The military campaign led by Saudi Arabia against the Houthi rebel movement in Yemen is now well into its sixth month. Much of the international community’s concern about this conflict has been rightly focused on the humanitarian toll it has taken on Yemen’s population. However, there is also a growing awareness among many observers that the campaign is benefitting al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Despite the recent rise of the Islamic State, U.S. intelligence considers AQAP to be the most potent threat to the U.S. homeland. In December 2009, it sponsored an attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight bound for Detroit. The attack failed because the explosives hidden in the underwear of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would be suicide bomber, failed to detonate properly. Ten months later the group tried to destroy two cargo aircraft headed for the U.S. using explosives disguised as ink cartridges, but the plot was disrupted before it could be carried out. In April 2012, AQAP again attempted to take down a U.S.-bound airliner using a bomb concealed in the underwear of one of its operatives, but this attack was foiled because the intended suicide bomber was a double agent working for Saudi intelligence. In August 2013, the U.S. State Department shut down more than a dozen U.S. embassies and consulates throughout the Middle East and South Asia for a week in response to intelligence reports indicating that an attack by AQAP against American diplomatic facilities was in the offing. Fortunately, no such attack took place. More recently, AQAP claimed responsibility for the January 7, 2015, attack against the Paris office of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that left 12 people dead, although it remains unclear what its exact role was in the operation.
Each of these incidents took place before the Saudi-led coalition launched its military intervention against the Houthis on March 26. However, most experts on Yemen agree that AQAP has experienced a significant resurgence since the campaign began. On April 2, AQAP seized the port of al-Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth largest city and the capital of Hadhramaut Province. It also took control of the Dhabah oil terminal, as well as a nearby army base. More recently, numerous reports have emerged indicating that AQAP has infiltrated key parts of Aden, Yemen’s main port and second-largest city, and some of the surrounding towns. In addition, the group has set up a terrorist training camp in the town of Dar Saad just north of Aden and begun a major recruitment effort to bring in new fighters.
Despite these alarming developments, Saudi Arabia and its coalition allies who are attempting to restore deposed Yemeni president Abdu Rabbo Mansour Hadi to power have turned a blind eye to AQAP, instead focusing their efforts on defeating the Houthis. The number one priority of Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Arab states is checking Iranian influence. When the Houthis, who are Zaydi Shiites, took control of Aden in January and forced Hadi to flee the country, the Saudis saw it as an act of Iranian aggression. This is almost certainly a misreading of the situation in Yemen, however. The Houthi movement is motivated by local concerns rather than geopolitical ones. Despite many claims to the contrary, it simply is not an arm of the Iranian. While it is true that Tehran supports the Houthis in a number of ways, it appears to have relatively little influence on them. It is worth noting that when the Houthis seized control of the Yemeni capital of Sanaa in September 2014, they did so against Iran’s express wishes. Nonetheless, the Saudis view the situation in Yemen almost entirely through the lens of their rivalry with Tehran, and it is this perspective that informs their actions.
Having decided to go to war against the Houthis, the Saudis and their allies have found common cause with AQAP, which views the Shiite Houthis as apostates. Indeed, Riyadh seems to have embraced the notion that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Saudi air power has been hammering Houthi positions throughout the country for nearly six months, but it has so far left AQAP forces untouched. The Saudi government has argued that it is committed to defeating AQAP, which it sees as the number one terrorist threat to the kingdom and which once attempted to assassinate Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia’s interior minister, but that in order to do so it is necessary to first defeat the Houthis and restore Hadi to power. Only then, according to Riyadh, can the fight against the al Qaeda affiliate be resumed in earnest. It’s not clear whether or not the Saudis genuinely believe this argument or if it is simply an effort to placate U.S. leaders whose primary concern is neutralizing AQAP. In any case, it overlooks the fact that the Houthis have been AQAP’s most powerful opponent in Yemen. According to Michael Horton of the Jamestown Foundation,
Before the start of Saudi-led operations against the Houthis and their allies, AQAP—while still a formidable organization—was on the defensive in much of Yemen. . . . With the Houthis’ rapid rise to power in 2014 and 2015, the Houthis had pushed AQAP out of key governorates that included al-Jawf, in northern Yemen, and al-Bayda, in central Yemen.
In this respect, it is not surprising that when the Saudi air strikes began in March, a spokesman for AQAP expressed support for the intervention.
The tacit working relationship between the Saudis and AQAP puts the United States in a difficult position. The U.S. has publicly expressed concern about Iranian support for the Houthis, and it has provided intelligence, munitions, and logistical assistance to Saudi Arabia in its military campaign. However, American officials have also made it clear that they do not share the Saudis’ conviction that the Houthis are Iranian puppets. For Washington, AQAP is by far the biggest threat emanating from Yemen. Yet the U.S. finds itself supporting a Saudi-led military campaign that has proved enormously beneficial to the terrorist group. Now that the Houthis have been driven back from much of the territory in southern Yemen that they had seized over the course of the last year, the Obama administration is urging Riyadh to agree to a ceasefire, followed by negotiations between the Houthis, Hadi loyalists, and other Yemeni political actors about the country’s future. Such an outcome would hopefully lead to the formation of a stable Yemeni government that could resume the fight against AQAP. As things stand right now, however, the Saudi leadership and Hadi both seem to believe that they can achieve outright victory against the Houthis if they continue the military campaign, and as a result they appear uninterested in a political settlement. If that is the course thy decide to take, the war in Yemen is likely to continue indefinitely, as it will be extremely difficult to defeat the Houthis in their northern strongholds. A protracted conflict will only allow AQAP to continue to grow stronger.
-- Richard Purcell