Houthi rebels who seized Yemen’s presidential palace in a show of force this week could throw a wrench into U.S. counter-terrorism efforts in the country — which have been cited by the Obama administration as a successful model for Washington’s policy against extremists elsewhere in the region.
A powerful group of rebels, known as the Houthis, shelled the personal residence of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi on Tuesday and took over the presidential palace, at one point holding Hadi captive. The dramatic events followed months of upheaval in the capital, Sanaa, which the group captured in September. Despite an agreement on Wednesday signaling an end to this week’s stand-off, the political situation remains fraught.
The Houthis, who have been engaged in an on-and-off war against Yemen’s central government for more than a decade, are a Shia minority group within the largely Sunni country, and they have a power base in the country’s northwest. While the Houthis say they’re fighting against discrimination and want more say in political affairs, the government accuses them of being an insurgent group bent on seizing power. The Houthis’ opponents, which include Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, also accuse the group of being backed by Iran, a charge they deny.
Yemen has been in a state of turmoil since 2011, when an uprising bolstered by the momentous regional upheavals of the Arab Spring forced former president Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down and sign a U.S.-backed political transition plan. His deputy, Hadi, assumed the role of president. As Tuesday’s events show, that change has not yet led to a lasting political resolution.
The resulting upheaval and uncertainty is an immediate challenge for ordinary Yemenis. It is also a strategic dilemma for the Obama administration, which has sought to counter the growing influence of regional extremist groups by forging political alliances, including with Hadi’s government; launching Special Forces missions; and expanding the drone strikes in Yemen. In 2011, the U.S. used a drone strike in Yemen to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who was a prominent recruiter and propagandist for Al-Qaeda.
In announcing U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), President Barack Obama in September pointed to Yemen as a model for success. “This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years," he said.
Analysts, however, view Yemen as a country riven with political difficulties that could favor the very groups the Obama administration is keen on destroying.
Iona Craig, a freelance journalist and Al Jazeera contributor formerly based in Yemen, said that the rise of the Houthis has coincided with a parallel shift in the strategy of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) — the group’s Yemen branch. In an interview with Democracy Now on Tuesday, Craig said that since September, when the Houthis seized Sanaa, AQAP has increased its attempts to destabilize the Yemeni government by directly targeting civilians — which it had refrained from doing before.
“So that’s really worrying for people in Yemen, obviously, that now civilians are seen as a legitimate target by Al-Qaeda,” she said. “They’ve claimed responsibility for over 150 attacks across Yemen since the Houthis took control.”
AQAP adheres to an interpretation of Sunni Islam that considers Houthis to be infidels. The two have waged an increasingly deadly battle against each other.
The fact that only AQAP was willing and able to strongly counter the Houthis “is also putting a lot of tribal groups in a difficult position,” Craig added. “When the Houthis started taking further territory after Sanaa in September, there were areas where tribes didn’t want the Houthis coming into their territory, and they then found themselves, whether they liked it or not, on the same side as Al-Qaeda, and possibly with the prospect of fighting alongside Al-Qaeda, even if they didn’t agree with them ideologically.”
April Longley Alley, a Yemen expert for the International Crisis Group, wrote last month that the hardening battle lines in the country pose a risk for “new conflict dynamics.”
“Most worrisome, by taking the lead in the fight against Al-Qaeda, the Houthis are opening the door to a sectarian conflict that the country has never experienced,” Alley wrote. “Yemen does not have a history of Shia-Sunni violence ... Al-Qaeda, however, is explicitly framing the battle in sectarian terms and is using it as a recruitment tool.”
That increasingly stark political situation will likely prove an undesired thorn in the side of Obama administration officials and Western policymakers who are freshly worried about AQAP’s potential for terrorism in the aftermath of the attack in Paris two weeks ago that targeted the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. AQAP claimed responsibility for the attack, though experts have questioned whether the group had a direct operational role or merely encouraged it.
Before the Paris attack, AQAP was already high on the Obama administration’s list of counter-terrorism priorities, something made clear in its controversial drone attack that killed Al-Awlaki, who the administration alleged was working with the group to launch terrorist attacks against the U.S.
Regardless of the outcome of this week’s standoff between the Houthis and Hadi, the U.S. will have found itself in the precarious position of opposing both Al-Qaeda and the group with the best chance of countering its regional stronghold.
But with the Houthis allegedly linked to Iran and on record as opposing U.S. policy in the region, it’s increasingly unclear who the U.S. sees as a viable partner in the country. Already, U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, which shares a border with Yemen, has on numerous occasions targeted the Houthis with airstrikes. And Riyadh has threatened to cut off funding to Yemen’s economically starved state coffers should the Houthis’ continue to consolidate their political power in Sanaa.
The ultimate victor in Yemen is far from certain, but as the political gamesmanship continues, the most likely loser is U.S. counter-terrorism efforts against AQAP.