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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.


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, 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, 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, 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 (, 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:; Wilayat Abyan, June 2015:; Wilayat Taiz, January 2016: 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, 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.
Burkina soldiers carry the coffin of servicemen killed during an attack in Nassoumbou, in the northern province of Soum, in Ouagadougou on 20 December 2016. AFP/Ahmed Ouoba
Report 254 / Africa

The Social Roots of Jihadist Violence in Burkina Faso’s North

Jihadist violence in the West African Sahel has now spread to the north of Burkina Faso. The response of Ouagadougou and its partners must go beyond the obvious religious and security dimensions of the crisis, and any solution must take into account deep-rooted social and local factors.

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Executive Summary

Long spared by the Sahel’s armed groups, Burkina Faso now faces increasingly frequent and lethal attacks in its north. Although this insecurity in large part is an extension of the Malian conflict, the crisis has strong local dynamics. Ansarul Islam, the group behind much of the violence, which often is portrayed as tied to jihadists elsewhere in the Sahel, is first and foremost a movement challenging the prevailing social order in Soum province, in Burkina’s Sahel region. While military operations reasserted the state’s control in the spring of 2017, the crisis is far from over. Ouagadougou and its foreign partners recognise that their response requires more than military offensives and that a definitive resolution of the crisis hinges in part on the situation in Mali. However, their approach needs to better take account of the local and social roots of the crisis, which are more profound than its religious and security dimensions.

In its early stages, Ansarul Islam, founded by Malam Ibrahim Dicko, a preacher from Soum, is a manifestation of widespread discontent at the province’s social order. For years, Malam promoted equality between classes and questioned the dominance of traditional chiefs and the monopolisation of religious authority by marabout families – religious leaders – whom he accuses of enriching themselves at the population’s expense. This rhetoric earned him a wide audience, especially among young people and socially disadvantaged sectors of the population. His turn to violence lost him many followers, but his movement retains enough support to continue a low-intensity insurgency against local and national authorities. Reports of his death during the spring 2017 military operations have not been confirmed and in any case would not end the crisis.

A product of local socio-political and cultural conditions, Ansarul Islam is at least as much a social uprising as it is a religious movement.

A product of local socio-political and cultural conditions, Ansarul Islam is at least as much a social uprising as it is a religious movement. It is less a group critical of modernity than a movement that rejects traditions it believes archaic. It expresses the grievances of a silent majority that holds neither political power nor religious authority. Ansarul Islam uses Islam to frame its opposition to an ossified social order that breeds widespread frustration. Nor is the movement primarily a self-defence group for Fulani, who are in the majority in the Sahel region. Ethnic and identity-based grievances for now assume a marginal role in its discourse.

The distant relationship between state and populations in Burkina’s Sahel region also fuels the crisis. The contrast between the north’s economic potential and its lack of infrastructure feeds a sense of abandonment amongst its population. As in central Mali, local communities see state representatives and security forces as foreigners trying to enrich themselves rather than state agents responsible for providing services. As a result, Soum inhabitants are reluctant to cooperate with security forces who are often from other provinces and whose behaviour is sometimes brutal.

The northern Burkina crisis is also more than a mere reflection of the situation in central Mali. Ansarul Islam uses Mali as a support base and similarities on both sides of the border exist. But the surge of violence supposedly committed in the name of jihad distracts from conflict’s extremely local and social dimensions and the ability of armed groups to exploit social divides. Insecurity in northern Burkina is due not only to the development deficit, the central state’s failure to understand a territory in its peripheries, or the spillover from its neighbour’s war. It is above all the result of a profound social crisis in the north. Divisions between masters and subjects, rulers and ruled, ancient and modern provide the base upon which Malam Dicko’s popularity grew.

A definitive resolution of the crisis depends in part on Mali’s stabilisation as well as the implementation of effective development plans by the government and its partners. More importantly, though, it requires devising a more balanced social order and for local communities to resolve their differences. In this context, the government’s efforts to address the crisis should factor in the following points:

  • Formulate responses that take into account the social and local dimensions of the crisis. While the local order continues to provoke frustration and conflict, ending the crisis will be hard. The scope for government action in this respect is limited: it should not seek to upend a centuries-old social order. The onus should be on local actors to devise solutions adapted to local circumstances. The government and its international partners can at best encourage intercommunal and inter-generational dialogue.
  • Reduce the gulf between security forces and authorities and the local population. Several measures could help: improving intelligence and providing informants better protection; encouraging security forces and the civil service to recruit Fulani (without imposing quotas); boosting joint civil-military activities; prioritising the appointment of Fulani speakers as civil servants and security officials in the Sahel; and severely punishing abuses by officials.
  • Place greater emphasis in the Sahel region emergency program – the development component of the government’s response – on promoting herding, improving justice provision and fighting corruption. Supporting livestock breeding and addressing the dysfunction in the judicial system and the scourge of corruption in the administration would reduce negative perceptions of the state and show it can be useful to the public.
  • Work toward strengthening, in the long term, judicial and police cooperation between Mali and Burkina. This would facilitate investigations that have ramifications in both countries and the management and prosecution of prisoners and suspects.

Ouagadougou/Dakar, 12 October 2017

I. Introduction

In 2015, Burkina joined the group of Sahel countries under attack from armed and criminal groups that are mainly based in Mali but that also operate from several countries in the region. The area most affected by these attacks is the Sahel region, in the north of the country, on the border with Mali and Niger. However, it was only after the attack on Nassoumbou, in Soum province in December 2016, that the Burkina authorities finally understood that the crisis was caused by local dynamics as well as by the crisis in neighbouring Mali.[fn]A counter-terrorism battalion of several hundred men is based at Nassoumbou.Hide Footnote This report focuses on the province of Soum, epicentre of the conflict and birthplace of the Ansarul Islam group led by Malam Ibrahim Dicko, but also examines the situation in other provinces in the Sahel region (Oudalan, Séno and Yagha) as well as along the country’s other borders, which are also vulnerable.[fn]The northern part of Burkina is composed of two administrative regions: the North and the Sahel. The latter is divided into four provinces: Soum, Oudalan, Séno and Yagha. To avoid confusion, this report uses “Sahel region” to refer to this administrative region and “the Sahel” to refer to the area that stretches from Mauritania to Sudan. Similarly, it uses “the north” to refer to the northern part of the country and “the North region” to refer to the administrative region.Hide Footnote

Soum is mainly populated by Fulani, Burkina’s second largest ethnic group. According to the 2006 census, the figures from which need to be treated with caution, the mother tongue of 56 per cent of the Sahel region’s population is Fulfulde, the Fulani language. Several interlocutors estimate that around 70 to 75 per cent of the population in the Sahel region is Fulani.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, inhabitants of Soum, Ouagadougou, May 2017; local authorities, Djibo, May 2017. “Recensement général de la population et de l’habitation (RGPH) 2006. Analyse des résultats définitifs. Thème 2: Etat et structure de la population”, Institut national de la statistique et de la démographie, October 2009.Hide Footnote The main subdivisions of this ethnic group are the noble classes and groups descended from slaves, called Rimaibé. The Rimaibé were originally indigenous population groups who were conquered and assimilated by the Fulani. Today, Fulani and Rimaibé are included in the same Fulani ethnic group. They share the same culture, the same language and often have identical family names. Nevertheless, there is still a clear divide. In the words of one Fulani representative: “Everybody knows their place”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Fulani representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote In Soum, the indigenous inhabitants, the Kurumba, also called the Fulsé, are in a minority. Some Mossi (Burkina’s majority ethnic group) and members of other groups also live in the province.

The Sahel region’s precolonial history explains its current social and political organisation.

The Sahel region’s precolonial history explains its current social and political organisation.[fn]See the work of Professor Hamidou Diallo, “Le foyer de Wuro-Saba au Jelgooji (Burkina Faso) et la quête d’une suprématie islamique (1858-2000)”, in Muriel Gomez-Perez, Islam politique au Sud du Sahara. Identités, discours et enjeux (2009), p. 401; and “Naissance et évolution des pouvoirs peuls au Sahel burkinabè (Jelgooji, Liptaako et Yaaga) du XVIIIe à la fin du XIXe”, in Hamidou Diallo, Moussa Willy Bantenga, Le Burkina Faso passé et présent (2015), pp. 97-114. Crisis Group interviews, historian, Ouagadougou, January and May 2017.Hide Footnote Between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, Fulani herders from the Inner Niger Delta evicted sedentary farmers and established Fulani domination. The new social hierarchy included nobles and royal families, marabout (Muslim preacher) families, artisans, blacksmiths, weavers, griots (West African story tellers), slave descendants, etc.[fn]There are rivalries between the most important marabout families. The Cissé, considered to be the true and legitimate holders of religious authority and the Doukouré, Marka who came from Mali in the colonial period, belong to two rival branches of the Tijanyia brotherhood. Crisis Group interviews, historian, former senior civil servant, Ouagadougou, May 2017. Jean-Louis Triaud, David Robinson, La Tijâniyya: une confrérie musulmane à la conquête de l’Afrique (Paris, 2005).Hide Footnote The Fulani never managed to establish a single political entity,[fn]The region was divided into the emirates of Liptako, Yagha and Jelgooji. The latter, which corresponds to the province of Soum, was itself divided into Djibo and Baraboulé chefferies.Hide Footnote but used Islam as a route to emancipation from animist sedentary peoples. This resembles the current situation in which groups with a Fulani majority are in armed conflict with a central government dominated by the Bambara in Mali and the Mossi in Burkina. The current social revolt in Soum is not therefore trying to restore the Massina Empire, of which they were never part, or the Kingdom of Jelgooji, which never existed as a unified political entity, but rather a continuation of past struggles using other methods and a reflection of the divisions that have troubled the province down through history.

This report, which continues Crisis Group’s research into how to address the increase in violent extremism, analyses the root causes of the crisis, which has its origins in an ossified and unequal social order.[fn]For previous Crisis Group reports on jihadism, see the Crisis Group Special Report N°1, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016.Hide Footnote It emphasises the need to provide a long-term response that is not only military and that takes account of the social dimensions of the crisis. It also evaluates the military response initiated at the beginning of 2017. Although these military operations have reasserted government control, the authorities and their partners have no grounds to adopt a triumphalist attitude. The attacks continue and even if Malam should die, the jihadist groups know how to adapt to the new situation better than the armies that fight them. This report is based on about 50 interviews with members of the security forces, local and national authorities, the government and the opposition, civil society, researchers and the population of Soum. These interviews were mainly conducted between January and May 2017 in Ouagadougou and Djibo.

President of the Centre of Quranic Masters of Burkina Faso (right) and a colleague speak to Crisis Group's West Africa Analyst Cynthia Ohayon in Ouagadougou, on 10 October 2017. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

II. The Social Roots of the Crisis

A. Malam Ibrahim Dicko, from the Radio to Jihad

The main protagonist of the crisis in Soum is the founder of Ansarul Islam, Malam Ibrahim Dicko. His real name is Boureima Dicko and he was born into a marabout family in a place called Soboulé, in the province of Soum. He is (or was) about 40 years old. Malam, who is in fragile health, studied at conventional and Koranic schools in Burkina and Mali, and went on to teach in Niger.[fn]According to one of his former colleagues, Malam is frail, like a lost child and incapable of carrying out physical chores. He is also diabetic. “Malam” means “marabout” in the Hausa language. Crisis Group interviews, former elected representative, Fulani representative, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote In 2009, he began preaching in many villages in Soum, where he appointed local representatives,[fn]Crisis Group interview, former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote and on two popular radio stations, La Voix du Soum and La radio lutte contre la désertification (LRCD). He preached at a now-closed mosque in Djibo on Fridays.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian worker, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

In 2012, the authorities officially recognised his association, al-Irchad.[fn]“Comment est né Ansaroul Islam, premier groupe djihadiste de l’Histoire du Burkina Faso”, Le Monde, 11 April 2017.Hide Footnote Malam’s skill as an orator and anti-establishment discourse drew a large audience throughout the province (see section II.B).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, deputy, former elected representative, humanitarian worker, Fulani representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote He found it easy to fund the almost daily radio broadcasting of his sermons, apparently with external financial aid.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017. Some Burkina commercial radio stations sell broadcasting slots.Hide Footnote Burkina’s transition government blocked funding for the construction of several mosques, which fuelled the resentment of Malam and his followers toward the sons of marabouts and princes of Soum, whom they accused of using their influence in Ouagadougou to prevent the construction of mosques connected to al-Irchad.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Fulani representative, opposition member, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

The radical nature of Malam’s speeches led the local, traditional and religious authorities to ring alarm bells, but nobody took any genuine preventative action.

The radical nature of Malam’s speeches led the local, traditional and religious authorities to ring alarm bells, but nobody took any genuine preventative action.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former official, Ouagadougou, January 2017; former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017. A European Union report published in September 2016 mentions a certain “Malam Ibrahima”, a well-known radical preacher in Soum. “Facteurs et acteurs de la radicalisation dans les zones frontalières au Burkina Faso”, Regional European Union Programme for the Prevention of Violent Extremism in the Sahel and the Maghreb.Hide Footnote For a while, Malam was reportedly placed under the surveillance of security services during Blaise Compaoré’s regime, but they probably lost track of him following the destabilisation of the security apparatus caused by the fall of the regime.[fn]Crisis Group interview, official in the former regime, Ouagadougou, May 2017. Andrew McGregor, “Islamist Insurgency in Burkina Faso: A Profile of Malam Ibrahim Dicko”, Aberfoyle International Security, 30 April 2017.Hide Footnote He was arrested by the French Operation Serval in September 2013 in Tessalit, northern Mali, in possession of a large sum of euros, according to some sources.[fn]“Qui est l’imam Ibrahim Dicko, la nouvelle terreur du nord du Burkina?”, Jeune Afrique, 9 January 2017. A security source mentioned the sum of €9,000. Crisis Group interviews, security source, Fulani representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote After a spell in prison in Bamako, he was released in 2015.[fn]Several hypotheses are circulating about the reasons for his release: the Malian justice system was bribed; he was released because he was ill; influential political leaders intervened to secure his release. Crisis Group interviews, former official, Ouagadougou, January 2017; Fulani representative, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote In Mali, he is reported to have met his mentor Hamadoun Koufa, leader of the Macina Liberation Front, an armed group active in central Mali, during 2015.[fn]Andrew McGregor, op. cit.Hide Footnote

At the beginning of 2016, the emir of Djibo and the grand imam, whose daughter Malam married, disowned him.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Fulani representative, humanitarian worker, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote He then repudiated his wife and took to the bush, losing most of his followers in the process. Only a close circle of loyal supporters followed him to Mali for training.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian worker, Ouagadougou, local elected representative, Djibo, May 2017. At the end of 2016, rumours circulated according to which Malam’s group proposed to pay its members CFA70,000 (€107) per week for training in Mali. The monthly minimum wage in Burkina Faso is CFA33,000 (€50). Crisis Group interview, Fulani representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote From there, he tried to eliminate his former comrades.[fn]He ordered the killing of his former right hand man, Hamadoun Tamboura, alias Hamadoun Boly. Crisis Group interviews, local elected representative, civil society representatives, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote Ansarul Islam has a strong tendency toward settling accounts, which led one locally elected representatives to fear that a “cycle of vengeance” would be established in the long term.[fn]Crisis Group interview, local elected representative, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote The attack on the Nassoumbou military base on 16 December 2016, reportedly led by Ansarul Islam and the Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) cost the lives of twelve Burkina soldiers and made Ansarul Islam’s existence official.[fn]Officially given its seal of approval by the Islamic State at the end of 2016, the ISGS operates mainly in the so-called three borders zone (Mali, Burkina, Niger) known as Liptako-Gourma, and is led by Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui, a former dissident member of al-Mourabitoun. His links with Ansarul Islam are unclear but security sources believe that the two groups organised the attack on Nassoumbou together.Hide Footnote

In June 2017, the unauthenticated publication of a Facebook page claiming to be from Ansarul Islam said that Jafar Dicko, Malam’s younger brother, had succeeded him at the head of the movement. This information corroborated the feeling among Burkina security sources that Malam may have died of wounds sustained during the military offensives in the spring. In the absence of formal proof or the confirmation or otherwise by Ansarul Islam, doubts remain.

B. The Challenge to an Ossified and Unequal Social Order

Whether Malam is dead or alive, his ideas and dissent have swept the province and become firmly established. First, he denounces marabout families for enriching themselves by using their status of sole legitimate holders of religious authority to extort money from the population. This reflected the division between the traditional marabout families, who have historic legitimacy and within which the imamate is passed down on a hereditary basis, and a new generation of Muslim scholars who believe that religious authority should no longer be the prerogative of a minority. Malam challenges the right of the imams from these families to be the only ones authorised to lead prayers or give opinions on religious matters, especially as they do not always have the required knowledge. Mastery of Arabic lends credibility to this new generation of scholars in the eyes of the population. Malam also denounces the all-powerful nature of traditional chefferies (traditional leaders).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, historian, former minister, inhabitant of Soum, Fulani representative, former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017; local authorities, political representatives, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote

This challenge to the social order drives the questioning of traditional practices that, according to Malam, are not prescribed by Islam, such as gifts of money to marabouts at ceremonies, dowries or the organisation of costly parties to celebrate marriages and baptisms. A marriage can cost as much as CFA500,000 (€760), ten times the urban monthly minimum wage.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote This rhetoric prompts support from the most disadvantaged because it removes a financial burden. Malam also contests the hierarchical relationships between descendants of masters, the Fulani, and the descendants of slaves, the Rimaibé. Although slavery was abolished in the colonial period, there is still a marked division between these two groups.

Malam justifies his anti-establishment discourse by affirming it is in line with pure Islam and not perverted by tradition. For example, he says social inequalities are contrary to Islam. He uses Islam to challenge an ossified and unequal social order and practices that are no longer in line with the aspirations of the population. In this region, the Muslim religion is more of a tradition than a religious practice per se. It is not uncommon for princes to drink alcohol and it is forbidden to greet anyone by saying “salam aleikoum” in the courts of the chiefs.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Fulani representative, former senior official, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

Although Malam’s movement is mainly composed of Fulani and Rimaibé, it is not strongly ethnic in character.

Although Malam’s movement is mainly composed of Fulani and Rimaibé, it is not strongly ethnic in character. His discourse certainly calls on the Fulani to defend themselves from the many humiliations to which they are subjected, although he does not openly say this in his sermons. But when he preaches equality between the Fulani and the Rimaibé, he is trying to reduce ethnic divisions.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Fulani representative, former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Moreover, there are not only Fulani and Rimaibé in his movement.[fn]There are also reportedly Songhai, Mossi and Fulsé. A Fulani representative tells how assailants associated with Malam spoke in Mooré, a language that not many Fulani from the Sahel region can speak well. The teacher killed in March 2017, Salif Badini, a Fulsé, was a former member of Malam’s group. Crisis Group interviews, journalist, diplomats, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Most of his followers are Fulani and Rimaibé because his sermons are in Fulfulde and most inhabitants of the Sahel region are from these communities, both of them Fulfulde-speaking. Malam also says “we are the Rimaibé of the whites”, revealing an unsurprising anti-Western dimension.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Fulani representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

In 2009-2010, Malam’s sermons had a considerable impact throughout Soum. A revealing anecdote illustrates his success: an old elected representative of the province tells how a party activist one day suggested postponing their meeting, because “Malam is on the radio”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Malam lost most of his followers when he resorted to violence,[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local authorities, political representatives, Djibo, former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote which suggests that although his discourse was successful, not many people believe that the armed struggle can provide a solution. Some of his ideas have taken hold in Soum. For example, it is now rare for a marriage to involve a party with dancing, flutes and drums as per the Fulani tradition.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former elected representative, marabout, Fulani representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

His discourse has proved particularly attractive to young people and the more disadvantaged social sectors because he styles himself as a “defender of the poor” and a “liberator” who wants to lighten the weight of archaic and restrictive traditions.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, deputy, Fulani representative, former elected representative, marabout, Ouagadougou, local elected representative, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote The Rimaibé, the lowest social class in Fulani society in Soum, are naturally very receptive to his calls for equality.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local authorities, local elected representatives, Djibo, May 2017; Rimaibé marabouts, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote His success reflects a generational division between older people, who are inclined to preserve tradition, and young people, who are ready to challenge the status quo as they seek to find a place for themselves in society. The same former elected representative tells how, during the Tabaski festival, a young follower of Malam criticised the practice according to which imams are the first to sacrifice their sheep. Those close to the imam belittled him and said he should not talk about the imam in this way.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

While Malam was head of the al-Irchad association, it attracted support from government employees, especially teachers. Al-Irchad helped some of them to repay debts as contracting debt is contrary to Islam.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local authority, local elected representative, civil servants, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote Some teachers were implicated in smuggling illegal goods, which would explain Ansarul Islam’s wish to eliminate them and stop them from denouncing their former comrades.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior civil servant, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote This gives credence to the impression that Ansarul Islam is targeting schools. However, although some schools have been threatened (although there have been no claims of responsibility), the attacks on teachers seem to be reprisals against former comrades (and potential informants to the security forces) rather than a wish to attack Western schools.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior civil servant, Ouagadougou, civil servant, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote The teacher killed at the beginning of March 2017, Salif Badini, was a former al-Irchad member and he had reportedly become an informer of the security forces.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior civil servant, journalist, diplomat, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

The Ansarul Islam phenomenon is therefore the product of socio-political and cultural realities in Soum. It expresses the grievances of the silent majority that holds neither political power nor religious authority. It is not so much an Islamist challenge to modernity as a rejection of traditions that perpetuate an ossified society that breeds frustration. This phenomenon, which has deep local roots, seems to have attracted support from groups in neighbouring Mali, which gives it regional ramifications.

C. A Distant Relationship with the Government

Local perception of the government as being distant and incapable of providing services also explains the increasing support for Malam’s movement. People feel that the government has abandoned the Sahel region and has not made the best of its economic potential. However, the Sahel region has the second lowest individual poverty rate in the country.[fn]The Sahel region has a poverty rate of 21 per cent, compared to 40 per cent in the country as a whole. “Profil de pauvreté et d’inégalités. Enquête multisectorielle continue (EMC) 2014”, Institut national de la statistique et de la démographie (INSD), November 2015, p. 30.Hide Footnote It is more the contrast between the region’s rich agricultural, pastoral and mining resources and its lack of development that causes frustration.

Poor infrastructure, especially the roads, a limited number of health centres and schools, lack of water and electricity supply make it seem that “all the indicators are in the red”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian worker, Ouagadougou, economic operators, Djibo, May 2017. In 2014, the Sahel region came last in Burkina for access to basic services in less than 30 minutes. The primary school attendance rate is the lowest in the country (32.7 per cent), compared to 73.9 per cent in the country as a whole. “La region du Sahel en chiffres”, Ministry of Economy and Finance, Sahel Region Department, 2015.Hide Footnote The drought and the low water tables hold back the region’s main economic activities, which are agriculture and livestock farming.[fn]Many livestock farmers feel they have to migrate, while others have lost their animals and are employed as herders. This represents a step backwards socially and causes frustration. Crisis Group interviews, security source, opposition member, Fulani representative, former minister, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Djibo, the province’s administrative centre, is home to the country’s biggest cattle market, but the town’s roads have yet to be asphalted.[fn]The road is asphalted as far as Koungoussi. The bad condition of the road means it sometimes takes more than four hours to drive the 95km from Koungoussi to Djibo. Asphalting is under way and should be finished by the end of 2018. The funds for this work were reportedly misappropriated on several occasions. Crisis Group interview, local authority, Djibo, May 2017; Crisis Group email correspondence, Fulani representative, May 2017.Hide Footnote The mining boom showed how foreigners exploit the region’s extensive subsoil resources with no benefits accruing to local people.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, deputy, Ouagadougou, June 2016; traditional authority, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote Reflecting the feeling of abandonment by the government, several interlocutors in Djibo called for the government to tackle Soum’s remoteness by raising its administrative status from province to region.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, economic operators, political representatives, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote These problems are aggravated by the humanitarian crisis caused by the increasing insecurity.

The population of the Sahel region has a negative view of the government.

The population of the Sahel region has a negative view of the government. A former elected representative summarised it in this way: “People are really afraid of the authorities”. They think the government is more inclined to look after itself rather than look after them and that is prepared to use force to do so.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Historically reluctant to send their children to “French” schools, the Fulani often find it more difficult to find their way around an administrative system that is based on the French model and to understand and demand their rights. Few members of the civil service and the security forces sent to the Sahel region have a good command of Fulfulde. The language barrier increases the gap between the administration and the public. Soum’s inhabitants stress the difficulty of obtaining civil status documents and the authorities’ inability to help herders retrieve their stolen livestock.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, economic operators, Djibo, Fulani representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Although civil servants have long perceived the appointment to posts in the Burkina Sahel as punishment, many of them have become rich on the proceeds of trafficking, corruption and racketeering.[fn]For example, a farmer who cuts down a single branch from a tree in a protected forest can incur a fine of CFA50,000 (€76). This money is usually pocketed by water and forest rangers. Crisis Group interviews, deputy, opposition member, Ouagadougou, civil society representatives, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote

In the Sahel region and beyond, there is a sense of victimisation among the Fulani, who are present throughout Burkina. Some complain of under-representation among the political and administrative elite and deplore the fact that, in their eyes, state institutions (justice, administration, security forces) discriminate in favour of other communities whenever there is a dispute.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security source, Ouagadougou, June 2016; Fulani representatives, Ouagadougou, October 2016; opposition member, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

This difficult Fulani relationship with the government complicates the fight against Ansarul Islam. From the start, the security forces found it difficult to secure the cooperation of the public, whether because some of them support the movement, while others refuse to inform on their own people, or because Ansarul Islam has established a climate of terror. The arrival of military reinforcements has gone some way to reassure the population and several interlocutors said that the population was slightly more inclined to help the security forces. For example, the security forces are trying to be more discreet when they contact their informants.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local authorities, Djibo, former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Nevertheless, distrust remains, and Ansarul Islam is still said to have supporters in the villages. The security forces still complain of a lack of public support and cooperation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former elected representative, security source, marabout, Ouagadougou, local elected representative, Djibo, May 2017; telephone interview, security source, June 2017.Hide Footnote

People are worried about the way the security forces will behave and these fears may increase now that military reinforcements have arrived. Our interlocutors deplored the arbitrary arrest and ill-treatment of local people, which may strengthen the feeling of injustice and alienation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former official, Ouagadougou, January 2017; Fulani representative, security source, humanitarian worker, diplomat, Ouagadougou, May 2017; local elected representative, religious leader, Djibo, May 2017. A Human Rights Watch report, which denounced human rights violations by the Malian and Burkina security forces in the fight against jihadism, confirmed these fears. “Mali: Unchecked Abuses in Military Operations”, Human Rights Watch, 8 September 2017.Hide Footnote The security forces say they sometimes arrest an entire group to avoid the impression that those who are allowed to go free are informants and therefore stop them becoming targets for Ansarul Islam.[fn]Crisis Group interview, local elected representative, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote Whether or not that is true, it is nonetheless the case that the people of Soum feel stigmatised and this represents a real danger.

D. An Especially Vulnerable Province on the Border with Mali

In some respects, the situation in Soum resembles that in the central region of Mali, a country with which Burkina shares a border of more than 1,000km. The Islamist leader Hamadoun Kouffa and Malam Ibrahim Dicko, who know each other, have had similar careers and have a similar discourse. Both preached in villages and on the radio and criticised the social order, the local elites and the government.[fn]For more on central Mali, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°238, Central Mali: an Uprising in the Making, 6 July 2016.Hide Footnote However, the situation in Burkina is different to that in Mali. Radical groups in central Mali seem to have drawn their support more from free nomadic pastoralists than from the Rimaibé, and they seek to broaden their following by disseminating sermons in other languages as well as in Fulfulde. The crisis in Soum has so far remained at a low intensity. Although it has created a climate of terror, Ansarul Islam has not managed to plunge the entire province in violence. For the moment, the Soum population is generally not inclined to take up arms.

There have been several attempts to establish terrorist cells in Burkina. The Katiba Ansar Dine Sud tried, unsuccessfully, to create a cell in the West, in the area where the attack on Samorogouan (Hauts-Bassins region) took place in October 2015. To the East, members of al-Mourabitoun, a dissident group that split from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, reportedly tried to establish a base in the Tapoa Forest. They failed because they are not so much at home in the forest compared to the desert and because military cooperation between Niger and Burkina works better than between Mali and Burkina (see section III.C.). The failure was also due to the fact that, contrary to in Soum, the populations of eastern and western Burkina are more stable and not ready for war.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, January 2017. Al-Mourabitoun was the product of an alliance between the Brigade des Enturbannés, a dissident al-Qaeda group in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and part of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa in 2013. At the end of 2015, al-Mourabitoun rejoined AQIM and in 2017, the two groups joined others to form the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (GSIM). See Marc Mémier, “AQMI et Al-Mourabitoun, le djihad sahélien réunifié?”, Etudes de l’Institut Français des Relations Internationales (IFRI), January 2017.Hide Footnote

It would be wrong to interpret the situation in northern Burkina as an extension of the Malian conflict, even though that conflict increases the availability of weapons and provides a safe haven for Ansarul Islam’s men. The crisis in Soum is not simply a mirror image of the situation in central Mali. It is mainly the result of acute local tensions. Several factors make it vulnerable and explain why this province is by far the most affected province in Burkina Faso.

The lack of an alternative narrative and the weakening of religious and traditional leaders are allowing Malam’s rhetoric to gain ground.

The traditional and religious authorities of Soum are not particularly involved in the fight against radicalism.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, political representatives, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote Unlike the neighbouring province of Séno, Soum has fewer Muslim intellectuals and scholars capable of combating the ideas that encourage violence and intolerance.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, historian, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote The absence of a central traditional power, strong rivalries between the three chefferies of Djibo, Baraboulé and Tongomayel and their politicisation further complicate their role.[fn]The emir of Djibo’s brother is the town’s deputy mayor, Oumarou Dicko. Crisis Group interviews, former official, historian, humanitarian worker, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote The lack of an alternative narrative and the weakening of religious and traditional leaders are allowing Malam’s rhetoric to gain ground.

Soum suffers from a lack of development and infrastructure. In contrast, Dori, capital of Séno province, received more investment because it is the region’s administrative centre and because the 11 December national holiday was held there in 2013. Dori houses the regional hospital, while the January 2016 abduction of Ken Elliot, a prominent local Australian-Burkina doctor, reduced health-care provision in Djibo.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local authorities, Djibo, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Finally, Djibo is closer to the Malian border (about 60km) than Dori (about 160km). Soum also lacks political leaders with a national profile, while Séno has long benefitted from the influence of the charismatic former mayor of Dori, the late Hama Arba Diallo.

Soum’s vulnerability is also due to historical reasons. The division between the Fulani and the Rimaibé is more marked there than in the neighbouring provinces of Séno and Yagha. It is therefore logical that the challenge to social inequalities should find greater acceptance there. The emirates of Séno and Yagha were more homogeneous than that of Jelgooji (now Soum), which was affected by divisions between families and chefferies. In Séno and Yagha, the longer-standing spread of Islam allowed it to better resist external influences.[fn]Crisis Group interview, historian, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Geographical factors also play a part, since it is more difficult to find cover on the great plains of Séno and Yagha than in the forest located between Djibo and the Malian border. Finally, animism prevails in eastern and western Burkina, while 95 per cent of the population in the Sahel region follows Islam. All this helps explain why Islamic discourse has had greater traction in the Sahel region.

III. A Considerable Military Effort

At the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017, the number of attacks in Soum increased and it looked as though the government might lose control over parts of the North. In the spring of 2017, the security forces began to reassert control, but were unable to eradicate the threat, as shown by the persistence of targeted killings and the increasing number of attacks (see chronology in Appendix C). The slow and problematic reconstruction of the security apparatus following the fall of the Compaoré regime explains the difficulties in providing an adequate response. Strengthening regional cooperation is an essential component of this response.

A. The Sahel Region under Threat

In the spring of 2017, the government’s decision to send military reinforcements to the North and undertake joint operations with Malian and French forces in Operation Barkhane allowed the Burkina army to gain the upper hand and go some way to reassuring the local population.[fn]The Groupement des forces anti-terroristes (GFAT), which became the Groupement des forces de sécurisation du Nord (GFSN), has between 500 and 1,600 men. Operations Panga (Burkina, Mali, Barkhane) and Bayard (Barkhane) destroyed major logistical bases in Foulsaré Forest and led to arrests. Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, security sources, humanitarian worker, inhabitant of Soum, Ouagadougou, May 2017; local elected representative, religious leader, Djibo, May 2017. Operation Barkhane, which involved 4,000 French soldiers, followed Operation Serval in July 2014. Based in N’Djamena, Chad, it fights armed terrorist groups in the Sahara-Sahel Belt.Hide Footnote Visits by several ministers to the region sent a strong signal that the government would not withdraw. Even the opposition recognises the “progress in the fight against terrorism”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, opposition member, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote However, it is not clear to the security forces how they are going to maintain the pressure and ensure their long-term presence.[fn]A security source said: “we will be in this quagmire for a long time”, while another recognised that “There is a lot to do”. Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote The rainy season, which makes roads unusable and isolates the population between July and October, has not brought the lull that some observers were expecting.

The capacity of jihadist groups to reform, replace an incapacitated leader and formulate new strategies and courses of action should not be underestimated.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Even if Ansarul Islam has been weakened, it might still be able to take advantage of this breeding ground for recruitment. The remaining members might be even more determined. The possible death of their founder could galvanise them and make them more violent and less inclined to compromise. In the words of one security source: “We need to pay attention to how we kill this monster”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote The fear and the threat remain, as shown by the increase in the number of targeted killings and attacks that have used a weapon not seen before in Burkina: improvised explosive devices, used for the first time in August 2017.[fn]Some of the people killed in July were members of Ansarul Islam and sought by the security forces. “Meurtres dans le nord du Burkina: Ansarul Islam victime d’une guerre intestine?”, Radio France Internationale (RFI), 26 July 2017; “Burkina: Un véhicule de l’armée saute sur un engin explosif dans le Soum”, Burkina 24, 23 September 2017.Hide Footnote

In addition, sending reinforcements to Soum reduces the number of soldiers available to protect other regions. Armed groups might therefore launch attacks elsewhere. The abduction of civil servants in May 2017 in Oudalan, the attacks on two gendarmerie posts in the West (Djibasso and Toéni) in September 2017, could indicate that the threat has moved to another area, or that new groups might take advantage of the focus on Soum and attack elsewhere.[fn]The lack of troops will be eased by the return of the battalion deployed in Darfur (about 850 men). Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

Ansarul Islam is both a local movement and a group that has contacts, albeit problematic ones, with jihadists active in the Sahel.

Ansarul Islam is both a local movement and a group that has contacts, albeit problematic ones, with jihadists active in the Sahel. Although Malam is (or was) close to Hamadoun Kouffa, his links with the new coalition affiliated to al-Qaeda and led by Iyad ag Ghali, the Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin, (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, GSIM), are unclear. Some sources say he has disowned this alliance, while others think the GSIM is not interested in the contact because Malam is not powerful enough.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote There are reportedly divergences between Kouffa and Malam. The former is reportedly jealous of the increasing power of his “young friend” and did not approve of the killing of Malam’s former comrades because of the prohibition of killing Muslims.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, diplomats, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote The publication on 12 September 2017 of a Facebook page attributed to Ansarul Islam, in which the movement denounced the death of Muslims in the mid-August 2017 terrorist attack in Ouagadougou, suggests there are strong divergences between Ansarul Islam and GSIM. However, this information should be treated with caution, as the Facebook page has not been authenticated.

At the beginning of 2017, Malam seemed to be getting closer to the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and they reportedly carried out a joint attack on Nassoumbou.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, January and May 2017.Hide Footnote Ansarul Islam uses central Mali as a support base and must therefore have contact with groups that operate there.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Ansarul Islam may be plotting a middle course between two tendencies represented by the GSIM and the ISGS.

Ansarul Islam rarely claims responsibility for its actions and has no official channel of communication. It is difficult to blame the group for all the security incidents in the Sahel region. It does not have a monopoly of violence. Banditry and other criminal activities affect the region. Insecurity is exacerbated by the trafficking of light arms from Algeria, Libya and Mali, where Boulikessi, close to the border, is a staging post.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former civil servant, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote A Kalashnikov costs CFA300,000 or two heifers.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local elected representatives, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote

Another cause for concern is the presence of Koglweogo, civilian self-defence groups, in many places in the country. They defend their communities from criminals, insecurity and cattle theft. When they are composed of local villagers, their presence does not seem to pose a problem.[fn]For example, the localities of Pobe Mengao, Aribinda and Tongomayel. Crisis Group interview, traditional authority, Djibo, May 2017. Created in the 1990s to protect the environment, the Koglweogo are now self-defence groups that combat insecurity, crime and banditry. Since 2015, they have become more numerous and spread particularly to the centre, the North region and southern and eastern Burkina.Hide Footnote However, Koglweogo from other regions of Burkina were chased out of Kerboulé (a gold panning site 60km from Djibo) by armed men (possibly connected to Ansarul Islam).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local authorities, local elected representative, Djibo, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Clashes between Koglweogo and other armed groups cannot be ruled out. The presence of Ruga, groups of Fulani herders armed with hunting guns and responsible for recovering lost or stolen herds, could further complicate the security equation, even though there is currently no evidence that they pose any kind of a risk.[fn]According to one security source, members of the Ruga were arrested during the operations conducted in spring 2017. Crisis Group telephone interview, security source, June 2017.Hide Footnote

B. A Security Apparatus under Reconstruction

The political unrest in Burkina since Blaise Compaoré’s fall from power in October 2014 disrupted the security apparatus. Compaoré’s diplomacy allowed him to keep many armed groups away from Burkina territory by displaying a benevolent attitude toward some of them. The intelligence service depended more on men and their networks than on institutions. Created in October 2015, the National Intelligence Agency (ANR) is a “big machine [that] has not really got off the ground yet”, even though it had begun to centralise intelligence.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote The dismantling of the Presidential Security Regiment (RSP), an elite army unit under Compaoré, also disrupted the security apparatus.[fn]The arms held by the RSP have not always been appropriately redistributed. One security source says that at the time of the terrorist attack on Ouagadougou in January 2016, one of the reasons the Burkina security forces were not able to launch an attack on the Hotel Splendid was because they did not have night vision spectacles. Those held by the RSP were put into storage instead of being distributed to units that would need them. Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, January 2016.Hide Footnote

In the long term, the main challenge facing the Burkina security forces is adapting to new threats. The asymmetric war against non-state armed groups requires resources and strategies that are very different to those required in conventional warfare. The security forces have become accustomed to life in their barracks rather than going out to fight, as Burkina has never gone to war against another country (except for two brief armed conflicts with Mali in 1974 and 1985) and has not suffered a civil war. Promoting a culture of combat and sacrifice, the exact opposite of “a ceremonial army”, is bound to take time.[fn]Crisis Group interview, diplomat, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote However, Burkina soldiers have had experience of combat during deployments in external operations in sometimes difficult terrain (Darfur, northern Mali).

As long as the armed forces are not able to work among the local population like the jihadist groups do, the latter will have an advantage.

Two elements that are lacking but are indispensable in the fight against armed groups are air power and intelligence. Unarmed Burkina reconnaissance planes are only able to signal a threat: in a remote area, it would need several hours to drive to a given place. Combat helicopters are also necessary. But in addition to equipment, it is training that is really needed. The armed forces deployed in the North also lack the motorbikes they need to move around the bush as easily as their enemies. There is still no intelligence system. As long as the armed forces are not able to work among the local population like the jihadist groups do, the latter will have an advantage.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian worker, security sources, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

In addition, the security forces suffer from more deep-seated problems. The generation gap undermines cohesion. Ordinary soldiers, young and dissatisfied with their material conditions, believe the hierarchy still supports the old regime, does not have the motivation to leave their air-conditioned offices and is incapable of tackling the new threats. Young non-commissioned officers deplore the weakness of the general staff’s communications and its limited use of new technologies, in a context in which communication is key to defeating terrorism.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

Human resources management is another weakness: there are not enough administration officers, they do not have the necessary skills and this causes frustration especially with regard to promotion.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security source, Ouagadougou, January and May 2017.Hide Footnote The army hierarchy is top-heavy with too many high-ranking colonels and not enough junior officers.[fn]Crisis Group interview, diplomat, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Finally, the historic rivalry between the police force and the gendarmerie undermines their effectiveness. These two corps are deployed in both urban and rural areas and their duties overlap.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, January 2016, January and May 2017. The tension between police officers and gendarmes within the Republican Security and Protection Group, responsible for presidential security, illustrates this distrust. “Burkina Faso: tensions entre policiers et gendarmes de la garde présidentielle”, Africa News, 7 August 2017.Hide Footnote All these weaknesses, which should be dealt with as part of security sector reform, partly explain why the security forces are finding it difficult to counter the threat posed by Ansarul Islam.

C. Regional and International Cooperation

Adapting to cross-border threats involves strengthening regional and international cooperation. While the Burkina military recognise that France’s assistance is indispensable, they want “to sort things out themselves”, because “nobody is going to die in [their] place”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, January and May 2017.Hide Footnote One sector of public opinion does not trust France. Some people accuse it of playing a double game vis-à-vis armed groups, particularly with regard to the Tuareg of northern Mali. The result is a desire to diversify partnerships and get help from the United States, Germany, Russia and Eastern Europe.

Burkina has strengthened regional cooperation with Mali and Niger. They have finally formalised the right of hot pursuit but this can pose problems because of sometimes inefficient communications and the risk of clashes between armies.[fn]The unwritten rule states that a neighbouring army should not go more than 40km beyond the border. Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote The region’s countries, encouraged by France, are trying to strengthen regional cooperation through a G5 Sahel (Burkina, Mali, Niger, Chad, Mauritania) joint force project. However, Burkina officers are not very enthusiastic about it. They view it as “an endless round of meetings”, according to one security source.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017. The plan for a G5 Sahel joint force was officially announced at the Bamako summit at the start of February 2017. The aim would be to combat insecurity and terrorist armed groups in the Sahel. The five G5 countries were to each provide 1,000 men, deployed along three border zones: Mali-Mauritania, Mali-Burkina-Niger and Chad-Niger. The G5, which was formed in 2014, aims to provide a regional response to a regional problem and to “africanise” security.Hide Footnote The Burkina leadership believes that Chad and Mauritania are too far away to be worried about the same threats.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Besides, funding of the G5 force has not yet been secured.[fn]Crisis Group interview, diplomat, Ouagadougou, May 2017. The budget proposed for the joint force is €423 million, but this figure could be revised downwards. Crisis Group interview, diplomat, Paris, July 2017. The European Union has promised €50 million and G5 members have agreed to contribute €10 million each. In addition to operational and technical assistance, France has promised €8 million.Hide Footnote

The tripartite dynamic between Burkina, Mali and Niger that is emerging with the plan to deploy one of the three components of the G5 force in the three borders zone, known as Liptako-Gourma, provokes greater optimism. The Burkina believe it is more effective to work in three rather than five. The force will be deployed in Liptako-Gourma but will not include Soum, which remains a Burkina-Mali problem.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

The creation of the G5 joint force raises the question of coordination with MINUSMA.

The Burkina military are also sceptical about the effectiveness of the UN mission in Mali, MINUSMA. They feel its mandate is inadequate.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, September 2016, January and May 2017. United Nations Security Council Resolution 2359 (21 June 2017) supported the creation of a joint G5 force to improve security and enable MINUSMA to fulfil its mandate. Resolution 2364 (29 June 2017) prolonged MINUSMA’s mandate and provided for cooperation, coordination and information sharing between the G5 force and the UN mission.Hide Footnote The creation of the G5 joint force raises the question of coordination with MINUSMA, which already has more than 15,000 soldiers and police officers and costs close to $1 billion per year. Moreover, complex overlapping of remits runs the risk of undermining the force’s effectiveness. Besides, the vagueness of the joint force’s mandate, targeting “terrorist groups” and “other organised criminal groups”, further complicates the task.

Cooperation is not going as well with Mali as it is with Niger. Some sectors of the Burkina security apparatus are irritated with their Malian neighbour, whom they accuse of not being effective enough in the fight against the armed groups on their territory, leading to the conflict there spilling over into Burkina.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote One security source deplored the presence of certain armed groups either close to or supported by Bamako along the border with Burkina.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote The difficult relations between Burkina and Mali date from the Compaoré era, when members of Malian armed groups, starting with the leader of Ansar Dine, the Tuareg Iyad ag Ghali, were allowed to move freely in Ouagadougou. The Burkina military believe their Malian counterparts are “lazy” and joined the army to get an income and not to defend the country.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, January and May 2017.Hide Footnote Conversely, they are well disposed toward Niger, because it deploys the resources necessary to prevent armed groups from proliferating on its territory. The Burkina military praise their Nigerien counterparts for their proactive approach and effectiveness.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, May 2017. The good understanding between Burkina and Niger is also based on the special relationship between the Nigerien president, Mahamadou Issoufou, and the president of the Burkina National Assembly, Salif Diallo, who died at the end of August 2017.Hide Footnote

IV. Formulate a Global and Enduring Response

At the start of 2017, after months of denial, the Burkina authorities finally understood the need to go beyond military action and formulate a global response to the crisis. They launched an emergency development program for the Sahel region aimed at building infrastructure and reducing poverty. However, these development efforts will not be enough to resolve the crisis, the causes of which are local and deeply rooted in the structure of Fulani society in Soum. An understanding of the importance of the following measures could help to provide a more effective response.

Formulate responses that take into account the social and local dimensions of the crisis. Ansarul Islam’s ideology is based on its challenge to a social order that breeds frustration and conflict. The government should not seek to disturb socio-cultural dynamics or to upend a centuries-old social order. It is perhaps better to focus on encouraging local actors to find solutions adapted to a crisis that is deeply rooted in local circumstances. The government and its international partners will not find solutions to questions that pertain to the private life of northern Burkina Faso’s society. They can at best encourage intercommunal and inter-generational dialogue that may help them identify solutions to their own crisis.

Reduce the gulf between security forces and authorities and the local population. Strengthening the military presence will not be truly effective for as long as local people refuse to collaborate with the security forces. In the short term, the latter should prioritise the development of an intelligence system and gain access to the community, for example, by distributing mobile phones more generously to enable individuals and units to communicate more easily and by making a special effort to protect them.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, January and May 2017.Hide Footnote Deploying Fulfulde-speaking troops and civil servants would also help to reduce the language barrier.

In the long term, distrust could be eased if more Fulani were recruited into the security forces and the civil service. It is not necessary to impose quotas or to adopt a policy of positive discrimination, which would give unwanted ethnic overtones to the initiative. However, for example, the government could encourage recruitment by making the entrance examinations more accessible, while remembering that the Fulani have not traditionally had a vocation for joining the security forces or the civil service.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017. A resident of Soum who wants to enter the entrance examinations for the army or the gendarmerie must go to Dori or Kaya respectively, both of which are located about 200km from Djibo.Hide Footnote

Boosting the military’s civic activities would help to show that the security forces can make a useful contribution and go some way to reducing public distrust in them.

Boosting the military’s civic activities would help to show that the security forces can make a useful contribution and go some way to reducing public distrust in them.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Finally, arrests should be carried out according to due procedure and should respect human rights. Abusive behaviour by the security forces and civil servants – racketeering, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, physical abuse – must be punished more severely.

Regulate religious discourse to combat intolerant and hateful statements, an area where religious and traditional authorities could play a key role. There is a need to improve understanding of the religious landscape in order to fight against intolerant and hateful statements, give more support to Islamic education and invest in the training of imams and Muslim scholars in order to provide them with tools to combat ideas that encourage violence and intolerance. The legitimacy of religious and traditional leaders is sometimes challenged so this is also about ensuring they are sufficiently representative, avoiding any impression that they support the government or are in its pay and ensuring that young people feel they defend their interests. The authorities could prioritise the establishment in Djibo of a section of the Union Fraternelle des Croyants, an association based in Dori that promotes religious tolerance and dialogue.

Place greater emphasis in the emergency program for the Sahel region on promoting livestock breeding, improving justice provision and fighting corruption.[fn]“Programme d’urgence pour le Sahel au Burkina Faso (PUS-BF), 2017-2020”, final document, June 2017, copy supplied to Crisis Group.Hide Footnote The perception that the government is doing nothing to support livestock breeding, the region’s main economic activity, increases alienation.[fn]There is a widespread feeling in Burkina (and in neighbouring countries) that herding is the poor relation of development policies even though it contributes a lot to GDP. Crisis Group interviews, Fulani representatives, Ouagadougou, October 2016.Hide Footnote As herders are mostly Fulani, this feeling could take on an ethnic connotation. For example, it should increase the size of grazing areas and the number of wells and improve cattle tracks.[fn]Crisis Group interview, religious leader, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote Infrastructure should also be at the heart of development policies. For example, the construction of a regional hospital in Djibo, on the model of the one in Dori, would improve health care in the provincial capital. The failings of the judiciary and the corruption in the public administration are grievances often expressed by the public. Doing more to address these two issues would send a message that the government can have a useful and positive impact on the daily life of the inhabitants of the Sahel region.

Strengthen judicial and police cooperation between Mali and Burkina, so that the authorities of these countries can be informed when one of their nationals is arrested in another country.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, January and May 2017.Hide Footnote It is not enough to arrest members of jihadist groups. It is also necessary to open investigations across several countries and then bring perpetrators to justice. This will prevent them exploiting the lack of coordination between countries and slipping through the net. Although police cooperation has improved, a lot remains to be done with regard to the judiciary.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

Moreover, the security forces deployed in the North urgently need more motorbikes in order to move around the bush more easily and better means of communication to improve the circulation of information. The Burkina armed forces could also do more to improve their reporting to national public opinion about the progress they are making.

V. Conclusion

It is still too early to assess the long-term effectiveness of the government’s response. But, already, the lull expected in the wake of the rainy season (July to October), which should have impeded movement and reduced attacks by Ansarul Islam, has not materialised. Several lethal attacks took place in northern Burkina in July, August and September. The weakening of this armed group or the death of its founder will not be enough to resolve the security and social crisis in northern Burkina. The crisis will last for as long as the deep roots that permitted its growth remain and could indeed spread to other provinces if nothing is done.

Ougadougou/Dakar, 12 October 2017

Appendix A: Map of Burkina Faso

Attacks by extremist groups in Burkina Faso (January-September 2017) UN OCHA

Appendix B: Map of the Mali-Burkina Faso Border Zone

Map of the Mali-Burkina Faso Border Zone. CRISIS GROUP

Appendix C: Chronology of Security Incidents in Burkina Faso since 2015

A timeline of security incidents in Burkina Faso since 2015 is available in the PDF version of this report.