On a Collision Course in Yemen, Al-Qaeda, Houthis Vie for Power

Traditionally confined to regional strongholds, two militant groups — the Sunni al-Qaeda and Shiite Houthi tribes — are taking advantage of a security vacuum to make popular gains in Yemen. Khaled al Hrouji reports.

al-monitor Tribesmen loyal to al-Houthi Shiite rebel group perform the traditional Baraa dance in the northwestern Yemeni province of Saada on the border with Saudi Arabia, July 11, 2012. The mountainous province of Saada is the stronghold of Shiite rebels, known as the Houthis, after the clan of their leaders, who had fought government forces for years until an uprising against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh last year gave them a free hand in the lawless border province. Photo by REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah.

Topics covered

youth, yemen, salafist, jihadists, al-qaeda in the arabian peninsula, al-qaeda

Sep 26, 2012

Anti-Americanism has once again inflamed the embers of sectarian strife between al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Houthis; driving them to strengthen their respective forces and expand into new territories outside their areas of presence and control, in preparation for a confrontation that observers and politicians think is imminent and will cause grave danger to Yemen’s stability and security.

This development has nothing to do with the open animosity that al-Qaeda and Houthi militants harbor towards America; an animosity that has become one of the means by which the conflict is fought between the two groups, and which has gained prominence in Yemen since late 2011.

After years of secretive work on the part of al-Qaeda’s members, when the Houthi presence was limited to Saada governorate, these two forces took advantage of the weakness of Yemeni government, civic, security and military authorities — in addition to the unprecedented lawlessness that the country witnessed in 2011 following the popular youth revolution against the regime — to expand and spread beyond the boundaries of the cities and governorates in which they existed.

This expansion led to increased friction between the groups, to the point where it actually endangered Yemen’s present and future. It threatens to cause bloody sectarian confrontations that will not be confined to just the Houthis’ turf (in Saada, Hijjah and Al-Jouf governorates in the north, northwest and northeast of Yemen), nor to the areas where al-Qaeda has a presence (in Abin, Shabwa, Marib and al-Bayda provinces in the south and southeast of Yemen).

It will, according to researchers and observers, spread to encompass all of Yemen.

For over a year, al-Qaeda and the Houthis have been in a race to attract young people and ordinary citizens to their ranks, with each side using whatever material and human capacities and potential they have to influence people in Yemeni cities and villages to convince them of their ideals and [explain] the goals they wish to accomplish on both an individual and a generalized Yemeni level.

According to informed sources that talked to Al-Hayat, both al-Qaeda and the Houthis are using religious discourse to try to influence and change people’s opinions and introduce them to their agendas. They are taking advantage of Yemen’s current situation — in which the state is not functioning and chaos reigns, causing people all manner of problems and suffering — in order to present people with alternatives to the state and a way for them to escape their suffering and deteriorating conditions.

Inhabitants of villages and provinces in the center and south of Yemen said that they welcomed, at the beginning of this year, delegations sent by leaders of Ansar al-Shariah (Supporters of Shariah Law).

These al-Qaeda delegations met with groups of mostly young people to present them with an explanation of their ideals and goals, telling them that they were preparing to fight a jihad (holy war) in the name of Allah. They informed people of their plans so that those who desired to do so could join them and fight against “the Americans, invading Crusaders and their agents in the Yemeni army and security forces.”

Joining the organization

People contacted by Al-Hayat confirmed that some Yemenis, especially youths, were convinced by the ideas presented by al-Qaeda’s delegations and registered their names to express willingness to join the organization.

These delegations assured people that the first goal of their visit was to introduce the organization and present listeners with its ideas, vision and goals, while collecting the names of those who desired to enter its ranks. At the right time, further visits would follow to finalize matters, which is basically what occurred over the past few months when these delegations returned and got pledges from people to join the ranks of the “Mujahedeen” (militants).

Sources close to al-Qaeda said that in May 2011 the organization’s leadership started using the nomenclature of Ansar al-Shariah instead of al-Qaeda to describe the groups and members belonging to the organization.

Experts in extremist organizations pointed out that Ansar al-Shariah was now the main organizational body, with al-Qaeda being part of that expanded body. They clarified that the new nomenclature was widely accepted in society because it carried an affective Islamic connotation for Yemenis and because it was still new and was not tied, in the psyche of people, to acts of violence and terrorism.

As opposed to al-Qaeda’s activities, which were all done in secret, Ansar al-Shariah’s members all worked and acted openly, talking to local and international media outlets, negotiating with the government, and publicizing the names of their Emirs in areas under their control.

The Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi sent similar delegations to introduce the Houthi movement to people and present them with its ideas and objectives, describing it as a viable replacement and savior that can help Yemen and the Yemenis overcome their present situation.

The Houthi delegations, mostly comprised of second-rank scholars belonging to the Zaidi Shiite sect, also used a religious discourse to attract and influence people. Sources told Al-Hayat that the Houthi discourse differed [from that of al-Qaeda] in that it presented people with a modernizing civil agenda, while still raising the slogan of “death to America, death to Israel, cursed be the Jews, victory to Islam.”

Sources claimed that, in addition to this slogan, the Houthis were using their participation in the popular youth revolution against the regime of former President Ali Saleh, and their presence within [revolutionary youth groups], to portray themselves as a modernizing force that rejects injustice and oppression while striving to achieve the change that Yemenis want.

The Salafists

According to sources close to the Houthis and al-Qaeda, members of al-Qaeda participated in the confrontations that took place between Houthis and Salafists, with al-Qaeda militants backing and training the Salafists to fight and use different types of weapons.

Sources also claimed that al-Qaeda and the Salafists are linked by the same puritanical mentality, albeit with some differences, such as the Salafist refusal to bear arms against the state, as al-Qaeda does.

In addition, the rivalry and race between al-Qaeda and the Houthis to attract the young and spread their control over many Yemeni cities and regions, have led to many instances when members and supporters of both sides clashed. But the conflict between the two, which started years ago, took a dangerous turn when al-Qaeda suicide bombers carried out attacks against Houthi leaders and gatherings of Houthi members.

They succeeded in assassinating Badreddin al-Houthi, the Houthi Shia group’s spiritual leader and father of its leader, in a November 2010 car bomb attack that targeted a Houthi convoy following the Shia Eid al-Ghadeer celebration in Al-Jouf province (east of the country). In a statement, al-Qaeda affirmed that the attack led to the death of over thirty Houthis, including many of their leaders.

Al-Qaeda’s statement said “Allah aided us in transforming Eid al-Ghadder into a day of damnation for the enemies of God who have twisted Islam and insulted the Prophet.”

The organization also alluded to another car bomb attack that targeted convoys participating in a funeral procession in the Houthi stronghold of Dahyan in Saada province, which killed around 70 people and wounded dozens. Al-Qaeda’s statement concluded by saying: “We promise our Muslim nation that we will not rest while they (Houthis) live among us, and we will, God willing, uproot this malevolent weed once and for all.”

The pace of the conflict escalated between the two as a result of the repeated suicide attacks perpetrated by al-Qaeda militants against Houthi leaders and followers, especially in the provinces of Saada and al-Jouf.

The latest such attack occurred on May 25, 2012, when al-Qaeda militants carried out three simultaneous attacks that targeted Houthi gatherings in Saada, al-Jouf and al-Bayda provinces, killing thirteen and injuring many Houthis, in addition to other civilian casualties.

Al-Qaeda and the Houthis took advantage, each in their own way, of the popular unrest in Yemen caused by the American-made movie that insulted the Prophet, and the announcement that Marine troops had arrived in Sanaa to protect the American embassy with the approval of Yemeni authorities.

For while al-Qaeda secretly tried to enlist more militants, and called for Muslims everywhere to attack the Americans, the Houthis, according to pundits, exploited these developments to exhibit a public and impressive show of force in the capital Sanaa through demonstrations that culminated in the breaching of Washington’s embassy on Sept. 13, in addition to them plastering their anti-American slogans across most of the capital’s neighborhoods.

Yemeni political sources claim that the Houthis are taking advantage of the authorities turning a blind eye to their activities and using the widespread dissemination of their slogan in the capital to show their movement’s strength and its ability to achieve its goals, in order to frighten their Salafist enemies and Islamist members of the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, whom many are pushing into confronting the Houthis.

This is especially considering that the Congregation is fearful of Houthi expansion into additional Yemeni regions and an increase in Houthi influence and power, in light of the mounting suspicions and accusations that former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Presidential Guard, led by his son, had backed the Houthis against the Congregation for Reform.

Indeed, a number of northern Yemeni regions saw bloody confrontations between the Houthis and members of the Congregation; the latest of which recently took place in the Omran province city of Rida (50 kilometers [about 30 miles] northwest of the capital, Sanaa). Local sources confirmed that at least 12 people were killed in the confrontations, which stopped on Sept. 23 following intervention by tribal mediators.

Yemeni political sources that talked to Al-Hayat said that Yemen would soon witness a bloody conflict between al-Qaeda and the Houthis, or between the latter and the Congregation for Reform.

The same sources affirmed that each of the parties was preparing itself for battle, and these same sources thought that the next confrontation would take place in the capital Sanaa, unless the Yemeni authorities were mindful and worked towards extinguishing the embers of [sectarian] strife while it was still possible to do so.

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