Will IS benefit from Operation Decisive Storm?

The Islamic State has been unremittingly trying to cast its influence over Yemen, so will Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm act to its benefit?

al-monitor Smoke billows from military barracks in the Jabal al-Jumaima mountain following an airstrike by Saudi-led forces against Houthi militias near Sanaa, March 30, 2015.  Photo by REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi.

Topics covered

yemen, saudi arabia, operation decisive storm, libya, houthis, ayman al-zawahri, ali abdullah saleh, al-qaeda

Apr 1, 2015

The Islamic State (IS) has long tried to reinforce its presence in Yemen where fierce competition with its archrival, al-Qaeda, takes place. IS failed at times, and succeeded at others. However, the latest development — namely the Saudi Asifat al-Hazm (Operation Decisive Storm) offensive mounted against the alliance of Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthis — will result in an unexpected IS Spring in Yemen.

It is no longer a secret that Yemen and Libya represent the most important hotbeds for IS, where the organization is seeking to boost its influence. It partially succeeded in doing so and largely advanced in Libya, controlling many cities, mainly Sert, Nofaliya and Derna. In Yemen, IS' attempts were continuously fended off by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, whose commanders and fighters are considered the strongest and the closest to al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahri.

IS only hit stardom in Yemen and drew attention a couple of weeks ago after carrying out a series of bombings targeting two mosques in the capital, claiming the lives of well over 100 and injuring [more]. This operation was seen as an increase in the power of IS. The way al-Qaeda in Yemen rushed into condemning the bombings was considered as an indicator to the deterioration of relations between both parties [IS and al-Qaeda], and the likelihood of this deterioration plunging into an armed clash, as happened in Syria.

The Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm came at this very sensitive moment, increasing the complexity of the Yemeni scene in general, and the jihadist one in particular. It is no longer clear who the real beneficiary of this operation is, or if its repercussions will weaken or strengthen jihadist organizations.

On the face of it, it seems that the Saudi involvement in the conflict in Yemen will entail a setback in the role of armed organizations, mainly IS and al-Qaeda, as this interference is pulling the rug from under these two, and debunking the justifications they used, the majority of which bore the flag of the protection of Sunnis. The interference will also break down the welcoming environment of the organizations, channeling support toward the much stronger Saudi action.

However, there are facts that cannot be overlooked. The Saudi interference will have the adverse result of strengthening the role of jihadist organizations and broadening their influence and power.

The first of these facts relate to Decisive Storm, which will constitute an additional factor — alongside other factors that characterize the Yemeni scene — exacerbating the chaotic situation in the country and pushing it to unprecedented limits. It is known that chaos is fertile ground for the development of these organizations. The second factor concerns airstrikes conducted by Saudi Arabia and other countries. The airstrikes may lead to the withdrawal of the fighters of Saleh-Houthis alliance in some areas, leaving a vacuum to be only filled by al-Qaeda and IS. This will constitute a golden opportunity for them to control some of these new areas and spread their influence.

Finally, the common goals characterizing Decisive Storm and the attempts of al-Qaeda and IS — namely fighting Houthis who are considered "apostates" — will lead the welcoming environment into a trap as supporters will believe that IS and al-Qaeda were doing the right thing, since Saudi Arabia is also doing so. This will ... probably result in an entrenched belief in the rightness of their decisions. In other words, support [for IS and al-Qaeda] will increase rather than decrease.

If we suppose that al-Qaeda in Yemen is abiding by the limitations imposed by Zawahri in terms of the implementation of operations,then it will be somehow shackled and unable to keep up with IS operations, which clearly do not comply with the limitations of Zawahri, as was shown in the Sanaa bombings. Therefore, this will constitute a chance for IS to take advantage of the chaos, expected to be exacerbated as a result of Decisive Storm.

This is further shown through the heavy clashes that took place between IS and Houthis in Lahij governorate two days ago, claiming the life of IS emir in Lahij Abbas al-Lahiji, military commander Jaafar al-Lahiji and another leading member by the name of Abu Abdel Rahman. Despite the great loss that befell the organization due to these clashes, the seriousness of IS and its attempts to impose control on some areas are now clearly on display. Naturally, these attempts will double amid the facilitation provided by Saudi airstrikes — weakening Houthis and compelling them to withdraw from some areas — is paving the road for the already-alerted IS to advance.

It seems that IS will be the main beneficiary of Decisive Storm, which may be followed by a spring that Yemen has never dreamed of before.

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