Islamic Kingdom vs. Islamic State: Assessing the Effectiveness of a Saudi-led Counter-Terrorist Army

Andrew McGregor

April 16, 2016

After taking the throne in January, the new Saudi regime of King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud seems determined to shake off the perceived lethargy of the Saudi royals, presenting a more vigorous front against a perceived Shi’a threat in the Gulf with the appointment of former Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayef as Crown Prince and Salman’s son Muhammad as Minister of Defense and second in line to the throne. To contain Shiite expansion in the Gulf region, the Saudis created a coalition of Muslim countries last year to combat Yemen’s Zaydi Shiite Houthi movement, which had displaced the existing government and occupied Yemen’s capital in 2014. Assessing the military performance of this coalition is useful in projecting the performance of an even larger Saudi-led “counter-terrorist” coalition designed to intervene in Syria and elsewhere.

Saudi Border PostSaudi Border Post Overlooking Yemen

As a demonstration of the united military will of 20 majority Sunni nations (excluding Bahrain, which has a Shi’a majority but a Sunni royal family), the Saudi-led Operation Northern Thunder military exercise gained wide attention during its run from February 14 to March 10 (Middle East Monitor, March 3, 2016).[1] The massive exercise involved the greatest concentration of troops and military equipment in the Middle East since the Gulf War. However, Saudi ambitions run further to the creation of an anti-terrorism (read anti-Shi’a) coalition of 35 Muslim nations that is unlikely to ever see the light of day as conceived. Questions were raised regarding the true intent of this coalition when it became clear Shi’a-majority Iran and Iraq were deliberately excluded, as was Lebanon’s Shi’a Hezbollah movement.

Coalition Operations in Yemen

A Saudi-led coalition launched Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen on March 26, 2015 as a means of reversing recent territorial gains by the Zaydi Shi’a Houthi movement, securing the common border and restoring the government of internationally recognized president Abd Rabu Mansur al-Hadi, primarily by means of aerial bombardment.

Nine other nations joined the Saudi-coalition; the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Senegal, the latter being the only non-Arab League member. Senegal’s surprising participation was likely the result of promises of financial aid; Senegal’s parliament was told the 2,100 man mission was aimed at “protecting and securing the holy sites of Islam,” Mecca and Madinah (RFI, March 12, 2015).

Despite having the largest army in the coalition, Egypt’s ground contributions appear to have been minimal, with the nation still wary of entanglement in Yemen after the drubbing its expeditionary force took from Royalist guerrillas in Yemen’s mountains during the 1962-1970 civil war, a campaign that indirectly damaged Egypt’s performance in the 1973 Ramadan War against Israel. The Egyptians have instead focused on contributing naval ships to secure the Bab al-Mandab southern entrance to the Red Sea, a strategic priority for both Egypt and the United States.

With support from the UK and the United States, the Saudi-led intervention was seen by Iran, Russia and Gulf Shiite leaders as a violation of international law; more important, from an operational perspective, was the decision of long-time military ally Pakistan to take a pass on a Saudi invitation to join the conflict (Reuters, April 10, 2015).

Operation Decisive Storm was declared over on April 21, 2015, to be replaced the next day with Operation Restoring Hope. Though the new operation was intended to have a greater political focus and a larger ground component, the aerial and naval bombing campaign and U.S.-supported blockade of rebel-held ports continued.

The failure of airstrikes alone to make significant changes in military facts on the ground was displayed once again in the Saudi-led air campaign. A general unconcern for collateral damage, poor ground-air coordination (despite Western assistance in targeting) and a tendency to strike any movement of armed groups managed to alienate the civilian population as well as keep Yemeni government troops in their barracks rather than risk exposure to friendly fire in the field (BuzzFeed, April 2, 2015).  At times, the airstrikes have dealt massive casualties to non-military targets, including 119 people killed in an attack on a market in Hajja province in March 2016 and a raid on a wedding party in September 2015 that killed 131 people (Guardian, March 17, 2016).

While coalition operations have killed some 3,000 militants, the death of an equal number of civilians, the use of cluster munitions and the destruction of infrastructure, mosques, markets, heritage buildings, residential neighborhoods, health facilities, schools and other non-military targets constitute a serious mistake in counter-insurgency operations. Interruptions to the delivery of food, fuel, water and medical services have left many Yemenis prepared to support whomever is able to provide essential services and a modicum of security.

A Muslim Army or an Army of Mercenaries?

When the population of Germany’s small states began to grow in the late 18th century, the rulers of duchies and principalities such as Hesse, Hanover, Brunswick found it both expedient and profitable to rent out their small but highly-trained armies to Great Britain (whose own army was extremely small) for service in America, India, Austria, Scotland, and Ireland. Similarly, a number of Muslim-majority nations appear to be contributing troops to the Saudi-led coalition in return for substantial financial favors from the Saudi Kingdom.

Khartoum’s severance of long-established military and economic relations with Iran has been followed by a much cozier and financially beneficial relationship with Saudi Arabia (much needed after the loss of South Sudan’s oilfields). Sudan committed 850 troops (out of a pledged 6,000) and four warplanes to the fighting in Yemen; like the leaders of other coalition states, President Omar al-Bashir justified the deployment in locally unchallengeable terms of religious necessity – the need to protect the holy places of Mecca and Madinah, which are nonetheless not under any realistic threat from Houthi forces (Sudan Tribune, March 15, 2016).

Khartoum was reported to have received a $1 billion deposit from Qatar in April 2015 and another billion in August 2015 from Saudi Arabia, followed by pledges of Saudi financing for a number of massive Sudanese infrastructure projects (Gulf News, August 13, 2015; East African [Nairobi], October 31, 2015; Radio Dabanga, October 4, 2015). Sudanese commitment to the Yemen campaign was also rewarded with $5 billion worth of military assistance from Riyadh in February, much of which will be turned against Sudan’s rebel movements and help ensure the survival of President Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and crimes against humanity (Sudan Tribune, February 24, 2016). Some Sudanese troops appear to have been deployed against Houthi forces in the highlands of Ta’iz province, presumably using experience gained in fighting rebel movements in Sudan’s Nuba Hills region (South Kordofan) and Darfur’s Jabal Marra mountain range.

The UN’s Somalia-Eritrea Monitoring Group (SEMG) cited “credible information” this year that Eritrean troops were embedded in UAE formations in Yemen, though this was denied by Eritrea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (Geeska Afrika Online [Asmara], February 23). The SEMG also reported that Eritrea was allowing the Arab coalition to use its airspace, land territory and waters in the anti-Houthi campaign in return for fuel and financial compensation. [2] Somalia accepted a similar deal in April 2015 (Guardian, April 7, 2015).

UAE troops, mostly from the elite Republican Guard (commanded by Austrian Mike Hindmarsh) have performed well in Yemen, particularly in last summer’s battle for Aden; according to Brigadier General Ahmad Abdullah Turki, commander of Yemen’s Third Brigade: “Our Emirati brothers surprised us with their high morale and unique combat skills,” (Gulf News, December 5, 2015). The UAE’s military relies on a large number of foreign advisers at senior levels, mostly Australians (Middle East Eye, December 23, 2015). Hundreds of Colombian mercenaries have been reported fighting under UAE command, with the Houthis reporting the death of six plus their Australian commander (Saba News Agency [Sana’a], December 8, 2015; Colombia Reports [Medellin], October 26, 2015; Australian Associated Press, December 8, 2015).

There is actually little to be surprised about in the coalition’s use of mercenaries, a common practice in the post-independence Gulf region. A large portion of Saudi Arabia’s combat strength and officer corps consists of Sunni Pakistanis, while Pakistani pilots play important roles in the air forces of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. As well as the Emirates, Oman and Qatar have both relied heavily on mercenaries in their defense forces and European mercenaries played a large role in Royalist operations during North Yemen’s 1962-1970 civil war.

Insurgent Tactics

The Houthis have mounted near-daily attacks on Saudi border defenses, using mortars, Katyusha and SCUD rockets to strike Saudi positions in Najran and Jizan despite Saudi reinforcements of armor, attack helicopters and National Guard units. Little attempt has been made by the Houthis to hold ground on the Saudi side of the border, which would only feed Saudi propaganda that the Shiites are intent on seizing the holy cities of the Hijaz.

When Republican Guard forces loyal to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh joined the Houthi rebellion, they brought firepower previously unavailable to the Houthis, including the Russian-made OTR-21 mobile missile system. OTR-21 missiles have been used in at least five major strikes on Saudi or coalition bases, causing hundreds of deaths and many more wounded.

Saudi ArtillerySaudi Artillery Fires on Houthi Positions (Faisal al-Nasser, Reuters)

The Islamic State (IS) has been active in Yemen since its local formation in November 2014. Initially active in Sana’a, the movement has switched its focus to Aden and Hadramawt. IS has used familiar asymmetric tactics in Yemen, assassinating security figures and deploying suicide bombers in bomb-laden vehicles against soft targets such as mosques (which AQAP now refrains from) as well as suicide attacks on military checkpoints that are followed by assaults with small arms. With its small numbers, the group has been most effective in urban areas that offer concealment and dispersal opportunities. Nonetheless, part of its inability to expand appears to lie in the carelessness with which Islamic State handles the lives of its own fighters and the wide dislike of the movement’s foreign (largely Saudi) leadership.

War on al-Qaeda

With control of nearly four governorates, a major port (Mukalla, capital of Hadramawt province) and 373 miles of coastline, al-Qaeda has created a financial basis for its administration by looting banks, collecting taxes on trade and selling oil to other parts of fuel-starved Yemen (an unforeseen benefit to AQAP of the naval blockade). The group displayed its new-found confidence by trying (unsuccessfully) to negotiate an oil export deal with Hadi’s government last October (Reuters, April 8, 2016).

Eliminating al-Qaeda’s presence in Yemen was not a military priority in the Saudi-led campaign until recently, with an attack by Saudi Apache attack helicopters on AQAP positions near Aden on March 13 and airstrikes against AQAP-held military bases near Mukalla that failed to dislodge the group (Reuters, March 13; Xinhua, April 3, 2016).

Perhaps drawing on lessons learned from al-Qaeda’s failed attempt to hold territory in Mali in 2012-2013, AQAP in Yemen has focused less on draconian punishments and the destruction of Islamic heritage sites than the creation of a working administration that provides new infrastructure, humanitarian assistance, health services and a degree of security not found elsewhere in Yemen (International Business Times, April 7, 2016).

Conclusion: A Saudi-led Coalition in Syria?

The Saudis are now intent on drawing down coalition ground operations while initiating new training programs for Yemeni government troops and engaging in “rebuilding and reconstruction” activities (al-Arabiya, March 17, 2016). A ceasefire took hold in Yemen on April 10 in advance of UN-brokered peace talks in Kuwait to begin on April 18.  Signs that a political solution may be at hand in Yemen include Hadi’s appointment of a new vice-president and prime minister, the presence of a Houthi negotiating team in Riyadh and the exclusion of ex-president Saleh from the process, a signal his future holds political isolation rather than a return to leadership (Ahram Online, April 7, 2016).

If peace negotiations succeed in drawing the Houthis into the Saudi camp the Kingdom will emerge with a significant political, if not military, victory, though the royal family will still have an even stronger AQAP to contend with.  Like the Great War, the end of the current war in Yemen appears to be setting the conditions for a new conflict so long as it remains politically impossible to negotiate with AQAP. However, AQAP is taking the initiative to gain legitimacy by testing new names and consolidating a popular administration in regions under its control. Unless current trends are reversed, AQAP may eventually be the first al-Qaeda affiliate to successfully make the shift from terrorist organization to political party.

The cost to the Saudis in terms of cash and their international reputation has been considerable in Yemen, yet Hadi, recently fled to Riyadh, is no closer to ruling than when the campaign began. Sana’a remains under Houthi control and radical Islamists have taken advantage of the intervention to expand their influence. Perhaps in light of this failure, Saudi foreign minister Adl al-Jubayr has suggested the Kingdom now intends only a smaller Special Forces contribution to the fighting in Syria that would focus not on replacing the Syrian regime but rather on destroying Islamic State forces “in the framework of the international coalition” (Gulf News, February 23, 2016). Introducing a larger Saudi-led coalition to the anti-Islamic State campaign in Syria/Iraq without a clear understanding and set of protocols with other parties involved (Iran, Iraq, Russia, Hezbollah, the Syrian Army) could easily ignite a greater conflict rather than contribute to the elimination of the Islamic State. Saudi Arabia is not a disinterested party in the Syrian struggle; it has been deeply involved in providing financial, military and intelligence support to various religiously-oriented militias that operate at odds with groups supported by other interested parties.

The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen has left one of the poorest nations on earth in crisis, with 2.5 million displaced and millions more without access to basic necessities. With Yemen’s infrastructure and heritage left in ruins and none of the coalition’s strategic objectives achieved, it seems difficult to imagine that the insertion into Syria of another Saudi-led coalition would make any meaningful contribution to bringing that conflict to a successful or sustainable end.


  1. Besides Saudi Arabia, the other nations involved in the exercise included Egypt, Jordan, Senegal, Sudan, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Pakistan, Chad, Tunisia, Djibouti, Comoro Islands and Peninsula Shield Force partners Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
  2. Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea pursuant to Security Council resolution 2182 (2014): Eritrea, October 19, 2015, 3/93,


An edited version of this article appeared in the April 15, 2016 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor under the title: “Saudi Arabia’s Intervention in Yemen Suggests a Troubled Future for the Kingdom’s Anti-Terror Coalition,”[tt_news]=45324&tx_ttnews[backPid]=26&cHash=e2d5de949e926ff3b5d9228dc4b96af7#.VxfvSkdqnIU


Senegal’s Military Expedition to Yemen: Muslim Solidarity or Rent-an-Army?

Andrew McGregor

AIS Tips and Trends: The African Security Report

July 30, 2015

With Yemen’s Shiite Houthi movement now in control of most of Yemen, a Saudi-led military coalition continues to carry out air attacks on Houthi fighters and installations. Despite the participation of a number of national air forces, the total impact has not been enough to shake Houthi resolve.

Senegal MapThough there is an apparent need to deploy ground forces to restore the administration of president-in-exile Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi, most members of the coalition are reluctant to deploy ground forces in any significant number, being well aware of the difficulty of maintaining foreign forces in Yemen’s mountainous and ambush-friendly terrain. It was thus intriguing when Senegal’s foreign minister Mankeur Ndiaye announced on May 4 that the West African nation was sending 2,100 ground troops to Saudi Arabia in response to a request from the Saudi government. Surprisingly, the deployment marks the second time Senegalese troops will have served in Saudi Arabia; 500 Senegalese soldiers were deployed in Saudi Arabia during the 1990-1991 Gulf War. The mission was marred by a deadly plane crash in March 1991 in which 92 soldiers died.

Despite the government’s claim that the jamdars (Wolof – “brave men,” the popular local term for Senegalese troops) will be protecting the holy cities of Mecca and Madinah, it is expected that the Senegalese will join the coalition attempting to secure the Kingdom’s southern border with the Houthi-held regions of northern Yemen. A spokesman for Senegal’s leading opposition party, the Parti démocratique sénégalais (PDS), declared that government suggestions that the deployment was intended to protect the holy cities “were baseless because the geo-strategic role of the Middle East is more complex than the protection of Islamic religious sites” (Xinhua, May 11, 2015).

Social media in Senegal has questioned the deployment and some observers have noted the recent Saudi commitment to provide much of the funding for a broad government development scheme known as Programme Senegal Emergent 2035 (BBC, May 5, 2015). With an estimated cost of over $16 billion, the initiative remained badly underfunded until the Saudis stepped in. Senegalese president Macky Sall is relying on the programme’s success to return him to office. Senegal is a traditional recipient of Saudi aid, which funds many important development projects, but has never signed a defense agreement with Saudi Arabia. France continues to have a military presence in Dakar, but in line with a 2010 defense agreement between France and Senegal, this deployment has been scaled back from 1,200 troops to 300 (RFI, April 18, 2012).[1]

Senegal is not the only African state to join the Saudi-led coalition – Sudan, Egypt and Morocco have also contributed troops – but Senegal is the lone member that is not part of the Arab League. Sudan, a major recipient of Saudi aid and investment, has contributed four Sukhoi SU-24M “Fencer” attack aircraft that have reportedly flown missions against Houthi forces in Yemen (DefenceNews, April 1, 2015).  Other members of the coalition include Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In a surprise decision, the parliament of Pakistan, a Saudi ally, voted against contributing forces to the coalition. Lacking a UN mandate, the Saudi-led coalition remains open to criticism that its intervention in Yemen lacks a legal basis.

NowgassGeneral Mamadou Sow “Nowgass” – Chief of the General Staff of Senegal

While President Sall insists the deployment is intended to “deal with the threat to the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic holy sites to which the kingdom is home” (a fairly obvious effort to enlist the support of Senegal’s powerful Sufi brotherhoods), opposition figures have pointed out that neither the Kingdom nor its holy cities are under threat (The Star [Johannesburg], May 22, 2015). The administration does not appear willing to dissent on this issue; a May protest planned by Bou Jambar Dem (No to Sending Soldiers), a coalition opposed to the deployment, was banned by authorities.

Further government attempts to suggest the deployment will be fighting “terrorism” did not quiet opposition criticism; Yemen’s Houthis are an armed social/political/religious movement rather than a terrorist group like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or the Islamic State movement, neither of which are targets of the coalition despite having a strong presence in Yemen.

Since independence, Senegal has joined military interventions in Zaire (1978), Gambia (1981) and Guinea-Bissau (1998). Senegal’s military has also made significant contributions to peacekeeping missions in Côte d-Ivoire, Darfur, Rwanda and the Central African Republic. Both the United States and France provide equipment and training to the Senegalese military, which has gained a reputation for professionalism reinforced by its traditional reluctance to insert itself into the nation’s political sphere.

A report from the Saudi Press Agency on May 10 claimed that Malaysia had sent military forces to join the Saudi coalition, adding that the Saudi Ministry of Defense was planning to merge the Malaysian and Senegalese forces (al-Arabiya, May 10, 2015). However, Malaysia’s defense minister quickly corrected this report, noting that Malaysia was only sending humanitarian assistance and the personnel and equipment (including two Royal Malaysian Air Force C-130 “Hercules” transport aircraft) necessary to evacuate Malaysians working or studying in the Kingdom (The Star [Kuala Lumpur], May 11, 2015; The Diplomat, May 12, 2015).

Islam in Senegal

While Senegal is over 90% Muslim, its typical form of religious practice differs significantly from the Salafist Islam of Saudi Arabia. Both nations are majority Sunni, but Senegalese Islam is still largely based on membership in Sufi brotherhoods, a form of Islam generally despised by the Salafists, who claim Sufism incorporates pre-Islamic traditions, involves intermediaries in the relationship between God and man (usually in the form of deceased or living Sufi shaykhs whose spiritual power is hereditary) and encourages pilgrimage to shrines other than Mecca and Madinah, thus rendering Sufism a type of Islamic heresy in the eyes of the Salafists.

Senegal Great MosqueGreat Mosque in Touba, Senegal

Senegal’s Sufi brotherhoods include the well-known and internationally-based Tijaniya and Qadiriya brotherhoods, as well as two smaller local brotherhoods, the Muridiya (a.k.a. Mourides) and the Layenes. Both the latter orders originated in the 19th century. The Mourides are common to both Senegal and Gambia and promote pilgrimage to the Senegalese city of Toumba rather than Mecca. The Layene Brotherhood is a particularly unorthodox movement native to Senegal. The Layene’s founder and his successor claimed to be reincarnations of the Prophet Muhammad and Jesus Christ respectively and the group consequently mixes elements of both Islam and Christianity in its rituals.

The Jama’atou Ibadou Rahman (Jama’at Ibad al-Rahman) movement is a Saudi-supported Islamic reformist movement founded in 1979 by Shaykh Touré in which piety is expressed through the veil, Arab-style clothing and close observance of orthodox Islamic ritual. The Ibadou are extremely critical of Sufism and the marabout[2] system in Senegal and of Shi’ism in general, but do not espouse violence in their opposition. On a more general level, the term “Ibadou” is used by Senegalese Sufis “to refer to any veiled woman or bearded man.”[3]

Al-Falah is a Saudi-influenced “apolitical” Salafist movement whose Senegal branch was established in 1967.[4] Salafism and related forms of reformist Islam have a wide following in Senegal’s universities. At lower educational levels, there is a parallel system of government-run French-language, Western-style schools and Arabic-language Koranic schools that have little if any government regulation.[5]

Most notable among Senegal’s small Muslim extremist community is Imam Mamour Fall, leader of the Parti Islamique Sénégalais and a bitter opponent of Senegal’s Sufi brotherhoods. Deported from Italy in 2003 after an 11 year residency following his public support for al-Qaeda and attacks on Italian military personnel, Fall continued to advance extremist views once back in Senegal, claiming to have fought in the Bosnian War and to have been a companion of Osama bin Laden during the latter’s stay in Sudan in the 1990s. The Imam described Bin Laden as “a great man, a great strategist, a great Muslim, and that is what interests us and not the fact that he is accused of killing people” (Reuters, December 8, 2003). The Salafist/reformist view of Senegalese Sufism was summed up by Imam Mamour Fall: “Senegal is the capital of polytheism after India. If Hindus worship cows, Senegalese love the corpses of their marabouts… Here, 99% of people live on magic; they love magicians and they waste all their money to buy ‘talismans’.”[6]


Any foreign military deployment runs the risk of violent retribution, but in this sense Senegal is relatively fortunate in its choice of an enemy – the Houthi movement does not exist outside of Yemen and its host Zaydi Shiite community has displayed little ability or even interest in mounting attacks outside of Yemen. There is a small community of Lebanese Shiite traders in Senegal and an even smaller number of native Senegalese Shiites, none of whom are likely to have any connections with the Houthi movement, whose Zaydi “Fiver” Shi’ism has more in common with the Shafi’i form of Sunni Islam practiced in Yemen than with the “Twelver” Shi’ism of Iran and Lebanon (the “fiver” and “twelver” distinctions refer to the number of imams each movement believes succeeded the Prophet Muhammad as spiritual and political leaders of the Islamic community). However, Senegal might become a target for Sunni extremists due to its alliance with the Saudi government, which is reviled in turn as an ally and partner of the West by groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Such groups might recall Senegal’s participation in the French-led military coalition that expelled foreign jihadists from northern Mali in 2013, an earlier deployment that had far from universal approval within Senegal. Unpopular military deployments in other parts of the Islamic world could have the unwanted result of encouraging domestic extremism, particularly amongst alienated urban youth.

Renting state troops in Hessian fashion may not be necessary in the future if oil exploration work in Senegal turns out as expected. Scottish oil firm Cairn Energy is embarking on a major drilling operation it believes could result in the discovery of more than a billion barrels after promising results from initial offshore drilling (The Scotsman [Edinburgh], May 12, 2015).[7]


[1]  For Senegal’s role in France’s Operation Barkhane, see Andrew McGregor, “Operation Barkhane: France’s New Military Approach to Counter-Terrorism in Africa,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, July 24, 2015,

[2] Arabic marbut or marubit; used in practice to denote an Islamic scholar of the Maghreb and Sahel regions, usually with personal followings that rely on the marabout for religious instruction, advice and the dispensation of supernatural powers through the production of amulets and talismans, a common practice in Africa, but one that is decidedly unorthodox.

[3] Cleo Cantone: Making and Remaking Mosques in Senegal, Leiden, 2012, p. 261.

[4] See

[5]  “Overview of Religious Radicalism and the Terrorist Threat in Senegal,” ECOWAS Peace and Security Report 3, May 2013, p. 5,

[6] Shaykh ‘Abdul Qadir Fadlallah Mamour (Imam Mamour Fall): “Ya Asafa,” February 26, 2009,

[7] See

Houthis Battle Army and Tribal Militias for Control of Yemen’s Amran Governorate

Andrew McGregor
July 24, 2014

At the conclusion of a three-day battle, experienced Houthist fighters stormed the ancient Yemeni walled city of Amran on July 8, killing some 200 people in the process and displacing at least 35,000 before beginning a manhunt for remaining security officials (al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 10). Amran is the capital of the Amran governorate and the home of ex-president Saleh and the powerful al-Ahmar clan. With the Houthists now established only 50 kilometers away from the capital, Yemen’s cabinet met to condemn the offensive and issue a statement that said: “We hold the Houthis legally and morally responsible for what is happening in Amran and the implications of this on the security and stability of the homeland” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 10). At the same time, the Yemeni Air Force was striking targets within Amran, including the captured headquarters of the 310th Armored Brigade (Yemen Times, July 10). Soviet and Saudi-trained Brigadier General Hamid al-Qushaibi, an ally of the Islamist Islah (Reform) Party and commander of the 310th Brigade, was killed soon afterwards in ambiguous circumstances, with the Houthis claiming he was found dead and the Islah Party insisting he was executed by Houthist insurgents (Yemen Times, July 15).

al-QushaibiBrigadier Hamid al-Qushaibi

The Houthis are a religious-political movement in northern Yemen that has fought a series of wars with the central government. The Houthis are Zaydi Shiites, but so are most of their opponents in the Hashid tribal confederation, which includes the powerful al-Ahmar clan. Even religious differences between the Zaydis and the Shafi’i Sunni population of Yemen (a slight majority since unification with the largely Sunni south) are minimal, though the small but growing Salafist community in Yemen takes a sterner view of Zaydi Shi’ism.
Fighting between the Houthis and al-Ahmar tribesmen in Amran governorate began last October. Clashes between the Houthis and Yemen’s 310th Armored Brigade began in March after troops denied armed Houthists entry to Amran City (Yemen Times, July 10). By June the Houthists were battling the 310th Armored Brigade and tribal militias over the approaches to Amran city.

After driving the 310th Brigade from Amran, the Houthists began artillery exchanges with units of the 6th Military Command based in the mountains outside Amran City. The 6th Military Command withdrew on July 13 to allow the replacement of both it and the 310th Brigade in Amran with troops belonging to the 9th Brigade, a unit based in Houthist-controlled Sa’ada that is viewed as less inimical to the Houthist movement than the withdrawn units (Yemen Times, July 15).

Amran CityAmran City, Yemen

Although the 310th Brigade made an effort to hold the city, there were concerns over the ease with which the local Special Security Forces camp was overrun, with accusations from observers of a “hand-over” and an “act of treason” (Yemen Times, July 10). Shortly after the Houthist occupation of Amran, new clashes broke out between Houthist fighters and tribal militias affiliated with the Islah Party in neighboring al-Jawf governorate. The UN Security Council addressed the situation on July 11, demanding that the Houthis withdraw from Amran while promising sanctions against those parties determined to be inhibiting a political solution in Yemen (al-Jazeera, July 12). The Houthists have begun to use the Islah Party’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood to characterize Party members as “terrorists,” as they are now described in Egypt (Yemen Post, July 16). The Saudi government has also recently backed off from its traditional support of the Islah Party due to the Party’s connections with the Brotherhood.

An agreement was reached to allow Houthist forces in Amran city to be replaced by forces under the command of the Defense Ministry; however, even after the withdrawal agreement, a large-scale al-Houthi presence continued in Amran city and nearby areas (Yemen Times, July 15). [1]

The failure of Major General Ali Mohsin’s loyalists to hold Amran enabled President Abdu Rabbu Mansur Hadi to make further changes in the military command, removing Mohsin loyalists General Muhammad al-Magdashi (commander of the 6th Military Command) and General Muhammad al-Sawmali (commander of the Hadramawt-based 1st Military Command) (Yemen Times, July 15). Since becoming president, Hadi has struggled to bring the factionalized armed forces under presidential control, using purges of the senior officer corps to address continuing competition for influence from the former president, General Mohsin and the Islah Party, all of which remain significant forces within Yemen’s military.

A series of presidential decrees have already removed Hadi’s biggest challengers for control of the military, sending Ahmad al-Ahmar, ex-president Saleh’s son and commander of the Republican Guard, to the United Arab Emirates to serve as Yemen’s ambassador. General Mohsin was relieved of his command of the First Armored Division and made special military advisor to the president. Shortages of pay have aggravated the situation in the military, provoking a series of small mutinies in the army and the security forces. The fact that the central government has no other means than negotiation to persuade the troops to return to their duties only encourages further such events.


1. UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Yemen: Amran conflict situation report no.6, July 16, 2014,

This article was originally published in the July 24, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Successful Offensive Establishes Houthi Shiite Movement as Political Force in the New Yemen

Andrew McGregor

February 21, 2014

Since last October, the Zaydi Shiite Houthis of northern Yemen’s Sa’ada governorate have been involved in simultaneous conflicts with the Zaydi Shiites of the Hamid Confederation of tribes in neighboring Amran governorate and Salafist Sunnis concentrated in the town of Dammaj in Sa’adah governorate. Propelled by an apparently new armory of heavy weapons, the Houthists began to push south into neighboring Amran governorate in early January, eventually defeating the powerful al-Ahmar clan, leaders of the Hashid Arab confederation. By the time a ceasefire could be arranged in early February, Houthist forces were in the Arhab region, only 40 kilometers from the Yemeni capital of Sana’a (AFP, January 30).

Qat-chewing Houthist Fighters

The Zaydi, also known as “Fiver Shi’a,” constitute over 40% of Yemen’s population, though only a portion of this total are Houthis. They have traditionally had few major doctrinal differences with Yemen’s Sunni Shafi’i majority, but have run into conflict with the growing numbers of anti-Shiite Salafists in Sa’ada governorate. In the two years since the uprising that deposed Yemen’s old regime, the Houthis have made a dramatic transition from a Sa’ada-based rebel movement to an important and recognized political player in Yemen.

By February 2, the Hashid defensive lines began to collapse, allowing the Houthis to take Khamri, the home of Hussein al-Ahmar (brother of Hashid tribal chief Sadiq al-Ahmar), though not before Hussein ordered his family property to be burned to the ground before evacuating (AFP, February 2). The Houthist offensive was also opposed by a number of pro-government Zaydi Shiite tribes (AFP, January 30).

On February 9, government mediators succeeded in arriving at a ceasefire agreement in Amran governorate between the Houthis and their al-Ahmar opponents. The agreement called for the Houthis to withdraw from the Arhab district, but in turn provided for the expulsion of all non-local Salafists from Dammaj, where many were studying at the Dar al-Hadith Seminary, which has a large number of foreign students (Yemen Post, February 10). However, Yemen’s Salafist political party, the Rashad Union, referred to the “forcible displacement” of Salafists from Dammaj and accused the Houthis of committing “atrocities” and “crimes against humanity” (World Bulletin, January 19). The Houthists in turn have said they had no problem with the Salafist students, only the large number of “armed fighters who were students at the school” (Yemen Times, January 16). Houthists put the Dammaj seminary under siege last October in response to what they viewed as a mounting threat from the Salafists gathering in Dammaj.

Once the ceasefire was in place, troops of the national army’s 62 Brigade began to deploy to checkpoints formerly occupied by the combatants in Arhab (Saba News Agency [Sana’a], February 13). The agreement to expel non-local Salafis from Dammaj sent some 15,000 Salafis streaming south into the Sawan district of Sana’a, where local residents were surprised to see them filling mosques and markets as temporary residences, throwing up tents and setting checkpoints manned by gunmen along roads and alleys (Yemen Times, January 29).

Houthi representative Muhammad al-Bukhaiti has emphasized that the conflict in Dammaj was a reaction to steps taken by the leader of the Hashid confederation: The ongoing clashes in Hashid are the result of a document signed by Shaykh al-Ahmar in 2010. That agreement stipulated that if anyone from the Hashid tribe joined the Houthis or supported them, they are subject to death and having their property expropriated. Accordingly, several individuals associated with the Houthis in the Danan area were displaced. This is the reason behind the original clashes in Dammaj” (Yemen Times, January 14).

Though the Houthi advance has brought its fighters close to Sana’a, it seems unlikely that the Houthists will attempt to take the capital, knowing such a move could easily ignite a much larger conflict. Besides, as a Houthi spokesman noted, the movement already has a sizable presence in Sana’a that makes further infiltration unnecessary: “There are hundreds of thousands of Houthis in Sana’a and everyone knows it” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 7).

Looking to explain the al-Ahmar collapse and the national army’s failure to intervene, some Yemeni observers have attributed the Houthis’ advance to military support from Iran and diplomatic intervention and intelligence updates from the United States (Yemen Post, February 10). Hadi’s strategy in avoiding a military confrontation with the Houthists appears to have been designed to avoid further escalation of the situation, but has inevitably made him look weak in the eyes of some Yemenis. Business mogul and al-Ahmar clan member Hamid al-Ahmar is among those who have suggested that his clan’s defeat was due to the intervention of Hashid member and ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ordered followers and tribesmen within the Hashid confederation to support the Houthists in retribution for the al-Ahmar clan’s role in deposing Saleh in February 2012 (al-Masder [Sana’a], February 9; AFP, February 2).

Defeated in battle, Sadiq al-Ahmar formed a committee of 60 tribal and religious figures to meet with President Hadi to demand the government halt Houthist expansion and force the Houthis to relinquish their heavy weapons and form a political party (Gulf News, February 11).  The demands were quickly rejected by a Houthist spokesman: “The same religious and tribal figures who would ask Hadi to ask us to hand over our weapons, fought the former government in 2011 with heavy weapons… We are part of a country awash with weapons. No one can force us to form a political party. When we realize that it is in our interest to form a party, we will do it” (Gulf News, February 11).

In a January 13 speech given on the occasion of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, Houthi leader Abd al-Malik al-Houthi suggested the Houthi breakout was the result of regional insecurity: “When the state is able to protect us as citizens we will not be forced to use our weapons against anyone, but when the government is unable to do that, we will defend ourselves and our society… We really regret every drop of blood, even of those who fight against us” (, January 14).

A presidential “Regions Defining Committee (RDC)” formed in January to decide on Yemen’s new federal structure has approved the division of Yemen into six federal regions, with special status for certain regions such as the capital:

  • In the south, the regions of Aden(including the governorates of Aden, Lahj, al-Dhale and Abyan) and Hadramawt (including Hadramawt, Shabwa, al-Mahra and Socotra)
  • In the north, the regions of Shebah (including the governorates of al-Jawf, Marib and al-Bayda), Janad (including Ta’iz and Ibb), Azal (including Amran, Sana’a, Dhamar and the Houthi homeland of Sa’ada) and Tahama (Hodeida, al-Mahwit, Hajjah and Raymah).
  • The capital, Sana’a, would exist independent of any regional authority as a “neutral” space
  • The southern port of Aden would be given “independent legislative and executive powers” (BBC, February 10).

The Houthist political wing, Ansar Allah, quickly objected to the work of the RDC, which will be folded into a new constitution that must be approved in a national referendum. According to Ansar Allah, the new internal borders will divide Yemen into poor and wealthy regions (Press TV [Tehran], February 11).

Houthi representative Muhammad al-Bukhaiti pointed out that Sa’ada had been included into the Azal region, an area with no major natural resources and no access to the sea, while Sa’ada’s stronger “cultural, social and geographic links” with neighboring Hajjah (with access to the sea) and Jawf (east of Sa’ada beside the Saudi border) had been ignored by the RDC (Yemen Online, February 12). Another Houthi leader, Ali al-Emad, predicted that “This form of division will probably cause internal conflicts in the future because it was decided on a sectarian and tribal basis” (Yemen Times, February 13).

This article first appeared in the February 21, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

AQAP Commander Says “War on Terrorism Will Ruin U.S. Economy

Andrew McGregor

December 12, 2013

Jihadi forums have begun posting a recent interview conducted with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) commander Nasr bin Ali al-A’ainisi by Yemen’s al-Wasat daily. In the course of the interview, al-A’ainsi described the reasons why AQAP prefers armed rebellion to politics, saying the movement rejected partisanship and democratic activities. When confronted by systems that oppose religious principles, it becomes impossible to form a political party when the imperative is to “remove this system” with all available means, “including jihad and forming an armed organization.” To turn to democracy and the political process would be a type of surrender: “Abandoning arms under a colonial crusader control and hegemony, means acceptance and subordination and bowing before those occupier, and leaving arms under the absence of Shari’a and ruling with what Allah have not revealed, means accepting this reality…” [1]

Nasr bin Ali al-A’ainisi

The AQAP commander warned that a recent direction from al-Qaeda leader Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri ordering jihadis to refrain from killing non-combatants “even if they are the families of those who fight us as much as possible” would have little effect on AQAP tactics and targets:

This is a clear phrase, and it came when speaking about dealing with the local governments and sects that live in the Islamic lands and it doesn’t require what you mentioned from stopping attacks against the American civilians, since the stance of the organization and the fatwa which it adopts is that the American people is a combatant people, while the speech is specific about non-combatants.

In commenting on the September 16 Washington Navy Yard attack by alleged Buddhist Aaron Alexis, al-A’ainisi noted that “the injustice and oppression of America is not only limited to the Muslims.” The commander went on to remind Americans that many nations had not forgotten their humiliations at the hands of the Americans, including Japan and Germany, and were only waiting for the appropriate time to take their revenge: “That’s why I give [Americans] glad tidings of a horrific dark future awaiting them, and the moment of revenge not only from the Muslims but rather from many enemies who cannot forget it even if the Americans forgot them.” Al-A’ainsi says it is important to remember that the American “war on terrorism” has cost five times what the United States spent on World War II, and that this was the principal cause of the forthcoming collapse of the American economy.

Al-A’ainsi rejects the notion that armed rebellion only invites external interference against Yemen: “If we refused any movement or action against the Arab and non-Arab tyrants under the pretext that it increases their tyranny or aggression, that means that we rule on ourselves to be slaves to them for life, for example: is it fair to say that the revolution of the Syrian people against the tyranny of Bashar only brought more foreign Russian – Iranian interference?… The question that should be asked: what have been achieved through submission, subordination and surrender to America for decades?”

AQAP was not invited to the national dialogue conference, according to al-A’ainisi, because the dialogue was sponsored by the United States and excluded the possibility of a Shari’a state. AQAP’s demands are non-negotiable – the prevention of external influence in Yemen, particularly that of the United States and the West, and the implementation of Shari’a “in all the matters of the country.”


1. Abdulrazaq al-Jammal, “Interview with AQAP commander Nasr bin Ali al-A’anisi,” al-Wasat, Sana’a, November 13, 2013; posted on, November 28, 2013.

This article first appeared in the December 12, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Al-Qaeda Strikes U.S. Drone Base in Yemen’s Hadramawt Governorate

Andrew McGregor

October 18, 2013

Yemen’s al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has claimed that its September 30 attack on a military base in eastern Yemen was focused on the destruction of an American drone operations command-and-control room. In its statement, AQAP said that its attack was directed against an “intelligence and operations room” at the Mukalla air base and promised that further attacks on American drone installations would follow: “Such joint security targets, which participate with the Americans in their war on the Muslim people, are a legitimate target for our operations, and we will puncture these eyes that the enemy uses” (Shumukh al-Islam, October 14). However, Yemeni officials denied that any American drone operations room existed at the base, saying the command-and-control room there was dedicated exclusively to anti-piracy operations in the Arabian Sea (Reuters, October 14).