Islamic State in Yemen - A Rival to Al-Qaeda?

By Clausen, Maria-Louise | Connections : The Quarterly Journal, Winter 2017 | Go to article overview

Islamic State in Yemen - A Rival to Al-Qaeda?


Clausen, Maria-Louise, Connections : The Quarterly Journal


Introduction

In Yemen, most people know of a hadith where the prophet Mohammed is said to have proclaimed that faith and wisdom are Yemeni. Now this hadith is used to call attention to the lack of wisdom displayed by current political leaders, who are described as egotistical and power-hungry. This same hadith is also being used in a rhetorical dispute between al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State (IS) in Yemen, which since the beginning of 2015 have competed to represent Jihadism in Yemen. For instance, in issue seven of Dabiq, the IS English language magazine, it was used to underline the lack of wisdom exhibited by al-Qaeda's (AQ) Yemeni leadership.1 The principal target of the IS rhetoric is Harith al-Nadhari, a senior member of AQ in Yemen who publicly dismissed the expansion of the IS caliphate into Yemen. The most important criticism from IS is that AQ, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, is too indulgent towards Shia Muslims. In this way IS is seeking to disseminate a narrative that AQAP has 'allowed' the Houthis-who are described as a Shia sect in league with Iran and the USA-to expand their power base in Yemen since the Arab Spring. This narrative is itself embedded in another, larger narrative, according to which Yemen is an example of AQ's inability to defend Sunni Muslims.

Yemen is renowned for being the home of one of the most active branches of AQ, and thus occupies a central position within the AQ movement. In 2013, the then emir of AQAP, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who had previously been Osama Bin Laden's secretary, was appointed as Ayman Al-Zawahiri's second-in-command. Nasir al-Wuhayshi was killed in a drone strike in June 2015, but his successor, Qassim al-Raymi, was quick to affirm AQAP's continued loyalty to Al-Zawahiri and AQ. Yemen thus represents an interesting example of how IS is attempting to gain a foothold in an area in which a strong AQ organization is already established. IS was formally established in Yemen in November 2014, when the head of Islamic State, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, accepted an oath of allegiance (bayah) from IS supporters in Yemen, which in the process became a province (wilayat) of Islamic State.2 At that point in time, IS in all likelihood consisted of a relatively small number of individuals, of which the majority are thought to have been defectors from AQAP. IS has attempted to appeal to sections of AQAP who feel that AQAP has been too hesitant to increase the brutality of its methods and intensify the sectarian narrative which has proven popular after the collapse of the Yemeni state following the Arab Spring in 2011. In this paper, I will focus on how IS and AQAP distinguish themselves from one another, the balance of power between the two organizations, and their relationship with one another.

The Arab Spring - The Collapse of the State of Yemen

The Arab Spring reached Yemen at a time when Ali Abdullah Salih, the country's then president, was increasingly fighting to suppress growing dissatisfaction among large sections of the population. Under the slogans of the Arab Spring the hitherto isolated protests unified and grew until Yemen stood at the brink of civil war. At this point, the Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC), supported by the United Nations (UN), helped successfully avoid civil war by formulating a negotiated transfer of power where Salih was forced to hand over the presidency to his vice-president, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, but granted immunity and allowed to remain in Yemen as head of the former ruling party, the General People's Congress (GPC).3 In addition to the transfer of executive powers from Salih to Hadi, the transitional agreement, commonly referred to as the GCC Initiative, provided for an inclusive National Dialogue aimed at defining the future Yemeni state and providing input to a new Yemeni constitution. The National Dialogue Conference (NDC), a 10-month-long dialogue with the participation of 565 representatives from various segments of Yemeni society, including most political parties, youths and women, was described as a success by Yemen's international partners. …

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