Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) attacked a Saudi border post along the Yemeni border on July 4, killing a Saudi border guard and a Yemeni soldier. Concurrently, Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen seized control of the city of Amran. The events have once again prompted Saudi Arabia to put Yemen at the top of its national security concerns.
Some observers see similarities between developments in Yemen and what is happening to the north of Saudi Arabia with the escalating Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict in Iraq and Syria and the advancement of the Islamic State (IS). IS has managed to gain strength and territory through an alliance with tribal forces that provide it with a popular base and means of support in both Iraq and Syria.
The progress of the Islamic State and its allies in Iraq and approach to Baghdad, which represents an Iranian red line, has been mirrored in the southern Arabian Peninsula by the advancement of the Houthi forces to the point of their approaching the gates of Sanaa. With the Middle East a chessboard in a match between Tehran and Riyadh, some Saudis are drawing parallels between current events, theorizing that if Baghdad or part of it falls into the hands of Sunni groups, Sanaa might well fall to Shiite groups.
The Houthi advancement in Yemen is purely Yemeni, but this does not lessen the signicance of the ties between the Houthi movement and Iran. In 2013, US Sen. John McCain declared the Houthis in Yemen more dangerous than al-Qaeda, given the relationship between the Houthis and Iran and Tehran's agenda in the region.
At the same time, the expansion of the Islamic State's influence and declaration of an Islamic caliphate represent a challenge and a threat to al-Qaeda’s main branch and its affiliates in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The IS declaration was primarily addressed to jihadist groups and stands as an attempt to seize leadership of the international jihadist movement from al-Qaeda, headed by Ayman al-Zawahri.
The rise of IS in Iraq likely prompted al-Qaeda to attack the Saudi border post. It serves as a reminder of its existence and its key role in the leadership of the international jihad. AQAP code-named the operation Invasion of Revenge for Female Captives, referring to female al-Qaeda supporters held in Saudi prisons.
Riyadh is concentrating its efforts on border control to stop al-Qaeda members from entering the country. Regardless, Islamic State enjoys greater capacities than AQAP, because it boasts thousands of Saudi members and can therefore potentially strike from within.
The rivalry between IS and al-Qaeda to gain jihadist movement supporters in the Arabian Peninsula, particularly Saudi Arabia, will likely increase, and this may push both of them to conduct operations inside and outside Saudi Arabia. On July 7, al-Hayat reported on signs of this conflict between AQAP and IS supporters on Twitter, the latter demanding that the former pledge allegiance to Caliph Ibrahim (aka Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) and stand against Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria.
The threats to Saudi national security in the south posed by Houthi and al-Qaeda expansion and in the north by IS and the re-emergence of Shiite militias in southern Iraq are the outcomes of the collapse, weakness and failure of the state in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. In the face of this complex reality, the Saudis' options have come to revolve around its traditional tribal allies rebelling against these failed states on the one hand and opposing the influence of al-Qaeda and the Houthis on the other.
In Iraq, Saudi Arabia has allied with tribal figures, including Ali Hatem al-Salman, sheikh of the Dulaim tribe. Hatem participated in the rebellion against Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and has a history of fighting al-Qaeda. Saudi policy in Syria depends on tribal figures as well, such as Ahmad al-Jarba of the Shammar tribe in the east and Abdullah al-Bashir, the Free Syrian Army chief of staff and member of the Naim tribe in Daraa. In Yemen, the Saudis have strong relations with Yemeni sheikhs, particularly in the Hashid tribe around Sanaa, which is important given the political influence these leaders enjoy.
The Saudi-Iranian chessboard straddles the region from the Mediterranean to the Gulf and the Arabian Sea. Riyadh's use of tribal forces to counter movements linked to Iran and al-Qaeda jihadist groups might succeed in Iraq, where the state’s authority has collapsed in the western and northern parts of the country.The Saudis envision a rivalry in Iraq for influence and power between Sunni tribes, which it supports, and the jihadist groups. Yet, there is no guarantee that such a rivalry will emerge in Yemen, as jihadist groups survive under the influence and protection of local tribes. With non-state actors gaining strength along Saudi’s borders, the threat of terrorist acts in the kingdom is more real than ever.