As the organisers of Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference struggle to bring the peace talks to a close, the assassination of a prominent politician has cast a pall over the country’s internationally backed political transition.
Abdulkarim Jadban was a popular if outspoken member of parliament, and a founding member of Believing Youth – a revivalist Shia Zaydi movement whose followers are generally called Houthis. Jadban was killed by motorcycle-riding gunmen while leaving a mosque in central Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, in late November.
The assassination has been attributed to spillover from sectarian violence between Houthi fighters and residents of the Dar Al Hadith Institute, a Sunni Salafist organisation based in Dammaj in the northern province of Saada, the Houthis’ stronghold.
But if analysts, politicians and government officials in Yemen are to be believed, the attack brought into the open a worrying trend that goes far beyond sectarian strife. They say Jadban was just one of hundreds of Yemenis who have lost their lives to a series of complex, multifaceted “hidden wars” that threaten to consume the political transition process.
“There are two dialogues going on,” asserted Ali al-Bokhaiti, chief spokesman for Ansar Allah, the name the Houthis have adopted for the duration of the peace talks.
To date, no suspects have been named in Jadban’s killing. But most believe the assassination is linked to, if not a direct result of, rising tensions between the Houthis and the al-Ahmars, Yemen’s most important tribal family and leaders of the country’s main Islamist party. These tensions encompass a complex set of tribal, political and religious rivalries rooted in historical differences and recent events.
When Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s ruler for 33 years, agreed to step down in the face of growing domestic and international opposition in 2011, his departure was seen as a big opportunity for Islah, the second-biggest bloc in parliament after the former president’s ruling General People’s Congress (GPC). But Saleh and the GPC have proven more resilient than many expected in 2011, and stand a good chance of winning future elections.
Thanks to the ongoing dialogue, the Houthis have visible political representation in Sanaa for the first time since fighting broke out between the group and government forces in 2004. Ansar Allah has played a constructive role in the talks, delegates say, lending the group a long-craved national legitimacy. The Houthis have also seen growing support across Yemen’s northern highlands.
But much of Islah’s base comes from northern Yemen, and Islah and the Houthis now view each other as political rivals, observers say. The Houthis have also become increasingly influential in Amran, the heartland of the Hashid tribal confederation led by the Ahmars. The group has been backing tribesmen trying to break away from Hashid control, leading to a series of clashes, Bokhaiti says. He believes the Hashid leadership, frustrated by the Houthis’ durability and growing political influence, decided to provoke a fresh round of fighting to build sectarian support for their anti-Houthi campaign and to gain backing from key members of Islah. When this did not succeed, he says, Jadban’s assassination was commissioned.
Adnan al-Odaini, a spokesman for Islah, disputes these claims. “You can see who started it,” he says, referring to Dammaj’s location in central Saada province. “If you were surrounded like they are, would you start a fight?” The leaders of the Dar Al Hadith Institute have been historically critical of Islah, he adds, and links between the party and the institute have been much overstated. Islah has condemned Jadban’s assassination and denied any connection to the killing.
The Saada conflict is just one part of a series of regional, political and sectarian rivalries playing out across Yemen. In November, the Yemen Times, a local English-language newspaper, reported that 93 security and military officials had been assassinated in the seven months ending on October 31, citing figures from the interior ministry. Dozens of other attacks have taken place against civilians, and the government has become so concerned that it has banned the use of motorcycles, Yemeni assassins’ preferred getaway vehicles, in Sanaa for the first two weeks of December.
According to a government spokesman, the bulk of the assassinations are suspected to be linked to al-Qaeda fighters. But few in Yemen are convinced that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the local franchise of the organisation, is solely responsible. “The assassinations are not random,” says Abdulghani al-Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst. “They are part of a plan. It’s not just one party; al-Qaeda are there, but Sanaa-based parties are also heavily involved.”
Because several different groups are involved in the killings, each with their own motives – from spoiling the transition process to weakening rivals – it is not easy to discern who is behind individual assassinations, al-Iryani notes. In the case of Jadban, he says, it is entirely possible that a third party directed the attack to further inflame the conflict in Saada, or to provoke a Houthi reaction in Sanaa.
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“I have seen many assassinations in other countries during transitions. They happen when the state is about to change because there are powers that don’t want change,” Odaini said, in a veiled reference to Saleh and the GPC. “I can’t point the finger at anyone but… most of the officers who have been killed stood against the old regime.”
Yemen’s troubled south has been most affected by attacks on security officials. Of the 93 assassinations cited by the Yemen Times, 65 were within the boundaries of the formerly independent south, home to a significant AQAP presence and a secessionist movement known as al-Hirak.
“They are assassinating military official personnel, because they are afraid that the southern army will come back,” said Tamam Bashraheel, an al-Hirak representative at the dialogue talks, referring to rumours that some military officials in the south are sympathetic to the secessionist cause. Bashraheel says the assassinations in the south are also targeting officials loyal to Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Yemen’s former vice-president who replaced Saleh in 2012. These attacks are creating a security vacuum in the south, he said.
The common thread between the fighting and assassinations in the north and the south, said Iryani, is that the violence on the ground is affected by discussions happening at the dialogue and vice-versa. “Each party is leveraging its bargaining position,” he said. “There is this increased level of competition, a lot of it violent, because we have got to the point where we are discussing the sharing of power.”
The dialogue conference was conceived as a way to air differences between Yemen’s pre-2011 regime, which splintered over the course of that year, and the protesters and marginalised groups like the Houthis who took part in the 2011 uprising. The goal was to reach an agreement on how the country should be run in the future, without resorting to violence. But the talks remain at an impasse.
While delegates have broadly accepted the idea that Yemen should be a federal state in the future, they disagree over the number of federal regions this system would involve. Al-Hirak delegates have called for a two-state system based on the former north-south borders, while most other delegations advocate a five-state system. In late November, Mohamed Ali Ahmed, one of the main al-Hirak delegates, announced that he was quitting the dialogue, taking a number of southern delegates with him and bringing the talks to an effective standstill.
Meanwhile, an emerging coalition of smaller parties are pushing for a two-year period after the talks end in which a new government would implement the agreement, in an attempt to prevent the GPC or Islah from resuming control. GPC officials, conversely, have demanded that elections be held as soon as possible.
A senior diplomat involved in the dialogue conference says the current state of flux is part of Saleh’s plan to create an atmosphere of “chaos” and to undermine the coalition government. Iryani, meanwhile, worries the conflict in the north could spark a major sectarian battle in the future, with countrywide fallout.
“The original conflict was between the Houthis and al-Ahmars over control of territory,” he says. “But the competition has transferred to the Houthis and Salafists all over the world. It’s bad news for the Houthis, and bad news for Yemen.”