Conflict in Yemen and opportunities for ISIS

Research note originally commissioned November 2015

The conflict in Yemen in the space of a year has massively destabilized the country and led to countless civilian deaths. The approaching Geneva peace talks offer a potential for resolution but significant instability and damaged have nonetheless already been caused. The conflict could now be said to be four-sided. The conflict was initially between the Shia, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels from the country’s mountainous north-west on the one hand, and the Saudi and UAE-backed Sunni government in the south, east and along the coast. However, as the security in the country deteriorated, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the most effective Al-Qaeda branch in operation, asserted its influence and took control of swathes of the country.

Al-Qaeda’s forces have largely fought against the Houthis, Shias who it considers apostates. They have not much clashed with government forces and have not been the target of Saudi air strikes. However, Al-Qaeda’s assertion of power was followed by the establishment of an ISIS franchise in the country, also taking advantage of the instability. ISIS, organized into provinces or ‘wilyat’ in Yemen, has carried out more shocking attacks than Al-Qaeda. ISIS in Yemen has attacked both the Houthi rebels and the Sunni government. The continued conflict is involving increasing numbers of regional players, with Sudan now sending troops. Increased instability is likely to be a result for the immediate term. That the world’s most effective remaining branch of Al-Qaeda is able to operate with impunity and ISIS’ local branch is well into a campaign of violent destabilization, are serious causes for concern.


The conflict in Yemen between the Sunni forces of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and Zaidi Shia rebels, known as Houthis, has escalated massively over the last year. The Houthis’ have expanded their influence out of their heartland in the mountainous north-west of the country. The Houthis are believed to be being backed militarily by Iran, although Iran denies this. The beleaguered government, having being forced by the Houthis from the Yemeni capital of Sana’a in September 2014, is now based in Aden on the southern coast. Violence had been on and off since the beginning of a Zaidi Shia insurgency in 2004, which itself was a continuation of a longer-running history of grievances and divisions.

Led by Saudi Arabia, a coalition including the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Senegal, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, the US and recently, Sudan, has been supporting Hadi’s government, fighting the Houthis, backed by Iran. However, despite concentrated air strikes and some troops fighting on the ground, the Houthis’ gains are yet to be significantly reversed. Sudan’s entry into the coalition has been with the promise to send ground troops in support.


There have been widespread claims of high levels of civilian deaths as a result of the air strikes and a humanitarian crisis in Yemen is growing, exacerbated by coalition blockades on supplies. Amid this chaos, with many young men with no jobs but a surplus of guns, conditions for escalating violence and radicalization are rife.

The conflict has been further complicated by the resurgence and emergence, respectively, of two other groups. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the most effective remaining branch of Al-Qaeda, asserted its strength in Yemen amidst the ensuing chaos and took large swathes of territory. Following, Al-Qaeda’s show of strength, ISIS announced it had established provinces, ‘wilyat’, in Yemen. ISIS’ attacks have been larger and more shocking than Al-Qaeda’s and have targeted both the Shia rebels and the government, while Al-Qaeda has targeted only the rebels. Indeed, Al-Qaeda and the Sunni government are operating as de facto allies in the conflict, and the group has been largely untouched by the Saudi intervention. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is believed to be the strongest, most experienced and battle-hardened of the remaining strands of Al-Qaeda, as well as the most capable of carrying out terrorist attacks against the West. ISIS has shown itself however to be a more capable player in the Yemeni conflict, and appears to be looking to expand amidst the chaos. ISIS has, however, come under some pressure from the Saudi intervention.


The current conflict, even if resolved soon, has created a destabilized situation in Yemen which has allowed franchises of Al-Qaeda and ISIS to operate with relative ease and impunity. The likelihood of the return of a strong state in the country currently seems remote. Rebuilding the country, creating alternatives to violence and countering violent narratives will all take time and serious engagement.

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