The Destiny of Islamic State in Yemen, Between Confrontation and Expansion of Dominance

Study Problem and Hypotheses:

The continuation of Yemeni war and security vacuum paved the way for the advent of   Islamic State in Yemen ISY which launched so many terrorist attacks. It led to the interference of Arabic Alliance headed by Kingdom of Saudi Arabia which got involved in a new conflict against terrorist organizations including but not limited to Houthi Militias. Military operations had an impact, in a way or another, on the sequence of operations against the latter. The emergence of the Islamic State in Yemen will probably have its impact on the future of the solution to the conflict in Yemen, especially Al-Qaeda Organization which is still active in the country. So, the continuation of conflict in Yemen, in the absence of a political solution, may help the Islamic State achieve more gains in Arabian Peninsula. The Arab Alliance, alongside with the Yemeni Legitimate Government, may weaken the Islamic State’s dominance, and hold strict control over its terrorist activities in the country.

Study Objectives

This study aims to:

  • investigate Islamic State’s capabilities and effectiveness in Yemen, and the factors that helped it evolve and its correlation with Al Qaida in Arabian Peninsula;
  • identify Islamic State’s dominance areas, number of fighters and their activities;
  • debate the feasibility of approaches adopted to control the Islamic State by both the Arabic Alliance and the Yemeni Legitimate Government;
  • conclude the most probable alternatives of the Islamic State’s destiny.   

Location of the Study

Areas dominated by Yemeni Legitimate Government’s force in Southern Yemen.

Time covered by the Study

Since the appearance of the Islamic State in Yemen, late 2014.

I Introduction

While the Yemeni issue is witnessing increasing complications and international demands to terminate the ongoing war in the country, attention has been drawn to the issue of war against terrorism, and how far the war against terrorism is correlated with the mission of Arab Alliance led by Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that is supporting Yemeni Legitimate Government’s forces under the leadership of the Yemeni president, Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi. As many changes have been associated with the Yemeni war which have caused many terrorist activities. The most notable terrorist group is Al- Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula which led to the emergence of the Islamic State in Yemen ISY, and created new strategic options for Arab Alliance and Legitimate forces under the leadership of Hadi as these forces are taking part in control of Jihadi organizations alongside with confronting Houthis supported by Iran. Consequently, any probable future alternatives of the Yemeni scene like the continuation of war or entry in a war-ending political process will be interrelated with terrorism-control strategy in Yemen.

Besides, the Islamic State, especially in Yemen, is trying to have an impact on the military scene in the country through exploiting the state of security vacuum resulted from battles. Every now and then, it tries to re-emerge as a major actor through terrorist attacks it is carrying out in areas controlled by Yemeni Legitimate Government forces on the one hand, and Houthi’s seized areas on the other. Accordingly, an inquiry arouses minds about the efficiency of mechanisms adopted to weaken ISY and curb its activities, as some information refers to many fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham ISIS who are of Gulf States nationalities to have returned to their homelands. Thus, Yemen may be the most outstanding incubating resort, that is, the probability of the Islamic State’s unexpected dominance growth may have its impact on the future of the Yemeni question, and prolong its time span as well despite the Islamic State’s branch weakness state in Yemen compared to that in Iraq and Syria.      

II Factors of Emergence of Islamic State in Yemen

To get started, and have a foothold in Yemen, the Islamic State in Yemen managed, directly or indirectly, to benefit from several factors, and it could declare its presence and activity in the military scene that was ravaging the country. The most outstanding factors are as follows: 

  • Generally speaking, military operations in conflict areas creates security vacuum in limited areas. Sometimes a specific area may witness vacuum and security instability, whereas a neighboring one is enjoying security stability. These security gaps are spread on a span of several areas, whether they are close to each other or not. This will be exploited by terrorist organizations on an individual level as it was notably done by the Islamic State in Yemen where a terrorist group, not a big one, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Thus, the group became a polarizing bloc of minor cells scattered in areas to comprise a unified organization as it had occurred in Yemen. However, the Islamic State in Yemen did not go through such a milestone as it had in Iraq and Syria where it started its activities throughout these two countries after it had accomplished the stage of polarization of minor terrorist groups and individuals, since its strategy was based on the foundation of a State where neighboring Syria and Iraq are the center, but Yemen is far away from this functional correlation. Consequently, the functional correlation of the Islamic State’s evolution in Yemen, Libya and Sinai Peninsula distinguished the evolution of the Islamic State where audio recordings were published in those regions by Jihadi groups in which they pledged allegiance to Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi as a caliph in late 2014.
  • The existence of an adequate ground helped in disseminating radical ideology. Islamic State employed Al-Qaeda’s activities in Yemen. Throughout the Yemeni war, ISY managed to capture cities and areas especially in Southern Yemen like Shabwah Governorate. An incubating ground had been initially prepared by the Islamic State through which it could disseminate its terrorist ideology. Thus, founders of Islamic State were almost formerly affiliated to Al-Qaeda.
  • The Islamic State succeeded in investing Yemeni limited economic resources to implement their activity as the country lacks oil and gas fields which were a significant economic supply reservoir for the Islamic state in Iraq and Sham over years. Instead, the Islamic State in Yemen had alternative mechanisms to cover the expenditures of its several activities, and to expand its dominance areas, relying on minor logistic and financial capabilities available at the beginning. Afterwards, the Islamic State moved to burglaries that were made through mediators assigned by the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham who facilitated money transfers to their counterparts in Yemen. Consequently, the Islamic State’s strong desire to gain financial support in Yemen on both the individual and organization levels urged them to declare their activities, and to overcome the obstacle of limited economic resources at the beginning.         

III Emergence and Assertion of Effectiveness of the Islamic State 

In November 2014, a group called “Mujahidins of Yemen” pledged their allegiance to the Islamic State and its leader, Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi, through an audio recording titled “The Yemeni Allegiance to The Islamic State”. However, the identity of that group was unknown, and it was likely an Al-Qaeda- affiliated group. Anyway, the affiliation of the group was not detailed for fear of being targeted by Al-Qaeda in Yemen.

Neither appearance nor activities of the Islamic State had been spotted until the advent of March 2014 in which it declared its responsibility for a mosque terrorist blast in Houthi militias-seized Yemeni capital, Sanaa, and that was followed by a series of terrorist operations throughout the city as well. The Islamic State in Yemen published photos of five members affiliated with it who carried out those attacks, and those photos were the earliest ones published by ISY.

In April of that same year, the Islamic State published its earliest video in which it declared its existence in Yemen under the title “Sana’a Province. ISY pledged   allegiance to Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi as a caliph, and it threatened Houthi groups with a series of operations. The video also showed nearly 20 fighters conducting military training.

A few days later, ISY published a video which showed Islamic State fighters beheading 10 Houthi fighters and executing 4 Yemeni army soldiers. In the meantime, Islamic State-affiliated fighters were shown attacking a military checkpoint in the town of Trim in Hadhramaut Governorate.     

In October 2015, the Islamic State in Yemen declared its responsibility for a series of terrorist attacks in the capital of the legitimate government. Vice Yemeni president, Khaled Al-Bahhah’s residence was targeted by Katjusha missiles.

By this, ISY declared its existence in four major provinces; Sanaa, Shabwah, Hadhramaut and Eden over a single year after an Islamic State’s branch had been declared in Yemen. As for estimated numbers of its fighters, estimates show only 80 fighters who declared the establishment of the Islamic State in Yemen under the leadership of the Saudi “Bilal Al-Harbi” who was a leader in Al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula. The total number of fighters reached 300 in mid-2015. Furthermore, it was likely that their number increased by the year 2016 after 147 Saudi fighters had joined the Islamic State in Yemen, for Yemen was easily accessible via the Saudi-Yemeni borders in addition to many other foreign fighters who also joined ISY. Thus, the number of fighters would have probably reached 500 by the end of 2017.   

IV Evaluation of Military Operations Targeting the Islamic State in Yemen

The Arab Alliance headed By Saudi Arabia took into account the confrontation with Al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula alongside with the confrontation of Houthi militias, but dramatic changes that followed in the Yemeni arena, like the emergence of the Islamic State in Yemen, burdened the Arab Alliance Forces, which simultaneously supported both resistance and legitimate forces by waging military operations against the three opposing entities. However, the Arabic Alliance did not definitely focus on annihilation of ISY separately. Instead, there was some kind of coincidence of military operations targeting Al-Qaeda and the ISY at the same time because the ISY could not impose itself on wide clear-cut areas. The Islamic State’s operations were exclusively based on terrorist cells’ activities, whereas Al-Qaeda could make separate groups in Yemen in which the Islamic State cells were active, since those pockets were an adequate ground for the Islamic State. Furthermore, the weakness of legitimate intelligence forces made the Arabic Alliance resort to wage dual operations that targeted both the Islamic state in Yemen and Al-Qaeda at the same time as Al-Qaeda’s dominance spread on a nearly 600 square kilometers along the southern Yemeni coast in mid-2016. This started from the city of Al-Mukalla to the outskirts of the city of Eden. The most outstanding operations waged by the Arabic Alliance against terrorist organizations can be shown as follows:

Throughout 2016, the Arabic Alliance Forces declared the inauguration of a military operation against Al-Qaeda in the city of Al-Mukalla that is located in Hadhramaut Governorate. Through this operation, terrorists were expelled from the city, and the Alliance Forces managed to seize the city. In addition, the legitimate government, in cooperation with the Arabic Alliance, commenced a security operation in Eden to pursue both ISY and A-Qaeda cells. The operation took strict control over the city of Abyan which had been under Al-Qaeda control. Accordingly, the Arabic Alliance could achieve a satisfactory success by eradication of nearly half the terrorist organizations whether affiliated with the Islamic State in Yemen or to Al-Qaeda.                 

In 2017, operations targeting Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State continued, and the Legitimacy Forces, supported by the Arabic Alliance, could capture and kill a number of terrorist organizations leaders in several areas like Abyan, Lahj and Shabwah. The Legitimacy Forces were able to control the last terrorist enclaves, and terrorists were completely expelled from the city.

With the advent of 2018, military operations and security campaigns continued to pursue radical groups like Al-Jabal Al-Aswad (Black Mountain) group in the northwest areas of Hadhramaut, and Al-Faisal Operation in the west of the city of Al-Mukalla and Eden where the leader of the Islamic State in Yemen, Fadle Al-Bakhishi was killed. Anyway, security operations are still ongoing to pursue terrorist cells, especially those affiliated with the Islamic State in Yemen. This is on the one hand. On the other hand, the confrontation with the Islamic State was not exclusive to the Arabic Alliance, but the International Alliance headed by the United States of America also took part in launching air raids on the Islamic State’s sites and leaders. The earliest air raids launched by the International Alliance were in October 2017. It launched 12 drone missiles on Islamic State’s sites in Al-Baydaa Governorate.

All in all, military operations targeting the Islamic State in Yemen, whether they were carried out by the International Alliance or by the Arabic Alliance, efficiently curbed the activity of the terrorist organizations in Yemen. Those operations were intended to curb any expected structural development similar to what had been made in Syria and Iraq. The operations also inhibited and weakened the organization during its scattered-cells phase which facilitated the mission for the acting bodies through solidification of security and intelligence work alongside with military pressure on Al-Qaida because defections have been improbable. If these defections were probable, they would support ISY by new more affiliated individuals. This dual-goaled strategy may ensure the continuity of short-term state of weakness. However, as long as a political solution is absent, the possibility of preserving the efficiency of operations targeting terrorism, especially in the prevailing security vacuum and state absence will remain questionable.              

V Available Alternatives of Annihilation Versus activation of the ISY

Confrontation with terrorism, especially the Islamic state, is passing through several routes, and no defined destiny can be predicted due to data related to the future of the country. The most outstanding scenarios can be stated as follows:

  • If the Yemeni war continues alternating in place without any political efforts to figure out a solution that leads to settle disputes between Houthis and Yemeni president Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, there will probably be a recession of military operations outcome which has so far achieved an efficient remarkable progress. In this regard, the Islamic State will supposedly be able re-organize its cells, and attack significant targets, especially the Legitimate Government Forces since the latter is primarily involved in controlling ISY. Consequently, the Islamic State will resume its active phase.
  • A qualitative development may occur in the structure of Jihadi alliances as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State are passing through exhaustion phase in Yemen, and the two bodies may exceed bilateral conflicts, especially the problem of pledging allegiance to Ayman Al- Zawahiri of Al Qaeda versus Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi of ISIS, until they have figured out appropriate ways to avoid military operations. Al-Qaeda resorted to such tactics in 2009 when ISY declared its integration with the branch in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia under the name “Al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula” after the former had been exhausted. The newly born alliance managed to return to active phase, and its operations were more intense and effective.     
  • The international bodies will be able to impose pressure on the influential players in Yemen to figure out a political solution. Actually, there have been recent international calls for making a progress on this issue, especially the recent US call end of October. The United States of America called for termination of conflict, and urged conflicting parties to work on a comprehensive ceasefire in Yemen within 30 days. The United States of America showed its commitment to support the Legitimate Government for controlling terrorist organizations just three days before the American call. If done, efforts will be focused on confrontation with the Islamic State and pursuit of its dormant cells throughout the country. This is expected to occur partially, and a ceasefire or a long-term truce will be declared. Long-term truce will pave the way for a political solution. The political solution will activate security operations throughout terror-seized areas, that will achieve positive results on the level of controlling the Islamic State.

VI Conclusion

It is not unlikely that the weakness phase, that the Islamic State in Yemen is passing through, will enable the ISY fighters to find out alternatives to preserve the Islamic State’s organizational organogram in a partial and less effective form. The Islamic State in Yemen may dismantle its cells and integrate them within major military bodies throughout the country, especially the “Popular Resistance Forces” which are confronting Houthis including “Shabwah Elite”, “Security Belt Forces” and other forces supported by the Arabic Alliance. Thus, the Islamic State in Yemen won’t be as annihilated as intended by the Arabic Alliance. Instead, the Islamic State in Yemen will probably be able to carry out terrorist operations within the host forces that will weaken the latter. This will be in favor of Houthi militias. However, the Islamic State inability to increase the number of its fighters and stop prevailing divergence within its structure as the branches in Syria and Iraq are passing through has put ISY at risk of elimination. However, threat of launching more terrorist attacks throughout Yemen is still probable, especially that the Islamic State has been recently trying to prove its ability to combat through launching continual several terrorist attacks, especially in areas ruled by legitimate forces. Consequently, it is too early to talk about a possible end of the Islamic State in Yemen in the foreseeable future.


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