The war in Yemen is now being fought by numerous armed groups fuelled by sectarian tension and geopolitical influences to shape the future of the country’s government. In March 2015, President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi made a plea to surrounding Arab countries to assist in the military push-back of the rebel Houthis’ advances towards south Yemen. A Saudi-led coalition was assembled to join the fight against the Iranian-backed Houthi group and its allies loyal to ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh. What started as a nominally civil war has a heightened risk of spilling over into neighbouring countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, where the Houthis have fired a number of missiles. Some Saudi-led coalition members eventually included military objectives against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Daesh to their brief.
Although there is a plethora of armed groups fighting in Yemen, MEMO’s guide focuses on the following key non-state armed groups:
Ali Abdullah Saleh was the only president Yemen had until 2012. Although holding a religious Zaidi background similar to the Houthis, Saleh is nationalistic as opposed to having a strong religious sentiment. The Houthis attempted to push back his governance on a number of occasions since his presidency in 1978.
It was the Arab spring of 2011 that changed the course of the conflict in Yemen, as demonstrations in the capital called for Saleh to step-down as president. A rival Al-Ahmar family sought leadership creating a split in the national army. Two national armies formed, each supporting Saleh or the head of the newly-elected Hadi.
The Arab spring provided the Houthi group incentive to push towards Southern Yemen, and Saleh took the opportunity to form an alliance with the Houthis to fight forces loyal Hadi, which resulted in territorial gains for the Houthis towards Sana’a.
Formerly known as Ansar Allah, the Houthis are largely from the Zaidi-Shia community in northern Yemen, which was founded in 1992 to ward off religious discrimination from the Sunni community. The group was founded by Hussein Badreddin Al-Houthi, who passed away in 2004 while fighting the Yemeni government in Sa’dah. The group practice a form of Shia Islam, and their grievance is local within Yemen, without a global outlook. The current leader is Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi. The main goals are autonomy, economic interests and the ability to practice their religious beliefs in Yemen. On 14 October 2014, the Houthi militia captured the Red Sea port of Hodeida, which is vital for Yemen’s trade links and of key interest to many members of the Saudi-led coalition, as well as the US.
Most of the early fighting in 2004 took place in the mountains in Sa’dah, in north Yemen, before spreading to Amran and Al-Jawf provinces. Following President Hadi’s disputed resignation on 22 January 2015 – some insist that he was merely going into exile – the Houthis took the opportunity to expand their influence in the south of the country, and tried to reach Abyan, Aden and Lahj. However, this was pushed back following the intervention of Saudi air strikes in March the same year.
The civil war in Yemen has helped to transform the Houthis from a clan-based civil movement to a national non-state armed militia. Iran is supporting the group with advanced weaponry and military advice, which, argue the Saudis, fuels sectarianism in the region.
The Houthis have fired several rockets into Saudi Arabia, which were mostly intercepted by the Saudi air force. One of these missiles, claims Riyadh, was aimed at the city of Makkah.
Since September 2014, the group has controlled Sana’a, the capital of Yemen.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
The origins of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) go back to the conflict in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when foreign fighters who had fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan returned to Yemen. They wanted to continue their armed struggle, and did so under the banner of Islamic Jihad in Yemen against the government of the then socialist state of South Yemen; their objective was to unify the country. The group existed until 1994.
A merger between the Yemeni and Saudi affiliates of Al-Qaeda resulted in the formation of AQAP in 2009. The group has directed high profile attacks beyond Yemen, such as the failed “underpants bomber” plot on board a US airliner on Christmas Day 2009. The group is well known for its English-language magazine Inspire, which discusses tactics for harming civilians in countries involved in conflicts in Muslim-majority states.
AQAP has a strong relationship with the core group of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Although it has announced support for Daesh in Syria and Iraq, it has not affiliated itself with the “Islamic State” militants, and continues to be loyal to Al-Qaeda. Indeed, in November 2014 AQAP declared the Daesh “caliphate” to be illegitimate and refuted its leader on that basis. It is difficult to assess how much internal division exists about the legitimacy of Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.
In 2011, Ansar Al-Sharia Yemen (ASY) was born as an affiliate of AQAP. The objective was for the group to operate in south Yemen and build support for governance by Islamic law. ASY succeeded by late 2011 in providing a degree of government and basic amenities to the local community in its self-styled “emirates”. However, a government offensive has pushed back against ASY.
Since the escalation of the Yemen conflict in February 2015, AQAP has gained some momentum by finding support among local Sunnis to fight the Iranian-backed Houthis. In addition to fighting the current Yemen government, it has an internal conflict with Daesh in Yemen.
AQAP leader Qasim Al-Rimi has revealed that the group is fighting alongside US-backed factions against the Houthis. This undermines America’s counter-terrorism objectives, as it seeks to be involved in the cause of the Saudi-led coalition, a move supported by US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis.
Daesh in Yemen (IS-Y)
On 9 November 2014, a group of fighters pledged their allegiance to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi via an audio recording. In return, a few days later the Daesh leader accepted the affiliation of Islamic State/Daesh in Yemen (IS-Y). Several AQAP members defected and joined the new group, under the leadership of Nashwan Al-Adeni. It is difficult to know whether fighters travelled from Syria and Iraq to join the Yemeni affiliate.
Daesh’s strength has grown in south Yemen, where the group has set up training camps in the mountains. The group was held responsible for suicide attacks against two Shia mosques in Sana’a, which escalated the sectarian nature of the civil war. The group’s military activities in Yemen have remained within the state’s borders; it has primarily attacked Shia mosques and the Houthis.
The difference between Daesh and AQAP is that the former is not interested in its relationship with the local community, a strategy seen in Syria and Iraq. AQAP, however, engages regularly in local social work, which Daesh has criticised as being involved in activities that “forget to please God” through fighting.
Daesh in Yemen has ultimately lost direction in the civil war, and is regarded as a peripheral armed group.
In 2015 President Hadi appealed to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and Qatar to “come to the country’s aid” and provide immediate support for Yemen, including “military intervention” in the fight against the Houthis and their allies. In response, the Saudi-led coalition was formed to make a concerted effort to support the legitimate government of Yemen — albeit in exile — against the Houthi militia.
The countries within the coalition notified the UN Security Council of the intention to use lethal force in Yemen with Hadi’s consent. The aim was to bring peace and stability to Yemen and the surrounding region.
As it stands, air strikes by the coalition have been made by the air forces of Bahrain, Egypt, Qatar, Kuwait, Morocco, Sudan and UAE. The main military objective is to strike the Houthi militia and its allies, although some members of the coalition, such as UAE, have started to target AQAP.
In late 2015, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, Sudan, Morocco and Egypt deployed troops to Yemen. It has been reported that 10,000 coalition troops have joined the fight on the ground in the war-torn state.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.