As news was broadcast today that Nasir Al-Wihayshi, leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was killed on 12th June 2015 in an American drone strike, it seems a good day to reflect on Sunni militias currently active in Yemen, and the way that their sphere of activity is changing as Yemen’s civil war continues to devastate much of Yemen. Militias motivated by religion have been active in Yemen for more than twenty years, since the mujahedeen returned from Afghanistan at the end of the nineties. As explained in earlier articles, originally these militias recruited from all willing Muslim groups, but they have developed a strong anti-Shia ethos over the last two decades and now recruit exclusively from the Sunni community.
Although Al Qaeda (AQ) and Da’esh/Islamic State (IS) exist in several countries, they are franchises; groups see themselves as sharing characteristics and declare themselves to be aligned. There are significant differences in the philosophies of these two groups. The Yemeni AQ is known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and tends to have members that morph between being ordinary tribe members who sometimes fight with other tribes, and sometimes they become Al Qaeda members, their military activities then directed by members of the hierarchy of AQAP. AQ has an international vision, critical of the Saudi Arabian monarchy and foreign interference in Arab affairs and its activity is often aimed towards outside targets. It is particularly critical of Israel and United States. IS on the other hand is seen as controlling and defending a particular territory, hence its membership is more permanent, and it aims to control ever larger geographic areas. It has also been associated with attacking and fighting opposing Arab groups. As it sees itself as permanent, it has more interest in developing alliances with other nation states than AQ; IS has often been linked to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, three predominantly Sunni Muslim countries, although these links are not openly declared. More surprising alliances have been identified recently, such as Israeli supplied weapons used by IS Syria, and a 2012 Pentagon document released last month revealed that some support for IS originates from the United States government.
East Yemen or Hadramaut has not been under direct government control for several years; tribes have largely controlled their own geographic areas, but Hadramautis have been obliged to live by AQ rules, even though members of AQAP are small and its presence often not noticed. When AQAP is involved in disruptive or military activity, it calls on tribe members to take part. AQAP has been particularly active in Marib, where oil companies have their oil wells, often causing damage to the oil pipe lines; it also has been actively involved in kidnapping or attacking non-Arab visitors to the area. This group has also been accused of links with criminal activities, such as shoe bombs. Adeni people also claim that for many years ex-President Saleh used AQ operatives to control and harass them.
What has been a contentious and often unreported issue is the US drone strikes against Al Qaeda members. Many Yemenis claim that many drones have killed civilians. When US drones kill a Yemeni citizen, AQAP offers financial help and assistance, whereas US does not accept any responsibility, creating local sympathy with the AQAP position. Individuals who have taken a stance against US drones have often found themselves in trouble. Abdulelah Haider Shaye is a Yemeni journalist who exposed US drone strikes and civilian deaths. He was arrested for his efforts, but no case was found against him. Then, in February 2011 US President Obama interferred and stopped his imminent release. A further strange case was that of Ibrahim Mouthani; a political activist and writer, he made an impassioned and eloquent plea to the United States, saying that US drones were increasing recruits to Al Qaeda. Previously fit, he unexpectedly died at the age of 24. The best known protester against US drones was Anwar Al Awlaki, a radical preacher, and US citizen. He was named by US and UK governments as the head of AQAP but that was unlikely as Wihayshi had been leader of AQ in Yemen since 2002; Al Awlaki was then killed by a US drone in Yemen in 2011, which was widely reported in the UK news.. Two weeks later his 16 year old son, also a US citizen, was killed in the same manner, but that went unnoticed by UK journalists.
More insidious is the recent appearance of IS in Yemen. The Islah Party in Yemen is a Sunni Muslim party that is funded by Saudi Arabia; it is the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which shares the aim of IS for an Islamic Caliphate. It has developed a militia that is fighting with the Al-Hiraq secessionist movement in the South against Houthi militias. Moreover, these fighters offered military training to Al-Hiraq members, but when they got to the training camps they found they were IS camps. Some managed to escape, whereas others have been trapped inside the organisation. Members of IS in Yemen, like their counterparts in Syria, have been reported as using Israeli weapons. Some Israeli weapons were found in the Saudi embassy when it was overrun by Houthi militias two weeks ago. Saudi Arabia tried to get Pakistan to supply a ground force in Yemen but they declined to do so. It appears that they have now found Yemeni recruits.
The growth in militias makes every Yemeni man of fighting age a target for kidnappers who need to swell their fighting forces; the death rate in this hand to hand fighting is high and numbers have to be replenished – this situation frequently happens in Syria as well. The son of a friend was recently subject to such an attack but managed to escape. The fear of forced military recruitment is one of the push factors that encourages young men to want to join the stream of asylum seekers that leave the Middle East, many of whom aim for Europe.
The waterways south of Yemen are one of the busiest in the world, with oil tankers from the Middle East travelling round the Southern shores of the Arabian Peninsula as they head for the Mediterranean and Europe. The fight for the control of these waters has become brutal and the prospects for a negotiated settlement lessen as the stakes rise.
The UN peace talks in Geneva are taking place now, but the Houthi participants are trapped in Djibouti, because it is said no-one will give their plane permission to fly over their land. The land they have to fly over is Saudi Arabia or Egypt. They obviously do not care about the suffering of the Yemeni people. Shame on them all.