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posted on 08 October 2015

Dancing On The Heads Of Snakes


-- this post authored by Scott Stewart

Yemen's fractured militant landscape is becoming more complex as groups vie for influence on the battlefield. On the morning of Oct. 6, armed assailants launched a complicated attack involving multiple vehicle bombs against the al Qasr hotel and resort in Aden province. The hotel, which housed senior Yemeni officials as well as Saudi and Emirati military officers, is located in a large compound just across the bay from the city of Aden. It was probably chosen to serve as the government's temporary headquarters precisely because it is situated outside the city and was likely spared the ravages of the monthslong street war that has plagued Aden.

The resort is a hardened target that would have been difficult for most potential aggressors to attack. It resides in a spacious compound that has a fixed perimeter, making it more defensible and less vulnerable to vehicle bombs than most buildings inside the city. The hotel is also protected by Yemeni and coalition troops, posing another challenge for any potential assailants.

And yet, despite these deterrents, militants not only attacked the resort but also used sophisticated tactics to breach its perimeter and target the hotel's main building with vehicle bombs. The assailants reportedly deployed additional vehicle bombs against two other hardened facilities used by the coalition's military forces. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack and has published photographs of four young men the group says were the suicide bombers involved in the assault. If the Islamic State's claims are true, then its newly showcased capabilities will ensure that the threats of insurgency and terrorism will linger long after Yemen's conventional conflict is over.

A New Faction Asserts Itself

To date, the only group in Yemen that has proved able to conduct this type of complex suicide attack is al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). However, it is unlikely that AQAP launched the Oct. 6 attack. While the group has conducted a number of devastating suicide vehicle bombings against Houthi fighters and forces loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, it has reached an understanding with the Saudi-led coalition to mutually refrain from attacking each other, despite AQAP's control over a large portion of Yemen, including the city of Mukalla.

Therefore, the Islamic State's claim of responsibility is likely true, marking the group's most complex and sophisticated operation in Yemen on record. The veracity of the claim was reinforced by additional details concerning the suicide bombers' identities. The Islamic State also reportedly paraded vehicles bearing its flag near the area of the attack hours after it took place.

While the Islamic State's Wilayat Sanaa, or "Sanaa Province," has conducted a number of attacks in Yemen since its inception in April 2015, the group's operations have been exclusively directed at soft targets such as mosques and funeral processions. Indeed, Wilayat Sanaa conducted a suicide bombing against a mosque on Oct. 6 that killed seven people. Additionally, though some of the Islamic State's attacks in Sanaa have involved multiple suicide bombers, the explosive devices used - even the vehicle-borne ones - have been limited in size. Though some of the Sanaa attacks have yielded higher death tolls than the Oct. 6 bombings, they were nonetheless simple attacks against soft targets that weren't nearly as difficult to conduct as the Aden assault.

The high-profile attack on the al Qasr hotel may well be the work of another Islamic State franchise. The assault has drawn attention to the Islamic State's presence in Aden, but that presence is not new. For several months, a group calling itself the Islamic State's Wilayat Aden has posted statements and videos on the Internet, and there have been intermittent reports of Islamic State and al Qaeda fighters participating in combat against the Houthis in Aden. Then, in late September, the Islamic State released a video showing members of what it called its "Wilayat Aden-Abyan" killing Houthi prisoners. Given this name, it is possible that some of the group's leaders were associated with or at least influenced by the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, one of the many Yemeni and Saudi jihadist groups that composed the initial AQAP organization when it formed in January 2009.

Regardless of Wilayat Aden-Abyan's specific composition, the attack against the al Qasr hotel represents a marked departure from the Islamic State's previous attacks in Sanaa. The Oct. 6 assault is the group's most high-profile attack to date and appears to indicate that the Islamic State affiliate in Aden and Abyan is far more capable - and dangerous - than its counterpart in Sanaa. This grim reality will add yet another thread to the already dizzying tapestry of actors involved in Yemen's conflict.

A Fractured Landscape

The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is currently locked in a pitched battle with Houthi militias and a large portion of Yemen's former military, which remains loyal to Saleh. Despite an arms embargo and a heavy, persistent campaign of airstrikes, these forces continue to control the bulk of Yemen's mountainous spine, a difficult target that the coalition is reluctant to pursue. Instead, significant coalition ground forces have gathered in Marib and are preparing for an offensive to retake Sanaa, and a second ground element is pushing toward Taiz and al-Hudaydah from Aden. Meanwhile, Houthi leaders and Saleh loyalists have promised to support a U.N. peace plan, creating a faint glimmer of hope that a diplomatic solution to the country's crisis can still be found.

As noted previously, the Saudi-led coalition has reached some form of a non-aggression pact with AQAP and is fighting alongside the group against Houthi and Saleh forces. AQAP controls Hadramawt province, but its influence extends far beyond the boundaries of its territory; the arrangement has thus saved the coalition from having to open up another front in Yemen and further divide its limited resources. Still, despite the coalition's restraint against AQAP, the United States has continued to launch drone strikes against the group.

Several other key players are complicating the Yemeni battleground. Hirak, the southern secessionist militia that lost its bloody civil war against Saleh's forces in 1994, continues to seek independence from the country's north and has fiercely resisted the Houthi and Saleh loyalist occupation of Aden. While Hirak has been instrumental in helping coalition forces drive the Houthis and Saleh loyalists out of the region formerly known as South Yemen, it has little interest in becoming entangled in a protracted war in the country's north. Instead, it will likely conserve its strength to launch another fight for independence at a future date. The United Arab Emirates' historical support for Hirak has created strain between the Emiratis and their Saudi coalition partners.

The Islah party, a Muslim Brotherhood-linked group run by Yemen's powerful al-Ahmar family, also assisted anti-Houthi forces from 2011 to 2014, engaging in heavy fighting against the Houthi militias. However, the Houthis in 2014 managed to defeat military units and tribal militias linked to Islah. The Houthis then seized large quantities of weapons that allowed them to conquer Sanaa. Meanwhile, the remnants of Islah's forces fled toward Marib province to regroup and have been working closely with coalition forces ever since. The group's ties to the coalition come as no surprise, as Islah has long been aligned with the Saudis.

Finally, Yemen's tribes represent another potentially powerful - and at times, fickle - military force that could tip the balance of power in either direction. The tribes have been known to shift their allegiance to whichever party can pay the most and to declare blood feuds if tribal members are killed. At present, Yemeni tribes have aligned themselves with every player mentioned thus far, including AQAP.

Balancing Many Threats

With so many dangerous variables, the conflict in Yemen will not be easy to solve. Fixing the country's problems or, at the very least, returning it to its former state of relative stability will not happen overnight. Saudi Arabia has repeatedly opposed any political solution short of complete capitulation, which has left the Houthis and Saleh loyalists with no choice but to stand and fight. And as Yemen's civil war in the 1960s and subsequent struggles against Houthi militias and jihadists have shown, the country's mountainous terrain provides an ideal setting for protracted guerrilla warfare. While coalition forces may ultimately capture Sanaa, they will have trouble securing the capital against attacks by insurgents and terrorists. Cleansing northern Yemen of Houthi and Saleh loyalist fighters will prove even more challenging. Thus, even if the coalition is able to win its conventional battles, it will undoubtedly face a protracted insurgency in the region.

But an insurgency in northern Yemen will not be the country's only security challenge. The Saudi-led coalition eventually will have to deal with its current allies, Hirak, Islah and AQAP. Each of these groups will be reluctant to come under the control of any government that holds power after a peace negotiation is complete. Combined with the added specter of a growing Islamic State threat and the recent attack in Aden, insurgency and terrorism will spill beyond northern Yemen.

During his reign, Saleh was frequently criticized for using threats and cash to keep Yemen united - efforts he famously likened to "dancing on the heads of snakes." Now the country's vipers have been stirred up, and they are engaged in a brutal battle for power. Even if Yemen's military and security forces hadn't already been shattered, they would not be able to halt the conflict. But it remains to be seen whether any external power will be able to convince - or coerce - all of Yemen's snakes to rejoin the dance.

"Dancing on the Heads of Snakes" is republished with permission of Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence and advisory firm based in Austin, Texas.

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