Will al Qaeda and violent extremism win as airstrikes continue in Yemen?

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Yemen why we should care

This morning at least 29 people died when an IDP camp for Yemenis who had fled from their homes due to conflict was hit by an airstrike.

The Houthis blame the Saudi-Arabian led gulf coalition. President Hadi’s administration blamed Houthi fighters. Meanwhile, the airstrikes against Houthi bases which began wednesday after the Houthis  proceeded toward Aden have continued, with some commentators saying  a proxy war is being played out between the region’s and world’s powers.

We know who are the inevitable losers of this latest conflict- ordinary Yemeni people, many of whom are already impoverished. And there is already a winner emerging: violent extremist group al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, and potentially also ISIS.

Diminished military and militia response to AQAP
The most dangerous of all the al Qaeda affiliates, and deemed most likely to launch an attack on US soil, al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP)- or Ansar al-Sharia- officially came into existence in 2009 ‎after the tribal rivalries between Yemeni tribes and Saudi fighters were set aside. The US had been supporting Yemen with targeted attacks on AQAP cells and military assistance. Since 2012 there have been almost 100 strikes killing approximately 450 AQAP members and at least 58 civilians in that time. While the US support has been controversial, the Houthis have also been fighting AQAP. The GCC airstrikes will take-out key Houthi bases and security committees, a militia infrastructure that has been key to holding back AQAP from taking over further territory. Fighting on the ground between the Yemeni military and Houthis and the pulling out of US troops last week, prior to the strikes, also reduces if not removes the ongoing military presence that was dedicated to fighting AQAP.

Growing support for violent extremist groups
In addition to the diversion of military action against AQAP, this latest conflict is likely to attract hardline Sunni radicals to the Al Qaeda affiliate.  ISIS, who announced their presence in the country last month and were allegedly responsible for the suicide attacks on mosques in Sana’a are also an attractive- and far more effective -outfit for radicalized individuals and communities. Both groups are likely to use the Arab intervention to attract further supporters and to gain territory rapidly, as we saw in Syria and Iraq. At the same time, the airstrikes and civilian deaths will likely garner more oppositional support for the Houthis against Hadi’s government. The Gulf-led and Western-backed campaign is not likely to fully incapacitate but only weaken the Houthi movement, and in the process cede more territory to AQAP .

While Yemen’s foreign minister came out on Sunday insisting that what we are witnessing is not a sectarian war, much of the foreign media, AQAP and ISIS refer to this conflict as a Sunni-Shia war- evoking sectarian tensions that have only recently been introduced to the fractured tribal and political landscape in Yemen. Despite statements to the contrary, there is no doubt that there’s also a widespread view that the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation are taking part in a proxy war. This conflict will give sectarianism a stronger foothold in Yemen, playing directly into al Qaeda and ISIS’ strategies of inciting and fueling sectarian conflict in order to garner support and expand. ISIS was able to make inroads into Syria and Iraq so quickly partly because it was able to exploit existing sectarian divisions, and while military attention was turned towards other groups, harness these dynamics for its own aims. Now we see the same thing happening in Yemen.

Misdiagnosed sectarianism
The Houthis have officially denied the support provided by Iran, not just because this would certainly have precipitated and galvanized action against them, but perhaps because the Houthis see the support from Iran as pragmatic, rather based on an ideological or fraternal relationship. While the late Houthi leader Houssein al-Houthi spent some time in Iran in the mid-1990s, the modern Houthi movement has existed for many decades, and their aims, most recently, have not changed drastically, nor taken on a more ideological or sectarian narrative. With the airstrikes however, and the possibility of gulf-led  ground troops, the Houthis may find themselves pushed into greater dependence on Iran’s financial, political and military backing .The fighting with AQAP is also by no means a clash of ideologies, but part of a growing struggle over territory and influence between the two sides which also involves allying with local tribes. The Houthis have also fought intense wars against former Presdient Saleh – himself a Zaiyedi.  And don’t forget that President Saleh variously used AQAP to advance his own political goals including in the wars against the Houthis. But since fighting the Houthi’s ‘tooth and nail’ during his reign, his support since his deposition has been instrumental in the Houthi stroll into Sana’a last year, and their recent march towards Aden.

All this reminds us that it is simplistic and dangerous to reduce Yemen’s complex tribal and political relationships down to Sunni-Shia factionalism. And to underestimate the other potential winner in all this furore- former president and snake charmer Ali Abdullah Saleh.

While the Saudi-led airstrikes may be legal according to international law, the composition of the coalition and nature of the action itself are not conducive to bringing stability – they have already divided the population of the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, many of whom said they were opposed to the Houthis until the bombing started. Nor are they likely to have the desired impact of making the Houthis, even in a severely weakened condition, give up their arms. We should keep in mind the desired outcome: a viable political transition in Yemen which includes the Houthi movement and responds to the very real concerns of the groups they represent. We should also not muddy the waters by allowing lazy thinking to associate the Houthi’s aims with Shia Islam, nor conflate the current conflict between Yemeni factions as sectarianism. Lets not give power to the  grand narratives of violent extremism and make AQAP and ISIS winners in this conflict.

Related posts on Two Views Beyond the Hill:

Where to next? Twists in the Yemen take-over

Why we should care about Yemen (and its not all about al Qaeda)

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