Since the start of Ramadan, there has been a large spike in attacks carried out by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’s (ISIS) “wilayats” (so-called provinces) operating in Yemen, a disturbing sign of things to come if the diplomatic stalemate in Yemen is maintained. On June 17th, the eve of Ramadan, ISIS claimed responsibility for four car bombs that detonated near two Zaidi mosques and the Houthi headquarters in Sana’a which killed and injured many civilians. Another vehicle-borne IED (VBIED) was used on an ISIS-claimed attack on June 19th near the Qiba al-Mahdi mosque in Sana’a which killed two and wounded six others. Even though it is a possibility that a different terrorist group such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) perpetrated these attacks, ISIS has committed coordinated mosque bombings earlier this year and was quick to claim responsibility. This new high frequency of attacks, bombings that specifically target Shi’a sites of worship, could be a sign of things to come from the ISIS group in Yemen for this month of Ramadan.
The Yemen affiliate of ISIS emerged towards the end of 2014 and has grown significantly since then, with the aim of eventually eclipsing AQAP, in line with its strategy to become the foremost global jihadist movement. Yemen is a key pillar of ISIS’s global strategy of fostering various affiliates and fuelling sectarian tensions in large part because of the serious security vacuum in the country since the start of the civil war which has proven to be fertile ground for radical extremist groups. Furthermore, ISIS’s central strategy is the need to constantly expand, which means expanding not only in Syria and Iraq, which is now harder to do because of the U.S.-led coalition air campaign in those countries, but to other areas of the disaffected Arab World such as Yemen. Yemen is also important to ISIS because it has historically been a major source of foreign fighters to other areas of the Middle East (Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria). ISIS would like to capitalise on this lucrative recruiting pipeline in order to bolster its forces at home.
The swift Houthi takeover in Yemen has pushed some of the local tribes in the centre and south of the country to work with AQAP, currently the most powerful terror group operating in Yemen with control of about 15% of the country and control of al-Mukalla, an important provincial capital. The ISIS groups in Yemen are trying to imitate this AQAP strategy of allying with some of the local Sunni tribes of the country and combining it with its own strategy of inflaming sectarian tensions through targeting Houthi-affiliated individuals and Shia mosques to stir popular mobilization and support along sectarian lines. In an indication of ISIS’s appetite to compete with AQAP, ISIS attacks are occurring in select areas where AQAP is operating, however, so far AQAP appears unswayed by ISIS pretensions and gains.
Although it is certainly true that the presence and power of ISIS “abroad” pales in comparison to their influence within Syria and Iraq, the ISIS presence in Yemen has swelled steadily. It has grown proportionally to the gains made by the Houthis in their southward offensive earlier this year. Pro-ISIS groups have proclaimed themselves “wilayats” of the ISIS caliphate and there are now seven known ISIS groups in Yemen which are operating along the frontlines of the civil war. Although AQAP is the most dangerous al-Qaeda group with the capability to commit terrorist attacks abroad in Western countries, ISIS remains significantly more extreme in its tactics and its rise in Yemen will lead to further radicalisation. For example, AQAP still strive to respect the wishes of its tribal allies and acts with a degree of restraint, such as its apparent refusal to bomb mosques, which is in marked contrast to the ISIS strategy.
Yemen is of great strategic importance to the Middle East. The stability of the Gulf states and its subsequent effect on the world’s energy security, the cost and security of every cargo and combat ships that goes through the Suez Canal, the economic stability of Egypt, and the security of Saudi Arabia’s key non-Gulf port at Jeddah are all at stake if the current trend towards chaos is maintained within Yemen. What makes the conflict even more dangerous is Yemen’s incredible poverty. With a lack of developed industries and sky-high unemployment, coupled with one of the highest population growth rates in the world and nearly 63% of its population under 25 years old, Yemen is the world’s most fertile ground for political extremism, terrorism and sectarian violence.
Yemen could very well turn out like war-torn Syria, with over half the country carved up between Al Qaeda and ISIS affiliates, if key international powers do not make comprehensive changes to their hands-off approach on Yemen. Firm Western leadership is needed on the issue instead of allowing Saudi Arabia to lead a brutal and mishandled air campaign and blockade as part of its proxy war with Iran, which exacerbates sectarian tensions. In addition to reining in the Saudi-led coalition, the U.S. and other leading Western powers need an overall ISIS strategy that seeks to destroy the terror group as an organisation and not just to root out their influence within specific countries or regions. The growth of ISIS in Yemen is a key sign that the U.S.-led air campaign against the group is not effectively stemming its expansion. In addition to Yemen, ISIS has thus far successfully extended into Libya and the Sahel. However, in a sign of ISIS’s lack of universal appeal, it has so far failed to make significant inroads in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which suggests that the expansion of ISIS certainly isn’t impossible and can be dealt with. Nevertheless, with frozen peace negotiations and no end in sight to the Houthi conflict, there is a certainty that more will be heard of ISIS in Yemen in the near future.