Yemen’s biggest but least reckoned threat

While Saudis and Houthis fight to the death, terrorism is the one gaining the upper hand
With the world focused on other Middle Eastern areas and other Middle Eastern tragedies, Yemen is finding itself abandoned to a civil war that over the last 6 months has been tearing the country apart.
After the Houthis occupied Sanaa and forced President Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia (where he remained until recently) the country has abruptly become the battlefield of one of the most cruel and most complex civil wars that the region has known, and us forgetting about it doesn’t make it less brutal. Just less likely to reach an end.
Thus far, in fact, despite shocking figures released by the UN on the human tragedy Yemenis are now suffering, there is no sign that the war will come to end any time soon, as all the attempts to reach an agreement through diplomatic dialogue have inexorably failed for the lack of points of contact between Houthis and Saudi-backed Sunnis.

And though, a common interest between the two sides of Yemen’s war does exist: defeating that common enemy that thanks to war is now on the rise. Jihadist terrorism.

Yemen’s war, in fact, with the flee of a President not reckoned as legitimate by everyone (as a President should) and with the lack of an alternative unity government capable of giving representation to all the country’s religious groups (as governments should), has inevitably created a power and security vacuum. And terrorist groups in all times and places have always proved able (or at least willing) to take advantage of this kind of vacuum. We have seen it in Colombia with the FARC’s rise, in Afghanistan after the war between the Soviets and local mujahideens, in Syria when the civil war broke out in 2011, and more recently in Iraq last year. And we could now see it in Yemen too, if the international community doesn’t give the country (and its people) the attention it deserves and – above all – if the parties directly involved make of any effort of dialogue a lost cause.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is no new actor in Yemen. It has always tried to use the country and its internal tensions as a preferred base to plan and conduct attacks and as a starting point to maximize its power and influence in neighboring Gulf countries.
However, not even in its brightest days could the group hope to get as far as it has now come thanks to the outbreak of the civil war. In fact, exploiting the vacuum the flee of President Hadi created, and taking advantage from its enemies killing each other while carefully avoiding direct involvement in the war, the group has known an increase in capabilities, profile and power, and is now obtaining a success that few other Al Qaeda-linked groups can boast.
How did this happen? Not only has the group conducted attacks in the country’s most important cities to boost its credibility within a global jihadist movement that is now less Al Qaeda-centered than it used to, but it has also been able to get an actual control over swaths of Yemen – with the best example of that being the southern city of Mukalla. Here in fact – far from establishing a counterproductive regime of terror aimed at subjugating the local population – the group has revealed its threatening modern pragmatism by allying with local Sunni tribes. With them AQAP built the Hadromouth National Council (HNC) that, providing services and guaranteeing security to the population, is now deeply integrated in the local dynamics and joins a considerable support from the people of the area. A sequence of events, this one, that worryingly reminds of the strategy embraced in Syria by the Al Qaeda-linked Jabat al Nusra, and that made it possible for the group to get support from disillusioned Sunnis.
Perhaps more threatening than the territorial control, in fact, is the support AQAP is gaining from locals. With Houthis and Saudis fighting against the each other on Yemeni soil and from Yemeni skies, and destroying what remains of a country that violence has never spared, to the eyes of many Yemenis AQAP is now appearing as the only actor capable of concretely guaranteeing a minimum level of security and subsistence to a population that has lost everything. Above all trust in politics and trust in a Yemeni government that has abandoned them.

Yemen’s problems, though, are not limited to the al-Zawahiri-linked group. As if AQAP’s advancing was not already enough, a new threat is now on the rise: that of ISIS and its affiliated groups/individuals.
Taking advantage – just like AQAP – of an authority-lacking country, the group and its supporters are expanding their activities in Yemen, and though still far from catching up with AQAP (especially in terms of territorial control), it is to be noted (and feared) that the group is proving its dangerousness in two main respects.
Firstly, ISIS is challenging AQAP’s previously undisputed status as Yemen’s most active terrorist group – something that increases the prestige of ISIS in the jihadist universe and creates the risk of having an increase in the number of ‘wanna-be-jihadists ‘ who choose to join the Caliphate and its affiliated cells wherever they are present and operative.
Secondly, the group is proving its ability (the same that led Iraq to collapse and that exasperated sectarianism in Syria) in getting support by part of the population – mainly youngsters who interpret the attacks on Shia sites conducted by ISIS as a proof of the group’s determination to protect Sunni Islam in a concrete and assertive way.
Moreover, ISIS’s new presence in Yemen is threatening not only for the destabilization it directly creates through attacks, or for the support it is getting from disillusioned youngsters. It is even more threatening because it is opening a front within jihadist terrorism, a front between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State that reminds of that in Syria at the end of 2013, when ISIS and Jabat al Nusra fell apart after and began fighting against each other (with tragic consequences for the Syrian civilian population).
The threat of such a competition between AQAP and ISIS is that if the former sees itself challenged by the latter, it will try to maintain its status, profile and support base by widening its range of operation and – if necessary – by trying to strengthen its legitimacy through a higher toll of attacks against Shias. In fact, though for the time being it is unlikely that the Islamic State will overtake AQAP as the predominant jihadist group in Yemen, if AQAP is to prevent the Islamic State from making further gains it cannot but maintain its momentum with a strong narrative of victory. Something that Yemen and the Yemenis will be the ones paying the price of.

The rise of terrorism in Yemen is clearly no good news for the country nor for its population, but it could turn into an effective starting point of dialogue. In fact, none of those who are directly involved in the civil conflict – Houthis, Yemeni Sunnis, Saudi-led Coalition of GCC countries – can gain anything if talks are obstructed and Yemen falls to terrorism.
Houthis and Yemeni Sunnis, in refusing to work towards a coalition government, aren’t but playing the jihadists’ game as they are leaving them free hand in the country. By continuing on this path, thus, they would have to deal with a strengthened internal enemy competing for power, and it would become even more difficult (read impossible) to reach an agreement and put in Sana’a a government accepted by everyone.
On their part, GCC countries (and in particular Saudi Arabia, that shares with Yemen an important border) in refusing diplomatic dialogue and in closing the door to any possibility of compromise, risk continuing to favor the strengthening of a terrorist group whose power and influence could be easily projected from Yemen to neighboring countries.

If the two sides of the conflict realized how the real threat for Yemen’s future, for the Houthis’ survival and for the Saudis’ security is represented by the rise of AQAP and ISIS, they could start their dialogue from the necessity to oppose the common enemy. They could make of this common point of interest the starting point of peace negotiations aimed at the creation of a government that represents all Yemenis – thus cancelling the roots of AQAP’s and ISIS’s legitimacy and the reasons of their support.
It is now time to realize that it is in everyone’s interest to rely on political cooperation to fill the vacuum created by the war, and that this has to be done before it is too late, before terrorism leaves no room to peace, and before the definite collapse of Yemen that is now on the horizon reaches its shores.

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