of a new, likely more destructive phase.

The Road to Hodeida

The UAE launched its campaign to seize Hodeida after growing increasingly frustrated with a nearly three-year-old stalemate in which front lines changed only marginally. In the Emiratis’ view, the Huthis – who seized the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, in September 2014, with the backing of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh – were becoming more and more entrenched in the country’s highlands, benefitting in particular from a burgeoning war economy. Emirati officials have long seen Hodeida’s capture as key to shaking up the status quo and forcing the Huthis into the kind of settlement the coalition desires: a withdrawal from Yemen’s cities; guarantees of cross-border security; handover of heavy weapons, especially the ballistic missiles the Huthis have been firing into Saudi Arabia; and cutting ties to Iran, which supports the Huthis, in exchange for participation in a unity government.

The plans for a Hodeida offensive have been gestating since at least 2016. They were bolstered by the December 2017 schism within the odd-couple alliance of the Huthis and Saleh. Street fighting in Sanaa ended with the Huthis killing Saleh, while his nephew and military avatar, Tareq Mohammed Saleh, escaped and promptly switched sides. Since May, the joint National Resistance Forces – the Tihami Resistance, led by tribal forces from the Red Sea coast; the Giants’ Brigade, led by Salafist-leaning southern resistance fighters; and Tareq Saleh’s Republican Guards – have made swift progress up the coast, aided by UAE air support. In June, they made major, rapid advances towards the port and city, and are now on its outskirts, intending to take Hodeida by defeating the Huthis outright or by forcing them to accept a deal that would allow them to evacuate eastward to Sanaa.

The truth is that both the Huthis and the coalition have displayed a blatant disregard for the protection of civilians throughout the war.

The Emiratis believe they can win Hodeida as effectively as they did Aden in mid-2015 and Mukalla, a port in the east that had become an al-Qaeda stronghold, in April 2016. In both cases, they provided military support to forces recruited from the local population. In Hodeida, too, they are counting on what they refer to as local resistance inside the city to set up internal checkpoints and neighbourhood security when Abu Dhabi gives the signal for these groups to activate. 

The coalition has been careful to communicate its plans to protect civilians and ensure humanitarian access while warning that the Huthis will likely use the civilian population as human shields. The truth is that both the Huthis and the coalition have displayed a blatant disregard for the protection of civilians throughout the war. Aid agencies remain deeply concerned that fighting at the port could prevent access to the country’s most important source of food, fuel and humanitarian supplies, while an assault on the city could endanger the lives of the city’s estimated 600,000 residents. The UN worries that the fighting could make the world’s worst humanitarian crisis even worse and tip some of the 8.4 million-plus Yemenis on the brink of starvation into famine. If, as seems likely, the Hodeida campaign is harder fought and longer lasting than the UAE anticipates, it is difficult to see how humanitarian access will be improved, while the lives of more than half a million will unquestionably be deeply affected.

The UN Security Council met to discuss Yemen twice in June as the operation began but has failed to stake out a unified position beyond broad language on civilian protection. For its part, the U.S., while at first cautioning the UAE against the wisdom of undertaking an assault on Hodeida, citing the uncertain military outcome and probable humanitarian cost, appears to have eased pressure on the coalition. UAE officials believe that the U.S. does not object to an assault on the port and city, although they add that their American counterparts have warned them they will be responsible for the outcome.  

On 20 June, a week after launching “Operation Golden Victory”, the UAE-backed forces announced that they were in full control of the sprawling airport complex that sits on Hodeida city’s southern edge. Although the Huthis dispute the claim, and sporadic fighting continues, the coalition has clearly gained the upper hand in the week-long struggle for this strategically important facility. Fighting has now reached residential areas on the city’s southern edges. The UAE is poised to move toward the port in the next phase of combat.

A Possible – and Necessary – Compromise

Most military analysts following the campaign say the Huthis have little chance of holding the port and city if the UAE-backed campaign proceeds. The Huthis appear to realise this as well. While they have maintained their bellicose rhetoric, they have also indicated a new willingness to hand control of the port to the UN and discuss at least a partial withdrawal from the city – ideas they had dismissed out of hand as recently as a year ago. In a televised 20 June speech, Abdelmalek al-Huthi, the rebels’ leader, said for the first time that the Huthis were willing to cede control of the port.

This is important, but falls short of the public position of coalition leaders who, capitalising on their military momentum, are calling for a complete Huthi withdrawal and handover of the port and the city to the National Resistance Forces, while offering the Huthis safe passage to Sanaa. Yet this demand could prove to be flexible. Diplomats and coalition officials apprised of ongoing backroom negotiations claim coalition leaders have hinted they might accept a compromise in order to avoid a prolonged fight for the port and city whose humanitarian impact almost certainly would be devastating.

They would have good reason to do so: given clear warnings over the likely consequences of a military offensive, any worsening of the humanitarian situation would prompt intense international criticism and condemnation of the UAE and its allies at a time when they already are under heavy public scrutiny. As an immediate step, Griffiths should therefore publicise the fact that both protagonists have told him a deal is possible and shown newfound flexibility; this would limit the risk that either side claims the other is unwilling to compromise and uses that as an excuse to block negotiations.

Time is running out. What is most needed now is strong international backing for Griffiths’ efforts to reach such a compromise, coupled with powerful international pressure on the two sides to accept it.

The outlines of a potential compromise that would respect both sides’ core interests are clear. The Huthis would agree to a short, firm timetable to withdraw from the port and relinquish any role in managing it. They would hand over management of the port to the UN, with current civilian staff running the port on a day-to-day basis. UN member states would lead a de-mining operation in the port and waters surrounding it to ensure it is safe for operations in conjunction with the coalition. Optimally, the UN, supported by the government of Yemen and UN member states, would implement technical upgrades to boost port capacity. 

While the Huthis might conceivably play a role in managing security within the city for an interim period, they would ultimately need to hand over security operations to local police forces and governance functions to local council members. This could be done in a gradual albeit clearly delineated process, overseen by a joint committee comprising military commanders from the Huthi camp, the coalition and the various Yemeni forces on the ground in Hodeida, and assisted by the UN and international experts. If successful, such a phased and coordinated withdrawal and handover to local, effectively neutral management could serve as a model for the rest of Huthi-held territory should talks over Hodeida succeed

In return, UAE-backed forces would maintain a military presence at Hodeida airport but refrain from sending their forces into the city and port. They also would pull back from the eastbound highway connecting Hodeida with Sanaa, through which Huthi forces could then withdraw to the highlands.

Room for such a compromise exists as long as the assault on the city has not begun. But time is running out. What is most needed now is strong international backing for Griffiths’ efforts to reach such a compromise, coupled with powerful international pressure on the two sides to accept it. To that end:

  • The Security Council should issue a presidential statement strongly backing a negotiated settlement on Hodeida under UN auspices as per Griffiths’ proposals, and forcefully remind the Huthis and coalition forces of their obligations under international humanitarian law to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure.
  • The U.S. should take the lead in calling for a deal that would prevent a battle for the city and port, and its fellow Security Council member states (notably the UK and France, which have supported the coalition politically and militarily) should rally behind this call. They should also make it clear that the “Pottery Barn” rule – if you break it, you own it – inevitably will apply to the UAE-led coalition in Hodeida.
     
  • UN member states that support or have open communication lines with the Huthis – Iran, Oman, Russia and the EU, for example – should ensure that the group is under constant pressure to agree to a compromise and abide by its commitments in the event of a deal. The Huthis have a long track record of using negotiations as an opportunity to reposition or legitimise their actions. This cannot be allowed to happen again.

For the past three years, it has been an international mantra that there is no military but only a political solution to Yemen’s war, even as that war has continued unabated. What happens in Hodeida in the coming days can either validate this principle and the international community’s commitment to it, by serving as a bridge to further negotiations, or undermine it if fighting escalates and prospects for peace further diminish. Hodeida offers an opportunity for the UN Security Council to demonstrate its ability to pursue negotiated solutions to conflicts at a time of growing doubt about its effectiveness and utility. It offers the warring sides a face-saving exit that protects their vital interests after years of recklessly jeopardising them. And it offers the Yemeni people a chance to avoid a devastating escalation and the persistence of endless, pointless bloodshed.

Shiite Huthi rebels man a checkpoint at the southern entrance to the city of Sanaa 15 November 2014. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

Misunderstanding Yemen

U.S. efforts to uproot al-Qaeda’s Yemeni franchise often overlooked the country’s mercurial politics. As part of our series The Legacy of 9/11 and the “War on Terror”, Peter Salisbury explains that the sectarianism the group espoused is still rife on all sides of Yemen’s war.

In early 2014, I found myself in the sparsely furnished front room of a nondescript breezeblock villa in Aden, a city in southern Yemen that was once one of the busiest ports in the world. My host was a man who once fought alongside Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and later helped what would become the local al-Qaeda franchise gain a foothold in Yemen.

He was recounting how, in 1993, a distant relative had arrived at his hideout in the mountains of Abyan, to Aden’s east. The visitor, a senior military official who like my host hailed from Abyan, had come from Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, with a message from President Ali Abdullah Saleh. “He said: ‘If you’re killing communists, that’s OK. But if you’re attacking the Americans, we have a problem’”.

My host’s father, who had died some years before, had been a powerful tribal leader in Abyan. In the 1960s, socialist and Arab nationalist revolutionaries ousted British forces who maintained a protectorate in southern Yemen and established a socialist republic. They tried to suppress southern tribal structures, which they considered backward and a rival power base, and many tribal leaders who had worked with the British fled the country. My host grew up in exile in Jeddah, on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast, pining for a home he hardly knew. Seeking revenge against the leftist ideologues he felt had robbed him of his birthright, he joined the mujahideen fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Then, in the run-up to Yemen’s 1993 parliamentary elections, the country’s first since the socialist south had merged with the republican north three years earlier, he returned to his birthplace at the urging of bin Laden and other “Afghan Arabs” – often religiously inspired fighters who flocked to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets – as well as officials in Sanaa. Back in southern Yemen, he participated in an assassination campaign against socialist officials, with the blessing – and, likely, the active support – of Saleh’s northern regime.

Some in his cohort did not draw the line at the socialists. In December 1992, a group my host was affiliated with was accused of bombing two hotels housing U.S. Marines in Aden. The bombings did not kill any Marines but caused a stir in Sanaa, where officials were trying to repair fraught relations with Washington. Of course, my host said with a sly grin, he told Saleh’s envoy that he had not been involved in the hotel bombings.

In their mountain hideout, my host and Saleh’s emissary soon moved on to other, more pressing business. A civil war was looming between socialist leaders from the south, who sought to end the unity pact with the north, and Saleh. My host would play an important role in the fighting that broke out in May 1994. Working alongside senior military and intelligence officials in Sanaa, he recruited Afghan Arabs, serving as commander when they helped overrun Aden, and settled the conflict conclusively in the Saleh regime’s favour. In return, the regime restored his family’s lands in Abyan and handed him a senior role in the security services.

Getting his land and status back was probably my host’s real goal all along, at least in the telling of people who had known him and his family for years. But as the hotel attack foreshadowed, many of his comrades in arms had bigger ideological aspirations. My host said he played no part in the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, a warship that often docked in Aden during breaks from patrolling the Gulf and Arabian Sea as part of the U.S. Fifth Fleet. That attack was executed by members of what was then known as the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army. But he acknowledged that he knew some of those involved.

By the time we met, Yemen was in the midst of yet another upheaval. Saleh had been ousted from the presidency during the 2011 uprising, and Huthi rebels were marching toward Sanaa. My host had joined the southern independence movement that emerged after the 1994 war and gathered momentum in the 2000s, seemingly hedging his bets by forging ties with the secessionists but maintaining relations with Saleh’s successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, a fellow Abyani whose family once formed part of his father’s security detail. High-ranking government officials in Sanaa were paying the rent on his seafront villa, he claimed. Within months of our meeting, during which he extolled the virtues of Scotch whisky, local media would accuse him of joining the avowedly ascetic Islamic State.

My host’s story was colourful but in many ways in keeping with the twists and turns of Yemen’s modern history, a series of marriages of convenience that have all too often come to a sudden and sticky end. The last time we spoke was over the phone in 2016. Another civil war, whose political landscape he was struggling to navigate, had broken out a year earlier. Fearing reprisals from his enemies, he had left Aden for Abyan’s rugged terrain. The al-Qaeda militants, secessionist fighters and other armed groups who controlled the connecting roads wanted to kill him for his past transgressions, he said, making a meeting with me in Aden impossible.

Misunderstanding Yemen

Over the summer, as the 9/11 anniversary approached and the U.S. withdrew its forces from Afghanistan, I spent some time reading through notes taken during dozens of meetings in Yemen over the past decade. I wondered if I could find signals in the noise, a pattern showing that, in two messy decades of engagement forged by counter-terrorism priorities, the U.S. had ever understood Yemen.

By the time I arrived in Yemen for the first time in 2009, Saleh, who paid a high political and economic price in Washington and the region for supporting Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait (and whose regime was accused of protecting and even providing employment to some of the USS Cole bombers), had reinvented himself as a partner in the U.S. “war on terror”. The U.S. wanted to decimate the local al-Qaeda franchise, and to prevent state collapse, which they believed would create a safe haven for transnational jihadists. In pursuit of these goals, from the early 2000s onward, Washington worked closely with Saleh, who was enthusiastic about the endeavour in meetings with U.S. officials.

Instead of eliminating the al-Qaeda franchise [in Yemen], Washington’s military-led approach seemed only to give the movement more momentum.

But instead of eliminating the al-Qaeda franchise, Washington’s military-led approach seemed only to give the movement more momentum. By 2010, following a series of failed airliner bombings, U.S. officials warned that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), formed via a merger of the organisation’s Saudi Arabian and Yemeni branches a year earlier, had become the biggest threat to U.S. national security. They said Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen of Yemeni heritage who had become an AQAP-affiliated cleric, was one of al-Qaeda’s most successful figureheads and international recruiters.

Saleh, meanwhile, sought to use his burgeoning relationship with the U.S., the military and financial support that came with counter-terrorism cooperation, and U.S. mistrust of some of his regime’s local allies to box them out of conversations with outside powers and consolidate his family’s grip on power. Political and economic reforms pushed by Western powers to shore up state stability fell by the wayside. Yemen’s elites began to grumble, warning of future civil strife. Western officials acknowledged Saleh’s failings but were often blunt about why they felt unable to press him on reforms. “Counter-terrorism comes first, second and probably third” on the list of Western priorities, a European official told me in an emblematic remark in 2009.

Counter-terrorism was a lesser priority for ordinary Yemenis, who were far more concerned with the regime’s governance failures and corruption.

Counter-terrorism was a lesser priority for ordinary Yemenis, who were far more concerned with the regime’s governance failures and corruption as well as the crumbling rule of law. In 2011, popular anger over these problems drove the uprising that split the regime in two. Saleh loyalists attacked the protesters as well as military, tribal and political rivals who had joined them, sparking running street battles in Sanaa and other cities. The U.S. and other Western powers froze military support but at first sought to keep Saleh in place. “If Saleh goes”, a U.S. official told The New Yorker in April 2011, “the two likeliest outcomes are anarchy or a government that is not as friendly [to the U.S.]”. But that approach proved unsustainable. Saleh eventually stepped down under pressure from Gulf Arab states, following which the UN initiated a political transition.

Within three years, the transition had failed. In September 2014, the Huthis, a Zaydi Shiite religious revivalist movement that had evolved into a highly efficient rebel militia during six years of war with the Saleh regime in the 2000s, seized control of Sanaa – with Saleh’s support. Then, in February 2015, President Hadi, the transitional leader who had replaced Saleh in 2012 and was if anything an even more eager partner in the U.S. “war on terror” than Saleh had been, escaped house arrest in Sanaa. The Huthi-Saleh forces pursued Hadi south to Aden. At this point, Saudi Arabia, which saw the Huthis as a proxy for its regional nemesis, Iran, intervened to prevent a complete takeover, launching an intense campaign of aerial bombardment. Pressured by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, Washington pledged its support. The deadliest of Yemen’s civil wars began in earnest.

Beards and Ideologues

A main beneficiary of the intensifying fighting was AQAP. Amid the chaos, its fighters and local affiliates seized Mukalla, a port city in south-eastern Yemen, in April 2015. Rumours spread that former regime insiders had facilitated the takeover. Such speculation was not new. Many Yemenis had scoffed at Saleh’s reinvention of himself as a U.S. counter-terrorism partner, and readily embraced the notion that many AQAP-claimed attacks were really launched by “beards”, ie, militants acting upon instructions from one regime faction or another. Many thought the regime elements were using the “beards” to rid themselves of rivals while keeping the U.S. engaged in the pursuit of jihadists. No one has ever produced conclusive proof of such collusion. But the Saleh regime had certainly been happy to use the Afghan Arabs in a similar fashion in the 1990s.

Whatever the case, AQAP was real, and it did have a measure of popular support. Decades of governance failures, corruption scandals and deepening autocracy, along with Saleh and Hadi’s willingness to allow the U.S. to conduct unaccountable remote warfare based on often shaky intelligence, had lent credibility to AQAP’s rhetoric. This rhetoric persisted even after the U.S. killed al-Awlaki, perhaps al-Qaeda’s most capable propagandist, in a drone strike. Similar drone strikes killed large numbers of civilians, including al-Awlaki’s son. They also killed alleged AQAP members whose families argued they had been robbed of due process, sparking anger among ordinary Yemenis who understandably saw the deaths as intolerable violations of formal and customary law. Civil liberties advocates in the U.S., meanwhile, described strikes like the one that killed al-Awlaki as extrajudicial executions.

In early 2016, I interviewed a prominent Aden-based al-Qaeda recruiter and judge in the group’s homegrown justice system. AQAP had reached an apex in Yemen. His explanation of people’s motivations for joining the group were obviously self-serving, a form of propaganda in and of themselves. But he also understood and articulated ordinary Yemenis’ grievances better than most Western officials or counter-terrorism analysts I had met. Governance failures and drone strikes, he said, were excellent recruiting tools, as was the burgeoning civil war with the Huthis, whom he said were an ideal sectarian foil for AQAP. He repeatedly returned to the theme of justice and its absence under the U.S.-backed governments of Yemen’s past. “The American domination of Islamic and Arabic countries made people speak out and ask for justice. Our organisation came to return this nation to the place where it belongs. … America and the West are still hiring regimes that oppress their own people while [these regimes] live in riches. ... This is why this organisation will stay and others will appear based on the same ideology”. 

The judge was largely uninterested in discussing attacks on the West, in keeping with shifts in al-Qaeda’s evolving global strategy of emphasising local struggles. AQAP’s leader at the time, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, was also al-Qaeda’s global operations chief and understood at the time to be among the movement’s top leaders. He counselled the movement’s other wings to take a gradual, iterative approach to governing territory under their control, citing AQAP’s experiences when the group temporarily established an “emirate” in southern Yemen in 2011 and 2012. AQAP pitched itself as a more capable and responsible alternative to the Yemeni government, rooted in Yemeni and Islamic values and culture, rather than the local manifestation of a transnational movement. Al-Qaeda leaders had become hesitant about using the movement’s name locally, and AQAP had experimented with rebranding itself, with its local operational wing given the name Ansar al-Sharia and its rule in Mukalla placed under the auspices of a group called the Sons of Hadramawt. AQAP also promoted itself as the only group truly capable of preventing a Huthi takeover of Sunni lands.

No matter how it branded itself, AQAP’s heyday did not last long. In April 2016, local forces backed by the United Arab Emirates(UAE) pushed the group out of its Mukalla stronghold and uprooted it from many areas of Aden. AQAP subsequently mounted an insurgency across the south that reached its peak in 2017. But a combination of UAE and U.S. special forces attacks and U.S. drone strikes – which killed al-Wuhayshi in 2015 and his successor Qasim al-Raymi in 2020 – along with internal political rifts that may have led some members to turn informant on their colleagues, turned the group into a shadow of its former self. Its leadership and rank and file now appear mostly concerned with their own survival. The group’s once prolific media output has slowed to a trickle. Many rank-and-file fighters have slipped away to the front to fight the Huthis under the command of military and tribal leaders overseen by the government and the Saudi-led coalition. Others have become guns for hire in the internecine battles that have undermined the cohesion of anti-Huthi forces since the war began.

U.S. officials admitted that ... they were not entirely sure who their Yemeni partners were.

The anti-AQAP campaign created complications within the Saudi-led coalition battling the Huthis. That effort was built around cooperation with local forces mostly recruited and trained by the UAE, Saudi Arabia’s main coalition partner in the war at the time. U.S. officials admitted that, although their special forces worked alongside the UAE in Yemen, they were not entirely sure who their Yemeni partners were. The local forces’ identity soon came into focus. Many of the UAE-backed fighters would go on to form the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a pro-independence group that ousted the Hadi government from Aden after street battles there in August 2019. The STC says it plans on building an independent southern state, and its leadership, taking a leaf from Saleh’s book, is keen to market itself as a highly capable counter-terrorism partner for the U.S.

A Suffusion of Salafis

The UAE also tapped into a network of scholars associated with the Salafi Dar al-Hadith religious school. Many alumni had fought the Huthis during recurrent skirmishes around the group’s main religious institute in the north in the 2000s, before being evacuated as part of a government-negotiated deal in early 2014. UAE military officers found the Salafis to be among the most competent, disciplined and motivated fighters they encountered in Yemen. Salafi commanders subsequently spearheaded campaigns from Saudi Arabian territory into the Huthi heartland in Saada from 2016 onward, as well as the 2018 assault on Yemen’s Red Sea coast and incursions into Huthi-controlled territory in al-Bayda governorate on the old north-south border in 2021.

The Dar-al-Hadith network’s evolution since 2015 illustrates the mutations of Yemeni Salafism as a result of the war. The Dar al-Hadith institute’s founder, Muqbil al-Wadeii, was openly sectarian and critical of Western influence, but opposed to al-Qaeda’s violent global campaign. Dar al-Hadith promoted an apolitical “quietist” worldview that included obedience to Muslim leaders in line with the views of the Salafi clergy in Saudi Arabia. But the fighting around the Dar al-Hadith school in Saada that erupted in the 2010s affected its followers’ position on violence. The sectarian teachings of Wadeii, who branded Zaydis as unbelievers and heretics, and accused Zaydi scholars of promoting “reprehensible innovations”, had already been used to excuse the destruction of Zaydi graves and shrines (but not to reject the rule of Saleh, a Zaydi himself). A 2015 ruling by the Dar al-Hadith network’s current leader, Yahya al-Hajouri, gave his followers permission to take up arms as a defensive measure.

The Dar al-Hadith network had already fragmented by the beginning of the war. Personal rivalries and doctrinal differences have divided Dar al-Hadith alumni, the same Salafi leader told me, over whether they should take part in offensive operations against the Huthis or limit themselves to self-defence, and over who is Yemen’s rightful ruler. The leaders of Yemen’s now numerous Salafi factions are steeped in the Dar al-Hadith school’s debates; yet, along with military prowess, some have acquired a taste for power that outstrips their commitment to strictly religious causes. Many of the younger fighters under their command have a more rudimentary worldview. Some profess no interest in Salafi ideology, hoping only to get paid, while others focus mainly on the war’s sectarian dimensions. Although the Salafi fighters I interviewed on the Red Sea coast in 2018 and in Aden in 2019 vehemently denied any ties to AQAP, they described the war as primarily a religious struggle between Sunnis and Shiites.

Stored-Up Trouble

All these developments raise the question of whether continued focus on the hollowed-out AQAP brand and a largely defunct transnational threat is a distraction from a real problem being stored up for Yemen’s future: the tens of thousands of religiously motivated fighters on both sides of the civil war. Like many of their Salafi counterparts, many Huthi-aligned fighters engage in highly sectarian rhetoric and are driven to fight for religious reasons. The Huthis regularly accuse the government and Saudis of working alongside al-Qaeda, branding rival fighters as either mercenaries or terrorists. It is all too easy to imagine that, in a post-war Yemen, any actor discontented with the new order – whether AQAP or some al-Qaeda-like entity, one faction or another of Yemen’s elites, or an outside power with a regional agenda, or all of the above – will be able to tap a rich vein of sectarianism among the ex-fighters and use it for their own ends.

What is needed is a deeper understanding of who is fighting on the ground and more thinking about how to bring them into a more inclusive and stable society.

A discussion should start now about how to deal with these fighters, and the social problems they are likely to create once the present war is over (and indeed the problems they are already causing). More “over the horizon” drone strikes or special forces raids designed to deter people from joining AQAP are not the answer, at least not for Yemen. What is needed is a deeper understanding of who is fighting on the ground and more thinking about how to bring them into a more inclusive and stable society, as challenging as that may sound.

I have repeatedly asked Saudi and Emirati officials what they expect will become of the many fighters they and their Yemeni allies have recruited directly and indirectly when the war ends, in particular if it ends with the Huthis in a position of significant power. This problem, a UAE official said, will be the UN’s to handle. As for Saudi officials, they say all Yemeni forces will be integrated into the national army, apparently presupposing that Riyadh’s Yemeni allies will oversee this force. The UN says it has only the outlines of a demobilisation and reintegration plan for fighters in Yemen, an undertaking that would be massive, costly and contingent on a peace deal that concludes not just the main battle between the Huthis and Hadi forces, but many other violent rivalries across the country. U.S. officials I have spoken to profess “deep concern” but say they have no specific policies in place to deal with post-war reintegration of fighters.

Yemen’s Forever Wars

Recent years of Washington’s so-called war on terror have produced little in the way of introspection about why counter-terrorism policies stumbled in places like Yemen, where short-term goals obscured proper analysis of what was happening. I find it hard to believe that the U.S. will change its ways and decide that it needs to develop a deeper understanding of Yemen and its people in order to make better policy. The Biden administration says it wants to end the “forever wars” the U.S. embarked upon in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, among other things to focus on domestic threats and great-power competition with China. Stepped-up security and surveillance have made major terrorist attacks inside the U.S. far less likely than they were two decades ago, making places like Yemen less important regardless of the size of their al-Qaeda franchises, which in any case are increasingly focused on local goals. Powerful voices in Washington policy circles want to see U.S. involvement in the Yemen war ended as quickly as possible. Some in this camp are motivated by humanitarian concerns and a sense that the U.S. is complicit in an enormously destructive war. Others seem more driven by an impatience to extricate the U.S. from an intractable mess in a region that is no longer a priority for strategists who have turned their gaze toward the Pacific.

But in Yemen, the legacy of U.S. influence will be felt for decades, even after U.S. disengagement, as Yemen’s own wars refract and repeat. Some Yemenis will argue that there was a plan – a grand conspiracy – behind the U.S. intervention and retreat, designed to sow chaos and keep Yemen weak and malleable, along with the rest of the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Others will say, ruefully, that it was simply all a misunderstanding.