Since Yemen's dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh was ousted in 2012, the country has more or less been defined by unrest. Over the past year, this has accelerated. The Shia Houthi militia seized control of the capital Sana'a in September, prompting Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to move their embassies to Aden, Yemen's second city. Several western missions closed down entirely. Last month, Houthi forces placed President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi under house arrest. He fled to Aden and has attempted to re-establish his government there.
As this political crisis unfolds, violence has continued unabated. The Houthis' attempts to extend their control beyond the capital and their northern strongholds have met with fierce resistance from Sunni tribes and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), considered one of the deadliest branches of the group. This week saw the worst attack in Yemen for several months, after suicide bombers attacked two mosques in Sana'a, killing at least 142 people and wounding over 200 others. Worshippers at the Badr and Al-Hashoosh Mosques were attending noon prayers. These are Shia mosques, used mainly by supporters of the Houthis, a movement that is led by Zaidi Shia.
Yemen's security apparatus blamed AQAP for the attack. Although the militant group has carried out similar attacks in the past on Houthi supporters, it denied responsibility for this incident. It has thus been speculated that Islamic State, which established a branch in Yemen in November, could be responsible, but there was no official claim made. If it was ISIS, this would be the group's first attack in Yemen.
The suicide attacks have made international headlines, but this was not the most significant violence to take place in Yemen this week. The loss of life in the suicide attacks was tragic and the violence shocking, but in and of itself, it was nothing new. Large scale terror attacks happen fairly frequently in Yemen; the last was in January, when a car bomb killed 40 people outside a police academy. The mosque bombings happened after deadly clashes in Aden between forces loyal to beleaguered President Hadi and those loyal to ousted dictator Saleh. Despite the fact that he fought wars against the Houthis while he was in power, Saleh is now their ally as he sees the group as his best chance to destabilise the government. The clashes in Aden mark a new stage in the conflict; while violence has flared repeatedly in Yemen since the Houthis took control of Sana'a in September, outbreaks of large-scale fighting in the port city have been rare. The fighting on Thursday has raised anxieties about worsening violence in the south, which has long been home to a secessionist movement, as well as being a stronghold of AQAP.
With the Houthis consolidating their control of northern Yemen and Hadi attempting to re-establish his authority in the south, there are fears that the situation could develop into all-out civil war, and perhaps the re-partition of Yemen. The increased involvement of foreign powers – with Iran backing the Houthis and the Gulf states backing Hadi – is ramping up the situation. The most desirable outcome would be for all parties to sit around a negotiating table and hammer out a power-sharing arrangement, but with tension between different political actors at a violent pitch and the resulting power vacuum allowing terror groups to operate with impunity, it seems unlikely that this will happen.
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