Up until a week ago, there was a slim margin of hope that Yemen might somehow avoid civil war, and that there was a political solution to the ongoing power struggle between President Abd-Rabbou Mansour Hadi, its democratically elected leader, and the Houthi rebels. It certainly wasn’t from a lack of trying, with Hadi himself, the United Nations and the Gulf States all pushing hard to get the Houthis to the negotiating table.
The Houthis, members of the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam, shocked the world last September when they seized the capital city of Sanaa and brought the Hadi government to its knees. They forced the prime minister to resign, and then refused to accept Hadi’s first choice to replace him. Things didn’t get much better after that.
Following months of stalemate and government gridlock, the Houthis placed Hadi, along with other key members of his cabinet, under house arrest in January. Hadi offered his resignation in protest, which Parliament was wise to reject. Last month, Hadi made his escape and fled to Aden, where he has since reclaimed his presidency in what is now his de facto capital.
Behind the scenes
Working behind the scenes during the Hadi-Houthi standoff was Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s former president, who was forced to step down in 2012 following months of violent protests that swept the country in the wake of the Arab Spring. Saleh, himself a Zaidi Shia Muslim, fought a series of wars against the Houthis when he was president, but is now squarely on their side – or at least determined to use them – as he makes his political comeback.
Earlier this month, in fact, he called for Hadi to resign and go into exile. That would conveniently open the door for either Saleh’s return, or more likely the rise to power of his son, Ahmad Ali Abdullah, former head of the elite Republican Guard, which Hadi disbanded when he became president. Agenda?
For now, AQAP, considered by many counterterrorism experts to be the most dangerous terrorist organisation in the world in terms of capability and intent to carry out transnational attacks, appears to have much freer reign to operate in Yemen.
By late last week, events took a turn for the worse, and as happens all too often during tense standoffs where neither side is willing to talk to the other, the unintended consequences of seemingly isolated actions led to a violent escalation of events that have put Yemen over the edge. Or maybe they weren’t unintended after all. Last Thursday, military forces loyal to Saleh attempted to take over Aden’s international airport, only to be repulsed by forces loyal to Hadi.
More than a dozen soldiers from both sides were killed in the fighting. That was quickly followed up by airstrikes targeting Hadi’s palace in Aden, presumably in fighter aircraft flown by Saleh loyalists. Hadi was not at the palace at the time, and the airstrikes did little if any damage. But the initial shots by both sides had been fired, battle lines drawn and the chances for a political solution greatly diminished.
But last Friday’s horrific twin suicide bombings during noon prayers at the al-Hashoosh and Badr Mosques in Sanaa, used mainly by the Houthis, may have ended whatever chance there was for a peaceful resolution.
Of note, just as quickly as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) claimed responsibility for the bombings through a Yemen affiliate, which if true, marks their first such attacks in the country, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, also known as AQAP, distanced themselves from it with a vehement denial through social media.
However, the way in which the attacks were carried out – four suicide bombers hitting the two mosques in near simultaneous fashion – suggests a significant degree of target selection, pre-attack planning and detailed coordination that are associated more with the tactics of AQAP than ISIL.
And that brings up the very real and sobering prospect that some hardline factions within AQAP may have switched allegiance to ISIL, a trend that is becomingly increasingly more common with longtime al-Qaeda affiliates. If that’s the case, and given ISIL’s absolute hatred of the Shia, the mosque attacks may very well have ignited a sectarian conflict the likes of which have not previously been seen in Yemen. Think Syria and Iraq.
The Houthis have since called for a general mobilisation of forces to fight the Hadi government. Backed by armoured forces loyal to Saleh, they took control of Taiz, Yemen’s third largest city, on Sunday, and are now only 140 kilometres from Aden as they close in on Hadi. With neither side willing to talk, civil war is inevitable. The big questions now are: How and when does it end? And who stands to benefit most?
AQAP appears to be in position to gain the most from the turmoil in Yemen, and has wasted no time in exploiting it. While the Houthis and Saleh loyalists battle it out with Hadi’s forces in the south, AQAP has gone on the offensive against both. Better to fight an enemy divided than an enemy united. Last week, AQAP also attacked and took brief control of the town of Al-Houta, only 30 kilometres from Al-Anad Air Base, where US special operations forces were training Yemeni counterterrorism units to fight them. The attack on Al-Houta, along with the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Yemen, led the United States to pull those forces out of the country on Sunday.
For now, AQAP, considered by many counterterrorism experts to be the most dangerous terrorist organisation in the world in terms of capability and intent to carry out transnational attacks, appears to have much freer reign to operate in Yemen. That doesn’t bode well for Yemen, the Gulf region or the West, because no matter who wins in the end – Hadi, Saleh or the Houthis – AQAP will still be there. But they’ll be bigger, stronger and better. And in all likelihood, so will ISIL. Not much of a choice.
Martin Reardon is a senior vice president with The Soufan Group, a New York-based strategic security and intelligence consultancy, and senior director of Qatar International Academy for Security Studies. He is a 21-year veteran of the FBI, and specialised in counterterrorism operations.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.