TSG IntelBrief: The Threat of an Imploding Yemen
January 21, 2015

The Threat of an Imploding Yemen

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• The deteriorating situation in Yemen is a serious geopolitical crisis facing the regional and international community, as well as a devastating threat to the people of Yemen

• The current crisis is not about al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)—al-Qaeda’s most capable affiliate—but it does have the strong potential to benefit the group at a cost to the rest of the country, since AQAP thrives off of chaos, violence, and increased sectarian strife

• While Yemen politics are essentially tribal and local—issues of rampant corruption, constitutional crisis, economic hardship, and basic survival such as lack of potable water—regional actors Iran and Saudi Arabia are inflaming the situation as each seeks to block the influence of the other

• In a January 20 speech, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, head of the Houthi movement Ansar Allah, warned that the country is “on the verge of political, security and economic collapse”; he accused President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi of corruption, fragmenting the country, and not taking the peace and partnership agreement seriously, claiming Hadi ordered the army not to fight AQAP and that his supporters in the military are providing weapons to the terrorist group.

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It has taken decades of deteriorating politics and security for Yemen to reach its current level of crisis, though now the costs might come not just in the form of the suffering of the Yemeni people but also in regional instability and the proliferation of international terrorism. While the causes of Yemen’s crisis are intensely local—having to do with longstanding issues of corruption, tribal and North-South differences, and a constitution in need of amending—it is being amplified both by meddling regional actors and a menacing terrorist group with international reach.

The move by Houthi rebels to seize control of the presidential palace in Sana’a is a warning to President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to meet the conditions of Abdul Malik al-Houthi, head of the Houthi movement Ansar Allah. In his January 20 televised speech regarding the fighting in Sana’a, al-Houthi accused Hadi of “covering for corruption.” He claimed that the Yemeni president “refused to order the army to fight against al-Qaeda.” Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is based in Yemen and is the terror network’s most capable and operationally active affiliate, despite a relatively robust U.S. counterterrorism drone program that seeks to keep the group off balance. Going further, al-Houthi accused the Hadi administration of providing weapons to AQAP.

The Houthis are demanding changes to the current constitutional amendments under consideration. They oppose dividing the country into six administrative regions, and demand grouping the country into two regions—north and south—that allow them to solidify the gains they have made since the 2011 ouster of long-time Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Salah. In his speech, al-Houthi demanded action against systemic corruption, pressure against AQAP in the Ma’rib Governorate, and quicker action to amend the constitution and preserve the goals of the Peace and National Partnership Agreement signed in September 2014 that expands Houthi political power.

If the situation in Yemen deteriorates further and disrupts ongoing efforts against AQAP, the consequences could be profound. Even with current pressure against it, the group has managed to at least inspire attacks such as the shootings in Paris. The group’s bomb-making prowess remains of high concern to international intelligence and security agencies, particularly against aviation targets such as in the 2009 failed attempt over Detroit. There are legitimate concerns that if the situation continues to worsen, AQAP can turn its stronghold in the Ma’rib province into an effective sanctuary, leaving its operatives to plan and plot with minimal interference. And adding to the complexities of interests and the battle scape, the Houthis are keen for Hadi to fight al-Qaeda. Houthi expansion to the oil rich Ma’rib has been thwarted by al-Qaeda and Sunni tribes aligned against them.

Complicating an already very complicated internal situation are the machinations of the region’s main sectarian actors, Iran and Saudi Arabia. There is widespread suspicion that the Houthis, a branch of Shi’a Islam, are merely the proxies of an Iranian government that seeks to gain leverage on the southern doorstep of its arch rival Saudi Arabia. In the type of intrigue that characterizes much of the region’s interrelations, this is not entirely true nor entirely untrue; the Houthis represent legitimate local concerns about poor Yemeni governance but they are also being leveraged by Iran for non-Yemeni goals. In kind, Saudi Arabia has pressed for the limiting of Houthi political power, with the result being a burgeoning sectarian proxy battle in a country that hasn’t been all that sectarian—in spite of its many other challenges.

The solution to the current crisis in Yemen will be political and locally derived, but the consequences of further instability in the country will radiate far beyond its borders. Yemen faces a staggering list of challenges, and the country’s ability to address even a portion of these is limited at best. Renewed regional and international focus on Yemen will likely be needed to keep the conflict from metastasizing from the Hadhramaut homeland of Usama bin Ladin to Paris and beyond.

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