In a special session on Somalia last Monday, Somali Prime Minister Omar Sharmake told the UN Security Council that security in the Gulf of Aden has to be taken seriously. He expressed his worry about the growth of Al-Shabab in his country and the fact that there is an increase in the group’s militants pledging allegiance to Daesh/ISIS and that they are “not to be taken lightly”. To him, one of the main factors of instability in the region is the security situation in Yemen, in which he urged the UN to play a more active role to try to solve the issue.
The discourse about terrorism in Yemen has been very politically motivated over the past nine months, especially in some local media outlets that have been taken over by the Houthis. Many propaganda pieces de-legitimising the anti-Houthi resistance, mainly in Taiz, have been written because the authors have failed to distinguish between Al-Qaeda’s presence and its influence. This issue has been played out especially in Taiz, where the Houthi violence is at its worst. Naturally, the Saleh and Houthi camps are taking advantage of Al-Qaeda and Daesh/ISIS to legitimise their own acts of terrorism against Yemeni civilians, while Al-Qaeda and Daesh/ISIS are using Houthi and Saleh violence to propagate infiltration into the anti-Houthi/Saleh resistance; this however does not mean solid parallels should be drawn between the anti-Houthi/Saleh factions and Daesh/Al-Qaeda.
On Tuesday, Ansar Al-Sharia, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, released a propaganda video, vowing to liberate Taiz. The video was largely emotive, showing the destruction of Taiz by Houthi and Saleh forces. They referenced crimes committed against women and children and rather than their usual attacks to infiltrate or target every fighting faction that does not support them to cause instability, or recruit the most vulnerable in society through financial means, this video was aimed at Yemenis in a bid to show their competence to govern. Rather than imposing conditions to force people to join them, they are now aiming to gain popularity through the many power vacuums in Yemen, which is a serious cause for concern because that could result in more solid expansion of the group.
An example of this is when cyclone Chapala hit Al-Mukalla, the capital city of Hadhramout province. Hours before it was due to hit the Al-Qaeda run city, the group posted photos on its Twitter account showing preparations for the cyclone. This is what having a form of influence in a territory means. In Aden, the situation is not as clear cut. There is a clear presence, which was highlighted recently through Al-Qaeda flags being flown in several parts of the city, including over a police station in Tawahi, but it must be remembered that there is a difference between presence and control.
The concern increases when looking at the way that Al-Qaeda grew in the first place. Generally, in Yemen, it was able to recruit civilians though two means: ideological sympathy, mainly on sectarian grounds, but more importantly and more commonly, out of desperation. Even before the war, nearly half of the Yemeni population lived on $2 a day, meaning that half of the population was living below the official poverty line. Population growth was also twice as high as the regional average. All of this was happening under the rule of one of the richest dictators in history, estimated to have accumulated up to $60 billion throughout his 32 year rule. The unstable socio-economic conditions in Yemen and the lack of a sustained middle class across the nation paved the way for Al-Qaeda to act as a poverty alleviation mechanism. The lack of centrality post-Saleh because of Hadi’s incompetent leadership and the Houthi takeover of Sana’a in September 2014 means that the conditions for non-state actors in Yemen to recruit have improved, thus increasing the security threat.
Despite this, when looking at terrorism in Yemen exclusively through the lens of Al-Qaeda and Daesh/ISIS, little will be understood and much of the context will be erased. It is very important to remember that the Houthis have not only been harbouring conditions for Al-Qaeda to achieve mini victories, but their behaviour also currently resembles groups who are internationally-recognised as terrorists. In addition to them taking advantage of weak leadership in their own country to carry out a coup, they have mismanaged the country severely, and have done so for their own benefit. In Sana’a, where the Houthis are still holding on tight, basic necessities such as petrol, food and water are usually only found on the black market, which is largely controlled by the Houthis; prices sometimes go up by three times the normal retail price. They commonly recruit child soldiers, who are forced to commit crimes against their own neighbourhoods, including shelling civilian areas and sustaining blockades. On Thursday, Yemeni local news reported of them carrying out raids in Ibb, terrorising women and children. Ironically, most of this is done in the name of beating Al-Qaeda.
When looking at the two cases of groups committing acts of terrorism, the main difference is that Al-Qaeda has attacked Western soil and are an international network operating in all parts of the world, whereas the Houthis are contained within Yemen. This does not mean that their threat should be underestimated, because they both have the same motives and they both breed under the same form of instability. This means that rather than looking to tackle one group, the social conditions in Yemen need to be rebalanced and stabilised. One of the objectives to achieve this should be to bring about an end to the war. Nine months into the Saudi-led coalition’s military operation, it is clear that the only method that has shown results is mobilising anti-Houthi tribes and uniting them under one strong army rather than a loose resistance group to avoid corruption, infiltration and divisions. International pressure must also be put on the Houthis; it is imperative that they become recognised internationally as a terrorist group until they put down their arms, cease their illegitimate power gain and give up their alliance with Ali Abdullah Saleh. The intention should be to negotiate and let Yemenis decide on who should rule the country.
Counter-terrorism in Yemen is more than ensuring that Al-Qaeda doesn’t grow and Daesh/ISIS doesn’t find fertile ground for recruits. Securing the Gulf of Aden and its surrounding countries goes further than defeating one group; it is about defeating a system that has long plagued Yemen’s political affairs.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.