Samantha Andrews is an intern in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Today’s reported car bombing in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, is further evidence that, while the self-declared Islamic State may currently be the underdog in the jihadi rivalry unfolding in Yemen, it is steadily becoming stronger. Political instability resulting from the Houthi uprising, and subsequent Saudi-led intervention, has created a power vacuum in which the Islamic State is exerting its influence. Combined with its recent string of deadly attacks in Yemen and increase in affiliate groups, the group poses a direct challenge to Yemen’s largest jihadist group—al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Eight months after Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced his group’s expansion into the country, its numbers are estimated to have grown from eighty to three hundred. By January 2015, the Islamic State was reported to have a presence in at least three provinces in southern and central Yemen. Suicide bombings carried out on March 20 in Sanaa by an affiliate marked the group’s first major attack in the country, killing more than 130 people. Since then, the Islamic State and its affiliates have conducted at least five other attacks, including three more bombings in Sanaa within the last two months. Further, the number of affiliates appears to be growing. In April, an Islamic State-affiliated group, the Soldiers of the Caliphate in Yemen, released a video announcing that they “have come to Yemen.” Four days later, Yemen’s Second Mountaineer Brigade released a video showing the beheading of four Yemeni soldiers and shooting of ten others. The exact number of IS-affiliate groups in Yemen is unknown.
While the Islamic State’s presence in Yemen is still small in comparison to AQAP, its growth challenges AQAP’s entrenched power in the country, which has remained nearly unopposed by the intrusion of other jihadist rivals since 2009. Now, its overlapping ideology with the Islamic State threatens to draw away critical support. A budding rivalry is increasingly evident. In response to al-Baghdadi’s declaration, AQAP quickly released a counterstatement calling the move “illegitimate.” Whereas AQAP had previously supported the Islamic State—declaring “solidarity with our Muslim brothers in Iraq”—this marked the beginning of the rivalry that is unfolding in Yemen today.
A recent shift in AQAP’s tactics suggests that it is attempting to win over more loyalty from the Yemeni population. Historically, AQAP, like the Islamic State, has seized territory and imposed strict Islamic law. However, when AQAP seized Al-Mukala, Yemen’s fifth largest city, three months ago, it relinquished control to a civilian council, maintaining only a single police station to arbitrate disputes. It then gave the council $4 million to provide public services. This contrasts with life under Islamic State-rule, which imposes its rule in almost all political and social matters. Since this shift in AQAP’s tactics is unprecedented, it may believe that offering greater autonomy to the local populace will broaden its appeal.
Even more problematic, U.S. operations against AQAP may be helping the Islamic State expand. Currently, U.S. lethal counterterrorism operations in Yemen target only AQAP operatives and leaders. Killing them, which even temporarily weakens the group, could provide the Islamic State with an opportunity to fill a power vacuum and expand territorially. For example, the White House announced just two weeks ago that Nasir al-Wahishi, al-Qaeda’s second in command and leader of AQAP, had been killed in a U.S. counterterrorism operation in Yemen. What the White House calls a “major blow to AQAP” may actually also be a win for the Islamic State, whose objective is to grow its influence in those provinces dominated by AQAP.
The expansion and entrenchment of the Islamic State into Yemen threatens to shift the balance of power among jihadis that has long favored AQAP. In order to bring the United States “closer to degrading and ultimately defeating these groups,” the Obama administration will have to adapt its counterterrorism strategies to deal with the dynamics of the new rivalry. Otherwise, the United States risks inadvertently strengthening the Islamic State in Yemen and perpetuating a “whack-a-mole” strategy in the Middle East.