Defense secretary Jim Mattis has described Syria as “the most complex civil war probably raging on the planet at this time,” but Yemen is giving it a run for its money. In both places, the line between adversary and ally is not easily drawn, which puts the United States at risk of unintentionally furthering the cause of some of its worst enemies. In the case of Yemen, this means al-Qaeda.

In their fight against Yemen’s Houthi rebels, the government of Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and its Saudi backers, have worked with local actors with suspected ties to al-Qaeda. Sometimes this means the targets being tracked by the US are actually cutting deals and getting their hands on weapons thanks to connections they have with the Hadi government and the Saudi-led coalition, to which the US provides support. Laying bare these thorny battlefield alliances in Yemen is crucial as the Trump administration considers stepping up US military involvement in the country.

Background to the conflicts

There are two wars in Yemen in which the United States is involved. The first war is the longstanding US counterterrorism fight against al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, which is commonly referred to as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Since Trump took office, US drone strikes and raids against the group have increased, and in certain areas of the country, the rules put in place to prevent civilian casualties have been loosened. US interest in defeating al-Qaeda, particularly this branch of the group, which is known for its bomb-making abilities and its intent to carry out attacks against the West, is unambiguous.

But America’s counterterrorism fight in Yemen is also taking place against the backdrop of a messy civil war that has ballooned into a regional conflict. On one side is the internationally recognized government of Hadi, which was overthrown in January 2015. Supporting him is a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia, with the United Arab Emirates also playing a major role. The Saudi-led coalition and Hadi government forces are fighting the Houthi rebels, a militant group based out of northern Yemen that practices an offshoot of Shia Islam called Zaydism, putting them at odds with Yemen’s south, which is largely Sunni. Since the conflict started, Iran has supplied the rebels with arms shipments and other support. Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is also allied with the Houthi rebels. Saleh was ousted in 2011 during the Arab Spring after three decades in power, and replaced by Hadi, who at the time was vice president. The Houthi-Saleh alliance is not a natural fit, as they have their own history of warring against each other from the days when Saleh was in power.  

Complicating this battlefield are AQAP and ISIS, who are also fighting the Houthis on the ground. This means both terrorist organizations, the Saudi-led coalition and the Hadi government all share a common enemy. 

Up until now, the US has remained largely on the sidelines of this civil war, concentrating instead on its confrontation with AQAP. The US has provided some support over the last two years to the Saudi-led coalition, including intelligence and aerial refueling for coalition aircraft. But now, the Trump administration, with its aggressive rhetoric toward Iran, is poised to get further involved in the anti-Houthi fight. Senior administration officials told the AP last week that the White House is considering providing additional assistance to the Saudi-led coalition that could include “more intelligence support but won’t include a commitment of U.S. ground troops.” Further US involvement in the war “would reflect the administration’s effort to aggressively counter what it sees as Iran’s malign influence across the region,” they added.

Whose side are they on

Experts say that viewing this as a simple proxy war would be wrong, and would ignore the uncomfortable truths about who is really on each side.

“People like to reduce complicated conflicts to binary problems: this or that,” said Thomas Joscelyn,  a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an editor of the Long War Journal. “Yemen is one of several countries where that’s not going to work.”

The Trump administration’s controversial raid in January highlighted how treacherous the path is for the US because it revealed that while the US is fighting AQAP, those fighting the Houthis are sometimes finding it useful to team up with the terrorist organization.

The main figure the US killed during the January raid on what it described as an AQAP compound was tribal leader Sheikh Abdel-Raouf al-Dhahab. In the days before the US raid, al-Dhahab was meeting with the military chief of staff in Hadi’s government, the AP reported. The two men hashed out a deal where al-Dhahab got $60,000 to pay his men for fighting the Houthi rebels. According to his top aide, al-Dhahab returned home the evening before the raid, and the money was distributed to his fighters. According to the AP story, al-Dhahab “was working with Hadi’s government to retake the nearby city of Radaa from the rebels.”

Al-Dhahab came from a family with deep ties to al-Qaeda, including three brothers who were senior al-Qaida figures and a sister who was married to Anwar al-Awlaki, the American citizen who was killed in a 2011 drone strike. In fact, Awlaki’s 8-year-old daughter was in the al-Dhahab house the night of the raid and was killed during it. But al-Dhahab also played a prominent role in the anti-Houthi fight, so much so, that it left some people on the ground bewildered as to the why the US had targeted him, according the Intercept.

That the ties between al-Dhahab, al-Qaeda, and the Hadi government are a bit murky reflect al-Qaeda’s strategy in Yemen, which is to infiltrate the local community and politics.

A new report from the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies describes how AQAP has “embedded itself within the social fabric of the three Yemeni governorates that have been most frequently targeted by American counterterrorism efforts – Al Bayda, Abyan and Shabwa.”

The fight against the Houthis has helped AQAP deepen these ties and grow even stronger. The terrorist group has seized the civil war as a political opportunity and thrived.

As it fights the Houthis, the Hadi government is attempting “to absorb armed factions within the state military architecture without clear institutional criteria,” Waleed Alhariri, who heads the New York office of the Sana’a Center, told Just Security. But Hadi is “striking deals and making unfiltered appointments that are based on loyalties and command areas difficult for the state to control.”

The result of this is AQAP is “arguably more powerful, resource-rich, entrenched, and operating with more institutional flexibility and adaptive capacity than ever before,” the Sana’a Center report says.

The International Crisis Group (ICG), agrees.

“As the conflict has unfolded, AQAP has used the pretext of a ‘Sunni’ defence against the ‘Shiite’ Huthis to blend with local tribes and Salafi sympathisers,” ICG reported in February. Through this, AQAP has “acquired a wide range of new weaponry, including heavy weapons from Yemeni military camps or acquired indirectly from the Saudi-led coalition.”

ICG described the relationship between the Saudi-led coalition and AQAP fighters as either a “tacit alliance,” or that  the coalition has at least “turned a blind eye to them, as long as they have assisted in attacking the common enemy.”

Nabeel Khoury, who served as deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Yemen from 2004 to 2007, told Just Security that there is no direct evidence that the Saudis, or the Hadi government, knowingly collaborate with AQAP, but there is “a lot of smoke there.”

“You can certainly accuse them of indirectly spreading al-Qaeda in Yemen,” said Khoury, who’s now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. And stories like the one about al-Dhahab suggest “Hadi is an unreliable partner and not someone you can trust with targeting information.”

At least three of Hadi’s  associates have been sanctioned by the US Treasury Department in recent years for their ties to al-Qaeda, making them “Specially Designated Global Terrorists.” The first is Nayif al-Qaysi, a Hadi-appointed governor of al-Bayda. He is described by the Treasury Department and the UN as a senior AQAP official and financier. He used his official position in al-Bayda to help AQAP expand there and distributed money and arms to the group, according to the Treasury Department.

Second is Abdul Wahab Al-Homayqani, head of the al-Rashad party, Yemen’s most prominent Salafi political party. He is an advisor to Hadi, and served as a member of his official delegation to a previous round of peace talks in Geneva. The Treasury Department says he is an important member of AQAP who has “facilitated financial transfers from AQAP supporters in Saudi Arabia to Yemen in support of AQAP operations.”

Third, Al-Hasan Ali Abkar is a pro-Hadi government militia commander in Jawf province. In this capacity, he’s believed to receive government and coalition funds. The Treasury Department accuses him of providing “money, weapons, and ammunition to AQAP forces,” which Abkar denies.

In addition, in his testimony before the Senate  Foreign Relations Committee, Joscelyn, who tracks AQAP closely for the Long War Journal, highlighted the role of Shaykh Abd-al-Majid al-Zindani, who’s been designated by Treasury as a terrorist because of his support of AQAP, but who also “maintains friendly relations with the Saudis.” His influence and his network have become more valuable thanks to the fight against the Houthis.

In the same way it’s important not overlook all of the various players fighting the Houthis, it’s also important to appreciate fully who’s on the Houthis’ side, said Joscelyn.

“Saying the Houthis are simply an Iranian-backed group is misleading,” he said. “Equally, if not more important, is the role played by former Yemeni President Saleh and his network.”

Saleh’s support to the Houthis represents a “real on-the-ground political problem” that needs to be addressed, Joscelyn said.

Seeing the battle lines clearly is helpful not just for crafting US strategy going forward but it also sheds light on how effective the US counterterrorism fight has been to date. Despite years of US airstrikes, al-Qaeda is so fully integrated into local power structures and political life that it’s hard for those fighting the Houthis not to rely on its fighters. This suggests that a military approach alone will do little to diminish AQAP’s grip in Yemen.

Image: Getty