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Yemen is a fragile Gulf state home to numerous Salafi-jihadi and Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a leading al-Qaeda affiliate, and an Islamic State branch. Both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have exploited the conditions created by Yemen’s collapse into civil war. The breakdown of the Yemeni state over the course of the civil war will add to historic internal challenges, including political and economic instability, declining oil reserves, severe water shortages, internally-displaced persons (IDPs), and deep-seated ethnic and religious tensions. 

Islamist extremist and separatist groups have taken advantage of Yemen’s general instability to advance their political agendas and create terrorist safe-havens in the country. The Yemeni government, for its part, has coordinated closely with the United States on counterterrorism operations to target AQAP leaders, including through the use of U.S. drone strikes on Yemeni soil. 

The economic, social and security issues that plague the Yemeni state, coupled with civil war, have paralyzed the Yemeni government. It is not able to provide effective governance and security to much of the country. The Zaydi Shi’a Houthi movement is a powerbroker in the Sana’a-based government, having seized control of the state after the collapse of the National Dialogues Conference. AQAP, which governed certain areas for over a year, has expanded its influence and the Islamic State now has a foothold in Yemen. Both groups will continue to operate in the country as long as the civil war continues.

Level of Islamist Activity: 
Severe
Islamist Activity: 

The land of Yemen holds religious significance in Islam. There are two hadiths (accounts of the sayings of Muhammad) directly referencing the area. The first prophesies that a Muslim army of 12,000 men will rise from Aden and Abyan in southern Yemen to give victory to Allah. The second states that two religions would not co-exist on the Arabian Peninsula, implying that Islam would overcome the other. Yemen’s status in Islam has made it important to international Islamist groups, particularly Salafi-jihadi ones. 

Yemen has served as a safe haven to opposition and terrorist groups of varying political stripes throughout its history. Prior to the unification of traditionalist North Yemen and Marxist South Yemen in 1990, the latter was used as a sanctuary for a wide array of Palestinian and terrorist organizations with the support of local authorities. Since unification, this tradition of support for subversive groups has continued, but radical Palestinian and leftist organizations have been replaced by extremist Islamist organizations, especially those in opposition to the Saudi monarchy.1

Yemen’s prolonged civil conflicts, increasing sectarianism and the absence of an effective central government have created the conditions for the development of homegrown Islamist militants like the al-Houthis, as well as a safe haven for international Salafi-jihadi organizations like al-Qaeda. Yemen’s education system, which uses textbooks containing some degree of anti-American and anti-Israeli ideology, coupled with an employment rate of around 35 percent, are factors that play into the vulnerability of young men to be exploited by Islamist militant organizations.2  

Further compounding the problem is the accessibility of weapons through Yemen’s vast underground arms market; roughly three guns exist for every one person in Yemen.3 The Yemeni political and social landscape is replete with tribal leaders and Islamist groups that have the arms and power to deny the Yemeni government a monopoly on the use of violence. Under these conditions, analysts have noted, “piracy, smuggling and violent jihad can flourish, with implications for the security of shipping routes and the transit of oil”4 through the Red Sea to the Suez Canal.

The ouster of the country’s longtime autocratic president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the political transition that followed his departure have transformed Yemeni politics. After 33 years in power, Saleh was removed from power following widespread anti-government protests in 2011 during Yemen’s Arab Spring. A U.S.-backed, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-brokered transition agreement led to a referendum electing former vice president Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi as Saleh’s replacement. Hadi later presided over a National Dialogues Conference to lay the groundwork for a new Yemeni Constitution. The National Dialogue Conference, the forum to address longstanding grievances against the government, included a number of opposition groups and Islamist factions, including Shi’ite Houthi rebels in the north.5

Opposition groups decried the transition process after it did not fully shift power from the established elite. The al-Houthis left the negotiating table and began to militarize, advancing from their northern stronghold to Sana’a, the capital, with Saleh’s support.6 They forced the Hadi government to sign an agreement giving opposition groups, including the Southern Movement (Hirak), an umbrella group for southern opposition factions, more power in the government.7 The al-Houthi coup culminated in the winter of 2015, when the Hadi government fled the country. An Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia and including the United Arab Emirates intervened in Yemen in March 2015 in support of the Hadi government.8 Civil war broke out between two large factions of loose, pragmatic alliances: the al-Houthi-Saleh faction and those opposed to it, now including the Southern Movement, the Sunni al-Islah party, local tribal militias, and al-Qaeda. 

Al-Qaeda

Al-Qaeda has a long-standing presence in Yemen. Yemenis ranked second only to Saudis in terms of nationals serving as members of the mujahideen who fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, a war that constituted a key milestone in the consolidation of radical Islam in Yemen. Yemenis trained under al-Qaeda’s high command in Afghanistan throughout the 1990s, up until the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.9

From its inception until the late 1990s, al-Qaeda maintained training camps in various locations in Yemen.10 A November 1996 autobiography of bin Laden provided to the Islamist journal Nida’ul Islam highlighted the terrorist chief’s enduring interest in Yemen and mentioned his support for the mujahideen fighting the Communist party in South Yemen in the early 1980s and later in the early 1990s.11 In 1997, bin Laden reportedly sent an envoy to Yemen to explore the possibility of establishing a base there in the event the Taliban expelled him from Afghanistan.12 The al-Qaeda leader also listed Yemen as one of six countries “most in need of liberation” in 2003.13  

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Yemeni government implemented stiff counterterrorism measures and cooperated with the United States to eliminate AQAP leader Abu Ali al-Harithi in November 2002. By the end of 2003, however, Sana’a began to lag in its counterterrorism efforts and in February 2006 twenty-three al-Qaeda terrorists, including the mastermind of the 2000 USS Cole bombing, escaped from a Yemeni prison.15 An October 2009 report by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) asserted that: 

Many Western intelligence analysts viewed elements of the Yemeni security apparatus as complicit in the prison break. The more relaxed security situation in Yemen stemmed both from complacency and the government’s perceived need to reallocate security resources to address other domestic threats. Such circumstances made Yemen a favorable alternative location for al-Qaeda to plan, train for, and execute attacks against the regimes of Saudi Arabia and Yemen, both of which it views as hypocritical, apostate puppets of the West.16

In the late 2000s, Yemen was a fragile state on the brink of failure focused on putting down the al-Houthi rebellion in the north. The state’s distraction made the country ideal as a base of operations for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which represented a merger of Yemeni and Saudi branches of al-Qaeda in January 2009. Yemen was a likely choice for the newly consolidated al-Qaeda movement after the Saudi government imposed a crackdown inside its borders following a series of terrorist attacks in the Kingdom between May 2003 and December 2004 against oil company offices, foreign targets, Saudi government offices, and security targets.17 

Since its establishment, AQAP has been the most active of al-Qaeda’s affiliates in targeting the United States. It has been implicated in a number of terrorist operations, including: a suicide bombing against a group of South Korean tourists in Hadramawt and a South Korean diplomatic convoy to Sana’a; the attempted suicide bombing targeting Saudi Deputy Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef; and the ambush and killing of seven Yemeni security officials near the Saudi border.18 

AQAP repeatedly attempted to attack the United States homeland, or American interests. It claimed responsibility for the attempted Christmas Day 2009 downing of Detroit-bound Flight 253 by Nigerian extremist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.19 AQAP also claimed the cargo plane bomb plot foiled in Dubai and the UK in October 2010, noting it was behind the September 2010 downing of a UPS flight in Dubai, although U.S. officials have found no conclusive connection between the crash and terrorism.20 The group attempted to attack the United States again in May 2012 (an attack which was thwarted by a Saudi intelligence tip), and was behind the threat stream that closed over twenty U.S. diplomatic missions across the Middle East and North Africa in August 2013.21

AQAP is conducting an insurgency within Yemen. The group seeks to mobilize the country’s Sunnis behind it against the Yemeni state. AQAP operates within local customs and developed local relations based on pragmatic lines of support.22 It does not require ideological alignment to support various groups and factions. It uses asymmetrical attacks to degrade Yemeni military capabilities, as well as other forces opposed to it. The group conducts targeted assassinations against military and government leadership, as well as against intelligence officers and local powerbrokers aligned with the government. AQAP has kidnapped individuals for ransom money and could in the future use this tactic to gain political leverage over foreign powers. The kidnapping of Saudi deputy consul Abdallah al-Khalidi at his home in the south Yemeni port city of Aden in March 2012 is one such example.

The number of Yemenis claiming allegiance to AQAP is unknown, although Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi claimed in late 2008 that Yemen was playing host to more than 1,000 jihadist fighters and al-Qaeda affiliates.23 This number has increased significantly as AQAP and associated organizations active in Yemen, such as Ansar al-Sharia, have increased their power and influence in southern Yemen. More recently, fighters have traveled from conflicts in Syria and Iraq to Yemen, bringing with them new skills and tactics.24 Even before the 2011 anti-government protests swept through Yemen, AQAP had been on a path to establishing links with tribes in the Marib, al-Jawf and Shabwa governorates of eastern Yemen.25 

In the wake of the 2011 uprisings, AQAP sought to capitalize on the political transition, increasing its attacks against government targets. AQAP’s insurgent arm, Ansar al-Sharia, seized key cities in the south, including the provincial capital of Abyan province, Zinjibar. Ansar al-Sharia held Zinjibar from May 2011 until the Yemeni military, aided by tribal militias known as Popular Committees, were able to overrun the al-Qaeda “emirates” in late June 2012.26 AQAP has found a more favorable political climate in the aggrieved Sunni south, though its mass appeal remains limited in a region historically dominated by socialism.

AQAP also conducts an international outreach strategy that is much more pronounced than that of other al-Qaeda affiliates. Anwar al-Awlaki, the late American-born Muslim cleric who became a leading figure within AQAP, ran an online campaign from Yemen to recruit and aid Muslims in foreign countries to carry out attacks that led to over a dozen terrorist investigations.27 Al-Qaeda’s English-language magazine, Inspire, has been produced in Yemen since 2010 and provides radicalizing literature and instructions for planning and conducting terrorist attacks.28 AQAP released a shorter “Guide to Inspire” following the June 2016 Orlando shootings and the July 2016 attack in Nice that analyzed those attacks and provided additional guidance for would-be recruits.29

AQAP has strengthened significantly during Yemen’s civil war.30 It controlled al Mukalla, a major port city in southeast Yemen, for a year and also expanded its influence behind the frontlines of Yemen’s war.31 Its influence is growing in Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city, and it continues to have sanctuary in Abyan, al Bayda, Shabwah, Ma’rib and al Jawf. Leadership attrition has not had a significant effect on its operations, and the group continues to show it has developed resilience toward drone strikes. U.S.-backed Emirati counterterrorism operations are only focused on AQAP’s presence in key populated areas, allowing the group to continue to develop elsewhere. 

The Islamic State

The Islamic State is competing globally with al-Qaeda for leadership of the Salafi-jihadi movement. Yemen is key terrain for this contest, not just because of its religious significance but also because of the presence of AQAP. To this end, the late Islamic State military commander Omar al Shishani mentioned Yemen among eight other fields of jihad in the Islamic State’s celebratory June 2014 video calling for the end of borders that separate Muslims.32

Initial support for the Islamic State appeared in Yemen immediately after the group declared a Caliphate in June 2014. A prominent Salafi-jihadi cleric, Sheikh Ma’moun Abdulhamid Hatem, was one early supporter of the Islamic State.33 Sheikh Hatem probably facilitated recruitment in Ibb for the Islamic State even as he remained within AQAP’s network.34 A Saudi Arabian national named Bilal al-Harbi, who was in communication with leadership in Syria by September 2014, was commissioned to gather pledges of allegiance to the Islamic State.35 Al-Harbi is now one of the group’s leaders in Yemen. Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi recognized the Yemeni branch alongside four other groups in a November 2014 video.36 

The Islamic State claimed its first attack in Yemen on March 20, 2015, simultaneously bombing two mosques in Sana’a. The attack was the deadliest terrorist incident in Yemen to-date and targeted Zaydi Shi’a.37 AQAP disavowed responsibility for the attack, noting that it does not target mosques or public spaces. The Sana’a mosque bombings began a series of attacks against targets, many of them civilian, that the Islamic State labeled as being “Houthi.” These attacks are part of a global strategy by the Islamic State to increase sectarianism and mobilize the Sunni behind its leadership.38

The group shifted its primary focus from targeting the Houthis to targeting an Arab coalition and the Yemeni military and government it backed in October 2015. The Emiratis had led a ground offensive to re-instate the Yemeni government in Aden in July 2015 and were beginning to re-establish the internationally recognized government in the country. Islamic State militants targeted coalition and government sites in Aden on October 6, 2015.39 The group began regular attacks in Aden through the winter and into spring 2016. It subsequently expanded attacks against the government to the southeastern port city of al Mukalla after an April 2016 Emirati-led offensive regained control of the city from AQAP.40

The Islamic State’s expansion in Yemen has been limited because of AQAP’s strong presence there, and because of how the Islamic State is choosing to operate. The targeting of non-combatants, a practice generally not seen in Yemen, has helped to alienate the population. The Islamic State uses a top-down leadership approach, working with a primarily non-Yemeni leadership body. Its leaders also do not follow Yemeni tribal customs, and in fact reject them entirely. Yemeni members of the Islamic State issued a public denouncement of the Islamic State’s leadership in Yemen in two letters in December 2015, rejecting the leadership but reaffirming their allegiance to Baghdadi.41 The Islamic State core group shut down the rebellion. Since then, only two cells of the group have claimed attacks in Yemen, down from eight.

The Houthi Movement

Prior to the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprisings, Yemeni military and security forces were already spread thin. The Saleh regime devoted considerable resources to suppressing a rebellion led by the Houthi family, from where the movement derives its moniker. The Houthis are Zaydi Shi’a and have a stronghold in northern Yemen. They were the most direct threat to the Yemeni state from 2004-2010. The Houthis have been engaged in an on-and-off guerrilla war with the Yemeni government since mid-2004, leading to the death and displacement of thousands.  The Saleh regime accused the Houthis of receiving support from Iran and of “trying to reinstate the clerical imamate” (Shi’ite Islamic government) that ruled northern Yemen for roughly 1,000 years prior to 1962,42 while the Houthis contend they are merely advocating “freedom of worship and social justice.”43  

Currently led by Abdul Malik al-Houthi, the younger brother of the group’s founder, Sheikh Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, the group has accused the Yemeni government of “widespread corruption, of aligning itself too closely with the United States, of allowing too much Wahhabi (fundamentalist Sunni) influence in the country, and of economic and social neglect in predominantly Shi’ite parts of the country.”44

The origins of the contemporary conflict trace back to 2003, when followers of the group “Believing Youth” shouted anti-American and anti-Israeli slurs inside a Sa’ada mosque where then-president Saleh was attending service at a time when he was trying to maintain strong relations with the West.45 The Yemeni government responded by killing Hussein al-Houthi in a firefight in September 2004. Houthi’s followers took up arms for revenge. The Yemeni military’s heavy hand caused collateral damage, drawing additional tribes behind the Houthis and mobilizing a large faction in northern Yemen. 

In the years that followed, the Yemeni government and Abdul Malik al-Houthi expressed their readiness for dialogue on a number of occasions. However, several resulting ceasefire agreements proved short-lived. The Yemeni government and Houthis fought six small wars in the decade after 2004. In the fall of 2009, the conflict spilled over the Saudi border as Houthi fighters seized areas within Saudi Arabia and the Saudi military retaliated with air and ground forces to repel the Houthi incursion.46

Saudi Arabia has since launched an initiative to fortify its border with Yemen with motion sensors, infrared systems, and GPS trackers.47 The initiative was launched in tandem with a March 2013 law that mandated the deportation of hundreds of thousands of illegal foreign residents.48 The International Organization for Migration documents that almost 310,000 Yemenis returned to Yemen from Saudi Arabia between June 1, 2013 and February 28, 2014. A separate estimate found 27 percent of the deportees planned to return to Saudi Arabia when possible. Oman also perceives a security risk and is considering building a barrier along its own border with Yemen.49

As the conflict between the Yemeni military and the Shi’ite Houthis escalated, so too did accusations by the Yemeni and Saudi governments of Iranian involvement in arming the Houthis, though the evidence on this score is not conclusive. Overt, unofficial statements by Houthi officials to reporters,50 recordings of conversations between smugglers and Quds forces,51 and an intercepted Iranian ship off Yemen’s southern coast carrying weapons including 10 Chinese anti-aircraft missiles originating from Iran have been wielded as evidence of Iranian involvement.52 Tehran has vehemently denied these accusations and condemned Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the conflict. Meanwhile, Houthi rebels have accused Saudi Arabia of supporting the Yemeni government and aiding its offensives, a charge which the Saudis have denied.53

The Houthis were among many groups that supported the anti-Saleh protests that erupted in January 2011. As the military shifted its resources to restoring security in the capital and combating a growing threat from al-Qaeda in the south, the Houthis were emboldened to expand territorially. This led to clashes with the Sunni al-Islah party, as the two groups jockeyed for power and influence in the northern province of al-Jawf.54 Adding to the Houthis’ list of adversaries, in January 2011 AQAP deputy chief Saeed Ali al-Shihri declared jihad against “Iranian-backed Houthi Shiite advocates.”55 From spring 2011 through early 2013, there were reports of sectarian clashes between Houthi militants and Sunni tribes in the northern province of Sa’ada.56 Another spike in violent activity began in October of 2013 in al-Jawf province after Houthis accused Sunni Salafis of recruiting foreign fighters.57

Since Saleh was ousted from power in 2011, the reconciliation process under the supervision of President Hadi has granted the Houthis political recognition with 35 of 565 seats at the National Dialogues Conference.58 The Houthis, however, have continued to exercise military force to expand their influence throughout the process. The decision to divide Yemen into six administrative districts was against Houthi interests because the Houthis’ stronghold would be isolated. The Houthis would also be required to compete with another powerful Zaydi family in Sanhan, Sana’a.59

The Houthis have had a partnership of convenience with Saleh and his allies since 2014 that has given them control of the capital, Sana’a, and the majority of Yemeni state infrastructure. They have been willing to negotiate a political settlement to the civil war, but have repeatedly rejected the terms put forward by the international community, which favor the Yemeni government. Saleh and the Houthis cut a power-sharing agreement in July 2016, establishing a political council to govern the country split between Saleh’s General People’s Congress party and the Houthis’ Ansar Allah party.60

While a faction of the movement is highly anti-Semitic and anti-American, the Houthis as a whole have not targeted Westerners and are generally not viewed by Western security analysts as a direct threat outside Yemen. 

Islamism and Society: 

Historically, Yemeni society has been divided along two main religious identities, the Shi’ite Zaydi sect followed in the country’s north and northwest, and the Shafa’i school of Sunni Islam predominant in the south and southeast. Although no accurate and reliable statistics exist, Sunnis are generally acknowledged to represent a majority among Yemen’s population of 26 million, while Zaydis claim around 35 percent.61 There is a strong Sunni Salafi trend within certain areas of Yemen. Zaydis are constituents of a Shi’a sect often described as moderate in its jurisprudence.62 

In his studies of Islamism in Yemen, Laurent Bonnefoy of the Institut Français du Proche-Orient found that “despite episodes of violent stigmatization orchestrated by certain radical groups, the vast majority of the population is at times indirectly (and most of the time passively) involved in the convergence of the once-distinct Sunni and Zaydi religious identities.”63 He cites one such example of this as former president Saleh, who himself is of Zaydi origin but never refers to his primary identity. Bonnefoy goes on to say that: “at the grassroots level, many Sunnis do not mind praying in Zaydi mosques, and vice versa. Consequently, the religious divide only marginally structures political affiliations and adherence to specific Islamist groups.”64  

However, as anti-government protests threatened his presidency, Saleh drew on his Zaydi identity “in an attempt to rally Zaydi tribal solidarity against what he also allegedly framed as a Shafa’i-led protest movement,” even going so far as to suggest that he could be the “last Zaydi president.”65 Such actions led to criticism that Saleh was “concentrating on solidifying tribal allegiances even at the cost of exacerbating sectarian divisions.”66 The increase in sectarian tensions in northern Yemen in recent years can be seen, in part, as a result of policies and governing strategies playing competing tribal and sectarian groups off of one another.

Rising sectarianism in the region against the backdrop of the wars in Syria and Iraq is also reflecting in Yemen. The Islamic State is intentionally provoking sectarian actions, as is a small faction of the Houthi movement. Saudi Arabia and Iran both see Yemen as a space for contest, though Yemen is much more important to Saudi Arabia. Iran can provide the Houthis with minimal support to drive a Saudi response.67

Islamism and the State: 

In a March 2009 journal article for The Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA), Laurent Bonnefoy pointed to the “presence of a strong traditional ‘civil society’ in the form of tribal and religious groups, most of them armed or capable of opposing the state” as a source in “undermining the regime’s capacity to monopolize all the levers of power and fulfilling any totalitarian dreams.”68 For years, the regime maintained such power-sharing arrangements out of self-interest (i.e., weakening its enemies, dividing political and religious groups, etc.). Such arrangements, however, have been unable to withstand a range of endogenous and exogenous shocks.  

In recent years, divisive policies and shifting political alliances stressed an already fragile system, due in large part to the erosion of the legitimacy and power of the central government. Allegations of widespread corruption, a growing view of the government as an American and Saudi puppet by Islamist groups, and widening economic and resource inequity all contribute to the government’s domestic weakness. These trends became more pronounced as the counterterrorism partnership with Washington grew. Since President Hadi’s ascension to power, U.S. officials noted “a new determination [and] a new consistency in terms of what the Yemeni government is doing on the counterterrorism front.”69 

The unification of Yemen was initially built upon a partnership between the two former ruling parties of North and South Yemen, within the framework of a power-sharing coalition. However, the Vice President of the coalition government, Ali Salim al-Baidh, who represented the south, fled to the city of Aden in 1993 and accused the government of marginalizing the south and attacking southerners. The conflict that ensued between leaders in the north and south paved the way for increased participation of Islamist groups in the government throughout the 1990s. 

Sheik Abdel Majid al-Zindani was a key player during the initial infiltration of radical Islam into Yemen due to his role as a senior Islamic religious leader and prominent Islamist political figure. Zindani was a central activist in recruiting Yemeni mujahideen members for the jihad in Afghanistan, as well as being himself a combatant against the Soviets during the 1979-89 war. Upon his return to Yemen, Zindani established the Islah Islamic movement, which later became the major political opposition party to former President Saleh’s General People’s Council.

After the first multiparty general elections in 1993, al-Zindani became part of the five-man presidential council, while the then-head of al-Islah, Abdallah al-Ahmar, was elected as speaker of parliament.70 As tensions rose with the socialist leaders in the coalition, President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to govern with al-Islah. With the outbreak of war in May 1994 between the Saleh regime in the north and formerly Soviet-aligned separatists in the south, al-Zindani condemned the separatist movements in Yemen as a “foreign conspiracy,” and stressed the need both for the unity of Yemen and for allegiance to the regime. Al-Zindani, along with the Islah party, was easily able to rally the returning veterans of the Afghan jihad behind the Saleh regime in the north as a continuation of the jihad that had been waged in Afghanistan against the Marxist regime. 

After the victory of Saleh’s regime over the southern separatists in July 1994, and with the reunification of north and south Yemen, Saleh rewarded the Afghan veterans for their contribution by incorporating their leaders into the government.71 One such example of this is Tariq al-Fadli, heir of the sultan of Abyan and former Afghan mujahideen leader, who later was appointed by the president to the Majlis al-Shura, the upper house of the parliament. Veteran jihadists were thus able to strike what Bonnefoy describes as “a ‘covenant of security’ deal with the security services on their return home from Afghanistan,” under which they would enjoy freedom of movement within Yemen in return for a promise of good behavior inside the country’s borders. During this transition, greater participation by the Muslim Brotherhood could be seen in Yemeni politics, with al-Islah members holding several important ministries, including justice, education, trade, and religious affairs.72 

Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, formal and informal integration of numerous Islamist groups into the state apparatus continued. Individuals identifying with various sects of Islam gained important posts in the army and security forces. As a result, repression of Islamist groups was limited, allowing for easy access to political and tribal elites for Salafists, Sufis, Zaydi revivalists, Muslim Brothers, and some individuals sympathetic to jihadist doctrines.73 

Al-Islah remains entrenched in Yemen’s political landscape and in numerous regions of the country. The party seems to have considerable support in the former Marxist South, where a strong anti-socialist movement favors Islamist candidates and platforms over the dominant Yemeni Socialist Party and is currently gaining influence in some areas of the north. Nationally, the Islamist party won an average of 18 percent of the vote during the 1993, 1997, and 2003 parliamentary elections. 

Although a lack of electoral transparency reduces the significance of these numbers, the influence of al-Islah in Yemen is very sizeable.74 During the transition and the NDC under President Hadi, al-Islah and the Yemeni Socialist Party were the two major parties in the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a coalition of former parties opposing the Saleh’s GPC party. Al-Islah shared power with the former ruling GPC party and had a significant role, holding 50 seats in the NDC, negotiating and shaping the reforms that were to be instituted by the Hadi government.75 The addition of the Houthis’ party, Ansar Allah, to the NDC negotiations added to the list of Islamist groups represented in the post-Saleh government, which also included the Zaydi al Haqq party. However, it also put President Hadi at odds with many Sunni clerics, including Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, and some within al-Islah.76

There has been an increase in U.S.-Yemeni counterterrorism cooperation since the ouster of Saleh, and President Hadi made statements openly supporting U.S. drone strikes against al-Qaeda.77 The U.S. provided military assistance to Yemeni security forces in order to facilitate Yemeni ground operations against AQAP, while conducting direct action operations to eliminate imminent threats from the group.78 The U.S. administration lauded the partnership in 2014 and described Yemen as a model for future counterterrorism alliances.79

The outbreak of civil war has had a significant effect on Islamism in Yemen, driving Islamists to become more radical and permitting them to expand their reach. The Houthis are empowered in northern Yemen and have expanded governance into the skeleton of the former Yemeni state through the deal with former president Saleh. They have targeted Salafis and other Islamists, placing individuals under house arrest. The more hardline faction of the Houthis is dominant, generating sectarian rhetoric. Many Salafis and Islah members have fled the country, removing a moderating voice and leaving more radical Salafis behind. Additionally, Saudi Arabia is empowering Islah and Salafi networks in Yemen to counter the Houthis in the civil war. Hadi’s vice president is now Lieutenant General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a powerbroker with deep ties into Islah networks.

Citations: 

[1] Shaul Shay, The Red Sea Terror Triangle (R. Liberman, trans.) (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2005), 113-114.[2] Christopher Harnisch, “Denying Al-Qaeda a Safe Haven in Yemen,” American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project, October 30, 2009, http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/denying-al-qaeda-safe-haven-yemen#_edn2; See also “Yemen Unemployment Rate,” Index Mundi, n.d., http://www.indexmundi.com/yemen/unemployment_rate.html.
[3] “Yemen Stems Weapons Trade,” Saba Net, September 23, 2008, http://www.sabanews.net/en/news164686.htm; See also “Yemen Moves to Control Arms Trade,” Al-Motamar (Sana’a), April 25, 2007, http://www.almotamar.net/en/2463.htm.[4] Ginny Hill, “Yemen: Fear of Failure,” Chatham House Briefing Paper, November 2009, http://www.chathamhouse.org.uk/files/12576_bp1108yemen.pdf.
[5] See Katherine Zimmerman, “Yemen’s Pivotal Moment,” American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project, February 12, 2014, http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/zimmerman-yemens-pivotal-moment-february-12-2014.
[6] Alexis Knutsen, “Yemen’s Counter-Terrorism Quandary,” American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project, June 26, 2014, http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/knutsen-houthi-counterterrorism-quandary-june-26-2014.
[7] Alexis Knutsen, “Sana’a Under Siege: Yemen’s Uncertain Future,” American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project, September 25, 2014, http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/knutsen-sanaa-under-siege-yemens-uncertain-future-september-25-2014.
[8] See Peter Salisbury, “Yemen: Stemming the Rise of a Chaos State,” Chatham House, May 25, 2016, https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/publications/research/2016-05-25-yemen-stemming-rise-of-chaos-state-salisbury.pdf.
[9] Hill, “Yemen: Fear of Failure.”
[10] Lawrence E. Cline, “Yemen’s Strategic Boxes,” Small Wars Journal, January 2, 2010, http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/journal/docs-temp/339-cline.pdf; Jonathan Schanzer, Testimony before the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, February 3, 2010, http://www.pvtr.org/pdf/ICPVTRinNews/HouseForeignAffairsCommitteeHearing-YemenOnTheBrink-ImplicationsForU.S.Policy.pdf.
[11] Bruce Lawrence, ed., Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden (London: Verso, 2005), 32.
[12] Jason Burke, Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 215.
[13] Harnisch, “Denying Al-Qaeda a Safe Haven in Yemen”; See also Lawrence, Messages to the World, 32.
[14] Gregory Johnsen, “Waning Vigilance: Al-Qaeda’s Resurgence in Yemen,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy Policywatch 1551, July 14, 2009, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/templateC05.php?CID=3088.
[15] Ibid.; See also “USS Cole Plotter Escapes Prison,” CNN.com, February 5, 2006, http://www.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/meast/02/05/cole.escape/index.html; Harnisch, “Denying Al-Qaeda a Safe Haven in Yemen.”Harnisch, “Denying Al-Qaeda a Safe Haven in Yemen.” 
[16] “Bombers Attempt Attack On Saudi Oil Facility,” New York Times, February 24, 2006,http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/24/world/africa/24iht-web.0224saudi.html; Christopher Harnisch, “Christmas Day Attack: Manifestation of AQAP Shift Targeting America,” American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project, December 29, 2009, http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/christmas-day-attack-manifestation-aqap-shift-targeting-america#_ednref5; P.K. Abdul Ghafour and Essam Al-Ghalib, “Kingdom Makes Remarkable Headway in Fight Against Terror: Naif,” Arab News, November 11, 2004, http://archive.arabnews.com/?page=1&section=0&article=54339&d=11&m=11&y=2004.
[18] Frederick Kagan and Christopher Harnisch, “Yemen: Fighting al Qaeda in a Failed State,” American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project, January 12, 2010, http://www.criticalthreats.org/sites/default/files/pdf_upload/analysis/CTP_Yemen_Fighting_al_Qaeda_in_a_Failing_State_Jan_12_2010.pdf.
[19] Ibid.
[20] “Al Qaeda Yemen Wing Claims Parcel Plot UPS Crash,” Reuters, November 5, 2010, http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/11/05/us-usa-yemen-bomb-idUSTRE6A44PU20101105.
[21] Katherine Zimmerman, “AQAP and the ‘Parcel Plot’: Assessing this Critical Threats,” AEIdeas, November 5, 2010, https://www.aei.org/publication/aqap-and-the-parcel-plot-assessing-this-critical-threat; See also “Al Qaeda Threat to American Interests,” American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project, August 5, 2013, http://www.criticalthreats.org/al-qaeda/zimmerman/al-qaeda-threat-to-american-interests-august-5-2013.
[22] Katherine Zimmerman, “AQAP: A Resurgent Threat,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point CTC Sentinel, September 11, 2015, https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/aqap-a-resurgent-threat.
[23] Hill, “Yemen: Fear of Failure.”
[24] Rania El Gamal, “Saudis Hardened by Wars in Syria, Iraq Join Al Qaeda in Yemen,” Reuters, March 14, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/03/14/us-yemen-security-qaeda-idUSBREA2D0XO20140314.
[25] Gregory D. Johnsen, “The Expansion Strategy of Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point CTC Sentinel 2, iss. 9, September 2009, 8-11, http://www.ctc.usma.edu/sentinel/CTCSentinel-Vol2Iss9.pdf.
[26] Jeremy Binnie, “Yemen Overruns Al-Qaeda Enclave,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, June 28, 2012; See also Katherine Zimmerman, “Al Qaeda's Gains in South Yemen,” American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project, July 8, 2011, http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/al-qaedas-gains-south-yemen-july-8-2011#_edn2; Ahmed Al-Haj, “Yemen Recaptures Center of Al-Qaida-Held City,” Associated Press, April 24, 2011; For a chronology of attacks by AQAP in Yemen, visit the “AQAP and Suspected AQAP Attacks in 2010, 2011 and 2012,” American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project, n.d., http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/aqap-and-suspected-aqap-attacks-yemen-tracker-2010.
[27] Eric Schmitt, Mark Mazzetti, and Robert F. Worth, “American-Born Qaeda Leader Is Killed by U.S. Missile in Yemen,” New York Times, September 30, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/01/world/middleeast/anwar-al-awlaki-is-killed-in-yemen.html.
[28] Thomas Joscelyn, “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula Releases 12th Issue of Inspire Magazine,” Long War Journal, March 17, 2014,  http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/03/al_qaeda_in_the_arab.php.
[29] Available on www.jihadology.net.
[30] See Katherine Zimmerman, “AQAP: A Resurgent Threat.”
[31] Katherine Zimmerman, “2016 Yemen Crisis Situation Report, May 2,” American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project, May 2, 2016, http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/yemen-crisis-situation-reports-may-2-2016; See also “AQAP Expanding behind Yemen’s Frontlines,” American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project, February 17, 2016, http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/zimmerman-aqap-expanding-behind-yemens-frontlines-february-17-2016.
[32] “Islamic State Video Promotes Destruction of Iraq-Syria Border Crossing,” SITE Intelligence Group, June 29, 2014, www.siteintelgroup.com.
[33] Katherine Zimmerman, “Exploring ISIS in Yemen,” American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project, July 24, 2015, http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/exploring-isis-yemen-zimmerman-july-24-2015, slide 5.
[34] Sheikh Hatem was killed alongside AQAP militants in al Mukalla, Hadramawt, on May 11, 2015. His co-location with AQAP indicates the continued relationship.
[35] United States Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Sanctions Major Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant Leaders, Financial Figures, Facilitators, and Supporters,” press release, September 29, 2015, http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/jl0188.aspx.
[36] “IS Leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi Rallies Fighters, Welcomes New Pledges,” SITE Intelligence Group, November 13, 2014, www.siteintelgroup.com.
[37] Alexis Knutsen, “ISIS in Yemen: Fueling the Sectarian Fire,” American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project, March 20, 2015, http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/knutsen-isis-yemen-fueling-sectarian-fire-march-20-2015.
[38] Alexis Knutsen, “Ramadan Bombings in Yemen: Part of ISIS’s Global Strategy?” American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project, June 17, 2015, http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/knutsen-ramadan-bombings-part-isis-global-strategy-june-17-2015.
[39] Joshua Koontz, “2015 Yemen Crisis Situation Report: October 7,” American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project, October 7, 2015, http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/yemen-crisis-situation-reports-october-7-2015.
[40] Jon Diamond and Katherine Zimmerman, “Challenging the Yemeni State: ISIS in Aden and al Mukalla,” American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project, June 9, 2016, http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/zimmerman-diamond-challenging-yemeni-state-isis-in-aden-al-mukalla-june-9-2016.
[41] See Bill Roggio and Thomas Joscelyn, “Divisions Emerge within the Islamic State’s Yemen ‘Province,’” Long War Journal, December 23, 2015, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/12/divisions-emerge-within-the-islamic-states-yemen-province.php.
[42] Hamida Ghafour, “Rebel Without A Clear Cause,” The National (Abu Dhabi), August 21, 2009, http://www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090822/WEEKENDER/708219838/1306; See also Christopher Harnisch, A Critical War in a Fragile Country: Yemen's Battle with the Shiite al Houthi Rebels,” American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project, August 31, 2009, http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/critical-war-fragile-country-yemens-battle-shiite-al-houthi-rebels#_edn3.
[43] Bonnefoy, “Varieties Of Islamism In Yemen.”
[44] “Yemeni Government Steps Up Assault On Shiite Rebels,” Wall Street Journal, August 12, 2009, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125007847389825757.html?mod=googlenews_wsj. 
[45] Ghafour, “Rebel Without A Clear Cause.”
[46] Katherine Zimmerman and Steve Gonzalez, “Tracker: Saudi Arabia’s Military Operations Along Yemeni Border | Critical Threats,” American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project, January 4, 2010, http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/tracker-saudi-arabia%E2%80%99s-military-operations-along-yemeni-border.
[47] Glen Carey, “Saudi Arabia Barricades Its Border, U.S.-Style,” BusinessWeek, June 27, 2013, http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-06-27/saudi-arabia-barricades-its-border-u-dot-s-dot-style.
[48] “Saudi Arabia Deports 427,000 Foreigners in Six Months,” Gulf News, April 27, 2014, http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/saudi-arabia/saudi-arabia-deports-427-000-foreigners-in-six-months-1.1324727.
[49] “Oman Considers Building a Fence on Borders with Yemen,” National Yemen, June 1, 2013, http://nationalyemen.com/2013/06/01/oman-considers-building-a-fence-on-borders-with- yemen/.
[50] “Houthi Official Denies Receiving Arms from Iran,” The National (Abu Dhabi), March 16, 2012, http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/middle-east/houthi-official-denies-receiving-arms-from-iran.
[51] Eric Schmitt and Robert F. Worth. “Aiding Yemen Rebels, Iran Seeks Wider Mideast Role,” New York Times, March 15, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/15/world/middleeast/aiding-yemen-rebels-iran-seeks-wider-mideast-role.html.
[52] “Yemen Says Intercepted Ship Carrying Weapons Was Iranian,” Reuters, February 2, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/02/02/yemen-iran-arms-idUSL5N0B22GC20130202.
[53] Ibid; Katherine Zimmerman and Steve Gonzalez, “Tracker: Saudi Arabia’s Military Operations Along Yemeni Border,” American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project, January 4, 2010, http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/tracker-saudi-arabia’s-military-operations-along-yemeni-border; Ariel Farrar-Wellman, “Yemen-Iran Foreign Relations,” American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project, February 23, 2010, http://www.irantracker.org/foreign-relations/yemen-iran-foreign-relations.
[54] “Islah Party, Houthi Group Sign Ceasefire Agreement in Jawf,” Yemen Post, August 13, 2011, http://yemenpost.net/Detail123456789.aspx?ID=3&SubID=3910.
[55] “Yemen al-Qaida Commander Declares War Against Shiites,” Xinhua, January 29, 2011, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/world/2011-01/29/c_13711741.htm.
[56] “Sectarian Violence Continues in North Yemen, 30 Killed,” Yemen Post, February 13, 2012, http://yemenpost.net/Detail123456789.aspx?ID=3&SubID=4706; “Death Toll Rises to 20 in Sectarian Violence in Northern Yemen,” Xinhua, September 23, 2012, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/world/2012-09/23/c_131867247.htm.
[57] “At Least 40 Killed in Yemen as Houthi Fighters near Capital,” Reuters, March 9, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/03/09/us-yemen-clash-idUSBREA2805920140309
[58] “Representations in the National Dialogue Conference,” Yemen Observer, March 18 2013, http://www.yemenobserver.com/national-dialogue/227-representations-in-the-national-dialogue-conference.html
[59] Katherine Zimmerman, “A New Model for Defeating al Qaeda in Yemen,” American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project, September 10, 2015, http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/zimmerman-new-model-for-defeating-al-qaeda-in-yemen-september-10-2015, 7.
[60] “Signing of the National Political Agreement Between the General People’s Congress and its Allies and Ansar Allah and its Allies,” SABA.ye, July 28, 2016, http://www.saba.ye/ar/news434879.htm.
[61] “Yemen,” Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook, April 15, 2014, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ym.html.
[62] Bernard Haykel, Revival and Reform: The Legacy of Muhammad al-Shawkani (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 151.
[63] Laurent Bonnefoy, “Les identités religieuses contemporaines au Yémen: convergence, résistances et instrumentalisations,” Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée 121-122, April 2008, 201-15; See also Bonnefoy, “Varieties Of Islamism In Yemen.”
[64] Ibid.
[65] “Popular Protests in North Africa and the Middle East (II).”
[66] Ibid.
[67] Katherine Zimmerman, “Signaling Saudi Arabia: Iranian Support to Yemen’s al Houthis,” American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project, April 15, 2016, http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/zimmerman-signaling-saudi-arabia-iranian-support-to-yemen-al-houthis-april-15-2016.
[68] Bonnefoy, “Varieties Of Islamism In Yemen.”
[69] John O. Brennan, interview with Margaret Warner, “U.S. Policy Toward Yemen,” Council on Foreign Relations, August 8, 2012, http://www.cfr.org/united-states/us-policy-toward-yemen/p28794.
[70] Bonnefoy, “Varieties Of Islamism In Yemen.”
[71] Peter Bergen, Holy War Inc: Inside the Secret World of Osama Bin Laden (London: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 2001), 190-191.
[72] Bonnefoy, “Varieties Of Islamism In Yemen.”
[73] Ibid.
[74] Jillian Schwedler, "The Yemeni Islah Party: Political Opportunities and Coalition Building in a Transitional Polity," in Quintan Wiktorowicz, ed., Islamist Activism: A Social Movement Theory Approach (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003), 205-29; See also Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 280.
[75] “Representations in the National Dialogue Conference.”
[76] Ashraf Al-Muraqab, “Yemeni Clerics Disapprove of their Exclusion From the National Dialogue,” Yemen Times, July 4, 2012, http://www.yementimes.com/en/1587/news/1092/Yemeni-clerics-disapprove-of-their-exclusion-from-the-National-Dialogue.htm; “Yemen President Offers Conditional Dialogue With Al Qaeda,” Reuters, September 26, 2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/09/26/yemen-qaeda-idUSL5E8KQ5LF20120926.
[77] Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi, “Yemen’s Transition: The Way Forward,” Address at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC, September 28, 2012, http://www.acus.org/event/yemens-transition-way-forward; See also Greg Miller, “In Interview, Yemeni President Acknowledges Approving U.S. Drone Strikes,” Washington Post, September 29, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/yemeni-president-acknowledges-approving-us-drone-strikes/2012/09/29/09bec2ae-0a56-11e2-afff-d6c7f20a83bf_story.html.
[78] See Katherine Zimmerman, “Yemen Model Won’t Work in Iraq, Syria,” Washington Post, July 17, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-yemen-model-wont-work-in-iraq-syria/2014/07/17/ba0ae414-0d18-11e4-8341-b8072b1e7348_story.html.
[79] White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “Remarks by the President on the Situation in Iraq,” June 19, 2014, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/06/19/remarks-president-situation-iraq