Muneer Binwaber, journalist and documentary filmmaker researching Yemen and the Gulf states.
Terrorist groups have been present in Yemen since the beginning of the 1990s, the same period that Abdullah Ibn Husayn al-Ahmar founded Al-Islah, the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. These were the first years of unity between the old North and South Yemen. Southerners had many concerns about integration, related to issues of tribalism, sectarianism, and religious extremism. Although the Yemeni Socialist Party, the ruling party in South Yemen before the unification in 1990, welcomed the Islah Party, it did so only after Islah ceased describing this Communist outfit as a party as “infidels”.
The civil war in Yemen in 1994 came about after southerners’ felt their fears and suspicions had been vindicated; they were not equal partners in a union but an occupied area. The North’s victory provided space to terrorist groups and Islamist elements like the Islah Party to pursue the rejectionist course. Recently, southerners have been fighting a battle similar to the war of 1994, and there are growing fears that terrorist groups and their allies might exploit the situation again.
The Roots and Influence of the Islah Party in Yemen
Al-Islah was founded only a few months after the declaration of Yemeni unification in 1990. Islah represented tribal and religious interests, rather than strictly political ones. The Islah founder, Abdullah Ibn Husayn al-Ahmar, was the shaykh of the Hashid tribal federation.
During the earlier civil war in north Yemen (1962-70), Abdullah al-Ahmar and his tribes sided with the radical Republicans supported by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser against the Royalists of the Zaydi Imamate, who had the support of Saudi Arabia and other pro-Western regional governments. The Republicans prevailed and abolished the monarchy. Yet splits began to emerge quickly in the Republican coalition: in 1974, Colonel Ibrahim al-Hamdi tried to limit the representation of the tribal leaders, which led to an open rebellion by the Hashid tribes.
When Ali Abdullah Saleh became president of North Yemen in 1978, he understood the importance of rapport with tribal leaders to remain in power. Therefore, when the Islah party emerged, Saleh made it into an ally of his General People’s Congress (GPC) party, rather than allowing it to become an opposition party. Islah’s rapport with the Yemeni ruling party and its religious hostility to the Socialist Party fueled tension between all these parties and accelerated the conflict that ultimately led to the war in 1994. As a result of Saleh’s victory in the war, Islah’s influence in Yemen’s administration has grown.
The Interrelation of State and Islamists in Yemen
Despite serious disagreements over tactics and strategy between the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda, there is an essential commonality in ideology. According to the Counter Extremism Project, these similarities increase the likelihood of cooperation between the two organizations. Al-Islah is a case in point.
Osama bin Laden himself descends ideologically from this nexus. Bin Laden was once a member of the Brotherhood, before he went on to create Al-Qaeda. From the other side, Abd al-Majeed al-Zindani, one of most prominent founders and leaders of Islah, is known to have been Bin Laden’s spiritual adviser and to have worked closely with him, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. That relationship surely had some bearing on Bin Laden’s decision to use Yemen as a major staging ground in the 1990s.
The jihadist groups present in Yemen in the early 1990s were largely formed out of Yemenis returning from the war in Afghanistan, where Arab volunteers had fought alongside the Afghan resistance to expel the Red Army. Many of these “Arab Afghans” found themselves wandering the earth after this as their homelands refused to take them back. This was not the case in Yemen, where Saleh’s regime welcomed them as heroes, with some even receiving official military positions. Some non-Yemeni veterans of the Afghan jihad ended up in Yemen, too, and ended up training Yemeni radicals.
As it happens, the first attack on the United States by Al-Qaeda, little remembered, was in Yemen, on 29 December 1992. Al-Qaeda detonated a bomb at the Gold Mohur Hotel in Aden, where the United States Marine Corps was staying while on their way to alleviate the famine in Somalia. Almost simultaneously, another group of Al-Qaeda operatives was caught at Aden airport, as they prepared to launch rockets at U.S. military planes. These two terrorist attacks did not kill any Americans, and it was not enough for the United States to decide to fight Al-Qaeda in Yemen yet. Having been the site of Al-Qaeda’s first attack on America, Yemen would also be the site of the last in the series of escalating attacks the jihadists launched before 9/11. In October 2000, the U.S.S. Cole was attacked off the coast of Aden. This was in the future, however. The veterans of the Afghan jihad domiciled in Yemen had initiated international jihad in its modern form, but they would now be drawn into a distinctly local affair, the 1994 civil war, in which Saleh used the battle-hardened “Afghan Arabs” as shock troops in suppressing the southern rising.
The 1994 Civil War and its Aftermath
The Islah Party was one of Ali Saleh’s most important local backers during the war. In terms of external supporters, it does appear that Qatar provided financial assistance to Ali Saleh’s government, and various forms of support came in from Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Sudan. But some observers claim that the southerners received more significant external support than Saleh.
After the war of 1994, Ali Saleh turned a blind eye to the activities of the Islamist militants, even allowing their sympathizers to work in his intelligence services, according to a former FBI Special Agent and other reports. Moreover, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the current vice president and preeminent military commander, played an essential role in the growing power of the Arab veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad. He supported the Yemeni mujahedeen when they were in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and in the 1994 Yemen war it was he who cultivated relationships with extremist clerics and militants, a number of whom were later tied to terrorist activity, on behalf of the government. Mohsen is known as an ally of Islah, to have Salafi leanings, and to support a more radical Islamic political agenda than Saleh did.
After the Cole attack, the United States sent its agents to Yemen to investigate. Ali Saleh promised to cooperate, but he continued to send elements of his intelligence services to block any progress. In the wake of 9/11, the United States did its best to prosecute a war against Al-Qaeda in Yemen while being hindered by the Saleh regime’s incompetence and duplicity. The U.S actions in this regard included airstrikes against Al-Qaeda elements and the freezing of financial assets of some figures.
In 2004, for example, the United States designated Abdul Majid al-Zindani, one of the Islah’s founders, as a global terrorist. According to the U.S Treasury Department, Al-Zindani has been able to influence and support many terrorist causes, including actively recruiting for Al-Qaeda training camps. He also played a crucial role in the purchase of weapons on behalf of Al-Qaeda and other terrorists. Consequently, the United States asked Yemen to freeze al-Zindani’s funds and prevent him from traveling.
The Cole bombing initiated a new era of terrorism in Yemen, targeting foreigners and U.S. interests. Although the U.S. and Yemeni governments were ostensibly cooperating on counterterrorism initiatives against Al-Qaeda after this, it never was clear whose side Saleh was on. Terrorism was manipulated by Saleh’s government to obtain money and equipment that enriched its officials and kept it in power.
In August 2019, the Iran-backed Houthi rebels struck a security belt camp in Aden, killing dozens, including Major General Munir al-Yafi. In the 48 hours after the attack, terrorist groups claimed more attacks in Aden and Abyan, killing dozens more. The events sparked outrage in southern Yemen, and as a result, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) fighters seized Aden. The STC said its forces would hold Aden until the Islamist Islah party, a backbone of President Hadi’s recognized Yemeni government, and other northerners, were removed from power positions in the south. From the other side, the Yemeni government accused STC of staging a coup in Aden.
The events in Aden raised fears of a repeat of the 1994 war scenario. Yemen was thrown into this recent war by the Houthi takeover of Sanaa, which reverberated all over the country, collapsing the security situation and providing extremists like Al-Qaeda opportunities to exploit in extending their influence in southern Yemen. In response to this situation, with the activation of terrorist cells in areas of Yemen, the UAE carried out airstrikes against “terrorist elements” in late August, though Yemen’s government accused the UAE of bombing its forces in Aden.
The UAE Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it was defending itself and responding to threats from armed groups against the Arab coalition in Aden. The statement did not refer to the Yemeni government, but a long history of intertwined relations between the Yemeni government and radical Islamic militias makes confidence in this government very fragile.
The Role of the UAE in Yemeni Counterterrorism
The UAE, along with the Arab Coalition and the United States, plays a prominent role in the fight against terrorism in Yemen. These efforts have liberated many areas from Al-Qaeda, including the important coastal city of Mukalla in south Yemen. The southern forces formed by the Arab Alliance have long been considered more effective strategic ally than the national army.
The UAE’s counterterrorism efforts are not limited to Yemen: it is a vocal and active participant in counterterrorism efforts at both the regional and international levels. For instance, the UAE signed a memorandum of understanding with the European Union Parliament, expressing the country’s commitment to combat terrorism worldwide. The UAE is a founding member of the Global Counterterrorism Forum, and it also works closely with the United States, the United Kingdom, the United Nations, and other partners to combat terrorism and curb extremism. For example, in 2017, the UAE donated US$350,000 to support the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Centre’s (UNCCT) activities for the implementation of the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy.
The UAE’s strategic contributions to regional and global counterterrorism efforts have given it a profound experience in this regard, lessons that can be passed on to southern forces that have demonstrated capacity in dealing with terrorist groups in Yemen over the past four years. In spite of all the significant security achievements that have made in southern Yemen, the issue of maintaining these gains is precarious in the light of recent developments.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone. European Eye on Radicalization aims to provide a platform to a diversity of perspectives so that readers can make up their own minds in an informed way.