Strange web of foes and allies of ISIS, al-Qaeda in Yemen

The disappearance of many of the experienced leaders in al-Qaeda strengthens the influence and rise of ISIS, which is much more radical and brutal than al-Qaeda.
Tuesday 16/06/2020
A file picture shows a burning vehicle following a reported suicide car bombing in the southern province of Lahj, a bastion of Al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen. (AFP)
A file picture shows a burning vehicle following a reported suicide car bombing in the southern province of Lahj, a bastion of Al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen. (AFP)

ADEN - Contrary to the common belief that terrorist organisations tend to take advantage of any security vacuum to expand their presence, ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen seem to have caught the ‘splintering’ bug affecting all parties and political fronts in Yemen.

According to Mushir al-Mashraei, a Yemini researcher specialising in jihadist groups, the two extremist organisations are not only involved in longstanding and chronic conflicts, they suffer from their own internal wars as well.

Al-Mashraei told The Arab Weekly that al-Qaeda in Yemen, or what is known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has shrunk dramatically in recent years and lost control of many provinces due to the military operations launched against it by the Arab coalition.

He pointed to the UAE's crucial role in creating and training a special force in Yemen known as the Hadrami Elite Forces that liberated the city of Mukalla, the capital of Hadramaut governorate, from al-Qaeda in a military operation launched in 2016 with direct support from the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia.

Graphic map locating the port city of Mukalla in Yemen, from where Al-Qaeda forces were recently forced to withdraw. (AFP)
Graphic map locating the port city of Mukalla in Yemen, from where Al-Qaeda forces were recently forced to withdraw. (AFP)

Meshraei also noted the emergence of a new generation of leaders in al-Qaeda in particular following the death of the traditional leaders in drone attacks by the United States, which has considerably reduced the organisation’s ability to carry out significant operations, the new leaders being less experienced and less dangerous than the previous ones.

Meshraei added that Yemeni al-Qaeda’s relationship with al-Qaeda central, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor, and the ties of ISIS affiliates in Yemen with the main organisation in Iraq and the Levant are strong. For instance, the leaders of the parent organisations in Afghanistan or Iraq and Syria are usually the ones who settle disputes over who should take over leadership of local affiliates in the event of the death of an emir and other internal disputes that are brought to their attention. The election of Khalid Batarfi as emir of the Yemeni affiliate of al-Qaeda, for example, was publicly blessed by Zawahiri.

Khalid Omar Batarfi (also known as Abu Meqdad al-Kindi) a spokesman for AQAP in a video posted online on June 15, 2015.
Khalid Omar Batarfi (also known as Abu Meqdad al-Kindi) a spokesman for AQAP in a video posted online on June 15, 2015.

Meshraei noted that, as an emerging organisation in Yemen with less financial resources than al-Qaeda, ISIS in Yemen is still more dependent on its leaders in Iraq and Syria, whether in terms of armament, the appointment of leaders or even concluding agreements with the local tribes.

The local branches, however, are not immune to internal divisions and conflicts. Al-Mashraei recalled the recent conflict that spilled over in broad daylight between splinter groups and ideological currents inside al-Qaeda in Yemen, and which ended up revealing two main camps within the organisation. The first camp is led by Batarfi, who has the support of prominent and senior leaders such as Saad al-Awlaki, Judge Hamad al-Tamimi and Ammar al-San'ani, while the second camp includes Abu Omar Al-Nahdi and Daoud Al-Sayari.

Many Yemeni researchers focusing on terror organisations believe the disappearance of many experienced al-Qaeda leaders strengthens the influence and rise of ISIS, which is much more radical and brutal than al-Qaeda. So far, the Yemeni branch of ISIS has not announced the death of any of its leaders or disclosed that its known bases in Yemen have been hit by US drone attacks. Such attacks played an important role in dismantling al-Qaeda in Yemen.

Mashraei said he had no explanation for why the Americans had so far spared ISIS leaders and bases in Yemen even as ISIS elements moved freely and openly in their areas of deployment and their camps at Qifat Redaa are known to all, in addition to their frequent appearance in gatherings, weddings and religious ceremonies, and even near Houthi areas.

“At the height of the clashes between al-Qaeda and ISIS, an American drone raid targeted a gathering of al-Qaeda militants in the Qifah area and allowed ISIS to advance and take control of one of the sites that belonged to al-Qaeda,” Mashraei explained.

Such developments “were considered by al-Qaeda and the people of Qifah as an indication of a security coordination between ISIS and the Americans to allow them control of the area that is considered one of the most important popular and tribal base of al-Qaeda in Yemen.”

In the same context, the Yemeni researcher does not question rumours of a suspicious relationship between the Houthis and ISIS in Yemen. He is convinced the two parties are coordinating, as revealed by detailed information from various media sources and Qifah residents.

As for the goal of such coordination, Mashraei said that “the Houthis are deliberately exaggerating the presence of ISIS in Yemen, especially in Al-Bayda, in order to convey to the world that it is fighting ISIS and other terrorist groups and that its war is not a war against the Yemenis but rather a war on terrorist groups.”

Mashraei also commented on news circulating about the killing of some al-Qaeda leaders in Marib, saying: “Unfortunately, Marib has become a safe haven for al-Qaeda in Yemen, and this is due to the tribal ties that link some of the organisation’s leaders with some tribal figures, in addition to the ideological closeness between the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda. This ideology rapprochement has sometimes turned into protection agreements between al-Qaeda and the Brotherhood, where Brotherhood leaders provide safe houses to al-Qaeda leaders in exchange for financial and military backup in the Brotherhood’s various wars.”