The Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) has significantly expanded its footprint in Yemen over the last year, posing a challenge to its rival al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), reports Reuters. ISIS’s ranks have been bolstered with new members amid the messy war in Yemen between Iran-allied Shiite Houthis and a Saudi-led coalition of Sunni Arab nations.
However, AQAP may have gotten a boost to its already larger force following a jailbreak in Yemen that saw nearly 1,200 prisoners, some of whom are suspected of being members of al-Qaeda.
“Groups of al Qaeda supporters… today attacked the central prison in the city of Taiz and more than 1,200 of the dangerous prisoners escaped,” Yemen’s state-run news agency Saba quoted an unnamed security official as saying.
Aimen Dean, a former al-Qaeda insider who now manages a security consultancy group in the Gulf, told Reuters that ISIS in Yemen has enjoyed a nearly four-fold increase in membership, growing from about 80 jihadists when it established a presence a year ago to 300 now.
AQAP still outranks ISIS in Yemen with its several thousand fighters and explosive experts, who have made repeated attempts to bring down Western airplanes. The U.S. considers AQAP the most dangerous and potent jihadist group.
Nevertheless, ISIS affiliates in Yemen have “sought to steal al Qaeda’s thunder” by targeting the Shiite Houthis, a common enemy, Reuters reports.
Executing Shiite civilians is considered a religious duty by ISIS, something that even al-Qaeda finds violent.
However, “Al Qaeda and other hardline Sunni groups condemn the Houthis as apostates worthy of death, and the two groups are fighting each other in several areas in central Yemen.”
Al-Qaeda was believed to be taking advantage of the war between the Houthis, backed by their allies, military troops loyal to Yemen’s ex-Ali Abdullah Saleh, and supporters of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi, aided by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes.
However, Reuters notes that “AQAP still participates in almost daily battles with the Houthis alongside tribal fighters, Southern Resistance forces and supporters of exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi.”
Military units loyal to the Yemen’s former leader, Saleh, were accused of facilitating the prison break, Reuters reports.
The security official said army forces linked to Saleh allowed the prisoners to escape as the militiamen, dubbed “popular committees” by their supporters, advanced.
“Heavy fighting took place near the central prison and the [militiamen known as the] popular committees approached and seized control of the area, but Saleh’s forces opened the prison doors,” an unnamed security official said, according to Reuters.
It remains unclear why the pro-Saleh forces, most of which have allied themselves with the Shiite Houthis, allowed the prisoners to escape.
An anonymous official told Reuters that al-Qaeda members were among the escapees, adding that they fled amid fighting between warring militias in Taiz.
Another local official told Reuters some of the escapees were “suspected of belonging to al Qaeda” but said they left amid heavy clashes between warring militias in the city.
ISIS, which controls swathes of Iraq and Syria and has expanded into North Africa and the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, broke from al-Qaeda last year. The group has declared a caliphate to rule over all Muslims.
Last month, The Guardian reported that ISIS has decimated the Osama bin Laden-founded group by taking its recruits and ripping it apart.
“Copious funding from Islamic State’s coffers, al Qaeda’s inability to stage regular spectacular attacks on Houthis, and losses of al Qaeda leaders in drone attacks had discouraged its habitual supporters and led to a series of defections,” notes Reuters.
Referring to ISIS, al-Qaeda expert Dean, said, “They are supplanting al Qaeda and presenting themselves as the credible alternative.”
“While most analysts agree that AQAP remains resilient, some argue that U.S. methods, including drone strikes, help create a climate conducive for the nascent Islamic State to attract new followers,” mentions the Reuters report.
On Sunday, Almasdar Online, a Yemeni news website, revealed that “senior AQAP leader, Jalal Baleidi, had switched allegiance to Islamic State and set up a training camp for its militants in a remote area of the Hadramout province close to the border with Saudi Arabia.