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ISIS in Yemen: Caught in a Regional Power Game

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Editor’s Note: This Terrain Analysis is part 15 of “ISIS 2020” – a series of briefings about the current status of the Islamic State by authors from different parts of the region. It is published by the Newlines Institute’s Nonstate Actors program. Parts onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineteneleventwelve, thirteen,  and fourteen were released weekly since April 28.

The Islamic State in Yemen has changed over the past two years from simply being a branch of the transnational jihadist movement to an entity resembling a proxy or a tool in a broader conflict between regional players. The United States and its allies should be wary of taking at face value claims made by the group and must closely monitor regional states and their respective Yemeni partners, which benefit from the existence of jihadist actors such as ISIS. These regional patrons along with their proxies in the war-torn country have been using ISIS as a justification for their expansionist policies, as a scapegoat for politically motivated acts of aggression, or as a disruptor of the peace process, and a vehicle through which to stoke tensions inside the Saudi-led Arab coalition.

Broadly speaking, there are three main power bases in Yemen: 1) An internationally recognized government based mainly in Riyadh and aided by the Saudi-led Arab coalition; 2) The Iran-backed Houthi movement based in Sanaa along with some regional sympathizers; and 3) The separatist Southern Transitional Council based in the southern port city of Aden and supported by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Each of these three camps is internally divided into rival factions whose motives and loyalties change over time. Understanding this complex landscape can help to explain apparent contradictions whereby rival actors may align in using ISIS as a strategic proxy. Analyzing ISIS’s evolution over the past two years suggests that a new version of the group has emerged that is as much a political pawn as it is an independent actor.

ISIS’s Failures in Yemen

Despite the hype over its November 2014 launch, amid a flurry of early defections from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Islamic State failed to take off in Yemen because of its indiscriminate brutality, poorly attuned messaging, weak tribal links, and overbearing leadership style. By late 2016, the group was largely confined to a rugged corner of central Yemen’s Bayda’ governorate. Any attempt to revive its waning fortunes was squashed in October 2017 when U.S. airstrikes decimated its two main camps. Shortly thereafter, a coordinated action by the United States and six Gulf Cooperation Council states slapped sanctions on its top leaders and froze their assets. By late 2017, ISIS in Yemen was severely depleted.

While the following months did see a series of ISIS-linked operations in Aden, these attacks underscored a well-coordinated modus operandi, different from the core group in Bayda’, and appeared to have a larger strategic motive: They targeted the UAE-backed security apparatus as the separatist Southern Transitional Council was trying to extend its grip on the port city and the broader south. Some assassination operations in Aden may have been false-flagged to the global terrorist group to mask an anti-separatist political agenda. ISIS has conducted a small handful of suicide operations in Aden, but the relatively sophisticated planning and coordination suggests some assistance from northern elements – possibly from the Republican Guard of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, as ISIS and al Qaeda operations had deteriorated by late 2017.

Reincarnation of ISIS in Yemen

Out of the ashes of ISIS’s obliterated camps in Bayda’ governorate in central Yemen, meanwhile, a reincarnation of the group was emerging around a new set of leaders. While the brand, flags and rhetoric remained unchanged, there were several points on which the new post-2018 group differed from Yemen’s original Islamic State. It appeared to latch onto local rivalries and attempted to inject more culturally attuned camaraderie into its photosets and videos.

But the most obvious change was in the targeting set. During 2017, ISIS mainly assaulted al-Houthi fighters in Bayda’. During 2018, it switched to targeting al Qaeda, which ISIS accused of collaborating with the Yemeni military. Al Qaeda began to complain of incessant ISIS harassment and was finally provoked into open war with its jihadist rival from July 2018 to early 2020. In this nearly two-year period, the local chapters of ISIS and al Qaeda were consumed with killing one another to the near total exclusion of all other adversaries.

During the final quarter of 2018, 69% of ISIS attacks targeted al Qaeda, only 31% targeted al-Houthi rebels, and none targeted the Yemeni military or southern security forces. During the first half of 2019, at an operational peak, 86% of ISIS attacks targeted al Qaeda and only 14% targeted al-Houthi fighters. Testimonies from ISIS defectors point to the bewilderment of fresh recruits at being immediately immersed in courses dedicated to framing their al Qaeda co-religionists as top of the list of deviants to be exterminated, rather than the “Shi’ite Rejectionist” al-Houthi faction or the “Zionist-Crusaders and their regional agents”.

There are three possible explanations for this dramatic shift, all of which may be partly true. First, the war between the Yemeni branches of ISIS and al Qaeda may simply be an extension of their bloody global rivalry. Second, it may be the result of deliberate attempts by security and intelligence organizations to sow discord inside Yemen’s jihadist landscape. Al Qaeda’s “Demolishing Espionage” video series supplies ample evidence, much of it credible, of a concerted program of disruption wrought by internal spies against Yemen’s jihadist movements. Third, and most concerning, is the possibility that ISIS and al Qaeda, or parts thereof, have been harnessed by regional rivals and their domestic partners to become another arm of the region’s proxy conflicts.

ISIS Yemen and the al-Houthi fighters

A January 2020 U.N. report theorizes that this reluctance to target al-Houthi fighters indicates the new incarnation of ISIS is actually collaborating with its professed arch-enemies, asserting that “The Houthis have provided tactical help, cooperation, prisoner exchanges and handover of military camps to [ISIS] under Houthi supervision.”

This picture is complicated by ISIS’s apparent recent switch in targeting back to the al-Houthi rebels. In the first half of 2020, 94% of ISIS attacks claimed to target al-Houthi fighters, while only 6% targeted al Qaeda. This looks like a compelling change, but there are some important caveats. First, the attacks on the al-Houthi faction are all small-scale. Second, the claimed switch coincides broadly with the U.N. report and thus might be designed with the express intent of disproving it. Third, the claimed attacks on al-Houthi fighters have reportedly been contradicted by locals. Even in the rare instances where ISIS issues communiques it rarely goes beyond recycled footage of stick huts set alight and captives pleading for mercy who may or may not be from the al-Houthi group. 

In short, there is little evidence of ISIS fighting al-Houthi rebels, but their claiming to do so works well for both parties. For ISIS, this aligns with its parent organization’s sectarian narrative and provides material for its weekly Naba’ bulletin. For the al-Houthis, ISIS claiming attacks on them buttresses the Iran-backed movement’s claims of fighting terrorists, and thereby justifies a further military push into Bayda’. The al-Houthi faction can thus present itself to the international community as a wronged party and a potentially useful ally in combating ISIS.

ISIS Yemen versus al Qaeda: Who’s Winning?

Despite alleged al-Houthi assistance to ISIS, al Qaeda had the upper hand until the end of 2019. Al Qaeda had made common cause with local tribes to fight the double scourge of ISIS and the al-Houthi rebels and drove ISIS out of some camps. ISIS was made to look both ridiculous and monstrous when al Qaeda’s Hidayah Media released compromising footage allegedly found amid the debris of ISIS’s hastily abandoned camps. Alongside embarrassing outtake bloopers from ISIS videos, such as their leader’s inability to memorize his simple lines, there was discarded footage of horrific acts of brutality such as throwing a blindfolded youth off the side of a cliff as well as evidence of tiny cells and metal containers into which ISIS would cram dissenting militants to roast under a blazing sun. It therefore came as little surprise when, in November 2019, ISIS was able to muster only 29 gun-toting militants for its choreographed group photo pledging allegiance to the new ISIS caliph.

In 2020, however, ISIS’s fortunes may be on the rise again. Its numbers appear to have tripled; in January, it posted photos of a bold open-air shariah court in Bayda’ featuring 88 men amid a host of black flags. Yet ISIS’s apparent strength is likely a reflection of al Qaeda’s current weakness. ISIS has been able to mop up al Qaeda defections and benefit from al Qaeda’s changing leadership and operational landscape. By late 2019, the constant barrage of al Qaeda attacks had slowed to a trickle, and it ceased entirely in February 2020. This is likely linked to the withdrawal of some al Qaeda forces from Bayda’, both to safe havens in Ma’rib and to join new battlefronts opening up in south Yemen where pro-government and pro-separatist forces are clashing. The al Qaeda pullback may also be linked to the new leadership agenda and shaky popularity of Khalid Batarfi, who took over as al Qaeda’s chief in the country in February following the killing of Qasim al-Raymi.

ISIS has also sought to capitalize on al Qaeda’s paralysing culture of suspicion, infighting, and leadership squabbles, which has resulted in the recent desertion of at least 18 of its militants. ISIS’s al-Taqwa Media published two documents detailing the desertions in early 2020, which was later confirmed by al Qaeda itself in a highly defensive statement in May. The 18-page statement is al Qaeda’s longest ever, indicating the seriousness of the triple challenge it now faces from deception, defection, and desertion.

Around the same time as the al Qaeda desertions, at least two splinter groups switched allegiance to ISIS. These splinter groups were among five found by this author in early 2019 when they surfaced in Bayda’ and Ma’rib. Whereas during 2019 they were staunchly pro-al Qaeda and aggressively anti-ISIS, in 2020 they unabashedly air al Qaeda’s dirty laundry whilst celebrating ISIS. It is impossible to know if this U-turn is the result of a genuine change of heart, a payoff, a grudge, or merely the work of agents hired by a regional intelligence service.

ISIS Central blames al Qaeda’s woes on its thorough infiltration by spies who encourage it to fight ISIS instead of the United States and its regional allies. As per the ISIS narrative, those keen to fight ISIS are promoted and rewarded financially, while those who are not are killed in drone strikes or executed in-house on trumped up charges of spying. It thus implies that any al Qaeda leader left alive must be an agent of the west and its allies.

The ISIS strategy is to fuel mistrust and exacerbate rifts inside al Qaeda. Its narrative fits neatly with statements published by angry al Qaeda militants in April 2020 protesting the innocence of some of those executed on spying charges and questioning their leadership’s investigation methods. But ISIS then inexplicably knocked down its own argument by describing those executed on spying charges as the greatest inciters of conflict with ISIS. These claims can’t both be true: The executed al Qaeda operatives cannot be both true jihadists whose reluctance to fight ISIS got them killed on fake spy charges and also be traitors tasked by their handlers with inciting intra-jihadist conflicts. It could be the case that ISIS material is being written by operatives who can’t see the glaring contradiction, by multiple authors who are not collaborating well, or by outside agents who are more or less making it up as they go along.

Recent ISIS video output has, however, been more adept at exposing al Qaeda as a political pawn. An April video titled “To Be Absolved Before Your Lord” featured al Qaeda militants confessing to the group’s collaboration with the Yemeni military, which was no longer fighting just the Iran-backed al-Houthi fighters in the north but also the UAE-backed separatists in the south. There are hints of an external hand producing the video. It was unusually long and well-produced, and it entered the “jihadosphere” via an unofficial site before it was picked up by central ISIS media and disseminated on its officially numbered wires. The timing was also significant: It appeared just four days after UAE-backed separatists declared “self-administration” for south Yemen — a move that left the Riyadh Agreement signed in November 2019 between UAE-backed separatists and the Saudi-backed government in tatters.

The video played into the hands of the separatists, as it appeared to prove their long-standing allegation of government collaboration with terrorist militias and hence justified their attempt to take over control. But it is worth considering whom else the timely ISIS revelations benefit. Naturally, Iran and its partners stand to gain from ISIS’s prodding at the fresh cracks in the Arab coalition. The revelations have fueled suspicion between the UAE and Saudi Arabia, perpetuated the conflict between pro-government and pro-separatist forces in Yemen’s south, and distracted the Saudi-led coalition away from the war against the Iran-backed al-Houthi fighters.

Decline or Deviation?

Both ISIS and al Qaeda are shadows of their former selves. While ISIS looks to have the upper hand currently against al Qaeda, its overall activity has diminished dramatically in 2020. One way to assess ISIS activity is to monitor its martyr eulogies because the number of deaths generally equates to the number and scope of operations, albeit imprecisely. ISIS’s martyr eulogies have declined significantly, from 49 in 2018 to 23 in 2019, and just 3 during the first six months of 2020. It is also worth noting that 93% of these martyrs were killed in Bayda’, indicating that this province has, thus far, remained the epicenter of formal ISIS activity.

This picture of declining ISIS activity is reflected in the frequency of its operational claims. During 2019, it averaged 19 operations or attacks per quarter. Nearly all (89%) occurred in Bayda’ with one highly significant outlier: a sudden uptick in operations in Aden in August 2019. This outlier came hot on the heels of the horrific explosion at a military ceremony that killed dozens of UAE-backed pro-separatist forces, including top general Abu Yamamah. The al-Houthi fighters claimed to have conducted the attack using drones and a missile, but a subsequent U.N. investigation found no evidence of those weapons. This suggests the al-Houthi fighters may have been working with partners on the ground in Aden. The attack is important because it sparked a head-to-head power struggle in Aden between key members of the Arab coalition fighting the Iran-backed al-Houthi fighters. The UAE-backed separatists asserted their authority over the Saudi-backed government, whose militias they suspected of being complicit in the attack. The unusual string of ISIS-branded attacks in Aden that then followed appeared designed to compound the tensions.

The number and scale of operations claimed by ISIS has dropped sharply in 2020, based on ISIS PR claims. Analysts and commentators often have an inflated view of ISIS’s operational activity because ISIS’s weekly Naba’ bulletin is prone to double or triple counting Yemen operations. However, the number of operations claimed by ISIS this year has dropped from 26 during the first quarter to just seven during the second quarter, its first time ever in single digits. Moreover, just over half involved no more than the planting of improvised explosive devices, and the death rate averaged to less than one per operation. al Qaeda’s 2020 operational activity is likewise unusually low, with only five and three operations per quarter respectively.

A New Proxy War?

How can one explain this apparent decline? Of course, it may in part be the result of counter-terrorism operations, the need to lie low, battle fatigue, or even COVID-19. It is more likely that Yemen’s militant extremists have been co-opted by regional actors and/or their domestic partners to serve political agendas.

It is difficult to draw straight lines between political principals and their jihadist proxies, largely because all actors in Yemen suffer from deep internal factionalization, rendering loyalties extremely fluid. Rival factions exist inside the internationally recognized government, as they do inside the rebel al-Houthi government, as well as within and between the various regions of the former state of South Yemen. There are even conflicting currents inside the Arab coalition itself, with the UAE and Saudi Arabia backing apparently divergent long-term visions for the future shape of Yemen. Their respective visions also butt up against the interests of other regional actors, most obviously Iran but also Qatar and Oman, possibly also drawing in Turkey and Russia.

In such a messy melting pot, it is almost inconceivable that Yemen’s splintered jihadist groups, weakened by drone strikes and riddled with spies, could have avoided getting swept up to unwittingly serve well-funded geopolitical agendas. In other words, both ISIS and al Qaeda, or the various factions within them, are likely being weaponized by regional powers rather than being fought as enemies.

Dr. Elisabeth Kendall is Senior Research Fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Oxford University’s Pembroke College. Previously, Dr. Kendall held positions at the Universities of Edinburgh and Harvard, as well as serving as Director of a U.K. government-sponsored center focused on building Arabic-based research expertise into jihadist movements. Kendall spends significant time in the field, especially in Yemen. Follow her on Twitter @Dr_E_Kendall.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not an official policy or position of the Newlines Institute.

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