At a Glance
Briefing Note: ISIS Launches Yemen Attacks
20 Mar 2015
As a series of coordinated bombings on mosques by ISIS in Yemen kills over 137, a close examination of the context of the group's presence in the country is required.
A series of coordinated attacks in Yemen on Friday killed at least 137 people and left hundreds more injured. Two mosques in Sanaa, Yemen's capital and another in the Houthi stronghold of Saada were attacked during Friday prayers.
The bombings have been claimed by 'Sanaa province' of ISIS, the formation of which was announced in speech given by ISIS' leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, released in an audio recording in November 2014. This is believed to be the group's first operation in the country.
All three mosques are controlled by the Houthi movement, a Zaydi Shia group that seized power in Sanaa in a coup in February. However, Sanaa has a mixed population of Shafi Sunni and Zaydi Shia; the two sects are exceedingly close in many practical respects, and it is likely that both groups were represented among the victims.
The bombings occur in a context of increasing violence in Yemen, with the Houthi movement in control of Sanaa and the deposed president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi setting up a rival government in Aden. Meanwhile, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh retains the loyalty of certain army units and tribal militias, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula remains active.
However, as in Syria and Libya jihadi groups have an interest in fomenting further unrest. Jihadi groups are the likely winners in the country's collapse, particularly when there is an opportunity to draw the battle lines along sectarian grounds.
Jihadi groups are the likely winners in the country's collapse.
ISIS' claim of responsibility (from 'The Media Office of Sanaa Province') was reportedly released on the same website as claimed the previous Wednesday's attacks in Tunis for ISIS. The statement claimed to have attacked the 'dens' of the Houthis, identifying them as 'rafidah', a pejorative term for Shia Muslims that roughly translates as 'rejectionists'.
It went on to say that the "soldiers of the Islamic State... will not rest until we have uprooted them, repelled their aggression, and cut off the arm of the Iranian project in Yemen". This accusation that the Houthis are a proxy force of Iran is a particularly common accusation ( denied by the group), particularly from their political rivals, salafi-jihadi groups in Yemen, and regional powers such as Saudi Arabia. However, a recent Chatham House report draws out a number of factors that undermine this straightforward Iranian 'proxy' narrative, in favour of a more nuanced view. Although Iran is certainly willing to support the Houthis rhetorically, the extent to which it has translated into operational support or influence over Houthi decisions is likely limited.
Whilst ISIS' sectarian rhetoric is familiar from its statements in Iraq and Syria, it has been growing increasingly common in Yemen. Though ISIS has previously not played a part in Yemen's conflict, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was deeply opposed to the Houthi movement long before it seized power. However, while AQAP has not shied away from large-scale attacks on Houthi forces, it is usually extremely careful to maintain as broad a support base as possible. To this end, it has generally avoided indiscriminate sectarian violence and attacks on mosques, or other attacks that generate a negative public response. The group even apologised for an attack on a military hospital in December that was part of an assault that killed 52 people, blaming it on a renegade member of the group. In this vein, AQAP was quick to deny involvement in Friday's attack in Sanaa, stating that it had committed not to attack mosques and public places, as directed by the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The ability of ISIS to conduct an attack in Yemen on this scale has taken many commentators by surprise. However, ISIS has made no secret of their intention to attack Yemen in their propaganda, signals which have previously proved portentous.
Baghdadi even specified an order for attacks by ISIS supporters in Yemen.
In the November 2014 audio recording that declared the formation of a Yemeni branch of the group, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi addressed jihadi groups in Yemen, calling on them to " be harsh against the Houthi rafidah, for they are kuffar apostates." In this recording, Baghdadi even specified an order for attacks by ISIS supporters in Yemen, saying they should first target Shia (including the Houthis), then the Saudi dynasty, and then finally the "Crusaders."
Furthermore, in a recent issue of Dabiq, ISIS' English-language propaganda magazine, an article asks "is there not in Yemen a person who will take revenge for us from the Houthis?" It also suggests joint operations between Yemeni and Saudi jihadis, saying the "mujahidin of the [province] of the Arabian Peninsula and Yemen are now proximate to each other, and thus can support each other in their war against the [apostates]."
Apart from their own rhetoric, which tends to be particularly inflated when the group lays claim to operations outside Iraq and Syria, there have also been reports from some Yemeni officials indicating that ISIS has been active and recruiting inside Yemen, with one security source saying in January 2015 that ISIS has a presence in at least three provinces in southern and central Yemen, and that there was now a "real competition" between ISIS and AQAP.
While it is not yet clear whether this attack signals the start of an ISIS campaign in Yemen, or is more indicative of an intra-jihadi attempt to recruit AQAP loyalists by demonstrating an ability to strike at the heart of the Houthi movement, it does demonstrate that whatever setbacks ISIS may be facing in Iraq, its global appeal is undiminished.
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