What You Should Know About ISIS in Yemen

Opinion

What You Should Know About ISIS in Yemen

Mubaraz Ahmed

03 Nov 2015

Yemen's instability has helped ISIS establish itself in the country and challenge al-Qaeda's dominance of the jihadi landscape.

ISIS' track record demonstrates that the group thrives on instability, making inroads in Syria, Iraq, and Libya amid growing civil strife. The current conflict in Yemen between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi movement has provided ISIS ideal cover to make its presence felt in the country.

In March 2015, ISIS announced its arrival in Yemen by claiming responsibility for a coordinated suicide bomb attack on two mosques in the heart of the country's capital Sanaa, killing 142 people and injuring over 300. The mosque attacks targeted Yemen's Houthi movement, which follows the Zaydi school of Shia Islam. The group released an audio message declaring "[ISIS] soldiers would not rest until they stop the Safawi operation in Yemen," using a derisory term to refer to the Shia group's territorial advances in the country.

Since the suicide bombings in March, ISIS has launched other attacks on Houthi mosques. In September 2015, ISIS attacks killed 57 people at separate mosques in Yemen, including an attack on the al-Balili mosque during Eid al-Adha prayers. The group called the attacks part of a "series of military campaigns" to exact "revenge" against perceived Houthi aggression against Muslims.

ISIS is looking to exploit sectarian tensions in the country.

The actions and rhetoric employed by ISIS highlight the group's intention of exploiting the sectarian elements of the on-going conflict to serve its own ambitions. Citing revenge for Houthi incursions into Sunni areas as the motive for the mosque attacks, ISIS is presenting itself as the Sunni vanguard to protect Muslims from the Houthis, hoping to gain their support.

While ISIS is a newcomer to the jihadi scene in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been operating in the region, in one guise or another, since the 1990s. With its focus on the far enemy, having claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015, and having links to multiple bomb plots targeting the US, many consider AQAP to be the most dangerous al-Qaeda affiliate in the world. The group has been making its own inroads in Yemen amidst the on-going conflict. With neither Yemeni nor Saudi forces tackling the group on the ground, AQAP has made large territorial gains.

AQAP has framed itself as the 'moderate' jihadi voice in the face of ISIS' brazen brutality, a tactic that al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra has also adopted. Conversely, ISIS prides itself on its violence, considering it a mark of strength and legitimacy. Rather than raising the ante and matching ISIS' indiscriminate violence, AQAP has distanced itself from the group and pledged to "avoid targeting mosques" and to "protect the lives of innocent Muslims."

In its English-language propaganda magazine Dabiq, ISIS described the Yemeni government as being part of the global coalition against the group. Shortly after, in October 2015, ISIS claimed responsibility for a large-scale attack on the Al-Qasr hotel complex in Aden, targeting the country's recently returned internationally recognised government. While no government ministers were hurt, 11 Yemeni and four Emirati troops fighting for the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis were killed.

Widely circulated reports have suggested that Iran is providing support to the Houthis. The country is a repeated target of ISIS propaganda, using the pejorative descriptions of Safavids and Rafida to root its opposition in some sort of religious/historic context, and pursuing activities against the Houthis fits into ISIS broader attack on Shia Islam.

ISIS has targeted both the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

Just as ISIS has demonstrated in Syria and Iraq, its binary worldview is not limited to sectarian lines. Rather, the group's idea of 'the enemy' is far broader and includes any nation, group, or individual that disagrees with its worldview. While the Saudi-led coalition of Sunni-majority countries are fighting the Shia Houthis, purportedly supported by Shia ally Iran, ISIS has taken aim at both.

ISIS does not have the same presence in Yemen as it does in Syria, Iraq, or even Libya. However, the group's brief yet brutal existence in the Arabian Peninsula, which has seen it launch attacks against both sides of the current conflict, suggests that it is growing in reach and ability. Knowing that its jihadi rival AQAP has stolen a march on the group and made territorial gains, ISIS may try to follow suit.