The Slatest

Yemen, Home to a Major Arm of al-Qaida, Is Falling Apart

Houthi militants at a rally in Sanaa, Yemen.

Mohamed Al-Sayaghi/Reuters

Yemen—a country that is both a hotbed for anti-American terrorism and key intermediary, geographically speaking, in the international energy trade—is in a state of chaos. The Houthi rebel group, al-Qaida, and a rising separatist movement in the south have combined to reduce an already-shaky central government’s control over the country, and this week two cities were captured by rebels.

The Houthis, who have been responsible for periodic episodes of unrest in the country in the last decade, take their name from the Houthi family of northern Yemen. They are part of the Zaydi sect, the smallest of the three main remaining branches of Shia Islam. They say they face persecution and discrimination at the hands of the military-backed central government, and they want a say in drafting a new constitution.

Houthi-led unrest has also helped al-Qaida’s influence swell, and the terrorist group controls a number of remote towns and areas. Al-Qaida has had a presence in Yemen for years—it was the Yemeni al-Qaida arm that was behind the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole as well as the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a flight into Detroit in 2009. The country’s Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula organization has been the target of an aggressive program of drone strikes by the U.S.—the New America Foundation estimated that such attacks have killed at least 753 people in the country since 2002. 

In recent days Houthi fighters have taken control of key parts of the city of al-Hudaydah as well as the city of Ibb. The rebels allegedly did not face major resistance in the takeover of either city. Al-Hudaydah, home to the country’s biggest oil refinery, is the base from which most Yemeni oil is shipped internationally via the Red Sea, and connects many maritime shipping routes key to the international energy trade. Meanwhile, seccessionists in the country’s south are holding mass rallies, while the Houthi rebels are fighting Salafis from Saudi Arabia along the northern border. (Many have speculated that the Shia Houthis are being backed by Iran.)

Al-Qaida has not responded passively to gains in Houthi power. Last Thursday, a suicide bombing killed 47 at a pro-Houthi demonstration in the capital of Sanaa, which was taken by the rebels last month, and Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has since claimed responsibility for the attack. Just this morning, reports emerged that an al-Qaida attack on a government base had killed three policemen. Such news, it seems, will be the norm from Yemen for the forseeable future.