Although al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has gained an upper hand over its main jihadist rival in Yemen, the Islamic State – Yemen also has potential to re-emerge as a more powerful actor.
On July 19, the United Nations published a report about the status of al-Qaeda and Islamic State franchises across multiple continents. One of the organization’s findings was that al-Qaeda is benefiting from the current global environment and that the global terror network’s “propaganda is now better developed to compete with Islamic State (ISIS) as the key actor in inspiring the international threat environment,” while ISIS has “suffered a rapid succession of leadership losses since October 2019.”
In Yemen, the report found that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has managed to outmaneuver and overshadow the Islamic State-Yemen (IS-Y), with AQAP maintaining its position as the “most important Al-Qaida affiliate for the dissemination of propaganda” and remaining a graver security threat than IS-Y. Although neither AQAP nor IS-Y is waging terrorism on the scales they were in previous years, both extremist groups continue to pose a threat that must be taken seriously by people in Yemen and elsewhere.
Currently, AQAP has several thousand militants in its ranks. The group is strongest in Marib, Abyan, and Shabwa, while also maintaining a presence in Hadramawt, Mahra, and Jawf. On June 22, AQAP carried out two attacks against pro-government forces in Abyan and Shabwa, killing ten soldiers. Considering that these two locations are roughly 190 miles apart, these attacks on the same day spoke to AQAP’s level of sustained coordination.
Although AQAP has gained an upper hand over its main jihadist rival in Yemen, IS-Y also has potential to re-emerge as a more powerful actor. While IS-Y has been diminished by repeated clashes with AQAP and Houthi forces, a UN report from 2021 estimated that the group still had hundreds of fighters. Additionally, although IS-Y had been inactive for roughly two years, it claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing on July 9 that targeted a Houthi convoy in al-Bayda governorate, where IS-Y is known to be active. After the bombing, photos of the alleged terrorist were released picturing him pledging allegiance to Abu Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, the Islamic State’s new caliph, in March. While no local sources have confirmed that the attack occurred, it could mean that the group has been preparing for a comeback.
Yemen’s Complicated Landscape
Despite the two-month extension in Yemen’s truce signed on August 2, the country’s tense and fragile situation offers AQAP and IS-Y circumstances to exploit. Since the truce first went into effect in April, AQAP has skillfully blended in with sympathetic tribes and financially sustained itself through robberies and kidnappings.
“The recent truces present an opportunity for Yemen’s militant jihad groups to align with factions who do not want to lay down their arms,” Elisabeth Kendall, a senior research fellow in Arabic & Islamic Studies at Pembroke College at the University of Oxford, told the Gulf International Forum. “AQAP and IS-Y can profit in two ways: by absorbing individuals who wish to continue fighting and by acting as proxies for more mainstream militias who wish to appear to be adhering to the truce. The evidence points in different directions for different splinters at different times. This is entirely plausible, given constantly evolving war dynamics, heightened mistrust, and fluid loyalties on the ground.”
When assessing the threats posed by AQAP and IS-Y, it is critical to closely monitor the situation in southern Yemen where there has been fighting between pro-government factions. The UAE-sponsored Giants Brigade and Shabwa Defense Forces have clashed with the Special Security Forces. Alleged links to the Muslim Brotherhood and anti-UAE sentiments led to the sacking of some police and military commanders within the Shabwa Defense Forces and subsequent outbreak of infighting among these pro-government factions. The capital of Shabwa province, Ataq, came under the Giants Brigade and Shabwa Defense Forces’ control earlier this month. On August 22, these Emirati-backed forces usurped control of gas and oil fields in southern Yemen—a development that could strengthen the position of southern separatists while weakening the anti-Houthi alliance’s unity. Such violence creates dangerous dynamics that AQAP and IS-Y can exploit.
“The renewed fighting in the south means more chaos and the lack, so far, of effective leadership by the Presidential Council is an opportunity for AQAP and [IS-Y] to step up their activities,” said Dr. Nabeel Khoury, a former U.S. diplomat and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, in an interview with the Gulf International Forum. “Both sides in the southern conflict have links to AQAP and may seek their help if their struggle for power continues.”
Questions about the future of Yemen’s territorial integrity, and tensions between those favoring a unified Yemen and southern separatists, are highly relevant to the roles that AQAP and IS-Y might play in the country’s eight-year conflict down the line. “Should Yemen break apart into two or more entities, especially if at least one of the entities is hostile to the U.S. and its regional partners, AQAP and IS-Y will enjoy much greater freedom of movement and operational capacity to threaten again the broader international community as well as Yemen internally,” Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen and the Middle East Institute’s senior vice president, told the Gulf International Forum.
The Zawahiri Factor
The U.S. killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri last month in Kabul likely has political implications for AQAP. However, it would be misguided to conclude that his death will have a substantial impact on AQAP’s operational capabilities in Yemen. In fact, Zawahiri’s death could benefit al-Qaeda’s Yemeni franchise in ways that should not be discounted.
AQAP held Zawahiri, who visited Yemen on multiple occasions during the 1990s, in high esteem. The organization respected him “as a religious scholar, author, doctor, strategist, and poet, as well as for having endured imprisonment and torture during his decades-long commitment to the cause,” Kendall told the Gulf International Forum. “When rifts emerged inside AQAP in 2019, both sides agreed to defer to Zawahiri as ultimate arbiter even though establishing communications in the end proved difficult.”
Ultimately, though, Zawahiri’s killing is mostly a symbolic blow to AQAP, which like other al-Qaeda franchises around the world has been acting with significant independence. His death has potential to “open the way for a new, perhaps more dynamic, leader to assume the mantle, and likely it will pass back to the Gulf, and very likely to someone from Yemen,” warned Khoury, who stated that “what looks like a tragedy for [AQAP] may ironically inject new blood and renewed energy” into the organization. Some regional scholars have even suggested that AQAP leader Khalid bin Umar Batarfi could be a potential successor to Zawahiri, arguing that he has some of the most significant experience in directing international attacks out of any of al-Qaeda’s current affiliate leaders.
Regardless of who takes the helm of al-Qaeda, AQAP and IS-Y will be in a strong position to capitalize on tensions between Yemeni government factions and opposition to the truce in ways that can help both terrorist organizations reassert themselves as increasingly influential actors in Yemen.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.