Chaos Makes a Comeback in Southern Yemen

In Yemen, the rivalry between al-Islah and the STC intensifies amid demonstrations blaming the party for deteriorating security and territorial gains by Houthi rebels.
Yemen, Yemen news, South Yemen, Yemen War, Al-Islah, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, President Hadi, Houthis, Houthi rebels, Ali Mahmood journalist

Yemen © Anasalhajj / Shutterstock

The six-year conflict in Yemen currently sees a stalemate in Mareb and mounting losses by pro-government forces elsewhere. This has led to the resurgence of chaos in the war-torn country, which threatens stability across liberated areas of the south.

Houthi rebels based in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, have made advances against pro-government forces in al-Baydha province. They have also pushed southern forces, Salafi factions and al-Islah affiliates out of southern districts. Houthis also claim to have defeated militants belonging to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), who fought alongside tribes, Salafis and pro-government forces.


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These claims come a year after the Houthis said they had cleared northeast al-Baydha of AQAP and Islamic State (IS) militants. These fighters are said to have moved into Abyan and Shebwa provinces. This has increased instability in areas where government troops allied with President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islah party face fierce opposition from southern security forces.

Southern Concerns

It has been nearly a year and a half of fighting in the oil-rich province of Mareb between Houthis and pro-government forces. Southerners fear that civilian officials and troops affiliated with al-Islah, a Sunni Islamist party, will withdraw and seek refuge in areas like Shebwa province. In addition, southerners have expressed concern over movement by AQAP-affiliated militants from al-Baydha into places like Mudiyah in northern Abyan province, as well as the southwest of Shebwa.

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These militants claimed operations against Houthis in al-Sawmah and southwest areas of al-Baydha, which border Abyan. The fighting there has subsided, with Houthis claiming control of territory around Homaiqan and areas near Bayhan. Claims of territorial gains by Houthis and AQAP operations have raised the alarm for southern forces, including the Security Belt Units (SBU) in Abyan that fought with pro-government troops. This was particularly the case following the arrest of militants linked to attacks on the SBU in Abyan and Aden.

The Southern Transitional Council (STC), which is part of Hadi’s government today, and other southern allies believe the movement of forces from al-Baydha and Mareb into Abyan or Shebwa violate the 2019 Riyadh Agreement and the 2020 deal for a coalition government. The build-up of troops without coordination under these agreements is a threat to a more comprehensive deal negotiated by Saudi Arabia to focus on the fight against Houthis across northern territories.

The influx of militants into areas like Mudiya, Abyan and new attacks on SBU officials in places like Bureiqa in Aden worry southerners. The latter see the conflict expanding beyond clashes with military and tribal forces in Abyan loyal to President Hadi and troops under the direction of Vice-President Ali Muhsin and affiliated with al-Islah. Instead, they believe, the fight is now against a growing number of AQAP militants in the area.

Chaos and Refuge

For southerners, an influx of militants and al-Islah’s ambition to control the oil-rich Shebwa province bring back memories of radicalization and recruitment of Yemenis for the Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980s and the occupation of southern Yemen by northerners after the 1994 civil war. Islah-affiliated forces have increased their presence around the oil fields of Usaylan in northern Shebwa. They are also pushing to take control of the Belhaf LNG Terminal, which is currently protected by Shebwani Elite Forces that are pro-STC.

While the southern case for autonomy remains excluded from UN-led peace talks, the STC is recognized by the Saudi-led coalition as a legitimate representative of southerners and allied forces charged with securing southern territory “under supervision of the coalition.” Since the Riyadh Agreement was signed, operations to stabilize southern provinces like Aden, Abyan and Shebwa have been obstructed by the movement of militants and the amassment of Islah-affiliated troops east of Shoqra in Abyan.   

The build-up of government forces in Abyan and Shebwa is a result of both a retreat from al-Baydha and Mareb and efforts to reinforce troops inside Abyan province. The movement of forces into Abyan in 2020 violated the Riyadh Agreement. Government reinforcements have also escalated tensions with the SBU, further destabilizing this fragile environment.

Now, the retreat of troops from Mareb into northern Shebwa — some deployed to protect oil infrastructure — is seen as aiming to strengthen the presence of Islah and secure refuge in case Mareb City falls to Houthis. Southern forces have asked why government troops are retreating to Shebwa while Houthis advance through Murad and now Rahba district.

In Abyan, the province is divided into three. First, the STC holds territory west of Shoqra along the coast to Lower Yafa, the border with al-Baydha and Lahj. Second, tribal forces and military units loyal to Hadi, who hails from Abyan, hold areas in northern Abyan bordering al-Baydha. Third, government troops, led by commanders affiliated with al-Islah and Ali Muhsin, hold territory east of Shoqra and along the border with Shebwa.

Official AQAP wires have claimed a number of operations against Security Belt Units. Al-Qaeda has reportedly targeted government troops in northern Abyan, but it has yet to claim operations along the coast west of Shoqra. Without confirming specific links between AQAP militants and government forces, southerners are asking how militants can bypass security checkpoints and travel from western al-Baydha to Mudiya and then western Shebwa.

Misdirection and Refuge

Reports of a resurgence of AQAP in southern Yemen have been met with skepticism. As a consequence of escalating media wars, some observers claim labeling individuals as al-Qaeda militants is merely part of the demonization game between rivals. Yet confirmation via official online wires claimed by AQAP not only allows observers to navigate the media wars, but it also points to asymmetric tactics utilized by rivals to create chaos on the ground.

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In recent months, AQAP has claimed a number of operations against Houthis in al-Baydha and southern forces in Abyan and Aden. Some operations have only been claimed or assigned to AQAP via social media and news outlets. Dr. Elizabeth Kendall of Oxford University has labeled the current manifestations of AQAP as active, committed, pragmatic and fake. The origin and intent of the “fake” faction are what worries southerners, who view this as an instrument of misdirection in a battle to secure refuge for groups like al-Islah. This is primarily because many of the operations not claimed by AQAP target southern forces in areas of confrontation with government forces affiliated with al-Islah.

The timing of movement by AQAP militants across Abyan and Shebwa, coupled with increasing operations since the death of SBU counterterrorism chief Munir al-Yafai in 2019, adds credibility to claims that the aim is to create chaos and cause the collapse of the Riyadh Agreement. In doing so, the story goes, confrontation would ensue between al-Islah-affiliated forces and southern factions over control of strategic territory in the south. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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