On August 27, 2019, it was reported that the U.S. government is preparing to initiate negotiations with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in an effort to bring the civil war to an end. This round of peace negotiations is aimed at convincing Saudi Arabia to take part in secret talks with the rebels in Oman to help broker a cease-fire in the conflict. Oman currently stands at the front line in the regional proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran. The Houthis have previously engaged in peace talks, however both instances—once in 2015 during the Obama administration which sought to broker a cease-fire and the release of Americans held in Yemen, and once just last December during the United Nations peace talks—did not result in any significant progress. (Sources: Wall Street Journal, The Hill)

Overview

Yemen remains locked in a sectarian civil war between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the Yemeni government. The Houthis began taking control of parts of the country in mid-2014. In 2015, the threat to the Yemeni government prompted the intervention of a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states, including five Gulf Arab states, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, and Sudan. The ongoing conflict has reportedly resulted in the deaths of more than 10,000 Yemeni civilians and over 90,000 casualties overall. More than 3 million others have been displaced since 2014, according to the United Nations. As of March 8, 2017, the internationally recognized government of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi controls 85 percent of the country, while the Houthi rebels control 15 percent, according to Yemeni officials. However, the continued violence and dire prospects of the end of the war have ignited former tensions between Yemenis in the north and south. After the UAE-backed separatists seized the city of Aden on August 10, 2019, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) has issued demands seeking to redirect autonomy back into the hands of southern Yemen. The two regions were formerly separate countries but united under a single state in 1990 under former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. (Sources: Associated Press, Associated Press, Al Arabiya, Middle East Monitor, Wall Street Journal, Reuters)

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and multiple ISIS affiliates are based in Yemen.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and multiple ISIS affiliates are based in Yemen. AQAP has been tied to global plots such as the 2015 attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the 2009 underwear bomb plot carried out by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to destroy a Detroit-bound airliner. In addition, online videos of deceased AQAP propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki continue to inspire and radicalize people around the world to fight alongside al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other jihadist groups. U.S. President Donald J. Trump cited Yemen’s ties to global terrorism as reason for the country’s inclusion in a temporary travel ban in early 2017. (Sources: CNN, CNN)

Since September 11, 2001, the United States has conducted intermittent counterterrorism operations in Yemen, including surveillance, drone strikes, and special operations. Former U.S. President Barack Obama significantly increased the number of drone strikes against AQAP, and current President Trump has continued counterterror operations against the group. As of March 6, 2017, the United States had conducted more than 40 strikes against AQAP. The United States has reportedly carried out a total of 197 drone and air strikes in Yemen since 2002, killing up to 1,284 militants. (Sources: Telegraph, New York Times, BBC News, BBC News, TIME, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post, New York Times, New America Foundation)

Polling by the Yemen Polling Center (YPC) in 2013 revealed that nearly 40 percent of 2,000 people surveyed across Yemen’s 21 governorates believe the country’s security situation is getting worse. Of the armed groups in Yemen, the 2013 YPC poll ranked the Houthis as the most disruptive to the country’s security, followed by AQAP. (Source: Yemen Polling Center

Radicalization and Foreign Fighters

Yemen’s Government Collapse and Rising Radicalization

Iran-backed Houthi rebels have violently targeted Yemen’s government since 2004, and the country has been locked in political turmoil since protests against corruption and lack of political inclusion erupted across Yemen in 2011. In November of that year President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled Yemen since the country’s 1990 unification, transferred power to his deputy, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi who was to oversee a new coalition government and implement reforms in advance of elections in February 2014.  (Sources: NBC News, Chatham House)

Extremist entities quickly capitalized on the instability resulting from this transfer of power to expand their influence. The Houthis, who had been leading an intermittent revolt against the central government since 2004, began seizing provinces across northwestern Yemen. By July 2014, the Houthis controlled four provinces, eventually seizing the capital city of Sanaa in September and forcing Hadi’s government to flee to Aden in early 2015. When Houthi forces began to close on Aden, an international coalition of Arab states intervened and halted their advance just north of the temporary capital. The Saudi-led coalition has continued its military engagement against the Houthis, who have in turn targeted Saudi Arabia. As of December 2017, 8,670 people had been killed and 49,960 wounded in Yemen since the Arab coalition began its engagement in March 2015. (Sources: Daily Star, BBC News, BBC News)

In early November 2017, Saudi Arabia imposed a blockade of Yemen. Forces loyal to former president Saleh fought alongside the Iran-backed Houthis since 2015. Clashes erupted between Saleh’s forces and the Houthis in late November. On December 2, 2017, Saleh offered to “turn a new page” with the Saudi-led coalition if the Saudis ended their blockade. The Houthis called Saleh’s offer a “coup” against their alliance. More than 125 people are killed and at least 238 are wounded in the fighting between the Houthis and Saleh’s forces. The Houthis reportedly take control of the majority of Sanaa. On December 4, Houthi fighters reportedly killed Saleh and several of his aides as he was trying to escape Sanaa. Later in the day, the Houthi-controlled Interior Ministry announced Saleh’s death, which Saleh’s General People’s Congress party confirmed his death by snipers. Media observers speculated that Saleh’s death had been revenge for his abandonment of his alliance with the Houthis. (Sources: New York Times, Al Jazeera, CNN, BBC News, Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera)

With the government battling the Houthi threat, Sunni Islamist groups have been able to expand their recruitment and radicalization efforts. Because of the highly sectarian nature of the current conflict, Sunni civilians and tribes have increasingly supported extremist organizations such as al-Qaeda against the Shiite Houthis. In February 2018, several Houthi prisoners held by the Yemeni army alleged that they had been trained by Hezbollah. According to the prisoners, Houthi fighters receive two months’ of Hezbollah training before being sent to fight. The following month, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, Prince Khalid bin Salman, accused Iran of seeking to create a Yemeni Hezbollah to support the Houthis. (Sources: Daily Star, BBC News, Al Arabiya English, Arab News)

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is an Islamist militant extremist group operating primarily in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. AQAP is the result of the January 2009 merger of al-Qaeda in Yemen and al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. In the group’s inaugural video in 2009, AQAP’s former leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi formally declared the group’s intention to avenge its enemies “with blood and destruction,” in order to establish an Islamic caliphate and implement sharia (Islamic law). As a formal affiliate of al-Qaeda, AQAP’s ideology and practices fall in line with al-Qaeda’s broader goals of working toward global Islamist domination through violent jihad. According to the U.S. Department of State, AQAP is the al-Qaeda affiliate most ideologically similar to al-Qaeda core. (Sources: U.S. Department of State, Stratfor)

During the ongoing Yemeni civil war, AQAP has been able to expand its influence, control, and abilities.

AQAP has launched multiple attacks against Western interests both in and outside Yemen, including the failed 2009 Detroit Christmas Day airline bombing, the 2010 attempt to blow up U.S.-bound cargo aircraft with explosives concealed in printer cartridges, the attempted May 2012 bombing of a U.S.-bound airliner, and the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack. Within Yemen, AQAP has launched dozens of deadly attacks including a December 2013 attack on the Yemeni Ministry of Defense that killed at least 52 people, a February 2014 attack on Sanaa’s central prison that freed dozens of prisoners, and a bombing of a military parade rehearsal that killed 120 people. Additionally, AQAP has taken multiple foreigners hostage. Despite ISIS’s rise in the country, U.S. counterterrorism officials asserted in January 2016 that AQAP was the dominant Salafist group in Yemen. As of 2017, AQAP remained the dominant group, though ISIS has tried to surpass it. (Sources: National Counterterrorism Center, CNN, Council on Foreign Relations, Financial Times)

Qasim al-Raymi is a U.S.-designated terrorist and the emir of AQAP. He filled this position on June 16, 2015, one day after former AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi died in a U.S. drone strike. Beginning in 2006, Raymi directed the movement of al-Qaeda fighters and played a key role in the group’s seizure of territory in Yemen’s southern provinces. Raymi helped Wuhayshi  rebuild al-Qaeda in Yemen’s fractured network, and the pair oversaw the merging of the Yemeni and Saudi al-Qaeda branches to form AQAP in 2009. Raymi played a large role in “reviving the regional node of al-Qaeda” and “recruiting the current generation of militants making up the Yemen-based AQAP,” according to the U.S. Department of State. Before officially taking over as AQAP’s emir, Raymi served as the group’s military commander and successfully captured territory throughout Yemen’s southwestern regions. Raymi’s death has been erroneously reported numerous times. (Sources: U.S. Department of State, CBS News, USA Today, Combating Terrorism Center, Long War Journal, Jamestown Foundation)

During the ongoing Yemeni civil war, AQAP has been able to expand its influence, control, and abilities. The group has found support among Sunni tribes in south and central Yemen that are resistant to the rise of Shiite Houthi rebels. In early 2016, AQAP controlled most of the coast from al-Mukalla to Zinjibar (370 miles) and even neighborhoods in Aden itself. In April 2016, AQAP seized al-Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth-largest city, stole 24 billion rials ($111 million) from the central bank there, and freed 300 prisoners. Calling themselves the “Sons of Hadramout,” AQAP militants then handed over power to a body of 60 civilians and withdrew to a security role. Later that month, Yemeni and Emirati security forces retook al-Mukalla from AQAP. . (Sources: Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, Daily Star, Council on Foreign Relations, Business Standard, Al-Monitor, Reuters)

AQAP is funded primarily through  “theft, robberies, and kidnap for ransom operations,” according to the State Department. In the territory it controls, it taxes and extorts both legal and illicit enterprises. The group has utilized its funding to support development projects, winning support from the local population. Additionally, AQAP has offered money and gold in reward to whomever can kill a U.S. service member or ambassador. (Sources: U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State)

AQAP produces propaganda and publications that have inspired terror attacks across the globe. Since July 2010, AQAP has produced the online English-language propaganda magazine Inspire. Inspire outlines AQAP strategy, posits religious arguments and justifications, and provide guidance and encouragement to prospective terrorists. . Tamerlan and Dzhorkhar Tsarnaev learned how to construct  the pressure cooker bombs they used to attack the April 2013 Boston Marathon from Inspire. In addition, recordings of deceased AQAP propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki continue to inspire jihadists. (Sources: Reuters, Anti-Defamation League, Reuters)

AQAP has also violently clashed with Houthi rebels, whom AQAP brands as heretical because of their support from Shiite Iran. AQAP has targeted Houthi military leaders and infrastructure. A March 2017 AQAP statement accused the United States of supporting the Houthis and called for international help against the rebels. While the Houthis are opposed to AQAP’s encroachment in their stronghold, analysts have noticed that the two groups have at times appeared to enter in an alliance against the Yemeni government. (Sources: Reuters, CNN, New York Times, Al Jazeera, Long War Journal)

Anwar al-Awlaki

Anwar al-Awlaki was a U.S.-Yemeni dual citizen and longtime cleric, propagandist, and operative for AQAP. Awlaki inspired a number of terrorist attacks through his lectures, recordings, and other propaganda. In January 2011, Awlaki was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in a Yemeni prison for his connection to the killing of a French engineer. Awlaki was killed in a U.S. drone strike on September 30, 2011, while traveling between Marib and Jawf provinces in Yemen. CEP has  documented more than 80 cases of foreign fighters and other extremists who continue to be inspired by Awlaki’s propaganda, in particular his online lectures. (Sources: Al Jazeera, New York Times, Counter Extremism Project)

In early 2009, Awlaki was in contact via e-mail with Nidal Hasan, the U.S. Army major who in November 2009 killed 13 soldiers at the Fort Hood military post near Killeen, Texas. Roughly a year after the attack, Awlaki referred to Hasan as a “hero.” Awlaki was also involved in an October 2010 plot to blow up a U.S. cargo plane flying from Yemen to the United States. The bomb, disguised as an ink cartridge, was built by AQAP’s chief bomb maker Ibrahim al-Asiri and was timed to detonate as the plane flew over the eastern seaboard of the United States. The bomb was removed by British police after a tip from Saudi intelligence. In 2011, Awlaki instructed British citizen Minh Quang Pham to carry out a suicide bombing at London’s Heathrow International Airport. Pham, who trained alongside AQAP in Yemen during the first half of 2011, was arrested by British authorities in June 2012 and extradited to the United States in 2015. A U.S. court sentenced him to 40 years in prison. (Sources: U.S. Department of the Treasury, INTELWIRE, BBC News, White House, Telegraph, New York Times, U.S. Department of Justice, BBC News)

Ibrahim al-Asiri

Saudi-born Ibrahim al-Asiri is the chief bomb-maker for AQAP. Before joining AQAP, Asiri plotted a series of bombings on domestic oil facilities as part of an al-Qaeda-affiliated cell in Saudi Arabia. Asiri traveled to Yemen in 2007 to join AQAP and became notorious for designing a score of bomb attacks aimed at targets in the United States. These include the underwear bomb plot of 2009—carried out by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab—and the cargo plane bomb plot in 2010. Asiri was also implicated in his brother Abdullah al-Asiri’s 2009 assassination attempt of Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Nayif in Jeddah. Asiri is believed to operate out of Yemen. (Sources: U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of Justice, Guardian, Combating Terrorism Center, Business Insider)

In March 2011, the U.S. Department of State designated Asiri as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist. In 2014, the U.S. Department of State Rewards for Justice Program offered $5 million for information leading to the location of Asiri and other AQAP leaders, including the group’s leader Qasim al-Raymi. Asiri was featured in an audio recording released by AQAP on January 11, 2016, in which he vowed to continue fighting the United States, stating, “By God, we [AQAP] will not continue to let you go as long as there is a pulsing vein in our body.” (Sources: U.S. Department of State, Long War Journal, Fox News)

Ansar al-Sharia Yemen

Ansar al-Sharia (AAS) Yemen was founded by AQAP militants in April 2011 in what counterterrorism researcher Aaron Zelin called a “rebranding effort by AQAP.” AQAP’s head religious figure, Sheikh Abu Zubayr, reportedly said that “the name Ansar al-Sharia is what we use to introduce ourselves in areas where we work to tell people about our work and goals.” AAS has become a major force in providing social services, providing electricity, water, education, judiciary courts, and security where the Yemeni central government is unable. The group’s fighters have carried out numerous attacks, including the 2012 Yemen National Day bombing, a May 2012 ambush that wounded a U.S. military instructor, and numerous ground offensives. In October 2012, the State Department designated AAS as merely an alias of AQAP. (Sources: U.S. Department of State, Foreign Policy, Long War Journal, Reuters, Al Jazeera, Critical Threats)

Houthis

The Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), are an Iran-backed rebel group based in the Saada region of northern Yemen. The Houthis, along with one-third of Yemen’s population, adhere to a branch of Shiite Islam called Zaidism. The group has waged a series of bloody insurgencies against the Yemeni government since 2004, leading to a government overthrow in early 2015. The Houthis have since seized power, announcing the formation of a new government, which has not received international recognition. As of April 2018, 10,000 people have died in the three-year war, according to the United Nations. (Sources: Reuters, New York Times, New York Times, Atlantic, Reuters, BBC News)

The Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), are an Iran-backed rebel group based in the Saada region of northern Yemen.

The Houthis are named after their late leader, Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, who led the first Houthi uprising against the Yemeni government in 2004. He fought for greater autonomy for Saada province and increased protection and independence for Zaidi Muslims in the face of perceived Sunni Muslim encroachment. Hussein Houthi was killed by Yemeni security forces in September of that year. Their motto is “God is great, death to America, death to Israel, God curse the Jews, victory to Islam.” (Sources: Atlantic, BBC News, New York Times, New York Times)

Fighting between the government and the Houthi rebels resumed after the death of Hussein Houthi, bookmarked by failed ceasefires in 2006 and 2007. A May 2008 bombing of a Yemeni mosque marked the first time Houthis deliberately targeted civilians. In October 2009, Saudi Arabian security forces engaged Houthi rebels along the Saudi-Yemeni border. Fighting continued until a 2010 ceasefire agreement, which collapsed after Houthi rebels took part in the revolt against then-Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011. (Sources: BBC News, BBC News, New York Times, New York Times, Foreign Affairs)

Saleh’s November 2011 resignation left a power vacuum, which allowed the rebels to seize Saada, al-Jawf, and Hajjah provinces by May 2012. In July 2014, the rebels seized the province of Omran, placing them within striking distance of the capital. That September, Houthi forces overran Saana and placed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi under house arrest. Following the capture of the city, the Houthis announced the dissolution of the parliament and the formation of a new government in Sanaa. In February 2015, Hadi fled to the southern port city of Aden and reasserted his authority as Yemen’s president. The Houthis continued their push south, closing in on Aden in late March 2015. The threat to the Yemeni government prompted the intervention of a Saudi Arabia-led coalition of Arab states, including five Gulf Arab states, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, and Sudan. (Sources: Reuters, Reuters, Reuters, Reuters, Yemen Times, BBC News)

In March 2015, the Saudi-led coalition began a short-lived air campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels called Operation Decisive Storm. Saudi Arabia declared an end to the campaign the following month, but continued what it called counterterrorism operations in the country under the mission Restoring Hope with the ultimate goal of restoring Hadi’s government. The Houthis have fired ballistic missiles into Saudi territory in response to airstrikes. As of October 2018, the Saudi military sources reported that the Houthis had fired approximately 200 missiles at Saudi Arabia since 2015. The missiles are mostly shot down or fail to reach their targets, but have resulted in casualties nonetheless. (Sources: BBC News, Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, Reuters, Al Arabiya, Associated Press)

Iran has supported Houthi rebels with funding, training, and weapons. In February 2017, Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), reportedly met with senior IRGC commanders to discuss increasing Iranian support to the Houthis. Though Iran denies providing military or financial aid to the Houthis, a senior Iranian official told Reuters in March 2017 that the IRGC “agreed to increase the amount of help, through training, arms and financial support” to the Houthis after meeting with Soleimani. The British-based Conflict Arms Research (CAR) group reported in March 2017 that Houthis were using drones likely built in Iran to attack Saudi forces. On January 30, 2017, Houthis targeted a Saudi frigate in the Red Sea with an explosives-filled drone boat reportedly provided by Iran. A September 2018 CAR report documented the use of Iranian electrical components in Houthi IEDs and landmines. (Sources: Reuters, Washington Post, Defense News, Conflict Arms Research)

Some Yemeni officials believe Iran has  supported the Houthis since their first uprising in 2004. Officials also assert that Houthi militants have traveled to Iran and Lebanon for training and also received training in Yemen by a “few hundred” members of the IRGC’s Quds Force. In 2013, Yemeni security forces intercepted the Iranian vessel Jihan 1 off Yemen’s coast. The ship was reportedly bound for Houthi territory carrying several tons of Iranian arms, munitions, equipment, and explosives. Yemeni authorities impounded the ship and arrested its crew, which included eight Yemeni nationals and two members of Hezbollah. Iran denied any connection to the shipment. (Sources: Reuters, Anadolu Agency, Reuters, BBC News)

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have designated the Houthis as a terrorist group. Human Rights Watch has accused the Houthis of hostage-taking, torture, and other human-rights abuses. As of March 8, 2017, Hadi’s internationally recognized government controlled 85 percent of the country, while the Houthi rebels controlled 15 percent, according to Yemeni officials. (Sources: NDTV, Yemen Times, National, BBC News, Al Arabiya, Middle East Monitor, Human Rights Watch)

In April 2018, Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi announced that the rebel group would continue to develop its military capabilities “as the aggression continues.” On April 11, the Houthis fired a ballistic missile at Saudi Arabia’s defense ministry in Riyadh. Saudi forces intercepted the missile, resulting in no damage. On April 19, a Saudi airstrike killed Saleh al-Samad, president of the Houthi-backed government that controls most of northern Yemen. Samad was the highest ranked civilian official in the Houthi movement and second on the coalition’s most-wanted list of Houthi leaders. The Houthis appointed Mahdi al-Mashat to replace Samad. (Sources: Reuters, Reuters, Reuters)

ISIS

ISIS in Yemen has targeted both the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels. In September 2014, defectors from AQAP and other Islamist groups declared their allegiance to ISIS caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who accepted their pledge that November. On March 20, 2015, ISIS’s affiliate in Sanaa claimed the group’s first major attack in the country after suicide bombers killed 142 people at two Shiite mosques in Sanaa. In late 2015, a former member of AQAP told the New York Times that “large numbers of both leaders and individuals” are defecting to ISIS because of frustration with AQAP’s perceived passivity in Yemen’s civil war. ISIS has since declared wilayats—provinces—in eight different provinces of Yemen, but it is unclear whether all of the branches are active. (Sources: CNN, New York Times, Guardian, Critical Threats, Critical Threats)

AQAP and ISIS have increasingly come into conflict in the country. In November 2014, AQAP chief cleric Harith al-Nadhari criticized ISIS of “extending the caliphate to a number of countries in which [it has] no power.” Al-Nadhari’s criticism came one week after a November 13 declaration by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi that the “caliphate” had spread to Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Egypt, and Qatar. In December 2014, AQAP suicide bombings targeted Houthi rebels in central Yemen, killing 80 people, including children. Militants affiliated with ISIS and AQAP openly clashed in eastern Yemen in December 2015, according to U.S. officials. Yemeni officials claim the two groups are also competing for new members in the country. (Sources: NBC News, New York Times, CNN, Al Jazeera, CNN)

Despite the alleged competition for membership, ISIS has not gained as much traction among Yemenis as al-Qaeda, according to Yemeni officials. Many of the leaders of ISIS in Yemen are Saudi nationals. Compounded with ISIS’s centralized authority based in Syria, many in Yemen’s tribal areas reportedly view the terror group  as foreign and disconnected from Yemeni interests. Furthermore, AQAP has forged alliances and worked with local tribal authorities in power-sharing agreements while ISIS leadership has failed to make inroads in Yemeni tribal structure. Nevertheless, ISIS has successfully carried out a series of deadly attacks in the country. In March 2015, ISIS executed 29 Yemeni soldiers. In December of that year, ISIS assassinated the governor of Yemen’s Aden province, along with five of his bodyguards. (Sources: Guardian, Critical Threats, Al Jazeera, Wall Street Journal)

Notable Terrorists Who Have Trained in Yemen

Several notable terrorists have trained in Yemen before attempting or executing attacks around the world. On December 25, 2009, Nigerian national Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate a bomb on a U.S. airliner bound for Detroit, Michigan. He is currently serving a life sentence in a maximum security prison in Florence, Colorado. A native Nigerian, Abdulmutallab sought out AQAP propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki for training and guidance in Yemen. (Sources: U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice)

While in Sanaa in 2009, Abdulmutallab met Said Kouachi.  Said and his brother Chérif Kouachi killed 12 people at the Paris offices of  Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015. Said Kouachi likely trained with AQAP in a safe haven outside of Sanaa while periodically living in Yemen between 2009 and 2011. According to an unidentified Yemeni security official the Kouachi brothers traveled to Yemen in the summer of 2011 to receive training from AQAP and meet with Awlaki. (Sources: GuardianInternational Business TimesCNNBBC NewsBBC NewsCNNFrance24, Al JazeeraReutersNew York Times, Wall Street Journal)

Foreign Fighters

A U.N. Security Council report from May 2015 reported that 110 Yemeni nationals were fighting in Syria and Iraq, many with ISIS or the Nusra Front. Yemeni fighters also fought  against U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Of the 780 detainees held in Guantanamo Detention Center since the facility opened in January 2002, 115 of them were Yemeni nationals. As of January 2008, Yemeni detainees outnumbered those from any other country in Guantanamo. (Sources: Times of Israel, NBC News, New York Times, Fox News)

Yemen has also been a destination for foreign fighters. In 2014, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi claimed that 70 percent of al-Qaeda’s fighters in the country were foreigners from Brazil, Australia, and France, among other countries. Al-Qaeda denied the charge. In late 2015, the United Arab Emirates reportedly imported hundreds of Colombian mercenaries to fight against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Iranian media alleged in September 2015 that Saudi forces were employing Sudanese and Somalian foreign fighters. (Sources: New York Times, Reuters, Fars News Agency)

Major Extremist and Terrorist Incidents

Prior to 2015, nearly all terror attacks within Yemen were carried out by al-Qaeda affiliates. Beginning in 2015, ISIS launched a series of attacks in Yemen, largely against civilian Shiite targets. While AQAP has disavowed attacking markets and mosques in Yemen, ISIS has embraced the tactic, targeting Shiite mosques and other public areas in a deadly series of bombings. Nonetheless, AQAP remains the most active terror group, targeting both the Yemeni military and Houthi positions. AQAP has also struck abroad, inspiring or attempting attacks on the United States and a high-profile attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Yemen-based Sunni extremist groups have profited heavily from the kidnapping of Westerners. While many of the kidnappings are carried out by tribes looking to pressure the Yemeni government, al-Qaeda plots alone have kidnapped dozens. From 1995 to 2010, more than 200 foreign nationals were kidnapped in Yemen. (Sources: CNN, Guardian)

USS Cole Bombing

On October 12, 2000, two al-Qaeda operatives piloted a 35-foot boat alongside the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Cole while it was refueling in Aden harbor. The militants detonated their explosives on the port side of the destroyer and blew a 32-foot-by-36-foot hole in the hull. The bomb exploded just outside the ship’s galley where sailors were lined up for lunch, killing 17 sailors and wounded 39 others.

The bombing was allegedly masterminded by Saudi Arabian national Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who had attempted to bomb the USS The Sullivans in January 2000. Largely due to the success of the USS Cole bombing, Nashiri was appointed head of al-Qaeda operations for the Persian Gulf. In November 2002, Nashiri was captured in the United Arab Emirates and eventually transferred to the U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. As of March 2017, Nashiri is awaiting trial in the United States on charges of orchestrating the bombings of the USS Cole and French oil tanker HMV Limburg in October 2002. (Sources: 9/11 Memorial, Global Security, 9/11 Commission, Reuters, Miami Herald, Reuters)

Christmas Day Bombing

On December 25, 2009, Nigerian national Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate a bomb on a U.S. airliner bound for Detroit, Michigan. Twenty minutes before landing in Detroit, Abdulmutallab attempted to explode the suicide bomb strapped to his underwear. Rather than explode, the bomb lit on fire, causing severe burns. . Abdulmutallab was subdued by a nearby passenger and arrested upon his arrival in Detroit. In October 2011, Abdulmutallab pled guilty to all charges leveled against him, saying that he “attempted to use an explosive device which in the U.S. law is a weapon of mass destruction,” but which he considered a “blessed weapon.” Abdulmutallab was sentenced to life in prison without parole on February 16, 2012. He is currently serving his sentence in a maximum security prison in Florence, Colorado. Abdulmuttallab had trained under AQAP cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. (Sources: U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Sunday Times)

 

Domestic Counter-Extremism

Yemen’s political leadership has stressed the importance of developing initiatives to counter violent extremism within its borders, according to the U.S. State Department. The government has been unable to implement such programs due to the ongoing civil war. (Source: U.S. Department of State)

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been pivotal in the Yemeni civil war as they provided weapons, money, and thousands of ground troops to drive out the Houthi rebels. However, on July 11, 2019, the UAE government decided to partially withdraw their forces citing the war’s high costs. Although both the UAE-backed separatists and the Saudi-backed internationally recognized Yemeni government are coalition members fighting against the Houthis, there has recently been increased tension between the two sides given the lack of progress in taking down the Houthis. The UAE claims to be shifting its focus from fighting Houthi rebels to combating extremist Islamist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda on home soil. Since the announcement, the Houthis have increased the frequency of attacks on strategic towns near Hodeida which has significantly affected supply lines to Saudi-led forces throughout the city. (Sources: CNN, New York Times)

Legislation

The Yemeni government does not have comprehensive counterterrorism legislation. A 2008 draft counterterrorism bill remains stalled due to the inability of the Yemeni parliament to meet during the country’s civil war. The law would permit the detention of terrorist suspects and trigger mandatory sentencing for a variety of terrorism-related offenses. (Source: U.S. Department of State)

Border Security

Yemen’s maritime borders are porous and unsecure and the Yemeni military and coast guard, have been degraded a result of war. AQAP’s control of pockets of territory along the southern coast has enabled the militant group to smuggle weapons and goods to aid terrorist activities. In 2014, Yemen participated in the Yemen Quadrilateral Border Talks (YQBT), a joint forum comprised of officials from Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United States to discuss methods of securing the Yemeni border. The YQBT is led by the United States and briefs its participants in training techniques and effective border security methods. (Source: U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, WikiLeaks)

Law Enforcement

Since the 1980s, the Yemeni criminal justice system has deteriorated due to lack of financial support and corruption. According to the U.S. Department of State, Yemen’s police entities are ineffective in preventing crime and terrorism and face considerable distrust from the country’s population. The country’s prison system is burdened with rundown facilities, limited trained staff, and faces frequent attacks by violent extremist groups attempting to rescue its imprisoned members. In January 2014, Yemen’s rival political factions concluded the 10-month-long National Dialogue Conference, conducted at the behest of the United Nations and Gulf Cooperation Council. In addition to agreeing on an outline of a new constitution, participants concluded that the inadequate criminal justice system remains one of the Yemeni population’s primary concerns. (Sources: BBC News, U.S. Department of State)

U.S. Military Operations

Since 9/11, the United States has conducted intermittent counterterrorism operations in Yemen, including surveillance, drone strikes, and special operations. In November 2001, the United States signed a $400 million aid deal with Yemeni officials which permitted the United States to create a CIA base in Yemen to conduct counterterrorism procedures. U.S. operatives used the base to train Yemeni anti-terrorism units and collect intelligence on the country’s militant groups. By April 2002, the U.S. government had designated Yemen as a combat zone in support of the war on terror, also known as Operation Enduring Freedom. The designation resulted in the U.S. military stationing nearly 800 soldiers at a U.S. base in Djibouti to serve as a quick reaction force against al-Qaeda in Yemen. (Sources: The Nation, U.S. Internal Revenue Service, Congressional Research Service, Telegraph, New York Times, BBC News)

U.S. operatives used the base to train Yemeni anti-terrorism units and collect intelligence on the country’s militant groups.

On November 3, 2002, the United States’ first-ever targeted assassination using a drone was conducted in Yemen’s Marib province against six senior al-Qaeda militants, including al-Qaeda leader Qa’id Salim Sinan al Harithi. Harithi, also known as Abu Mi, was one of the alleged masterminds behind the USS Cole bombing in which al-Qaeda militants killed 17 U.S. sailors and wounded nearly 40 more. The United Nations condemned the strike because it did not consider Yemen a war zone at the time. Following international pressure, the U.S. military halted overt military action in Yemen for the next seven years. (Sources: BBC News, Time, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, UNHCHR)

When former U.S. President Barack Obama took office in 2009, he revived the drone program in Yemen. A December 2009 drone strike, the first since 2002, resulted in the deaths of 55 individuals, including at least 40 civilians. Nonetheless, Obama continued to employ drone strikes against the al-Qaeda networks throughout Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan, authorizing more than 500 strikes in those countries, killing approximately 3,000 militants. One of the United States’ most prolific drone strikes in Yemen occurred on September 30, 2011, when the CIA killed American-born AQAP propagandists Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. (Sources: New York Times, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, New York Times)

U.S. President Donald Trump, who assumed office in January 2017, has increased counterterrorism operations against AQAP in Yemen. On January 28, 2017, a team of Navy SEALs raided an AQAP headquarters in Yemen’s Bayda governorate, resulting in the deaths of a SEAL and up to 13 civilians, in addition to 14 militants­­.­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ U.S. authorities deemed the mission a success and claimed the SEALs recovered “important intelligence” from the headquarters. Following the raid, Yemen retracted its permission for the United States to conduct ground missions in the country. But as of March 6, 2017, the United States has conducted more than 40 strikes in just over the two months since Trump took office, compared to the 41 strikes in all of 2012, then the most in a single year against AQAP by the United States. As of March 6, 2017, the United States has carried out a total of 197 drone and air strikes in Yemen since 2002, killing up to 1,284 militants, according to the New America Foundation. (Source: Washington Post, New York Times, New York Times, New York Times, New America Foundation, CNN)

In 2017, the United States carried out 131 airstrikes against AQAP and ISIS in Yemen, an increase from 21 strikes over 2016. According to a senior U.S. intelligence official interviewed by NBC News, the strikes have “killed fighters, eviscerated AQAP's propaganda network, cut off external support and enabled UAE partners to regain territory.” According to U.S. defense officials, airstrikes in 2017 killed key al-Qaeda leaders in Yemen, including external operations facilitator Miqdad al Sana’ani and AQAP deputy arms facilitator Habib al-Sana’ani. (Sources: CENTCOM, NBC News)

Operation Restoring Hope

In March 2015, a Saudi-led military coalition intervened in Yemen’s civil war to suppress the Iranian-backed Houthi rebellion in northern Yemen and restore the legitimate government. The nine-country Arab coalition, initially dubbed Operation Decisive Storm, includes Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. Saudi Arabia has committed 150,000 soldiers and 100 fighter jets to the coalition and is backed by air and naval support from Egypt. The remaining partners have all contributed air support and participate in intelligence sharing. The United States also assists the coalition by providing intelligence and logistical support, including aerial refueling and search-and-rescue missions. The operation began on March 26, 2015, with airstrikes against the Houthi rebels in northern Yemen to “remove the threat to Saudi Arabia and its neighboring countries,” according to Saudi officials. (Sources: CNN, ABC News)

After nearly a month-long bombing campaign, Saudi Arabia announced the conclusion of Operation Decisive Storm in order to transition to Operation Restoring Hope on April 21, 2015. The rebranded operation promised a mission “continuing to protect civilians, continuing to fight terrorism and continuing to facilitate the evacuation of foreign nationals and to intensify relief and medical assistance to the Yemeni people,” according to Saudi officials. The Saudi-led coalition came under international pressure to halt its air campaign, which displaced thousands. Despite Operation Restoring Hope’s focus on providing aid to the Yemeni population, the new mission continued intermittent airstrikes and ground intervention. (Sources: International Business Times, Bloomberg)

Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi returned to Aden, Yemen, in September 2015, after six months in exile in Saudi Arabia, when the coalition retook the city from Houthi fighters. Despite Hadi’s return, the coalition continues to operate against the Houthi strongholds throughout northern Yemen, including in Sanaa. (Source: Los Angeles Times)

Arab coalition spokesman Ahmed Asiri told Al Arabiya News on January 7, 2017, that “the Yemeni army is still achieving progress on all fronts in Yemen. We’ve worked on targeting Houthi rebels while training the Yemeni army at the same time.” The Yemeni army is now proficient enough to control the military operations in its country, according to Ahmed. As of March 8, 2017, Hadi’s internationally recognized government controls 85 percent of the country, while the Houthi rebels control 15 percent. (Sources: Al Arabiya, Middle East Monitor)

United Arab Emirates Fight against AQAP

In April 2015, UAE forces partnered with local tribes in southern and eastern Yemen in order to counter the AQAP insurgency in the key port city of Mukalla and the Lahij-Abyan coastal corridor. By April 2016, the UAE, Yemeni government, and local tribes established a 10,000-strong force to recapture the port city from AQAP. The UAE-led operation liberated the city in two days and has since conducted pursuit operations, targeting AQAP-controlled pockets east of Aden and west of al-Mukalla. Following the capture of al-Mukalla, AQAP militants surrendered the coastal cities of Zinjibar and Jaar to the coalition’s tribal forces. The UAE-led operation has been the primary force against AQAP in the southern regions. The United States has provided the UAE with military support, including intelligence, ships, and special operations. However, the escalating costs of war and the never-ending number of casualties in what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, has resulted in the UAE planning to withdraw over 5,000 forces from Yemen. This security shakeup will provide more opportunity for the Houthis to initiate attacks and reclaim territory throughout the south without significant forces to battle, because according to Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, “the only thing stopping the Houthis from taking over Yemen was the U.A.E. armed forces.” (Sources: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Associated Press, Voice of America, CNN, New York Times)

International Counter-Extremism

With the overwhelming rise of terrorist and militant groups competing for power throughout Yemen, the Yemeni government is focused on its own fight to regain control and unable to launch any significant or sustained counter-extremism efforts abroad. To the contrary, regional and global powers continue to launch foreign intervention in Yemen.

Regional Criminal Justice Sector Reform Series

In 2014, Yemen became a member of the Regional Criminal Justice Sector Reform Series, a U.S. State Department initiative that brings together officials from African and Middle Eastern countries experiencing political transitions. Its meetings stress information sharing, best practices, and implementation strategies on civilian security and justice sector reform, according to the U.S. Department of State. The member states include Algeria, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Senegal, Tunisia, and Yemen. (Source: U.S. Department of State)

Combating Terrorist Financing

Yemen is a member of the Middle East and North Africa Financial Action Task Force (MENAFATF), a regional organization that aims to combat terrorist financing and money laundering. Due to the country’s violent conflicts, Yemen has not participated in MENAFATF meetings since 2014. In June 2014, the MENAFATF assessed that Yemen had taken significant steps to improving its anti-money laundering and countering terrorist financing but noted that there were still strategic deficiencies. (Sources: U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State

Public Opinion

Public opinion is difficult to gauge in Yemen given the lack of public polling information available due to the continuing violence in the country. Nonetheless, some basic trends can be discerned about how Yemenis assess the threat from Islamist violence. Yemen is greatly concerned about the dangers posed by Islamic extremism and there is a lack of confidence among the general population in the Yemeni government to provide security. (Sources: Yemen Polling Center, Yemen Polling Center

In January 2013, the Yemen Polling Center (YPC) conducted a survey which interviewed almost 2,000 people across Yemen’s 21 governorates. Of those surveyed, 38.87 percent believe the country’s security situation is getting worse. Almost 28.18 percent believe it is better while 22.95 percent do not believe it has changed. Despite these beliefs, 32.02 percent of the subjects believe anti-terrorism efforts in Yemen are improving as opposed to 20.59 percent who do not. In comparison to the previous year, 55.11 percent believe the security situation in Yemen has improved.

The 2013 YPC poll revealed that of the armed groups in Yemen, Houthis disrupt the country’s security the most (10.2 percent), followed by the al-Qaeda-linked groups (8.7 percent), AQAP and Ansar al-Sharia. More than 50 percent of those surveyed answered “no one” ruins security in their governorates. Approximately 40 percent rely on providing security themselves, while more than 22 percent rely on local tribal groups. Nearly 22 percent rely on local police for security and just under 3 percent rely on the federal government. (Source: Yemen Polling Center)

A 2011 survey conducted the international polling company Gallup found that 48 percent of its 5,000 Yemeni subjects do not have confidence in their national government, a 9 percent increase from its findings the previous year. Nearly 90 percent of those who do not have confidence in their government believe corruption is widespread throughout the Yemeni government. (Source: Gallup)