Fighting between al-Qaeda and ISIS in Yemen: A Repeat of the Syrian Model?
The standoff between the affiliates of al-Qaeda and ISIS in the Yemeni governorate of al-Bayda remains tense following the outbreak of a confrontation in July 2018 that left some 38 dead and dozens injured on both sides. Fighting between the two groups erupted when ISIS fighters detained thirteen al-Qaeda militants who were attempting to pass through a checkpoint. In retaliation, al-Qaeda attacked and seized control of ISIS positions and garrisons in the region to secure the release of its detained fighters and protect its supply lines.
What led to the confrontation, and why al-Bayda?
Fighting broke out in al-Bayda governorate owing to a number of factors and considerations, most notably:
- The sensitive and strategic location of this governorate in the middle of the country; its proximity to oil fields in Ma’arib and Shabwah governorates; and its rough terrain which makes it particularly well-suited to al-Qaeda and ISIS tactics.
- Many parts of al-Bayda are remote and isolated, and suffer from both a lack of basic services and an absence of state authority. In addition, most local residents face economic deprivation, rampant illiteracy, and regular acts of violence inspired by social vengeance and public grievances, and the Houthis are not welcome in these areas, which provides fertile ground for recruitment by al-Qaeda and ISIS.
- Following the Houthi takeover of many of Yemen’s northern governorates, and in the wake of the joint campaign by Emirati and local forces against terrorist organizations in the south, al-Bayda became a safe haven for al-Qaeda and ISIS elements fleeing these areas of the country. This has increased rivalry and friction between the two groups.
- Each group believes that it has the right to remain in al-Bayda; al-Qaeda argues that its presence precedes, and is more widespread than that of ISIS, and the organization enjoys ties with residents and tribal leaders. ISIS, on the other hand, believes that it is the rightful heir to al-Qaeda in al-Bayda, and claims that it is responsible for the protection of residents and individuals abandoned by al-Qaeda when it withdrew from Hadhramaut governorate in 2015.
- It is possible that the confrontation may spread beyond al-Bayda governorate, especially following the recent ISIS retreat in the face of its stronger enemy. However, if fighting erupts once more, the epicenter is likely to remain al-Bayda governorate, as it now represents the center of gravity for both groups following their flight from other areas of Yemen.
Significance and ramifications
The eruption of conflict between al-Qaeda and ISIS has coincided with recent advances made by the forces of the Arab coalition and the legitimate Yemeni government in al-Bayda governorate. This may imply that the objective behind the confrontation is to cause confusion in the governorate in order to frustrate any potential settlement to the crisis in Yemen by increasing the number of parties involved in the struggle.
At present it is difficult to determine which side has the upper hand in the province. While ISIS initiated the escalation of tensions to the level of a bloody confrontation as a show of strength, the swift response from al-Qaeda in winning control of ISIS’s garrisons and positions in the region, coupled with the perpetual shifting allegiances of fighters between the two groups, add significant ambiguity to the situation. Nevertheless, al-Qaeda enjoys a more established presence in the area and a strong network of ties with local communities and tribal leaders, while its members are more closely affiliated with the people of the governorate than ISIS, whose fighters are predominately foreign. Therefore, the balance of power appears to favor al-Qaeda – for now at least.
Some observers view this confrontation as a further indication of a deterioration in the positions of both groups following US drone strikes and the joint campaigns of UAE and local forces in the southern governorates. They claim that these actions have led to the disintegration of the command, control and communications systems of both groups in the field and the fragmentation of their senior leaderships, dramatically undermining the movement of information through their chains of command – a situation that they expect to deteriorate even further in the future.
The conflict between the two groups does bring some positive gains, not least by keeping them occupied fighting each other rather than the other parties to the conflict. However, it also serves to further distort the global image of Yemen as a chaotic battleground for disparate terrorist groups; this may well draw more foreign elements and affiliates to Yemen, particularly from their shrinking footholds in Iraq and Syria, paving the way for further foreign intervention in Yemen’s internal affairs and contributing to a growing threat to the security of neighboring countries.
Future relations between al-Qaeda and ISIS in Yemen
The development of relations between these two terrorist organizations in Yemen may follow one of three possible scenarios:
1. A return to the status quo ante
This scenario envisages a return of relations between the two sides to their previous status before the recent confrontation, and assumes that the clashes are the result of field commanders acting independently. This would indicate that the dispute may be contained and calm restored – as has occurred on previous occasions. A statement by al-Qaeda described the latest actions as being a deterrent rather than a threat to displace ISIS from al-Bayda. Furthermore, the two groups control only a small area and hence there is very little to fight over, while the significant imbalance of power in favor of al-Qaeda suggests that ISIS has very little scope to engage in open conflict with the group – at least for now.
2. A repeat of the Syrian model
This scenario assumes that the relationship between al-Qaeda and ISIS has broken down irrevocably, leading to total separation; fighting between the two groups will erupt again – as in Syria – due to deep differences between them, the disintegration of their command and control systems, and calls by each side to confront and eliminate the other supported by fatwa [religious edicts] inciting confrontation. Under such a scenario, the results of the first round of fighting may encourage al-Qaeda to ‘finish what it has started’ by bringing an end to the threats and provocations by ISIS elements – which have now been ongoing for two years – once and for all.
3. A continuing state of instability
The third scenario assumes an ongoing, unstable balance between the two groups in the foreseeable future. The relationship will remain in a tense state of flux, leading to periods of calm interrupted by clashes and bloody fighting depending on prevailing conditions and developments in the surrounding environment and the quality of each sides’ central and field leaderships.
All things considered, a return to long-term stability is doubtful, particularly if information regarding the large numbers of casualties incurred during the recent fighting is correct; nonetheless, the possibility of a situation developing that mirrors that of Syria is slim. It is most likely, therefore, that the relationship between the two groups will continue to fluctuate between calm and confrontation, based on recent experiences in Yemen and its limited comparability to Syria and Iraq.