Militants affiliating themselves with the terrorist group ISIS are taking advantage of a power vacuum in Yemen to establish an increasingly strong foothold there as the government focuses on fighting other rebels, experts say.
ISIS-linked terrorists have launched deadly attacks on mosques, carried out car bombings, and exploited sectarian tensions to lure new recruits, using extreme brutality and violence to bring in new blood and distinguish themselves from the powerful al Qaeda branch in Yemen, The New York Times reported earlier this week.
“A video released recently by the branch underscored its determination to showcase its brutality,” The Times reported. “In one section, the video shows masked gunmen leading prisoners to a small boat that was set out to sea and then blown up. Another vignette showed four captives made to wear what appeared to be mortar shells, draped around their necks, then pose for the camera before the shells were detonated.”
Yemen has been in a state of chaos since a civil war started there in March. A Saudi-led coalition, backed by the US, is fighting to defeat the Houthi rebels, who support Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The coalition backs the government of current President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The civil war has created a power vacuum in some areas of Yemen where the Saudi-led coalition has driven Houthi rebels out.
Enter ISIS, which saw an opportunity to step in. And no one seems to be targeting ISIS with enough strength to prevent the group from expanding, since the coalition is laser-focused on fighting Houthis.
“To some extent, Yemen was always on the radar screen of ISIS as eventually part of their caliphate, but at first they were preoccupied with Syria and Iraq and had no time to invest elsewhere,” Nabeel Khoury, a former State Department official in Yemen and a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Business Insider.
“But with the power vacuum, with the chaos … that presented both an opportunity and an incentive” for ISIS, Khoury added.
The opportunity comes from the chaos in Yemen — the government’s preoccupation with the civil war and focus on fighting the rebels means their counterterrorism efforts are lacking.
Right now, ISIS seems to be focusing on establishing a solid foothold in parts of southern Yemen. (The Houthi rebels are from the north.)
ISIS will “start with Aden, other parts of the south,” Khoury said. “As a combination of forces, this is driving the Houthis out of these areas. They don’t have the Yemeni government and military ready to take over. So as you drive the Houthis out, you leave a relatively weak state structure. … That makes it very easy for [al Qaeda] and ISIS to take over.”
ISIS’ incentive in Yemen comes from the Houthis, which Khoury referred to as “second cousins” of Shiites. ISIS and al Qaeda are both Sunni extremist groups, and ISIS in particular has targeted Shiites in attacks.
The Houthi takeover of Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, presented ISIS with a new target, Khoury said.
“The No. 1 target for ISIS from the beginning has been Shia governments, Shia authorities, Shia communities,” Khoury said. “Houthis … are closer to Shia Islam than they are to Sunnis. Having [Shia rebels] take over another country was a challenge that ISIS had to invest in fighting.”
Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemeni activist and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, echoed this assessment.
“What [the war] has done is created a sectarian narrative for ISIS and al Qaeda to build on,” he told Business Insider.
ISIS has been known to pit Sunnis and Shiites against each other in other countries like Syria and Iraq, where the group has gained large swathes of territory.
And if the civil war in Yemen continues to drag on, young people might be persuaded to join jihadist groups, seeing few other viable alternatives for survival. Al-Muslimi wrote in The Guardian earlier this year that “as the poorest country in the Arab world is collapsing in front of the world’s eyes, a whole generation of Yemeni youth and children are losing their future.”
“The loss of hope among the younger generation is going to create more space and more opportunity for ISIS,” al-Muslimi told Business Insider.
Khoury said the ISIS affiliate in Yemen seems to be made up of “mostly locals” at this point. It’s hard to determine how closely the ISIS militants in Yemen are coordinating with the group’s central leadership in Iraq and Syria, but analysts told The Times that there are signs that the Yemeni militants are in touch with ISIS leaders abroad.
“They have been recruiting locally,” Khoury said. “Bringing in foreign fighters from outside is very difficult these days in Yemen because of the war going on.”
ISIS isn’t the only Sunni extremist group with a presence in Yemen. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remains the dominant jihadist force in the country, analysts say. But ISIS is growing in strength while AQAP remains flat.
“I think probably AQAP still has the edge for now, although that’s probably changing,” Khoury said. “It’s kind of like a see-saw with the other side rising. … AQAP is more or less stagnant.”
And as al Qaeda’s leadership in Yemen has taken hits, ISIS is trying to take advantage of another potential vacuum among jihadists in the region. AQAP is reportedly “closely watching” ISIS’ efforts in Yemen as ISIS tries to “peel off defectors” from the group, according to The Times.
Al-Muslimi noted that ISIS’ emergence in Yemen is fairly recent.
“With the war going on and with the Houthis increasing and moving to the south, [ISIS] started slowly emerging,” al-Muslimi said.
Khoury pointed out that ISIS and AQAP appear to be staying out of each other’s way in Yemen, but they still compete for recruits.
“They’re fighting for the same space: Sunni radical recruitment,” al-Muslimi said. “[Al Qaeda] looks to ISIS as something taking space and, more importantly, warriors. The level of brutality of ISIS has recruited a lot of people that didn’t find the absolute violence in al Qaeda.”
Analysts told The Times that though AQAP is still stronger than ISIS in Yemen, ISIS might be just as pressing of a long-term concern for counterterrorism officials.
“For ISIS, it’s sort of the same strategy which they have done elsewhere … you go in where you can and you expand and you, if you can, take over central power. That would be the ultimate goal,” Khoury said.
“ISIS is about institution building … so they will set up an infrastructure similar to what they have in Syria and Iraq and hope that eventually they can link up” any territory they’re able to seize in Yemen with other parts of the “caliphate,” the swath of territory ISIS controls in Iraq and Syria and seeks to expand.
Khoury added: “The ultimate goal is to have one caliphate that has continuous territory.”
ISIS’ Yemen expansion also comes at a time when the group (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, and Daesh) is reported to be preparing a “back-up capital” of sorts in Libya, in case its central base of operations in Raqqa, Syria falls.
But the “ultimate goal” is a long way from being realised.
“In Yemen it’s going to be a bit of a challenge because you have the whole Saudi expanse and they are nowhere near challenging the Saudis …. so they will not be able to use Yemen to link what they have in Iraq and Syria,” Khoury said.