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Saudi and Yemeni special forces, with the help of American Special Operations Forces, captured Muhammad Qanan al-Sayari (Abu Osama al-Muhajir), the leader of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Yemen during a raid on a house in the south of the country on 3 June 2019. ISIS’s chief financial officer and several other leaders were also captured. Riyadh led the operation, while the U.S. played an “advise and assist” role, while providing logistical and intelligence support for the operation.
According to the Saudi-led Coalition, the success of the operation is attributable primarily to the arrest of a senior Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) member, Bilal Muhammed Ali al-Wafi, a few weeks earlier, on 18 May. Al-Wafi, a U.S.-designated terrorist, allegedly the information that helped lead to Al-Sayari and the others.
Since ISIS announced its formation in Yemen, it has launched many deadly terrorist attacks, from everyday guerrilla attacks like the assassination of the governor of Aden in December 2015, to several specular atrocities, notably the twin suicide bombing at the Shi’i mosques in the capital, Sanaa, on 20 March 2015 that massacred 137 people.
The Saudi-led operation that netted Al-Sayari comes at a time when the Saudi-led Coalition is mainly preoccupied with fighting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, the principal impediment to achieving the Coalition’s aim of restoring the legitimate government, and a source of instability that is now affecting Saudi Arabia internally, with a number of missiles fired by the Houthis into the Kingdom in recent weeks. Still, this clearly shows that Riyadh understands that there are various security challenges that threaten the stability of Yemen.
The Saudi operation has a number of implications for counterterrorism efforts in Yemen. They can be summarized as follows:
First: It is a significant blow to ISIS in Yemen.
The Arab Coalition in Yemen has devoted resources to combatting ISIS since it intervened in 2015, as is evident in the strikes against ISIS in Aden, Shabwa, and Hadramawt over the past two years that have fractured the group. The capture the ISIS emir and his deputies might result in further weakening the group inside Yemen by damaging its morale and inducing defections from a branch of ISIS that is already relatively weak and which holds no territory. ISIS in Yemen only has between 250 and 500 members, according to the United Nations, and has failed to establish any popular base of support in Yemeni society. To the contrary, ISIS has clashed even with insurgent and tribal actors that share similar goals and ideology.
Second: It shows the Coalition’s continued commitment to fighting terrorism in Yemen.
The operation underlines the fact that the Arab Coalition is even-handed in its concern with curbing extremism and destabilizing forces in Yemen, whether the Shi’i Houthis’ or the Sunni Al-Qaeda and ISIS—an uncomplicated policy position since the latter two have declared that Saudi Arabia is their number one enemy. Though this is the first joint US-Saudi operation to be publicly carried out against Sunni radicals in Yemen, there have been others, and there have been many more carried out jointly by the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates, the other main pillar of the Arab Coalition, against AQAP and its allies.
Third: It is likely to yield useful intelligence that can be used to further counterterrorism efforts.
It is expected that Al-Sayari’s capture will provide valuable information about the ISIS network in Yemen and its supporters, whether internally among the other militias and the population or externally, in particular disclosing any foreign sources of weaponry. Alongside the human captives, the raid captured much digital information from laptops, computers, GPS devices, and communications equipment.
Fourth: It might serve to open the way to a broader anti-jihadi campaign.
The Saudi-led operation against ISIS might open the way to more direct efforts at countering particularly AQAP influence, preventing the group from utilizing the Yemeni civil war to enhance its position. AQAP constitutes a bigger threat than ISIS in Yemen, with its membership estimated at between 6,000 to 8,000. AQAP also poses a viable threat beyond Yemen’s borders in a way ISIS does not (yet). AQAP has used Yemen to launch terror strikes against Westerners and Western interests, while giving instructions to “lone wolves” inside the West through its digital, English-language magazine “Inspire” about how to construct bombs and carry out terrorist attacks. That AQAP has not carried out an attack of this kind for some time is a tactical decision and could be easily reversed at any time.
Fifth: It discredits the political attacks on the Coalition.
Some have argued that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are, directly or indirectly, supporting AQAP and ISIS in Yemen. There is no evidence for these claims, and the fact that now both countries have participated in high-level, public counter-terrorism missions alongside the US against both Al-Qaeda and ISIS should put these accusations to rest. The reality is that AQAP has targeted Saudi Arabia more than any other state, and the Saudi government’s war against AQAP has been no less fierce—including infiltrating the organization and acquiring the crucial intelligence to avert the attempt to blow up an American cargo plane in October 2010.
The Arab Coalition will continue its mission to restore internal stability to Yemen, and prevent the use of that country’s territory by terrorist organizations who threaten regional stability, by partnering with the legitimate Yemen government, regional allies, and the Americans. The successful operation against ISIS’s leader in Yemen will not be the last. It is expected that, alongside efforts to prevent whatever retaliatory strikes ISIS might now prepare against Saudi Arabia, Coalition efforts will in the next period be directed in an ever-increasing way to countering the threats coming from AQAP in Yemen.
 Kareem Fahim and Missy Ryan, Saudi Arabia announces capture of an ISIS leader in Yemen in U.S.-backed raid, The Washington Post, June 25, 2019, accessible at: https://wapo.st/2FJ8hny
 Ali Mahmood and Mina Aldroubi, More raids expected after ISIS leader’s capture, Yemen security official says, The National, June 26, 2019, accessible at: https://bit.ly/2FtGSWP
 Ali Mahmood and Mina Aldroubi, op.cit.
 ISIS in Yemen, Critical Threats, accessible at: https://bit.ly/2XdOWB6
 Kareem Fahim and Missy Ryan, op.cit.
 Jonathan Fenton-Harvey, Al-Qaeda: Still Deadly Threat In Yemen, Lobelog, May 9, 2019, accessible at: https://bit.ly/2vS9SCl
 Khalid bin Salman: Arrest of ISIS Leader in Yemen Latest Example of Saudi Commitment to Fight Terror, Asharq Al-Awsat, June 25, 2019, accessible at; https://bit.ly/321rXg4
 Ali Mahmood and Mina Aldroubi, op.cit.
 Saudi Special Forces Capture Leader of Daesh (ISIS) Branch in Yemen, PR Newswire, June 25, 2019, accessible at: https://prn.to/327n8Sn
 Jonathan Fenton-Harvey, op.cit.
 Jonathan Fenton-Harvey, op.cit.
 Julian Borger, Chris McGreal and Tom Finn, Cargo plane bomb plot: Saudi double agent ‘gave crucial alert’, The Guardian, November 1, 2010, accessible at: https://bit.ly/2GzYNcT