Yemen: Sunni Strongholds Closer Than Ever to Falling to Al Qaeda, ISIS

Wael Qubady/AP
Wael Qubady/AP

With the Shiite Houthi rebels losing ground in southern Yemen, Sunni jihadist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State appear poised to fill the power vacuum in areas where neither the Houthis nor internationally recognized President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi have been able to secure a foothold.

In an extensive and alarming report, Reuters warns that the Islamic State has emboldened its presence in Aden, the southern city that Hadi fled to when Houthi rebels took over the capital, Sanaa, earlier this year. Hadi was later forced to flee to Saudi Arabia until returning in late September, following a Saudi-led coalition airstrike campaign against Houthi targets. While the Sunni Yemeni government is currently operating out of Aden, they have focused their efforts on eradicating Houthi loyalists, allowing for ISIS and Al Qaeda jihadists to strengthen their numbers.

ISIS-linked terrorists have bombed Shiite mosques, stormed supermarkets demanding women cover their faces, and coffee shops imposing Sharia law. Reuters notes the story of a University of Aden lecture who had his class interrupted by masked gunmen shouting “the time of debauchery and fornication is over,” forcing male and female students to separate. A woman who refused to be named says she and a group of friends had their day at the beach interrupted by masked gunmen denouncing their music as “anti-Islamic.”

Al Qaeda has also made strides in Yemen, where American experts consider the group to be at its strongest. Reuters notes that Al Qaeda “has effectively ruled over parts of Yemen’s vast eastern Hadramout province, including its provincial capital, the strategic port of Mukalla” for months. While al Qaeda control more territory than ISIS, they have not managed to stage attacks as dramatic as those that ISIS has levied against Houthi-controlled Sanaa. Al Qaeda has also been forced to compromise with the Saudi pro-Hadi coalition. While direct talks in which the Hadi coalition demanded al Qaeda give up its weapons failed, the coalition has not directly bombed al Qaeda-controlled areas and instead focused on Houthi and ISIS targets. Meanwhile, Military Times notes, al Qaeda has been staging victory parades in Aden this week.

The chaos has created a situation where “we now cannot even tell who is al-Qaida, who is Islamic State, who is just a thug and who is from the resistance (against the Houthis),” one Aden resident tells the publication.

Clashes continue elsewhere in Yemen between Hadi forces and the Houthis. More than fifty fighters were killed in Taiz, a southern city, in clashes on Monday, and at least seven civilians killed as well. A study released Tuesday claims upwards of 90 percent of casualties in Yemen are civilians, with 97 percent of those killed by improvised explosive devises being civilians.

Houthi and Hadi loyalists, with help from Saudi Arabia, have agreed to peace talks. A letter signed by Houthi leaders surfaced in early October in which they agreed to a United Nations-brokered peace plan. So far, however, there has been little progress, and armed militants of the ground continue to fight each other. In addition to these bilateral negotiations, Islamic State terrorists have made clear they will not negotiate with any side and intend to conquer all of Yemen and impose Sharia law, eliminating the nation’s Shiite population.

The Houthis seek the same conquest in reverse, eliminating the Sunni population. Their official slogan is “Death to America, death to Israel, curses to the Jews and victory to Islam.” As a Shiite group, the Houthis have close ties to Iran, which President Hadi has accused of wanting “to see Yemen destroyed.”

Yemen’s political situation has been in near-constant disorder since January, when the Houthis seized the presidential palace and forced Hadi to flee. Three months before, in September, President Obama had claimed Yemen to be a success story in the war on terror. “This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years,” he claimed. Press Secretary Josh Earnest also described Yemen as “a place where the American counterterrorism strategy that has been put in place by President Obama has succeeded.”

Should Hadi’s coalition fall, Yemen would be left without an internationally-recognized government. This is the situation in Libya, legally the largest piece of terra nullius on the planet, where the internationally-recognized government’s mandate has expired, but Islamist gangs make an election to replace it impossible.

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who was Secretary of State at the time of former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s deposition, called America’s strategy in Libya “smart power at its best” at a Democratic Party debate in October.


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