Why Did the Jihadi Cold War in Yemen End?

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In April 2015, about five months after being officially established by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the new local Islamic State’s self-proclaimed province in Yemen issued a video featuring 15 fighters running around the Yemeni desert, doing training exercises, and talking to the camera. Using rhetoric that has become characteristic of the Islamic State, one of the fighters says:

As for our message to the Rawafid Houthis, we say to them the same as our Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani al-Shami, may Allah preserve him, said to the Rawafid of Iraq. Surely, by Allah, we will sever your limbs by explosive belts and car bombs, and we will roast your skins with explosive devices. Surely we will stifle your breaths with silenced weapons. And surely we will harvest you.

While the fighters only mention Yemen’s Shia (the Houthis) as the enemy, there was no doubt that the video was also an implicit threat to the country’s other jihadi outfit, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Ever since the Islamic State expanded from Iraq into Syria in April 2013, Sunni jihadism has been caught in seemingly endless internal conflict.  This is a largely a result of the Islamic State’s aggressive attitude toward other jihadi (and rebel) groups, which ignited the jihadi civil war in January 2014. This led al-Qaeda to dismiss the Islamic State from its network the following month and, eventually, to the Islamic State’s caliphate declaration in late June.

The case of Yemen, however, is a bit strange. Since November 2014, the country’s local al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates existed side-by-side in a state of controlled tensions. The relationship took the form of a discursive rivalry but has none of the infighting that characterizes the relationship between their parent organizations in other battlefields. But that changed in July 2018. Since then, more than 100 fighters have died as a result of jihadists directing their guns toward each other.

Competition but Co-existence

In November 2014, al-Baghdadi accepted an oath of allegiance from a group of jihadists in Yemen during the first big wave of Islamic State expansion outside the Levant, leading to the creation of a local Islamic State province. At this time, Yemen’s al-Qaeda branch was still considered one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations in the world. For the next four years, the new Islamic State affiliate’s relationship with al-Qaeda in Yemen was generally one of competition but co-existence. The groups were clearly rivals, but they also seemed to agree that the main enemies were the Houthis as well as the remnants of the Yemeni government and its international allies. While this prioritization of a common “external enemy” may appear obvious, it differed from the situation on other battlefields like Syria and, more recently, Afghanistan.

Of course, prioritizing external enemies did not mean the two groups did not compete. From the very beginning, the Islamic State appeared keen on either convincing al-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate to shift allegiance or at least attracting substantial numbers of its fighters. After all, the affiliate was the crown jewel of al-Qaeda’s network and it was known that the group was fascinated by al-Qaeda’s former affiliate in Iraq, which gave birth to the Islamic State. This mass defection never happened, however, likely because the group’s Yemeni branch has always been extremely loyal to al-Qaeda’s central leadership in Afghanistan and (now) Pakistan. Some Yemeni al-Qaeda fighters did end up joining the new Islamic State affiliate, but there was no mass exodus or defection of senior leaders that the Islamic State would have liked to see.

Both groups directed rhetorical attacks against one another and their respective parent organizations. A senior shariah official of al-Qaeda in Yemen, Harith bin Ghazi al-Nadhari, published a statement shortly after the Islamic State set up shop in Yemen, blasting the group for not meeting the shariah conditions for establishing a caliphate and for opposing existing jihadi groups. The Islamic State attacked al-Qaeda in its official media productions such as articles in its English language magazine Dabiq (issues 6 and 12). The Islamic State criticized the group for refusing to pledge allegiance to its Caliph and for ridiculing the Islamic State’s methods. In a video titled “Soldiers of the Caliphate in the Land of Yemen,” published by its Sana’a Province in April 2015, the Islamic State tried to frame itself as the main enemy of the Houthis and thus protector of Sunnis in Yemen, a clear challenge to al-Qaeda. The latter responded with an article claiming that the Islamic State’s efforts against the Houthis were widely exaggerated while on other occasions describing the group as outright lazy in assisting the jihadi cause on the frontlines.

Both groups have also continuously rebuked the (lack of) actions of the other group. In 2015, al-Qaeda in Yemen distanced itself from the Islamic State’s indiscriminate violence, specifically referring to the latter’s bombings of public places and mosques. This came in an official statement released by al-Qaeda in March on Telegram. Later the same year, a senior Yemeni al-Qaeda leader, Khalid Saeed Batarfi, issued two other statements on the local Islamic State affiliate. The first statement reiterated the critique of its indiscriminate bombings and the second, a joint statement on behalf of al-Qaeda in Yemen and al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the Maghreb, rejected Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammed al-Adnani’s continuous courting, thus ending the Islamic State’s last hope for a pledge of allegiance from the al-Qaeda in Yemen leadership. Al-Qaeda also dislikes publicizing videos with beheadings of prisoners, as the Islamic State has done in Syria, Afghanistan, and Libya. In contrast, the Islamic State has critiqued al-Qaeda’s methodology on several occasions and its failure to implement shariah despite controlling territory.

From Cold War, to Hot

In early July, an al-Qaeda-friendly channel on Telegram reported that the Islamic State killed 13 fighters from al-Qaeda, who retaliated by killing 25 Islamic State fighters. Three days later, al-Qaeda would again strike Islamic State positions in Qayfa. But tensions between the two groups were already on the rise a week earlier when an alleged defector from the Islamic State provided his testimony, published by the al-Qaeda-aligned Al Badr Media, about the wrongdoings and extremist tendencies of his former brothers-in-arms, not least their (jama’at al-Baghdadi as he refers to it) extensive use of excommunication (takfir).

Soon after the initial military confrontations, the conflict would take a new turn and become more “public” when, on July 15, the Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency uploaded a video showing 13 al-Qaeda fighters who had been arrested after an incident at an Islamic State controlled checkpoint. In this video and another published soon after, the imprisoned al-Qaeda fighters explain from what appears to be a cave that it was in fact their fellow al-Qaeda fighters who provoked the skirmish. In the second video, one of the imprisoned al-Qaeda fighters even claimed that his group’s leadership authorized fighting the local Islamic State affiliate the previous year, indicating that al-Qaeda was indeed the aggressor in the conflict. But, since these statements are given in captivity, their truthfulness cannot be immediately trusted. Five days later, however, the Islamic State publicized an account of an alleged al-Qaeda defector, Abu Muslim al-Hashimi, who scorned his former group for cooperating with the Yemeni army, an allegation that has since been corroborated by the media.

Unsurprisingly, al-Qaeda’s account of events differed radically from that of the imprisoned Islamic State fighters. Al-Qaeda responded with a statement highlighting that the two groups have so far agreed to let one another’s fighters pass through checkpoints — an unusual agreement considered the ongoing conflict between the groups in most other battlefields — but that on this occasion Islamic State fighters violated the agreement and arrested its fighters. Al-Qaeda furthermore claims, contrary to its competitor’s version of events, that it tried to negotiate the release of the prisoners, but that the Islamic State refused any such negotiations. On August 8, al-Qaeda would escalate the conflict further when the group published a video on Telegram showing four Islamic State fighters that the group had captured as retaliation and leverage. Like in the Islamic State videos, the al-Qaeda production includes clips of the four imprisoned fighters calmly telling the “truth” about their own group, in this instance that the Islamic State’s Yemeni leadership enforces takfir on al-Qaeda, that it does not care about local Yemeni tribes and that fighting al-Qaeda is in fact the group’s main priority. Later in August, the group would issue another statement, titled “O Baghdadi Group, Is There a Rational Man Among You?” In this article al-Qaeda links the behavior of the Yemeni Islamic State affiliate to that of the Islamic State in other battlefields like Syria and Iraq where it has supposedly strayed from the course of jihad and raised its swords against other Muslims.

Why are al-Qaeda and the Islamic State affiliates in Yemen engaging in infighting now? Their parent organizations have long been caught in a global struggle for dominance which has involved military confrontations in Syria, Somalia, and more indirectly in Afghanistan. The two Yemeni affiliates, however, have managed to co-exist peacefully, even negotiating local agreements to ensure their protection. Paradoxically, this infighting has started when the struggle between the broader al-Qaeda and Islamic State groups is at a historic low since early 2014.

Whether the initial trigger was a simple mistake made by one of the groups at a checkpoint around Qayfa that since escalated or a result of a strategic shift by one of the groups is hard to tell. Locally, al-Qaeda is rather successful, recording its highest number of fighters (recently estimated between 6,000 and 7,000) and executed attacks ever despite losing senior members to the American drone campaign. The Islamic State, on the other hand, has never managed to integrate similarly into Yemeni society, to control territory, or to establish ties to local tribes, which is essential in Yemen. Since October 2016 it has even been on the retreat and from summer 2017 it was only active in Qayfa, in Bayda Governorate, while attacks carried out by the group are decreasing. Despite claiming attacks from time to time, the group may only have 250 to 500 fighters, according to a new U.N. report. Adding to this, the Islamic State is witnessing a decline in strength and popularity on a global scale, which could critically affect the group’s ability to retain its provinces outside the Levant. Based on these dynamics, it is reasonable to think that al-Qaeda would adopt a more assertive attitude towards its local competitor in an effort to rout it from its last stronghold in Yemen.

Is Infighting Here to Stay?

In September and October, the infighting continued in the groups’ (semi)-official media productions published on Telegram. In fact, in September infighting extended to the (even for jihadists) dangerous sphere of killing civilians, as the Islamic State was accused by al-Qaeda of killing a young girl in Qayfa. Responding to the accusations, an Islamic State sympathizer claimed it was al-Qaeda that was responsible for the girl’s death because the group barricades among civilians which led a stray bullet to hit the girl. The Islamic State official and unofficial media also continued to report al-Qaeda casualties; for example its al-Naba magazine (issue 147) claims that as part of the infighting in al-Humaydha Ali al-Ghurayri, a senior member of al-Qaeda in Yemen was killed in addition to military commanders Sadeq al-Ghriri and Ali al-Ghriri. In late September, the unofficial but Islamic State-linked media foundation, Moata, published an infographic stating that 47 al-Qaeda fighters had been killed between July and September in Yemen.

Although infighting began in early July and the incidents were reported in unofficial media, it wasn’t until October 7 that the Islamic State issued its first formal communique acknowledging an attack against al-Qaeda. The statement clarified that the infighting lasted for four hours, involving snipers and IEDs. As it turned out, such official acknowledgement of infighting between the two groups would not be a one-off event, thus signalling an escalation in the infighting. On October 21, the Islamic State reported renewed clashes, this time lasting only half an hour and instigated by its own fighters. In the first report, the only victims would be two four-wheel drive vehicles, but two days later it was reported that one al-Qaeda fighter had been killed by an Islamic State sniper. The most recent report of skirmishes came on November 5 when the Islamic State claimed to have destroyed another four-wheel drive vehicle during an attack on al-Qaeda positions.

The shift in strategic behavior from peaceful co-existence to infighting illustrates the importance of local dynamics to understand inter-group relations in civil wars and insurgencies. Unlike the hostile nature of the relationship between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Syria, their affiliates in Yemen initially both found it more convenient to strike deals to prevent military infighting while challenging one another in their media releases. Similar patterns have to some extent been witnessed in other countries like Somalia and Khorasan where inter-group infighting have followed local dynamics. In the Yemeni case, context is instructive to understand the timing of such Jihadi-infighting. Over the last year, the Islamic State’s Yemeni affiliate has seen its territorial presence continuously limited and the group has failed to embed itself sufficiently into local communities despite the favorable conditions offered by the ongoing war and its sectarian element. “Desperation” and “fighting to survive” is thus key to understand the group’s current logic and to blame al-Qaeda for initiating the fight against “other mujahideen” is a way to delegitimize its direct competitor. For al-Qaeda, the mere existence of the Islamic State affiliate has long been a thorn in the flesh, but one not serious enough to actual fight the group. Now, with the Islamic State struggling and al-Qaeda experiencing some sort of “local high point” in terms of local embeddedness, the time to engage its “internal enemy” was opportune. However, as al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, continues to frame jihadi infighting as illegitimate, his Yemeni affiliate keeps relatively quiet about ongoing events. This is in stark contrast to the Islamic State which publicizes (detailed) accounts of attacks between the two groups. But rest assured, al-Qaeda would be happy to see the Islamic State in Yemen decimated to the brink of extinction and once again hegemonize Yemen’s militant Islamist landscape.

Tore Refslund Hamming is a Ph.D. Candidate at the European University Institute (EUI) and visiting researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) and Sciences Po-Paris. His research focuses on the internal dynamics of conflict within Sunni Jihadism on a global scale.