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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.
Bangladeshi police stand guard at a hotel after a raid on a militant hideout in Dhaka on 15 August 2017. NURPHOTO/Mehedi Hasan
Report 295 / Asia

Countering Jihadist Militancy in Bangladesh

With political polarisation reaching historic highs and local jihadist groups forging links with transnational movements, new forms of militancy threaten security and religious tolerance in Bangladesh. The government should reinforce the capability of law enforcement agencies and the judiciary, and build political consensus on tackling the menace.

What’s new? Two groups, Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh and Ansarul Islam, dominate Bangladesh’s jihadist landscape today. Attacks since 2013 have targeted secular activists, intellectuals and foreigners, as well as religious and sectarian minorities. The ruling Awami League has politicised the threat; its crackdowns on rivals undermine efforts to disrupt jihadist recruitment and attacks.

Why did it happen? Bangladesh’s antagonistic politics have played a part in enabling the jihadist resurgence. The state confronted groups responsible for an earlier wave of violence with some success from 2004 to 2008. Subsequently, especially since controversial January 2014 elections, bitter political divisions have reopened space for new forms of jihadist activism.

Why does it matter? A lull in violence over recent months may prove only a temporary respite. With elections approaching in December, politics could become even more toxic. The government’s continued marginalisation of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and its forcing underground of opponents like Jamaat-e-Islami, risk sapping resources from efforts to disrupt jihadists.

What should be done? Instead of relying on indiscriminate force, including alleged extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, the government should adopt a counter-terrorism strategy anchored in reformed criminal justice and better intelligence gathering. Rather than cracking down on rivals, it should forge a broad social and political consensus on how to confront the threat.

Executive Summary

As Bangladesh’s political polarisation reaches historic highs and local jihadist groups forge links with transnational movements, conditions are ripe for new forms of militancy that could threaten the country’s security and religious tolerance. Two groups, Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Ansarul Islam, dominate today’s jihadist landscape; a faction of the former appears to have consolidated links to the Islamic State (ISIS) while the latter is affiliated with al-Qaeda’s South Asian branch. Both have perpetrated a string of attacks over the past few years, some targeting secular activists, others Bangladeshi minorities. The ruling Awami League has politicised the threat. Its crackdowns on political rivals sap resources from efforts to disrupt jihadist activities. Instead, it should invest in reinforcing the capability of the security forces and judiciary and build political consensus on how to tackle the threat.

The country’s recent history of jihadism dates to the late 1990s, when veterans of the anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan returned to Bangladesh. A first wave of violence, involving two groups, the Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami Bangladesh and the JMB, peaked on 17 August 2005, when the latter group synchronised bomb blasts in 63 of the country’s 64 districts. Successive governments subsequently took action against the JMB’s leadership, but the group has revived itself, albeit in a new form. Another group, Ansarul Islam (or Ansar), has also emerged, while a JMB splinter – dubbed the “neo-Jamaat-ul Mujahideen” by law enforcement agencies – calls itself the Islamic State-Bangladesh and has funnelled fighters into Iraq and Syria.

Ansar portrays itself as the defender of Islam from those who – in its leaders’ view – explicitly attack the religion. The JMB, on the other hand, has named a longer list of enemies: it considers perceived symbols of the secular state and anyone not subscribing to its interpretation of Islam as legitimate targets. The Bangladesh police allege that JMB operatives have played a part in attacks claimed by ISIS on prominent members of minority communities and religious facilities and events, including Ahmadi mosques, Sufi shrines, Buddhist and Hindu temples, and Shia festivals. An attack on a Dhaka café on 1-2 July 2016 that killed over twenty people, mostly foreigners, appears to have involved loose cooperation between different groups, including both rural-based madrasa students and elite urban young men.

Bangladesh’s contentious national politics have played a role in enabling the jihadist resurgence.

Bangladesh’s contentious national politics have played a role in enabling the jihadist resurgence. Ansar found its initial raison d’être in the Awami League government’s post-2010 trials of people accused of war crimes perpetrated in the 1971 war of independence. Those trials, targeting the senior leadership of the largest Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), prompted criticism for violating due process, lacking transparency, and involving intimidation and harassment of defence lawyers and witnesses. The prosecutions were used to crush the JeI, a close ally of the Awami League’s main political rival, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and to discredit the BNP itself. They provoked widespread anger among Islamists, which was mostly expressed through mass protest, not jihadist violence. Yet Ansar, depicting the trials as an assault on Islam, recruited urban, educated youth, albeit in relatively small numbers, and perpetrated brutal attacks on secular activists and bloggers who had demanded harsh punishment for those prosecuted.

Political polarisation has contributed to the growth of militancy in less direct ways, too. The marginalisation of the BNP through politically motivated corruption and other trials of its leadership, including party chief Khaleda Zia’s 8 February 2018 conviction and five-year sentence for corruption, and of the JeI, through the war crimes trials and a ban on its participation in elections, have eliminated most democratic competition and encouraged the growth of a jihadist fringe. A purge of BNP and JeI sympathisers from the armed forces has elicited animosity within some military circles toward the Awami League, which the jihadists also appear to be seeking to exploit. The BNP, for its part, has on occasion used terrible violence, or supported groups that do so, fuelling political animus and deepening schisms.

The influx of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar’s Rakhine state in August-December 2017 also raises security concerns for Bangladesh. Jihadist groups – including ISIS and Pakistani militants – have referenced the Rohingya’s plight in efforts to mobilise support. For now, though, little suggests that the refugees are particularly susceptible to jihadist recruitment. Bangladesh’s response to the humanitarian tragedy should focus primarily not on counter-terrorism but on providing support for refugees and redoubling efforts to assuage potential friction between them and host communities.

The state response to the surge of jihadist violence over the past few years has relied primarily on blunt and indiscriminate force, including alleged enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. Such tactics have eliminated large numbers of jihadists and weakened militant groups. But they undermine intelligence gathering. Security officials fear the ability of jihadist movements to recruit, raise funds and conduct operations remains intact. To make matters worse, Awami League leaders have exploited the threat to further discredit the BNP and JeI, accusing them of complicity in high-profile attacks. The government continues to use security forces to target its opponents, motivated, it appears, by the imperative of victory in the December 2018 general elections.

While the past year has seen a lull in attacks, marginalising the mainstream political opposition is likely to play into the hands of jihadist groups. Politicised, the police force and judiciary will continue to struggle with the detailed investigative work necessary to disrupt networks that now tap not only madrasa students and their families in deprived rural areas but also privileged students in wealthier quarters of the capital. While the Awami League appears little inclined to do so ahead of this year’s vote, reversing the polarisation that creates an enabling environment for jihadists and building political consensus on how to tackle the problem, while investing in a professional police and judiciary, are likely prerequisites of forestalling further jihadist violence. Without a change of course – and particularly if the December elections trigger a crisis similar to that around previous polls – the country could face another jihadist resurgence.

Brussels, 28 February 2018

I. Introduction

Bangladesh faces a sustained threat from jihadist attacks.[fn]For Crisis Group analysis of Bangladesh’s political and security dynamics, see Asia Reports N°s277, Political Conflict, Extremism and Criminal Justice in Bangladesh, 11 April 2016; 264, Mapping Bangladesh’s Political Crisis, 9 February 2015; 187, The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, 1 March 2010; 182, Bangladesh: Getting Police Reform on Track, 11 December 2009; 151, Restoring Democracy in Bangladesh, 28 April 2008; and 121, Bangladesh Today, 23 October 2006.Hide Footnote Since 2015, two jihadist groups, Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Ansarul Islam (hereafter Ansar), have targeted foreigners, secular activists and intellectuals, religious and sectarian minorities, and other perceived opponents with rising frequency.[fn]“Ansar” in this case should not be confused with the Bangladesh Ansar, a volunteer paramilitary force under the home affairs ministry’s authority.Hide Footnote These groups appear to be more integrated into transnational networks than earlier generations of jihadists. Yet their expansion is largely rooted in domestic political dynamics, which influence and inform state efforts against them.

The bloody 1-2 July 2016 siege at a café in Dhaka’s upscale Gulshan neighbourhood, the heart of the diplomatic zone, forced domestic and international policymakers to reconsider the extent to which jihadist militancy had taken root in Bangladesh. That three out of five alleged attackers belonged to Dhaka’s elite, not the madrasa sector more commonly associated with such jihadist militancy, suggests that the appeal of jihadism has spread and that jihadists may be able to tap a new constituency from which to recruit, even if thus far only in small numbers.[fn]For definitions of “jihadism” and “jihadist”, see Crisis Group Special Report N°1, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016, p. 2. This report uses these terms in accordance with Crisis Group practice; in Bangladesh, however, the preferred terms are “Islamic militancy” and “Islamic militant”.Hide Footnote

The report analyses the roots of Bangladesh’s jihadist groups, their goals, organisational dynamics, recruitment patterns and links to regional and transnational networks. It is based on interviews conducted in April-August 2017 with security officials, the legal community, and political and civil society actors, including representatives from Islamist parties and umbrella groups. Security risks inhibited access to jihadist groups and detainees; the report thus draws on their leaflets, online literature and public statements, and interviews with lawyers and law enforcement officials who have closely dealt with them. It proposes measures to counter the threat, based on analysis of the impact and effectiveness of the government’s response. Given the topic’s sensitivity, and an increasingly repressive environment in Bangladesh, most names have been withheld.

II. Genesis of Jihadist Militancy in Bangladesh

Jihadist militancy in Bangladesh began in the 1980s, when around 3,000 Bangladeshis reportedly joined the U.S. and Saudi-sponsored anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan.[fn]Riaz Ali, Islamist Militancy in Bangladesh: A Complex Web (London, 2008).Hide Footnote A first generation of Bangladeshi militants were veterans of that war. In 1992, a new group, Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami Bangladesh (also referred to as Harkat-ul Jihad), led by three Afghanistan veterans, Mufti Abdur Rouf, Mowlana Abdus Salam and Mufti Abdul Hannan Sheikh, declared that Bangladesh should become an Islamic state.[fn]All three had reportedly fought under Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. Zayadul Ahsan and Pavitra Banavar, “Who are the militants?”, in Ali Riaz and C. Christine Fair (eds.), Political Islam and Governance in Bangladesh (Oxford, 2011), pp. 71-90.Hide Footnote The group, which operated from the Chittagong Hill Tracts bordering Myanmar, also aimed to aid the Rohingya Muslims in that country.[fn]For more on ties between Harkat-ul Jihad and the Myanmar insurgent group Rohingya Solidarity Organisation, see “How Southeast Asian and Bangladeshi extremism intersect”, Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, No. 37, 8 May 2017.Hide Footnote A Harkat-ul Jihad leader, Fazlul Rahman, along with jihadist leaders from Pakistan and the Middle East, signed Osama bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa calling for jihad against the U.S. and its allies.[fn]Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda’s Road to 9/11 (London, 2006).Hide Footnote In 1999, the group claimed a failed assassination attempt on Bangladesh’s leading poet, journalist and human rights activist Shamsur Rahman, and carried out a bomb attack at a cultural event in Jessore that killed ten people.[fn]“Huji attacked poet Shamsur in ‘99”, The Daily Star, 30 November 2007; “Udichi observes Jessore tragedy day in city”, New Age, 7 March 2016.Hide Footnote

After the 11 September 2001 attacks in the U.S., the group became more active under the leadership of Mufti Hannan, who had established strong links with Lashkar-e-Tayyaba in Pakistan.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior retired military officer, Dhaka, June 2017.Hide Footnote In February 2002, it attacked the American Center in Calcutta, killing four police constables and a security guard, and injuring over twenty in the first strike on a target in India. In May 2004, it attempted to assassinate the British high commissioner to Dhaka. Its deadliest action was the August 2004 grenade attack on an election rally of then opposition leader and chief of the secular Awami League party, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, killing over twenty people; scores, including Hasina herself, were injured.[fn]“3 HuJI activists held in Gujarat for Kolkata attack”, The Times of India, 16 February 2002; “British diplomat hurt in Bangladesh bombing”, The Telegraph, 21 May 2004.Hide Footnote In addition to attacks in Sylhet Division, in the north east, and areas around Dhaka, the Harkat-ul Jihad also struck numerous times in southern locations such as Akhaura, Bagerhat and Khulna, mostly between 1999-2005.[fn]Home ministry’s internal report on militant organisations, provided to Crisis Group, June 2017.Hide Footnote

Founded in 1998, the JMB and its militant wing Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh became active in the early 2000s, recruiting and training, raising funds, running outreach programs, and mobilising members across the north and in selected southern districts such as Chittagong, Jessore and Khulna. Its Dhaka-based leader Abdur Rahman also began establishing links with political powerbrokers willing to support his agenda.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Increasingly bitter competition between the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party [...] led to paralysing street violence and a political crisis.

Jagrata itself began as a vigilante group in north-eastern regions that had been the base of left-wing militants for decades. Khaleda Zia’s BNP-led government (2001-2006) initially failed to take action against it, due to limited law enforcement capacity but also sympathy for these groups within Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party and a member of the BNP’s governing alliance.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Political Conflict, Extremism and Criminal Justice in Bangladesh, op. cit.Hide Footnote The animosity of the military and some BNP leaders toward India also drove them to patronise various Islamist groups supporting insurgencies in India’s north-eastern provinces and Myanmar’s Rakhine state.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Some government and police officials saw the JMB and Jagrata as useful tools against left-wing militants.[fn]Officials involved in counter-terrorism efforts at the time confirmed that some members of the coalition government had actively promoted the militants, while police backed their anti-left operations. Crisis Group interviews, security officials and analysts, Dhaka, May-June 2017. Also see Crisis Group Report, The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, op. cit.Hide Footnote Despite these reservations, domestic and international pressure nudged the government to form, in 2004, an elite paramilitary anti-crime and anti-terrorism unit, the Rapid Action Battalion, which includes military and police personnel.

JMB’s 17 August 2005 countrywide coordinated and simultaneous attacks, involving over 459 low-intensity bombs, in all but one of Bangladesh’s 64 districts, killing two people and injuring around 100, proved a turning point.[fn]“459 blasts in 63 districts in 30 minutes, 2 killed, 100 injured; all explosions were time bombs; Jamaat-ul Mujahideen leaflets found”, The Daily Star, 18 August 2005; “Bombs explode across Bangladesh”, BBC News, 17 August 2005.Hide Footnote The subsequent security crackdown, including trials and executions of top JMB members, forced the group into hiding. In the following years, its leaders described the synchronised 2005 attack as a “sound blast” to draw attention to their message, contained in leaflets left at the bombing sites, which called for war against “Western imperial powers” and their local allies, including Bangladesh’s secular state. The judicial system was a particular target; there were several attacks on judges and court premises.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen, op. cit.Hide Footnote

While JMB and Harkat-ul Jihad represented similar threats, and often operated in tandem, violently opposing Bangladesh’s secular traditions, there were fundamental differences. Harkat-ul Jihad drew on South Asian Islamic traditions, its ideological bent close to that of today’s Deobandi-inspired Hefazat-e-Islam, a hardline Islamist movement which over recent years has won concessions from the ruling party (see Section VII.B). Harkat-ul Jihad was largely based in the south, and it found its recruits in qaumi (privately run) madrasas. JMB, on the other hand, drew on the Wahhabi-inspired Ahl-e Hadith movement and was located mainly in the north east, though it also conducted outreach and recruitment drives in the south west, in Satkhira and Bagerhat districts.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Shakhawat Hossain, Ahl-e Hadith Andolon Bangladesh spokesperson, Rajshahi, June 2017. The group claimed as its lineage, and the inspiration for its name, Islamist groups that had fought British colonialism in the early 19th century. Its base, in the north east, has also been the seat of the Ahl-e Hadith movement since 1994, when a former Rajshahi university professor, Asadullah Ghalib, formed an organisation he called Ahl-e Al Hadith.Hide Footnote

Increasingly bitter competition between the Awami League and BNP ahead of elections scheduled for January 2007 led to paralysing street violence and a political crisis, prompting a coup and military rule, between 2006 and 2008, behind the veneer of a caretaker government.[fn]Following the bloody civil war that led to Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, the Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujib ur Rahman, formed the first government. In 1972, it enacted a constitution that, like the party’s founding ideology, drew on the principles of democracy, nationalism, socialism and secularism. Mujib and most of his family were killed by army personnel in the 15 August 1975 coup. His daughter, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, took over the leadership and remains the head of the Awami League. BNP leader Khaleda Zia is the wife of Bangladesh’s first military ruler, Major General Ziaur (Zia) Rahman (1977-1981), who created the party as a civilian proxy and alternative to the secular Awami League. Crisis Group Report, Mapping Bangladesh’s Political Crisis, op. cit.Hide Footnote The military jailed much of the political class. The military-backed government redoubled counter-terrorism efforts, including through specialised trainings for law enforcement officials and anti-militancy messaging in the media and the state-run Islamic Foundation, as well as through Friday sermons in mosques across the country.[fn]The Bangladesh Islamic Foundation is a state-run organisation that supports research and scholarship on Islam and dissemination of “Islamic values”. “Combating extremism: Still relying mostly on force”, The Daily Star, 30 June 2017.Hide Footnote It also tried some JMB leaders. Arrests and convictions of JMB and Harkat-ul Jihad members continued after the restoration of democracy and elections in December 2008, which returned the Awami League to office.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Mapping Bangladesh’s Political Crisis, op. cit.Hide Footnote By that time, the jihadist leadership appeared to have been dismantled and the security environment seemed much improved, leading law enforcement agencies to shift attention away from militant groups.

III. Setting the Stage for a Jihadist Resurgence

A. Politicised Justice and an Islamist Backlash

The Awami League came to power in January 2009 having promised an international war crimes tribunal to prosecute those responsible for atrocities during the 1971 war of independence, a longstanding demand popular with the party’s voter base. Most of those expected to be tried were JeI members; others were from the BNP. The tribunal was established in 2010.

While the quest for justice was legitimate, the trials were deeply flawed, lacking due process. They were also convenient tools for sidelining or eliminating rivals and rallying the Awami League’s political base. The convictions and executions that followed provoked a domestic backlash; many of the accused had major followings, notably among religiously conservative constituencies across the country. In particular, the 2013 death sentence for JeI leader Delwar Hossain Sayedee, a popular preacher, prompted violent countrywide demonstrations and clashes with police that left hundreds of protesters dead. Islamists portrayed the trials as an attack on Bangladesh’s Muslim identity.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Mapping Bangladesh’s Political Crisis, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Secular activists mobilised, too, though to insist on harsher sentences. In February 2013, after another JeI leader, Abdul Quader Mollah, was given life imprisonment, activists demonstrated in Dhaka’s Shahbagh square demanding a death sentence.[fn]In response, the government repealed a law that prohibited appeals of war crimes trial verdicts. The high court resentenced Mollah, this time to death, in September 2013.Hide Footnote These protests, dubbed the Shahbagh movement, were led by urban, secular youth, including bloggers critical of the role of organised religion in Bangladesh’s secular polity. Islamists highlighted these opinions to discredit the movement as anti-Islam, demanding that Shahbagh organisers be punished.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Mapping Bangladesh’s Political Crisis, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The war crimes trials and the Shahbagh movement provided the backdrop for a new era of Islamist and jihadist activism.

The war crimes trials and the Shahbagh movement provided the backdrop for a new era of Islamist and jihadist activism. By 2013, JeI was on the defensive, with most of its top leaders on trial. Hefazat-e-Islam, a hitherto marginal umbrella organisation sustained by qaumi (privately run) madrasas, stepped into the gap, quickly becoming a prominent socio-political force by channelling Islamist sentiment against the trials in large street demonstrations in late 2013. To defuse the protests, the government made concessions, including withdrawing plans to regulate the qaumi madrasa sector.[fn]Ibid. See also “Bangladesh’s radical Muslims uniting behind Hefazat-e-Islam”, The Guardian, 30 July 2013.Hide Footnote Hefazat also allegedly delivered the government a list of 84 bloggers and activists it wanted prosecuted and executed for making derogatory statements about Islam.[fn]Amid the killings of bloggers, Hefazat officially denied association with this list. “Hefazat has no list of bloggers”, Prothom Alo, 25 May 2015.Hide Footnote

A new kind of jihadist mobilisation surfaced shortly thereafter. On 15 February 2013, ten days after the Shahbagh demonstrations began, prominent blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider, whose writings had in part inspired those demonstrations, was brutally murdered outside his home in Dhaka.[fn]Another prominent blogger Asif Mohiuddin survived a similar attack by militants a few weeks before the protests began.Hide Footnote A new group, the Ansarullah Bangla Team (later renamed Ansarul Islam), an affiliate of al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility. The following month, the group gave a thirteen-point list of demands to the government, including for a blasphemy law to try secular bloggers, marking a convergence in aspects of its agenda – though not its methods – with Hefazat.[fn]

B. Political Polarisation

In addition to the flawed trials, Bangladesh’s deeply polarised politics and the increasingly exclusionary bent of the Awami League-led government have contributed to the resurgence of militancy. In mid-2013, the Bangladeshi high court banned JeI from contesting forthcoming parliamentary elections on the grounds that an Islamist party running violated the secular constitution. Even if not a political ruling, this ban served to undercut a critical ally of the Awami League’s main rival, the BNP. It also led the JeI to resort to violence ahead of the January 2014 vote. As elections approached, the government pushed ahead with preparations despite the BNP’s objections; in the end, the BNP announced the day before the polls that it would boycott. Law enforcement agencies focused attention on opposition leaders and activists spearheading violent protests to subvert the election.[fn]These actions included countrywide hartals (strikes), demonstrations and traffic blockades that stalled economic activity and travel outside the urban centres. Awami League supporters and officials were also attacked in the run-up to and on election day. “Democracy in the crossfire: Opposition violence and government abuses in the 2014 pre- and post-election period in Bangladesh”, Human Rights Watch, April 2014.Hide Footnote

By the end of 2013, at least 500 people had been killed, making it the deadliest year of civil strife since Bangladesh’s secession from Pakistan in 1971. The polls themselves, in January 2014, were likewise marred by violence. Given the BNP’s boycott, Bangladesh’s parliament is almost bereft of opposition to the ruling party. A year later, a very violent campaign led by the BNP and JeI – replete with arson attacks on polling stations and assaults on policemen, as well as hartals (strikes) and transport blockades – marked the anniversary of those elections. This campaign, aimed at forcing fresh elections, provoked months of clashes, leaving around 150 people dead or missing. JeI activists were responsible for some of the worst attacks.[fn]

The BNP’s marginalisation from mainstream politics – part self-inflicted through its boycott and violent tactics; part due to the government’s rejection of its demands for electoral reforms – together with the government’s targeting of the JeI through the war crimes trials and electoral ban, created a major political vacuum. As law enforcement agencies focused on containing the Awami League’s political opponents, they failed to effectively counter the emergence of the Ansarul Islam and the re-emergence, starting around mid-2014, of the JMB, which still had a nationwide network of members recruited from qaumi madrasas, informants and sympathisers.

IV. Today’s Jihadist Landscape

A. Ansarul Islam

What had started as an online community reportedly inspired by the sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who joined al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, gradually morphed into a group of young Bangladeshis following a fiery local preacher, Jashimuddin Rahmani, based in Dhaka’s Basila neighbourhood.[fn]Rahmani, currently serving a five-year sentence for the murder of blogger Rajib, appears to have come into contact with many future Ansar organisers, including the primary men accused in the murder of Rajib, Rezwanul Azad Rana and Junoon Shikder, while serving as a cleric at a Dhaka mosque. Crisis Group interviews, counter-terrorism officials, Dhaka, May-June 2017.Hide Footnote Ansar soon began identifying itself, through online posts, as the Bangladesh chapter of al-Qaeda.[fn]“Ansarullah Bangla team reorganised as Ansar-ul-Islam”, Protom Alo, 10 April 2016.Hide Footnote

Beginning in 2013, Ansar prioritised killing liberal and secular bloggers, many of whom were reportedly on the Hefazat’s alleged list of 84 activists.[fn]“Fourth blogger hacked to death in Bangladesh”, The Wall Street Journal, 7 August 2015.Hide Footnote In an online statement, Ansar said it was targeting writers, journalists, intellectuals and artists who publicly insulted Islam, rather than unbelievers who kept their views private.[fn]“Ansar al-Islam Bangladesh lists categories of potential targets for killing”, SITE Intelligence Group, 29 May 2015: https://news.siteintelgroup.com/Jihadist-News/ansar-al-islam-bangladesh-lists-categories-of-potential-targets-for-killing.html.Hide Footnote In February 2015, Avijit Roy, a prominent U.S.-based blogger visiting Dhaka, was killed by machete-wielding assailants at a major book fair. In the course of the year, six more bloggers and two gay rights activists were similarly hacked to death, and four others injured, either in their homes or in public places, with all attacks claimed by Ansar.[fn]“Behind killings in Bangladesh lies a brutal power struggle”, The Indian Express, 29 April 2016.Hide Footnote

Ansar is primarily urban-based. A well-informed source said many members do not know each other except through pseudonyms.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Dhaka, June 2017.Hide Footnote Although it remains a small organisation, according to intelligence and counter-terrorism officials, Ansar has a formal structure that divides members into three groups, managed by a coordination team: dawa, which oversees logistics and recruitment; asqari, which oversees military training; and a media wing run by IT experts that collates domestic and international coverage of the group.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, intelligence and counter-terrorism officials, Dhaka, June 2017.Hide Footnote The group also includes a sub-group, mashul, which plans and oversees all attacks, while the foot soldiers executing operations are part of a subcategory called mamur.[fn]Crisis Group interview, well-informed source, Dhaka, June 2017.Hide Footnote

Many prominent online activists either have fled Bangladesh or keep a lower profile.

Many of Ansar’s leaders and members appear to be well educated and Dhaka-based. Rezwanul Azad Rana, a former activist from Shibir, the youth wing of the JeI, and a teaching assistant at North South, Dhaka’s largest private university, was reportedly one of the group’s first organisers and allegedly planned and oversaw the bloggers’ murders, before fleeing to Malaysia after law enforcement agencies learned of his role.[fn]Security officials said they first learned about Rana from U.S. intelligence contacts who had obtained information about him from a former North South student who is now serving a 30-year term in a U.S. federal prison. Crisis Group interviews, security officials, Dhaka, May-June 2017. See also “Blogger Rajib killing: convicted Rana hiding in Malaysia”, The New Age, 22 January 2016; “Blogger Rajib murder mastermind arrested”, Dhaka Tribune, 20 February 2017; Sajjan Gohel, “The nexus of local and international extremist groups in Bangladesh”, South Asia@LSC blog, 22 July 2016.Hide Footnote Other members kept Ansar’s organisation intact and active after Rana’s departure. One was reportedly Junoon Shikder, another North South student, arrested in 2013 for alleged links with Ansar but released on bail a year later. He, too, fled to Malaysia, in 2014, whence he reportedly moved to Syria, suggesting he may have shifted his allegiance from al-Qaeda to ISIS.

Since late 2015, the killings of bloggers have stopped. Many prominent online activists either have fled Bangladesh or keep a lower profile.[fn]“Living in fear away from home”, The Hindu, 17 May 2016. Investigators and prosecutors have made little progress on the cases of the bloggers’ killings.Hide Footnote Ansar itself appears to have faded from public attention, its appeal perhaps diminished in part because it arose in the context of the war crimes trials. With most high-profile Islamists accused of atrocities in 1971 convicted and some executed, the trials generate less immediate attention from the constituencies they initially outraged. Still, some security officials believe that Ansar and what the government calls the “neo-Jamaat-ul Mujahideen” (discussed below) work closely together, contributing some of the 40 Bangladeshis who reportedly travelled to join ISIS in Syria.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, counter-terrorism officials, Dhaka, May-June 2017.Hide Footnote

Junoon and an unspecified number of other jihadists allegedly continue to operate Malaysia- and Singapore-based cells, which have been key to the transition of some Ansar members to ISIS, as well as to the facilitation of movement to Syria.[fn]“How Southeast Asian and Bangladeshi extremism intersect”, Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, Report No. 37, 8 May 2017.Hide Footnote Three of the five alleged attackers in the 2016 Dhaka attack reportedly had operated in Ansar’s Malaysia cells for various durations, while four others, who were indirectly involved, had also spent time in that country.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Intelligence officials claim to regularly discover communications between jihadists in Bangladesh and Malaysia- or Singapore-based Ansar cells during investigations.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security officials, Dhaka, May-June 2017. See also “Singapore says arrests 27 Bangladeshi Islamists, deports 26”, Reuters, 20 January 2016.Hide Footnote Ansar’s current threat level is difficult to gauge, given that the organisation seems to be moving on from its original raison d’être, the war crimes trials, to a broader agenda.

B. Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh

There were initially clear distinctions between Ansar and JMB. Ansar members saw themselves primarily as defenders of Islam battling Western secular ideas, rather than fighting for an Islamic state. The group’s targets were limited to those it considered to have insulted the faith. Most Ansar leaflets that investigators recovered at attack sites emphasised that the organisation was not at war with peoples of other faiths unless they slighted or undermined Islam.[fn]“Ansar al-Islam Bangladesh lists categories of potential targets for killing”, SITE Intelligence Group, 29 May 2015: https://news.siteintelgroup.com/Jihadist-News/ansar-al-islam-bangladesh-lists-categories-of-potential-targets-for-killing.html.Hide Footnote

In contrast, JMB since its founding almost two decades ago, and again in its recent resurgence, has pursued the establishment of Islamic law and perceived anyone not subscribing to its interpretation of Islam, including religious and sectarian minorities, as well as non-Muslim foreigners, as legitimate prey. Thus, while Ansar targeted only individuals such as Bangladeshi secular and liberal bloggers, JMB, both as a whole and, later, a faction more closely identified with ISIS (discussed below), focused on Bangladesh’s minority communities, attacking Ahmadi mosques, Sufi shrines, Buddhist and Hindu temples, and Shia festivals, as well as prominent members of these communities. While ISIS claimed some of these attacks, police suspect a JMB role in executing them.[fn]“Tavella shot dead by ‘Neo-JMB’”, The Daily Star, 22 October 2016.Hide Footnote Since 2015, JMB has expanded its activities beyond its traditional strongholds in the north and south west, and conducted attacks countrywide, including in Dhaka, where it was responsible – at least partly though perhaps entirely – for the 2016 attack.

According to counter-terrorism officials, the [Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh] group recruits not just young men, but entire families, including women.

At the outset, the outfit had four tiers, each defined by level of responsibility and commitment to the organisation: majlis-e-shura, a consultative decision-making council directly under the amir, or chief; ehsar, or full-time members; gayeri ehsar, or part-time activists; and sudhis (well-wishers) and saathis (comrades). In principle, JMB’s organisational structure included a military wing, comprised entirely of ehsar (the other sections made up the non-military wing). This wing was meant to include six divisions, each with a chief and deputy, and four sectors – ordnance, operations, intelligence and medical – but it was never fully operationalised. Each sector was also meant to have subdivisions. For example, explosives, electronics technology, weapons collection and stockpiling fell under ordnance; guerrillas and fedayeen (suicide attackers) under operations.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Today, the majlis-e-shura reportedly has seven members. It approves all attacks and killings. The current amir, Salauddin, oversees regional commanders and brigades, which have both dawa, or logistics and recruitment, and military wings.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, counter-terrorism and intelligence officials, Dhaka, June 2017.Hide Footnote In a recent interview, Salauddin said the group was expanding its network beyond Bangladesh, although it is difficult to assess the veracity of this claim; despite ties to militants elsewhere, the JMB itself has never perpetrated an attack outside Bangladesh.[fn]“Jamaatul Mujahideen amir Shaikh Salahuddin – special interview”, Sahm Al Hind Media, 13 May 2017.Hide Footnote

According to counter-terrorism officials, the group recruits not just young men, but entire families, including women.[fn]Several JMB hideouts raided in March and April 2017 were homes where most household members were allegedly involved in jihadist militancy in some capacity. The group has recruited entire families since its early days. “The family network of militants”, Samakal, 14 August 2016. See also Crisis Group Report, The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen, op. cit.Hide Footnote They claim that recruiters also are attempting to attract youth in regions outside Dhaka that are politically volatile and have a large conservative base, including the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Noakhali, Lakshmipur and Chapainababganj.[fn]

C. “Neo-Jamaat-ul Mujahideen” and ISIS

Since the 2016 Dhaka attack, law enforcement officials began using the term “neo-Jamaat-ul Mujahideen”. Some analysts argue they use this term to obscure ISIS’s role in Bangladesh, and that many ISIS members are described by security officials as “neo-Jamaat-ul Mujahideen”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security analysts and journalists, Dhaka, May 2017.Hide Footnote In an interview, JMB’s current amir, Salahuddin, dismissed the term as an invention of “infidels”. He did, however, acknowledge that some members had joined ISIS.[fn]“Jamaatul Mujahideen amir Shaikh Salahuddin – special interview”, Sahm Al Hind Media, 13 May 2017; “Living in fear away from home”, The Hindu, 17 May 2016.Hide Footnote

The “neo-Jamaat-ul Mujahideen” faction – which refers to itself as Islamic State Bangladesh – was thought to be led by a Canadian-Bangladeshi, Tamim Chowdhury, until his August 2016 death in an alleged extrajudicial killing. The faction was divided by geographic region, with each regional unit led by a commander who focused on operational activities endorsed by the central leadership. Several regional commanders have been killed in Dhaka, Chittagong, Rajshahi and points further north. The structure that Chowdhury headed appears to have been dismantled but counter-terrorism officials say it has splintered into smaller cells that, for now, conduct fewer coordinated operations.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, counter-terrorism, intelligence officials, Dhaka, June 2017.Hide Footnote

In the run-up to the 2016 Dhaka attack, Chowdhury reportedly played a pivotal role in bringing together Ansar, a section of JMB’s network still active in northern districts and the south east, and individuals acting on behalf of ISIS in Bangladesh and Syria. Counter-terrorism officials believe he was the primary coordinator between ISIS and Bangladeshi jihadist groups.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security officials, Dhaka, June 2017.Hide Footnote Chowdhury concentrated his recruitment efforts in Dhaka’s Banani neighbourhood and cantonment area, possibly tapping into discontent inside the army (discussed below). He also established contact with young extremists who provided access to youth studying at coaching centres.[fn]These are informal evening schools at private residences or rented school premises, where teachers give private tutorials mostly to O and A level students. Crisis Group interview, senior intelligence official, Dhaka, June 2017.Hide Footnote Many suspected militants detained or killed in security raids since July 2016 were young boys from affluent backgrounds who had months earlier left home; the “neo-Jamaat-ul Mujahideen” appears to be mining a similar demographic to Ansar, in other words.[fn]“Where have the rest of the missing people gone?”, Dhaka Tribune, 4 April 2017.Hide Footnote

ISIS began claiming responsibility for several attacks in Bangladesh on social media.

Even earlier, in 2015, Bangladeshi intelligence and security agencies uncovered communications between local jihadists and Bangladeshi fighters in Syria, though they could not decode much of the content. In a Chittagong raid, officials also discovered an ISIS flag and evidence of communication among JMB members arguing in favour of joining ISIS.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, counter-terrorism officials, Dhaka, Chittagong, June 2017.Hide Footnote ISIS also began claiming responsibility for several attacks in Bangladesh – including the 2016 Dhaka attack – on social media. The October 2015 issue of Dabiq, ISIS’s monthly magazine, contained a special story on Bangladesh, praising earlier JMB exploits. Saifullah Ozaki, a Bangladeshi who formerly was an associate professor in Kyoto, reportedly played a key role through an online platform in recruiting Bangladeshis to ISIS and arranging their travel to Syria. There have been claims he may today even be the leader of the JMB faction – the “neo-Jamaat-ul Mujahideen” – that is more closely identified with ISIS.[fn]“How JMB evolved to ‘Neo JMB’”, BDNews24.com, 17 August 2016; “Islamic State claims they now have a regional commander in Bangladesh”, BDNews24.com, 23 November 2015; “Bangladeshi who taught at Ritsumeikan among 10 suspects wanted by police over Dhaka attack: sources”, The Japan Times, 21 July 2016.Hide Footnote

According to Bangladeshi counter-terrorism officials, local jihadists began using ISIS propaganda to appeal to middle- and upper middle-class youth, and inducting former activists from Hizb-ut Tahrir, a pan-Islamist missionary movement that rejects jihadist violence, and retired military personnel.[fn]Crisis Group interview, counter-terrorism official, directorate general of forces intelligence, Dhaka, June 2017. Hizb-ut Tahrir is a transnational Islamist proselytising organisation that is banned in Bangladesh.Hide Footnote By the time of the 2016 Dhaka attack, some Ansar and JMB elements appear to have also formally pledged allegiance to the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.[fn]“Glimpses into ‘jihadi’ minds”, The Daily Star, 2 August 2016.Hide Footnote

Many security and counter-terrorism experts believe that a new generation of jihadists, earlier linked to JMB or Ansar, now identifies more directly with ISIS than with purely homegrown entities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, law enforcement and counter-terrorism officials, Dhaka, May-June 2017.Hide Footnote The government, however, refuses to acknowledge an ISIS presence in Bangladesh. Some police officials contend that acknowledgment of such a presence would be too politically costly at a time when the government claims counter-terrorism successes.[fn]

V. Flashpoints

A. Resentment in the Military

Soon after it assumed office in 2009, the Awami League faced a mutiny by personnel from the Bangladesh Rifles, a border security force. Around 74 people were killed, including senior counter-terror officials and 57 army officers. The consequences of the insurrection, including a subsequent shakeup that saw several officers removed or reassigned, continue to reverberate within an institution that has held the levers of political power for seventeen of Bangladesh’s 46 years as a state.[fn]In November 2013, a special court, trying 850 persons, including 23 civilians, for involvement in the 33-hour coup attempt, condemned 152 to death and 162 to life imprisonment. “8 years on, gruesome BRD mutiny still in memory”, Dhaka Tribune, 25 February 2017; “Real cause of BDR mutiny still a mystery”, Dhaka Tribune, 25 February 2014; “Death to 152 in Bangladesh Rifles mutiny case”, The Hindu, 5 November 2013.Hide Footnote

In November 2009, five serving and six former army officers were detained in the attempted murder of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s nephew, Awami League parliamentarian Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh. In January 2012, the army detained twelve officers for an alleged coup attempt. Although none was tried, most were dismissed on various grounds, most often indiscipline. Estimates of the number of officers sacked or forced into retirement since 2009 vary from 50 to 250.[fn]“Bangladesh military foils coup plot”, The Guardian, 19 January 2012; “The armed forces in four years of alliance rule: 197 dismissed, 161 left job”, Prothom Alo, 26 May 2013.Hide Footnote Many former officers, and even an adviser to Hasina at that time, believe the Bangladesh Rifles mutiny was used as a pretext by the Awami League government to restructure the army and purge it of more conservative pro-JeI and BNP elements that oppose the Awami League’s secularism.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former army officers, Dhaka, June-July 2017. See also Crisis Group Report, mappMapping Bangladesh’s Political Crisis, op. cit.Hide Footnote

To quell further dissent and unrest among officers and soldiers, the government offers financial incentives: salary hikes, budget increases and lucrative government contracts to military-controlled entities involved in housing, transport and major infrastructure projects.[fn]“Project areas includes flood zone”, The Daily Star, 29 October 2010; Crisis Group Report, Mapping Bangladesh’s Political Crisis, op. cit.Hide Footnote While these concessions may have yielded a less interventionist military in the short term, the aftereffects of the mutiny and the subsequent purges, which one former general officer described as “both a physical and psychological scar”, may have pushed a small number of his colleagues toward jihadism.[fn]

Much as discontent in the military provides opportunities that jihadists might exploit, so too could the Rohingya crisis.

One of the officers implicated in the 2012 attempted coup, Major Syed Ziaul Hoque, reportedly became Ansar’s military commander.[fn]“Homegrown militants and ex-major behind Bangladesh attacks, police say”, Reuters, 30 June 2016.Hide Footnote Several young men living in residential quarters for former army officers were arrested in 2015 for attempting to establish ties to ISIS.[fn]Crisis Group interview, official, Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit (CTTC), Chittagong, June 2017.Hide Footnote The same year, a counter-terrorism official claimed that law enforcement officials had found military training manuals and military-issued uniforms and bullets during a 2015 raid of a jihadist hideout in Chittagong.[fn]“Arrested youth, Galib, planned to set up Islamic State like organization in Bangladesh”, Ittefaq, 31 May 2015; Crisis Group interview, CTTC official, Chittagong, June 2017.Hide Footnote Jihadist organisations are clearly trying to tap into military disgruntlement.

B. The Rohingya Crisis

Much as discontent in the military provides opportunities that jihadists might exploit, so too could the Rohingya crisis.[fn]“Bangladesh says to meet with Myanmar on Rohingya trapped at border”, Reuters, 19 February 2018. For more on the Rohingya crisis, see Crisis Group Statement, “The Rakhine State Danger to Myanmar’s Transition”, 8 September 2017.Hide Footnote A brutal military campaign against the Rohingya in late 2017, following an attack on security personnel by the militant group, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA, also called Harakah al-Yaqin) in the north of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, forced close to 700,000 Rohingyas to flee to Bangladesh.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Report N°292, Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase, 7 December 2017.Hide Footnote The Awami League government’s response has included confinement of Rohingyas to camps in border regions and diplomacy aimed at ensuring the refugees’ return, including through a late November repatriation agreement. Such efforts appear unlikely to bear fruit, given the Myanmar authorities’ uncompromising stance and because conditions in Rakhine state are not conducive to refugees returning in a safe and sustainable manner.[fn]The tenor of long-running discussions between the two countries on the subject suggests that this effort is unrealistic, as do Myanmar’s deliberately rigid standards and the continuing crackdown on and isolation of Rohingya communities. “Bangladesh agrees with Myanmar to complete Rohingya return in two years”, Reuters, 16 January 2018; “Number of refugees from Myanmar in Bangladesh up to 480,000: Agencies”, Reuters, 25 September 2017; “‘Textbook example of ethnic cleansing’: 370,000 Rohingyas flood Bangladesh as crisis worsens”, The Washington Post, 12 September 2017.Hide Footnote

The Rohingya influx has significant security ramifications for Bangladesh, though the challenge for Bangladeshi authorities is to assess the dangers accurately and adopt a measured and sensible response. A large, stateless population with slim prospects of returning to Myanmar any time soon places enormous strain on authorities and host communities, raising the potential for friction between refugees and the local population.

That said, clearly it would be counterproductive – even offensive – to portray the long-suffering Rohingya community, for many of whom the past few months have brought unimaginable horrors, as jihadists in waiting. Some reports suggest that a small number from the refugee camps have joined the ARSA, though that group remains focused on Myanmar; as yet no evidence suggests it has ties to transnational jihadism.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase, op. cit.Hide Footnote In the past, militant Rohingya groups had small bases in Bangladeshi territories and one, the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation, collaborated with Jamaat-ul Mujahideen on weapons and explosives training; and some counter-terrorism analysts believe that Ansar might be training and arming Rohingya militants today.[fn]

Regional and transnational jihadist networks have shown interest in exploiting the Rohingyas’ plight.

Certainly, too, regional and transnational jihadist networks have shown interest in exploiting the Rohingyas’ plight. An April 2016 issue of Dabiq, ISIS’s online magazine, included a Bangladeshi ISIS commander sounding a rallying cry to fight for Rohingya rights. Al-Qaeda had included Myanmar on a 2014 list of key targets, and in December 2016 its Bengali media output included a video call to arms to avenge the persecution of Arakan Muslims. In a mid-September 2017 article in the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed’s main publication, Masood Azhar, its leader, wrote: “All Muslims of the world must unite for this cause. We have to do something and do it urgently. Myanmar’s soil is earnestly waiting for the thumping sound of the footsteps of the conquerors”.[fn]“Myanmar’s Buddhist leader is a coward, unlike bin Laden”, Daily Times, 12 September 2017; “Militant outfits look to cash in on Rohingya crisis”, Dhaka Tribune, 13 September 2017.Hide Footnote Akayed Ullah, the Bangladeshi immigrant who detonated a pipe bomb in a New York subway corridor on 11 December 2017, had visited the Rohingya camps three months earlier.[fn]“Akayed visited Kutupalong Rohingya camp in October”, Dhaka Tribune, 14 December 2017; “A mysterious act of mercy by subway bombing suspect”, The New York Times, 18 December 2017.Hide Footnote That said, jihadists have long drawn attention to the suffering of Muslims around the world – including, for example, that of the Palestinians – to inspire attacks yet frequently this tactic does not translate into jihadist inroads into the conflicts in question.

Clearly, Bangladeshi authorities must remain alert to such dangers. Overall, though, their response to the Rohingya crisis should involve less counter-terrorism than humanitarian provision for a traumatised refugee population. They should concentrate as well on preventing and containing friction between Rohingyas and host communities.

VI. The State’s Response

A. Blunt Force

Since the 2016 Dhaka attack, law enforcement agencies have raided numerous jihadist hideouts in different parts of the capital, neighbouring Narayanganj and Gazipur, Chittagong, as well as in the north. Yet many counter-terrorism operations seem focused on killing those suspected of involvement with jihadist networks, rather than disrupting or dismantling those networks and countering their influence.[fn]For example, a month after the Dhaka attack, police raided an apartment in the densely populated Kalyanpur neighbourhood, claiming that nine militants had been killed in a standoff. Since no police were injured, many in the media speculated that the encounter was staged. Similarly, in August 2016, the police claimed to have killed the alleged mastermind of the 2016 Dhaka attack, Tamim Chowdhury, and two accomplices in a gun battle. But there were allegations that Chowdhury had been in police custody for at least two weeks before the supposed encounter. “9 militants killed in Dhaka hideout”, The Daily Star, 27 July 2016; “Extremism suspect killed in Lalbagh police raid”, New Age, 11 September 2016.Hide Footnote Some of these killings reportedly have been staged as “fake encounters” or gun battles between militants and police in which militants are killed.[fn]“Bangladesh: End disappearance and secret detentions”, Human Rights Watch, 6 July 2017.Hide Footnote

Odhikar, a Bangladeshi human rights organisation, estimates that there have been as many as 2,000 such killings since 2001 by the Rapid Action Battalion and police, with 128 in 2016 and 154 in 2017. This group also says at least 330 people, including alleged militants as well as opposition BNP and JeI members, have disappeared since the Awami League government came to office in 2009.[fn]See the following Odhikar publications: “Crossfire/gunfight from 2001-2007”; “Bangladesh: annual human rights report 2016” (undated); “Enforced disappearance 2009-2017 February” (March 2017); and “Bangladesh: annual human rights report 2017” (January 2018), p. 30.Hide Footnote Many others have been detained for long periods without charge. Among the latter category were two survivors of the 2016 Dhaka attack, Hasnat Karim and Tahmid Hasib. Family members claimed that law enforcement personnel had apprehended them from their homes without warrants after images/videos of supposedly suspicious behaviour during the siege emerged on social media. Hasib was detained for almost a year before being released without charge; Karim remains in custody, charged with involvement in the attack, though officials have provided few details.[fn]David Bergman, “Bangladesh’s secret detentions: The case of the two Dhaka attack hostages”, The Wire, 12 August 2016.Hide Footnote

Since the 2016 attack, the Dhaka metropolitan police’s Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit, rather than the Rapid Action Battalion, has been given the counter-terrorism lead, a shift in authority that aims, according to officials, to build specialised counter-terrorism expertise in the force. But instead of using intelligence for operations aimed at dismantling jihadist groups, the state’s response continues to consist mostly of killing suspected militants, as is evident in recent raids in Comilla, Chittagong, Sylhet, Rajshahi and elsewhere.[fn]“New JMB Rajshahi military chief killed in gunfight”, Dhaka Tribune, 3 March 2017.Hide Footnote A district police official acknowledged that extrajudicial killings were common.[fn]

Some law enforcement officials express concern that killing rather than apprehending militants wastes opportunities to obtain vital intelligence.

Many government and law enforcement officials believe the criminal justice system incapable of dealing effectively with terrorism cases, as delays and prolonged trials often end without convictions while militants recruit and proselytise in prisons. A former Rapid Action Battalion official claimed that jailed militants established protection rackets for petty criminals, whom they eventually recruit.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Dhaka, June 2017.Hide Footnote A prison official suggested that prisons employ Islamic scholars: “I find myself at sea trying to argue religion with [detained] militants, who know a lot more about Islam than I do. How am I meant to prevent radicalisation here?”[fn]Crisis Group interview, district jail official, Chandpur, June 2017.Hide Footnote

Circumvention of the criminal justice system is clearly the wrong response, however. It undermines the state’s legitimacy, sows fear and mistrust between authorities and communities, and risks provoking a violent backlash. The culture of impunity it breeds also erodes professionalism in the security forces and in some cases appears to have encouraged other forms of criminality. Some members are involved in contract killings and kidnappings for ransom; in 2014, a spate of murders in Narayanganj involved top Rapid Action Battalion officials including a former army lieutenant colonel.[fn]In April 2014, seven people, including a Naranyanganj city councillor and a lawyer, were abducted and killed. At least 27 RAB officials, including three top officials seconded from the army, were found responsible for the contract killing commissioned by a rival politician of the ruling party. “7-murder: Nur Hossain, RAB commander Tareque, 24 others get death”, The Daily Star, 16 January 2017.Hide Footnote

Human rights activists argue that the culture of impunity around enforced disappearances and unlawful detention has a lasting impact on victims and their families and undercuts the government’s internal security objectives.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Dhaka, August 2017.Hide Footnote Extrajudicial killings feed jihadist propaganda about injustice; Ansar has shared images of those killed during the 2013 Hefazat protests through its Telegram channel to entice new recruits.[fn]

Some law enforcement officials also express concern that killing rather than apprehending militants wastes opportunities to obtain vital intelligence. A security official contended that a killing in 2015 in which he was involved might have cost law enforcement agencies an opportunity to uncover planning for and disrupt the 2016 Dhaka attack.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security officials, Dhaka, June-August 2017.Hide Footnote Other security officials said the killing of captured militants prevented investigation of suspected cells, including in regions close to Bangladesh’s border with India.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Inadequate investigations and questioning of arrested militants may lead to similarly squandered opportunities. A prominent human rights activist argued, for example, that more thorough investigations of arrested militants’ involvement in earlier attacks on foreigners could have yielded intelligence about impending attacks, including that same Dhaka attack.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, counter-terrorism officials, Chittagong, June 2017; Nur Khan Liton, human rights activist, Dhaka, August 2017.Hide Footnote

B. Following the Money

Jihadist groups raise funds from multiple sources. Militants’ families apparently contribute considerable sums for individual attacks, to hide and train operatives, and to acquire weapons. Zakat, obligatory Islamic alms for the poor, was a major funding source for the previous generation of jihadists and is still tapped by such groups.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, serving and retired security officials, Dhaka, June 2017; “A year after Gulshan attack, police are still looking for five fugitives”, Dhaka Tribune, 1 July 2017; and Crisis Group Report, The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Bangladesh’s long, porous borders with India and Myanmar pose particular challenges to countering the flow of illicit funds, some of which may end up bankrolling jihadist operations. Indeed, Bangladesh is “a trans-shipment point for drugs produced in both the ‘golden triangle’ of Southeast Asia and ‘golden crescent’ of Central Asia”.[fn]2014 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, U.S. State Department, 2014.Hide Footnote According to a former senior security official, jihadist outfits also depend on forged Indian currency from Pakistan.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Dhaka, June 2017.Hide Footnote Individuals as well as organisations from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in particular fund madrasas and mosques across Bangladesh, with some of the money apparently finding its way to jihadist groups.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen, op. cit.; “Militant funding: 17 foreign NGOs under intel surveillance”, Dhaka Tribune, 19 July 2017. See also “Saudi Arabia giving $20 million for Bangladesh mosques”, BDNews24.com, 26 September 2017.Hide Footnote

Particularly vexing is the jihadist use of hundi, an informal domestic and international money transfer mechanism. For the most part, this mechanism is benign: an estimated six million Bangladeshis working in the Middle East and South East Asia send home about $12-15 billion annually, about half of it through hundi.[fn]“Overseas employment remittances from 1976 to 2017”, Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training, Ministry of Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment, Government of Bangladesh: http://www.bmet.gov.bd/BMET/stattisticalDataAction.Hide Footnote But JMB has long run its own hundi operations that provide both profits and a secure method of moving funds.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen, op. cit.Hide Footnote Moving small sums over time is a simple way of evading detection. The central bank, Bangladesh Bank, has had marginal success in screening these transfers. More promising are its attempts to make more attractive the use of regular banking channels for remittances.

The government has taken steps to counter money laundering and terrorist financing.

The government has taken steps to counter money laundering and terrorist financing. The 2009 Anti-Terrorism Act empowered Bangladesh Bank to freeze accounts and take other actions to curb criminal activity. The Money Laundering Prevention Act of 2012 and 2013 amendments to the Anti-Terrorism Act lengthened the list of money laundering offenses and expanded the categories of reporting entities, while widening the scope of legal sanctions. The 2012 Mutual Legal Assistance Act aimed to strengthen international cooperation efforts. And Bangladesh became a member of the Asia Pacific Group on money laundering in July 2013.

These efforts have met with international approval. In February 2014, the international Financial Action Task Force removed Bangladesh from its “grey list” which includes “jurisdictions with strategic AML [Anti-Money Laundering]/CFT [Combatting the Financing of Terrorism] deficiencies that have not made sufficient progress in addressing the deficiencies”,[fn]FATF website, www.fatf-gafi.org.Hide Footnote and an October 2016 Asia Pacific Group assessment noted significant improvement in compliance with international anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing standards.[fn]“Anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing measures: Bangladesh”, Mutual Evaluation Report, Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering, October 2016; Basel AML Index Report, Basel Institute of Governance, 16 August 2017.Hide Footnote It also found that the Bangladesh Bank’s Financial Intelligence Unit effectively disseminated information to law enforcement and other agencies. The 2017 Basel anti-money laundering index, published by the Switzerland-based Babel Institute on Governance, ranked Bangladesh second in South Asia behind India.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Bangladeshi authorities now need to get better at investigating and prosecuting complex financial crimes. The state has won very few money laundering and terrorist financing convictions, though hundreds of cases are pending.[fn]“Anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing measures: Bangladesh”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Law enforcement agencies lack the capacity to collate and understand financial intelligence, including that gathered by the Bangladesh Financial Intelligence Unit, and at making use of that intelligence in their investigations.[fn]

C. Politicising Counter-terrorism

Rather than building political consensus on the threat posed by jihadist groups and how to tackle it, Prime Minister Hasina’s government has more often exploited the militants’ attacks to discredit the opposition. Awami League leaders accuse the BNP of assisting militants when it was in office from 2001-2006; some of them go so far as to accuse it of involvement in high-profile jihadist attacks since 2015.

Condemning the 2016 Dhaka attack, Hasina blamed those who “have resorted to terrorism after failing to win the hearts of people democratically”, a thinly veiled reference to the BNP and its JeI allies.[fn]“PM blames it on local, int’l quarters”, The Daily Star, 3 July 2016.Hide Footnote Even before the investigation into the August 2015 murder of Italian national Cesare Tavella started, Hasina pointed to the BNP and JeI; three weeks later the home minister, without evidence, named a BNP leader as the murder’s mastermind.[fn]Hasina was quoted as saying that the BNP and Jamaat have “definitely abetted these murders in an attempt to overshadow Bangladesh’s achievements”. “Hasina accused ‘BNP-Jamaat’ of killing foreigners in Bangladesh”, BDNews24.com, 4 October 2015.Hide Footnote In October 2016, a year after police had charged seven people, including a mid-ranking BNP member, for that murder, the Rapid Action Battalion held JMB responsible. Even now that internal government documents attribute the killing to the “neo-Jamaat-ul Mujahideen” and nothing suggests the BNP member who has been charged has ties to that group, his trial continues.[fn]Internal government documents provided to Crisis Group. “Tavella shot dead ‘by neo JMB’”, The Daily Star, 22 October 2016; “Bangladesh minister accuses BNP man of Italian’s murder”, Economic Times, 28 October 2015; “Bangladesh PM Hasina smells link of BNP-Jamaat”, The Daily Star, 5 October 2015.Hide Footnote

Notwithstanding the BNP’s mixed record of combatting militancy while in office in the 2000s, the governments’ accusations of BNP support for such groups today have little credibility and serve mainly as a way for the ruling party to tarnish its principal political rival. Similar accusations against JeI are equally politicised, as evidenced by the measures taken to force the party from politics and its base almost entirely underground. With the JeI weakened and many senior leaders executed following the war crimes trials, there is a risk that some supporters throw in their lot with harder-line groups, as avenues to pursue goals peacefully close.

The party’s student wing, Shibir, was once a key source of recruits for JMB, whose founder Shaikh Abdur Rahman was a Shibir member. One senior counter-terrorism official claimed that several former leaders of Shibir, which has a long history of violence, have joined jihadist organisations in recent years. It is, however, difficult to assess government and even nominally independent analysts’ claims of links between JeI and jihadists, particularly given the repression the JeI has suffered over the past years and the partisan agendas of many domestic observers.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, CTTC official, Dhaka, June 2017; and security analyst, January 2018. See also “New JMB’s Shibir connection”, Dhaka Tribune, 17 August 2017.Hide Footnote Leaders of JeI and its student wing deny allegations that party members have turned to jihadism, scorning those charges as a government conspiracy to discredit the party.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Jamaat-e-Islami and Islami Chhatra Shibir central leadership, Dhaka and Magura, June-August 2017.Hide Footnote A Shibir leader said: “Judicial commissions had been formed in the past to find our links to militancy and found nothing”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Islami Chhatra Shibir finance secretary, Magura, April 2017.Hide Footnote Yet suppressing the largest Islamist party could, by pushing its supporters underground, work to jihadists’ advantage.

VII. Improving the Government’s Response

A. Reforming the Criminal Justice System

Law enforcement agencies in Bangladesh rely on brute force in part because the criminal justice system is enfeebled, with poor investigative capacity, weak prosecutors and a paralysing backlog of court cases. This is particularly the case in rural communities where significant jihadist recruitment takes place and police are poorly paid, prone to corruption and lacking in basic training. Together, these factors have allowed scores, possibly hundreds, of detained militants to escape punishment.[fn]“148 ‘militants’ out on bail create fresh threat”, Protom Alo, 13 June 2017.Hide Footnote

By resorting to extrajudicial methods to overcome these problems, the state plays into jihadists’ hands, as such tactics harden popular perceptions of politicisation and score settling. A prominent ex-military security analyst said: “If extrajudicial killings continue, there is a possibility we will get more and more extremists. They can now say, ‘we told you there is no rule of law and this is the evidence’”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Major General (retired) Moniruzzaman, Dhaka, August 2017.Hide Footnote Killing alleged jihadists is doubly injurious: it validates this view while impeding intelligence gathering.

It seems some political leaders would rather continue to use the flawed justice system against rivals than reform it. But hampering the ability of the police and courts to tackle the threat presented by jihadist groups will almost certainly erode the government’s own position. To implement a more effective counter-terrorism strategy, it will need to address the causes of its deteriorating criminal justice system, notably obsolete investigation methods and resources as well as the failure to professionalise police and prosecution agencies.[fn]For detailed analysis and recommendations, see Crisis Group Report, Political Conflict, Extremism and Criminal Justice in Bangladesh, op. cit.Hide Footnote

B. Political Reconciliation and Democratic Debate

Of equal importance, the government ought to redress the acute politicisation that has created space for the re-emergence of jihadist movements and hindered efforts to tame the threat they pose. That task will require a reorientation of present exclusionary policies. The Awami League, which claims to be the sole political custodian of the country’s constitutionally mandated secularism, has painted the opposition BNP as having been soft on militancy when in government and now, in opposition, reliant on groups such as JeI, which – the government argues – are friendly to or even conveyor belts toward jihadism.

That welter of accusations is dubious on several counts. Certainly, the BNP’s track record in office was at best inauspicious; its rule between 2001-2006 saw an increase in militant activity (see Section II above). But the Awami League government’s marginalisation of the BNP and JeI ahead of the December general election is politically motivated. Khaleda Zia’s 8 February conviction and five-year sentence for corruption, whose timing suits the Awami League’s electoral planning, could prohibit her from contesting the polls and widen divisions.[fn]The chief election commissioner said Zia cannot contest the next general election unless she persuades the Supreme Court to overturn her conviction or lessen her sentence. “Khaleda can’t run polls in present context: CEC”, The Daily Star, 19 February 2018.Hide Footnote At the same time, the government is making its own concessions to Islamists, notably Hefazat, whose views – it opposes the principle of a pluralist, secular democracy; allowing women in the workplace; or appointing Hindus to key government posts – are arguably harder-line than those of JeI.[fn]Hefazat leaders deny any direct political ambitions, though they do call themselves the “kingmaker” in Bangladeshi politics. Crisis Group interview, Munir Ahmed, press secretary to Allama Shah Ahmed Shafi, amir, Hefazat-e-Islam, Chittagong, May 2017.Hide Footnote

The BNP joint secretary general warned: 'Only a return to a multiparty democratic space can ensure solutions to rising militancy'.

In January 2017, responding to criticism from Hefazat, the government agreed to remove contributions by non-Muslim and secular authors in public school textbooks. In April, the education ministry agreed to recognise qaumi madrasa higher education degrees (known as dawra-e-Hadith) as equivalent to a master’s degree, despite the absence of regulation or enforcement of education standards in the madrasas. This decision effectively opened to madrasa graduates employment opportunities that are closed to others with the same limited formal schooling. The following month, Prime Minister Hasina supported Hefazat’s demand to remove a statue of Lady Justice, which the group deemed un-Islamic, in front of the Supreme Court.[fn]Secular activists and sections of the media denounced these measures as kowtowing to Islamist hardliners. See “Removal of statue is capitulation to communalism”, The New Age, 28 May 2017; “Lady Justice statue in Bangladesh is removed after Islamist objections”, The Guardian, 26 May 2017; “To secular Bangladeshis, textbook changes are a harbinger”, The New York Times, 22 January 2017. Even an Awami League leader went so far as to say that the government was trying to buy Hefazat’s support. Crisis Group interview, Awami League advisory council member, Dhaka, May 2017.Hide Footnote These concessions are effectively giving greater currency to the Hefazat’s hardline exclusionary agenda.

The government’s targeting of BNP and JeI risks doing jihadist groups a service. Not only does it divert police resources from disrupting jihadist recruitment and planning. But, in addition, by depriving JeI of legitimate platforms for dissent and exposing it to a harsh crackdown, the government might force some JeI activists to follow exactly the path it accuses them of taking already – the path toward finding common cause with militants. The BNP joint secretary general warned: “Only a return to a multiparty democratic space can ensure solutions to rising militancy”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, Bangladesh Nationalist Party joint secretary general, Dhaka, August 2017.Hide Footnote Some in the Awami League harbour similar misgivings, but the party’s top decision-makers fear losing to the BNP in a credible election, which would be the basis of any meaningful engagement between the two parties, and thus prefer the current stalemate.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Awami League members, Dhaka, August 2017.Hide Footnote

While the Supreme Court decision on the JeI’s participation in elections appears for now difficult to reverse, the government’s crackdowns on the party and the BNP are counterproductive. Instead, the Awami League would be better served by forging consensus with the BNP on how to tackle the threat. Zia’s conviction has made such a dialogue even more elusive. Her party, whose activists have already resorted to street agitation – which could turn violent – has said it will not field candidates in December if she remains imprisoned; another virtually uncontested election would further erode government legitimacy and risk violent BNP-Awami League clashes as in 2014.[fn]“BNP rules out going to election with Khaleda in jail”, BDNews24.com, 18 February 2018.Hide Footnote

The Supreme Court could reduce Zia’s sentence on appeal to less than two years, thus removing any prohibition on her own electoral candidacy. Whatever the outcome of the appeal, in the interest of social peace, the Awami League should withdraw politically motivated corruption and criminal charges against Zia and other senior BNP officeholders and stop the repression of their supporters. The BNP should urge its cadres to exercise restraint, rather than turning to violence, and craft a compromise with the government. The alternative is continued confrontation and zero-sum politics that will increase the risks of another deeply contested election, with jihadists potentially taking advantage of any ensuing crisis or violence.

C. Curbing Recruitment: Engaging Bangladesh’s Youth

Police officers, lawyers, and others who have interacted with jihadists contend that large numbers of militants are drawn to jihadist ideas online prior to joining violent groups.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Dhaka, June-August 2017.Hide Footnote That said, there is little credible research on what drives recruitment or on the profile of those recruited, beyond approximate age group (15-35) and broad geographic location (with a heavy concentration in northern regions). Indeed, recruits show enormous diversity: from madrasa students to upper middle-class youth at private universities. A senior counter-terrorism official admitted: “We are struggling to disrupt recruitment”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Dhaka, April 2017.Hide Footnote

The government has adopted some strategies beyond law enforcement to counter the appeal of jihadism. Its approach includes public awareness campaigns and training muezzins (mosque preachers) to give anti-militancy sermons at Friday prayers.[fn]The government has inter-ministerial committees instructing various ministries, including religious affairs, culture, information, education and law, to conduct counter-extremism campaigns. Ministry records suggest that Friday sermons against militancy have been delivered at over 300,000 mosques. Prominent international clerics have been invited to speak against radicalisation, and documentaries and television advertisements with the same message have been aired. Crisis Group interviews, government officials, Dhaka, August 2017.Hide Footnote But the effectiveness of such measures remains unproven and, in any case, they are inconsistently implemented.

Little has been done to regulate the qaumi madrasas, which teach around 1.4 million students in rural and other economically deprived areas, and which continue to supply a potential, if limited, pool of recruits and sympathisers.[fn]“Modernisation of madrasa education in Bangladesh: a strategy paper”, Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, June 2011.Hide Footnote Aliya madrasas are largely state-funded and registered under the government-mandated Bangladesh Madrasa Education Board, which also designs curricula, holds exams and contracts textbook production. In contrast, the qaumi sector evades government supervision, even as security officials suggest tighter monitoring. The Awami League government’s decision to formally recognise a qaumi madrasa degree as equivalent to a master’s degree only makes these seminaries more attractive.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Awami League advisory council member, Dhaka, June 2017.Hide Footnote To be sure, the vast majority of madrasa students do not turn to jihadism, but the lack of government regulation allows for the promotion of sectarian intolerance and, in some cases, even incitement to violence. Until there is greater state oversight over the madrasa curriculum, the government should rescind its master’s degree decision.

The challenge goes well beyond the madrasa sector, though. Private university campuses like North South’s have also seen students drawn to jihadism, whereupon they have perpetrated some of the most lethal attacks at home and/or travelled to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria.[fn]“Latest Bangladeshi IS fighter killed in Iraq is Taz Rahman”, Dhaka Tribune, 12 May 2017; Saroj Kumar Rath, “Wolf-Pack terrorism: Inspired by ISIS, made in Bangladesh”, YaleGlobal Online, 5 July 2016.Hide Footnote Yet security agencies appear far more focused on countering opposition to the government than disrupting jihadism recruitment on campuses. While political polarisation deepens and the partisan crackdowns on the Awami League’s rivals continue, that is likely to remain the case.

VIII. Conclusion

Although there was no major attack in 2017, the potential for further jihadist violence in Bangladesh remains. The resurgence of jihadist groups over the past few years has been facilitated if not accelerated by years of political deadlock. While there is no direct line between toxic politics and the rise of jihadist violence, a bitterly divided polity, between those espousing secularism and those emphasising Bangladesh’s Muslim identity, and a brutal and highly partisan policing and justice system, nonetheless has opened space for jihadist groups. The politicised trials of senior JeI leaders contributed to the environment in which Ansar emerged. The BNP’s alliance with the JeI, whose activists, along with BNP cadres, have been responsible for much of the worst political violence since 2013, raises understandable concerns. Yet that violence was provoked by the attempt to drive JeI underground, itself the byproduct of a zero-sum game between the two largest parties.

Ending the deadlock is even more urgent today as Bangladesh confronts a new generation of potentially more dangerous jihadists with apparent links to transnational terror groups such as ISIS. Instead, Sheikh Hasina’s government has made no serious attempt to reconcile with the mainstream opposition, opting instead to waste police resources on repression of opponents. This choice has undermined both democracy and security, with countrywide violence bringing the country to a standstill for months at a time. Given the jihadist revival since then, another breakdown of law and order would almost certainly play into the hands of groups like Ansar and JMB. If the government does not change course, such forces may experience another resurgence.

Brussels, 28 February 2018

Appendix A: Map of Bangladesh

Map of Bangladesh UNITEDNATIONS/Department of Peacekeeping Operations, no. 3711 Rev. 2, January 2004.