Abstract: Yemen is in the midst of a bloody and chaotic civil war that benefits both al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State. As the war continues, AQAP will attempt to acquire and govern more territory while the Islamic State will seek to further radicalize local populations by grafting an Iraqi-style sectarian war onto the existing conflict. Both groups vie for recruits and territory, and their competition could also spark attacks outside of Yemen as AQAP and the Islamic State attempt to demonstrate that they, and not their rival, are at the forefront of the jihadi movement.

For much of the past year, Yemen has been embroiled in a brutal and messy eight-sided civil war that involves the country’s former president, its current president, al-Qa`ida, the Islamic State, the United States, Saudi Arabia, a rebel group in the north, and a secessionist movement in the south. The fighting has all but destroyed the idea of Yemen as a nation state. Today, Yemen is a fragmented collection of mini-statelets and spheres of influence, each of which is ruled by whomever commands the most powerful force. The central government has ceased to function.

Yemen’s internationally recognized president, Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi, spent much of 2015 in exile, while his Saudi hosts carried out hundreds of bombing runs on Yemeni targets. Saudi airstrikes, which are supported by U.S. intelligence, have destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure and decimated Yemen’s military and security services, including millions of dollars in equipment provided by the United States itself. The units that have not been destroyed are largely confined to various bases across the country and are unable to patrol or conduct counterterrorism raids. As a result, the constant warfare has opened up significant space for al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the local branch of the Islamic State.

In late January 2015, the Houthis, a Zaydi-Shi`a revivalist group from northern Yemen that has long resisted central control, took over the government. They forced President Hadi to resign and then kept him under house arrest for a month before he was able to escape to Aden in the south and from there to exile in Saudi Arabia. In the wake of the Houthi takeover of Sana`a, the United States and several other countries closed their embassies and the United States withdrew special forces advisers, who had been assisting the Yemeni government in targeting al-Qa`ida forces.

In late March, at the request of President Hadi, Saudi Arabia began bombing Houthi targets inside Yemen. At the same time, the U.S. government announced that it was creating a Joint Planning Cell to assist Saudi Arabia in target selection.[1] Within weeks, it became clear that Saudi Arabia’s air campaign would not, on its own, be enough to dislodge the Houthis and restore Hadi to power in Sana`a. At that point, the Saudis had three choices. They could double-down on what thus far had been an ineffective strategy and order more air strikes. They could withdraw and allow the Houthis to declare themselves the victors.[a] Or the Saudis could go all-in and inject ground troops into Yemen. In the end, the Saudis decided on a modified version of the third option. Several allies, such as Egypt and Pakistan, refused to commit ground troops to the war in Yemen, but others such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) agreed to contribute forces. By late 2015, there were 4,000 coalition troops in southern Yemen, mostly from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Sudan.[2] Although, as The New York Times reported, many of the UAE troops are actually Colombian mercenaries trained by the former founder of Blackwater Worldwide.[3]

Not surprisingly, none of these developments has made a negotiated settlement any more likely, and the growing civilian death toll is helping both AQAP and Islamic State attract new recruits in Yemen as well as opening up territory into which the groups can expand. From the outside it appears as though Yemen is following Syria down the path toward a seemingly intractable civil war. In such an environment both AQAP and the Islamic State will continue to grow, and this article will assess what each is likely to attempt as the war continues into 2016.

For most of its existence in Yemen, AQAP has tried to solve a single problem—how to hold territory without exposing itself to destruction from the air. In 2011 and 2012, against the expressed wishes of Usama bin Ladin, AQAP attempted to hold and administer territory in the governates of Abyan and Shabwa. The experiment in implementing Islamic law did not go well. Even as AQAP attempted to address local grievances, such as an inadequate sewer system and water problems, it also made a number of unpopular decisions such as establishing hudud (severe punishments for crimes that the group believes Islam mandates) and restricting the qat trade (a mild narcotic common in Yemen).

After AQAP was forced from Abyan and Shabwa in the summer of 2012, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the then-leader of the organization, wrote a lessons learned letter to his counterpart in Mali.[4] Among other things, al-Wuhayshi advised a slow approach to implementing Islamic law. “You can’t beat people for drinking alcohol when they don’t even know the basics of how to pray,” he wrote in a letter later obtained by the Associated Press.[5]

Al-Wuhayshi’s learned lessons have been at the heart of AQAP’s latest attempt to hold territory in Yemen. In early April 2015, shortly after Saudi Arabia initiated its bombing campaign in Yemen, AQAP fighters took over the eastern port city of al-Mukalla. They looted banks and military posts, but stopped just short of declaring their control over the city. Instead, AQAP has preferred to rule through a civilian council[6] drawn from local elders.[7] This compromise is AQAP’s latest attempt to solve the riddle of how to govern without opening themselves up to air strikes or alienating the local population. Throughout its history, AQAP has proven itself an effective guerilla group, but it has never quite mastered the art of governance.

Even in al-Mukalla there have been problems. In January 2016, the group appeared to go back on al-Wuhayshi’s advice on hudud, stoning to death a woman accused of adultery and prostitution.[8] And by attempting to hold territory, AQAP acquires an address, which makes it vulnerable to U.S. air strikes. Throughout 2015, several of the group’s top leaders, including al-Wuhayshi, were killed in U.S. strikes. Wuhayshi’s replacement, Qasim al-Raymi, is AQAP’s former military commander and a man who has been with al-Wuhayshi since both men escaped from prison along with 21 others in February 2006. Al-Raymi is a talented and innovative commander, and he is likely to continue al-Wuhayshi’s push for territory, particularly as the Islamic State continues to challenge the AQAP for recruits and legitimacy with a more hardline approach.

Both AQAP and the Islamic State are benefiting from the Saudi-led war in Yemen. As Saudi air strikes target Houthi fighters and military units loyal to former President Salih, AQAP can move into the newly cleared territory. In December 2015, AQAP did just that, retaking two of the towns in Abyan that it had held in 2011 and 2012.[9] In the town of Ja`ar, which had previously served as the group’s de facto capital, AQAP killed the deputy commander of the city’s Popular Committee and reestablished control over Ja`ar, which AQAP refers to as Waqar. A video released by the group on December 29, 2015, shows a small group of armed men preparing for a raid, as well as a corpse that the group claims is Ali al-Sayyid, the deputy commander of Ja`ar’s Popular Committee.[10] It is unclear if AQAP is prepared to implement the lessons it learned from its last attempt to govern Ja`ar, such as those outlined by al-Wuhayshi in his letters to militants in Mali as well as those by Adil al-Abab in the same trove, or if it will revert to form as it appears to be doing in al-Mukalla.[11]

AQAP has also dispatched fighters to conflict zones such as Taiz, where they join the local resistance against the Houthis and make local allies. One of AQAP’s primary goals is to integrate itself into Yemeni society. By fighting the Houthis alongside Yemenis, AQAP is creating new alliances, which its leaders believe will serve them well in the future. AQAP has also tried, although not always successfully, to get Yemen’s tribes to submit to Islamic arbitration.[12] At the same time, the group is also fighting the Saudi-led coalition, which is largely based in the southern port city of Aden. Both AQAP and the local Islamic State affiliate have dispatched fighters to Aden where each group is active in an assassination campaign against top security officials. Prior to the Saudi-led bombing campaign, AQAP appeared to be in trouble. This is no longer the case. The group is acquiring more territory and, once again, is growing.

AQAP’s expansion is unchecked because there is no one on the ground to put any pressure on the organization. What is left of Yemen’s military is too busy fighting other enemies to engage AQAP, and the Saudis are focused on rolling back the Houthis. In the midst of Yemen’s civil war, AQAP is able to pursue more territory and to plot, plan, and launch attacks. In recent months, most of these attacks have been directed at targets inside Yemen, but AQAP’s growing rivalry with the Islamic State could lead to plots against targets in the West.

Indeed, on January 10, 2016, AQAP released a nearly eight-minute audio message from Ibrahim al-Asiri, AQAP’s chief bomb maker, critical of Saudi Arabia’s decision to execute several prisoners days earlier.[13] Although much of the international attention focused on Saudi Arabia’s decision to execute Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and three other Shi`a dissidents, which led to a break in relations with Iran, the other 43 prisoners were Sunnis, many of whom were militants affiliated with al-Qa`ida. Al-Asiri commemorated these dead and threatened both Saudi Arabia and the United States, warning of more attacks.

Islamic State
In November 2014, the Islamic State’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that he had accepted the bay`a (oath of allegiance) from supporters in Yemen.[14] In the year since that announcement, the Islamic State has augmented its operations significantly in Yemen and now claims to be active in at least eight governorates. Their expansion in Yemen has followed a similar pattern as those in Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and other places. After pledging their support to al-Baghdadi as the caliph, Islamic State supporters announce the creation of a group tied to a particular piece of territory, which the Islamic State refers to as a wilayat (state), and then they start carrying out attacks.[b] The first Islamic State attack in Yemen—a dual suicide attack in March on two mosques in Sana`a—killed more than 130 people.

In Yemen, the Islamic State is following a familiar playbook. Just like in Iraq, where Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the group’s spiritual founder, sparked a sectarian civil war by bombing Shi`a mosques, the goal in Yemen seems to be a radicalization of the religious landscape and the grafting of a sectarian war on to the country. The initial attack in March 2015 targeted what the Islamic State later claimed were “Shi`a mosques” in Sana`a. They were actually Zaydi mosques, where both Sunnis and Shi`a prayed. Sectarian strife of this type is a relatively new phenomenon in Yemen. Zaydis and Shafi`is have intermarried and worshipped together at one another’s mosques. In fact, Yemen’s Shi`a, the Zaydis, had become so doctrinally close to Sunni Islam that some scholars referred to them as the fifth school of Sunni Islam.[15]

The war is changing that. Almost all sides now see themselves as taking part in a sectarian war, which has only further fractured the country. Saudi Arabia is fighting the Houthis, whom it regards as a Shi`a militia backed by Iran. Both AQAP and the Islamic State are also fighting the Houthis, which the two Sunni groups view as heretics, as well as the Saudi-led coalition. As part of its alliance with Saudi Arabia, the United States is aiding in the war against the Houthis while also targeting AQAP and the Islamic State with drone strikes. In Yemen’s dizzying war, each side has several enemies.

The Islamic State’s primary goal throughout 2016 will be to further divide the country through sectarian attacks, recreating an Iraqi-style Sunni–Shi`a civil war in Yemen. The more sectarian the war becomes, the stronger the Islamic State will grow as it seeks to portray itself as the true defender of Sunni Islam. Already, the group has cast itself as more hardline than AQAP. In Yemen, AQAP adheres to rules of engagement such as refraining from bombing mosques; the Islamic State has no such limits on its attacks.[16] Indeed, much of its strategy, dating back to Zarqawi’s time in Iraq, has emphasized exactly these types of attacks as a way of attracting recruits who might otherwise be drawn to AQAP.

AQAP vs. the Islamic State
The competition between AQAP and the Islamic State is likely to become more strident in 2016 and may result for the first time in sustained fighting between the two groups. Both organizations are fighting for the same audience and drawing from the same pool of recruits, and each has taken a different approach to the same problem. AQAP and the other al-Qa`ida franchises have focused primarily on defeating the West and overthrowing corrupt Arab regimes as a way to bring about God’s rule on earth. The Islamic State, on the other hand, has concentrated its energies on killing Shi`a and others it classifies as deviants. Both want to establish a caliphate. They just differ on the means. Al-Qa`ida favors a bottom-up approach, attempting to build popular support before announcing the establishment of an emirate. Islamic State relies on a top-down model, announcing the caliphate as a way of attracting followers.

In Yemen, this difference in approach has led to splits in the jihadi community. In fact, the Islamic State’s earliest recruits in Yemen were disaffected members of AQAP who had grown tired of the organization’s time-consuming approach to building a caliphate, acquiring territory, and implementing Islamic law. The Islamic State’s quick rise to prominence in Iraq and Syria, and the declaration of the caliphate in June 2014 inspired these dissidents and eventually led to their defection. Even the head of the Islamic State in Yemen, a Saudi known as Abu Bilal al-Harbi, was once affiliated with AQAP.[17] Although the two groups are rivals, this has not yet led to the sort of open warfare between the two groups already seen in Syria. Instead, both sides seem content to fight the same enemies—the Houthis, Saudi Arabia, and the United States—and argue back and forth in videos and press releases.[18] These jihadi debates and disagreements, however, may have real world consequences as each side tries to attract more followers through more and more spectacular attacks in a dynamic scholars have referred to as terrorist outbidding.[19]

Attacks in the West
Throughout 2015, AQAP and the Islamic State in Yemen focused primarily on domestic enemies, particularly the Houthis. However, as the rivalry between the two jihadi groups grows in 2016 this may change. AQAP has already demonstrated its desire and ability to carry out attacks against targets in the West, and the Islamic State appears eager to follow suit. AQAP’s chief bomb-maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, is still at large and has likely trained several apprentices. Al-Asiri has repeatedly called for attacks on the United States, both in his January 2016 audio message as well as in a letter from July 2015 in which he says that “America is first” among targets for AQAP.[20] The head of AQAP, Qasim al-Raymi, has recently made a similar claim, referring to the United States as “the primary enemy.”[21] Similarly, recent AQAP videos such as the “Guardians of Shariah” have celebrated past plots against the West including those carried out by AQAP.[22] The unanimity of voice and message suggests that AQAP, while growing in Yemen, is refocusing its attention on the United States. This seems to be a calculated decision by an organization that needs to up-stage its rival both at home and abroad. AQAP is confident that, in the midst of Yemen’s chaotic civil war, it can carry out attacks without facing the devastating repercussions that followed when Yemen had a functioning government.

Unlike AQAP, the Islamic State has traditionally had limited control over attacks against targets in Western nations, either by allowing returning fighters to plan and carry them out on their own or by asking supporters in the West to conduct them. However, Islamic State attempts to usurp AQAP may lead the group to either call for more attacks in the West, which tend to draw more media attention and help with recruiting, or plan attacks from Yemen. The same calculations are driving both groups, and as they try to outmaneuver each other in 2016, each will look to stage a spectacular strike against the West.

Gregory D. Johnsen is the author of The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia. In 2013-14 he was the inaugural Michael Hastings National Security Reporting Fellow for BuzzFeed, where he won a Dirksen Award from the National Press Foundation and a Peabody Award in a collaboration with Radiolab. Follow @gregorydjohnsen

Substantive Notes

[a] This was never really an option for Saudi Arabia’s new king, Salman, who along with his son and deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, have staked their foreign policy credentials on a successful outcome to the war in Yemen.

[b] The Arabic term wilayat is distinct from dawla, both of which are often translated as “state.” Wilayat is a smaller unit of administration, similar to individual states in the United States, while dawla refers to a nation state, or collection of states.


[1] Statement from U.S. National Security Council, March 25, 2015.

[2] Sam Wilkin, “UAE Troops Dig in for a Long War in Yemen,” Reuters, December 2, 2015.

[3] Emily B. Hager and Mark Mazzeti, “Emirates Secretly Sends Colombian Mercenaries to Yemen Fight,” New York Times, November 25, 2015.

[4] Rukmini Callimachi, “Yemen Terror Boss Left Blueprint for Waging Jihad,” Associated Press, August 9, 2013.

[5] Ibid.

[6] For more on the civilian councils, see Katherine Zimmerman, “AQAP: A Resurgent Threat,” CTC Sentinel 8:9 (September 2015).

[7] Ayisha Amr, “How al-Qaeda Rules in Yemen,” Foreign Affairs, October 28, 2015.

[8] “Al-Qaeda in Yemen stones woman to death for adultery, witnesses say,” Agence France Presse, January 5, 2016.

[9] Mohammed Mukhashaf, “Al-Qaeda militants take over two south Yemen towns, residents say,” Reuters, December 2, 2015.

[10] “The Liberation of Waqar City from the Gangs of ‘Abd al-Latif Al-Sayyid,” Ansar al-Shari`a – Wilayat Abyan, posted December 29, 2015, accessed via jihadology.net.

[11] For the original texts and translations of these documents, collected by the Associated Press, see hosted.ap.org/interactives/2012/al-qaida.

[12] For one example of this see the AQAP statement on the killing of members of the Al Abu Bakr bin Duha and Ibn al-Hiyj tribes. That statement can be accessed at azelin.files.wordpress.com.

[13] “A Speech to Eulogize a Group of the Martyrs of al-Jazira [Arabian Peninsula], by Commander Ibrahim bin Hassan bin Tali‘ Al-‘Usayri,” Al-Malahim Foundation for Media Production, posted January 10, 2016, accessed via jihadology.net.

[14] “Islamic State leader urges attacks in Saudi Arabia: speech,” Reuters, November 13, 2014.

[15] See, for instance, J. Leigh Douglas, The Free Yemeni Movement 1935 –1962, Beirut, American University of Beirut Press, 1987.

[16] In October 2015, AQAP released a video condemning the Islamic State’s bombing of a mosque. “The Explosions Inside the Mosques: A Disavowal and an Advice, by Sheikh Khalid ‘Umar Batarfi,” Al-Malahim Foundation for Media Production, posted October 1, 2015, accessed via jihadology.net.

[17] Gregory D. Johnsen, “This Man is the Leader in ISIS’s Recruiting War against al-Qaeda in Yemen,” BuzzFeed, July 6, 2015.

[18] For example, in November 2015, the Islamic State released a videotape directed to AQAP asking rhetorically where the group was headed. “O Qa`ida of Yemen, Where Are You Heading Towards,” Wilayat al-Khayr Media Office, posted November 16, 2015, accessed via jihadology.net.

[19] For example, see Geoff D. Porter, “Terrorist Outbidding: The In Amenas Attack,” CTC Sentinel 8:5 (May 2015).

[20] Zimmerman, “AQAP: A Resurgent Threat.”

[21] “The Nearest Enemy, by Sheikh Qasim al-Rimi,” Al-Malahim Foundation for Media Production, posted December 20, 2015, accessed via jihadology.net.

[22] The “Guardians of Shariah” video can be accessed at jihadology.net, posted December 8, 2015.

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