Country Report on Terrorism 2016 - Chapter 2 - Yemen

Overview: Throughout 2016, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS in Yemen (ISIS-Y) have continued to exploit the political and security vacuum created by the ongoing conflict between the Yemeni government under President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the Houthi-Saleh rebel forces. Yemen’s peaceful political transition was interrupted in the fall of 2014 when the Houthi militant groups allied with forces loyal to ex-President Ali Abdallah Saleh entered the capital, and subsequently seized control of government institutions – sending the Hadi-led government into exile in Saudi Arabia. A Saudi-led coalition of 10 member states initiated an air-campaign in March 2015. The country remained deeply divided at year’s end, with pockets of violent conflict. The Houthi-Saleh rebel forces continued to control much of the north-west, including the capital. Meanwhile, the Yemeni government has re-established an intermittent presence in the southern port-city of Aden and has made strides to push back terrorist groups in southern provinces with coalition support, although it was unable to fully re‑establish rule of law in the territory it holds.

Because of the instability and violence in Yemen, the internationally recognized government under Hadi cannot effectively enforce counterterrorism measures. A large security vacuum persists, which gives AQAP and ISIS-Y more room in which to operate. AQAP and ISIS-Y have also manipulated the conflict as part of a broader Sunni-Shia sectarian divide. By emphasizing this sectarian divide, AQAP and ISIS-Y have managed to increase their support bases and strengthen footholds in the country.

AQAP, in particular, has benefitted from this conflict by significantly expanding its presence in the southern and eastern governorates. It has successfully inserted itself amongst multiple factions on the ground, making the group more difficult to counter. AQAP has managed to exacerbate the effects of the conflict, fighting against the Houthi-Saleh alliance, while at the same time working to prevent Hadi’s government from consolidating control over southern governorates. In April 2016, Yemeni forces, supported by the Saudi-led coalition, successfully pushed AQAP out of Yemen’s fifth largest city of Mukalla. During the year-long occupation, AQAP amassed unprecedented resources by raiding the central bank and levying taxes. The loss of this safe haven deprived the group of millions of dollars of revenue. At year’s end, efforts were ongoing by the Yemeni government, in coordination with its partners from the UAE, to push AQAP out of several of its other safe havens in the South.

By comparison, ISIS-Y remained limited to small cells. While its exact composition was unknown, ISIS-Y had considerably fewer members and resources than AQAP. Eight self‑proclaimed ISIS-Y groups/provinces have claimed attacks on social media since 2015, although only a few provinces have sustained regular attacks into 2016 and were active at year’s end. While ISIS-Y has demonstrated a violent operational pace, it has yet to occupy significant territory or challenge AQAP’s status as Yemen’s predominant Sunni Islamist terrorist group. ISIS-Y maintains connections to the ISIS core in Syria and Iraq, but a faction within ISIS-Y chose to publicly disagree with the group’s leadership regarding its tactics in early 2016, indicating a large rift within the group.

2016 Terrorist Incidents: AQAP and ISIS-Y terrorists carried out hundreds of attacks throughout Yemen in 2016. Methods included suicide bombers, vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, ambushes, kidnappings, and targeted assassinations. The following list details only a small fraction of the incidents that occurred:

  • On March 4, four nuns from Missionaries of Charity – the order founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta – were killed during an attack on their Christian convent and nursing home in Aden. The nuns were among 16 killed by the gunmen who attacked the church‑run retirement home and kidnapped an Indian priest. No group claimed responsibility for the attack.
  • On May 23, two suicide bombings killed at least 40 army recruits in Aden and wounded 60 others. The attack took place as recruits stood in line to enlist. ISIS-Y claimed responsibility for the attack.
  • On June 28, at least 42 people were killed in a series of suicide car bombings in Mukalla, after the Yemeni government and Saudi-led Coalition had retaken the city. ISIS-Y claimed responsibility for the attacks, which were targeted at security personnel over the month of Ramadan. Several civilians were also killed and injured in the attack.
  • On August 29, a suicide car bomb targeted an army training camp in Aden and killed at least 60 people. ISIS-Y claimed responsibility for the attack. The attacker drove his vehicle into a gathering of new recruits at a camp in northern Aden.
  • On December 10, at least 50 Yemeni soldiers were killed when a suicide bomber attacked a military base located near Aden. The soldiers had been lining up to receive salary payments; more than 70 more were injured. ISIS-Y also claimed responsibility for this attack.

Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: Yemen does not have comprehensive counterterrorism legislation and no progress was made due to the state of unrest and the government remaining outside of Yemen for most of 2016. During this timeframe, AQAP lost some territory but continued to exercise considerable control relative to before the conflict. ISIS-Y continued to have the ability to carry out violent attacks throughout the South. The Saudi-led coalition supported the Yemeni government’s efforts to build police and law enforcement capacity to conduct counterterrorism operations.

Draft counterterrorism legislation has been pending in the parliament since 2008. This legislation has remained at a standstill due to the lack of a legitimate parliament. [Note: The Houthis convened a Houthi-GPC parliament in 2016, but it is not considered legitimate or internationally recognized.] Prior to the political instability in the capital, the draft was under review by the three parliamentary subcommittees responsible for counterterrorism law issues (Legal and Constitutional Affairs; Security and Defense; and Codification of Sharia Law). This law would facilitate the detention of suspects and include mandatory sentencing for a number of terrorism-related crimes.

Prior to March 2015, the National Security Agency and President’s Office drafted a National Counterterrorism Strategy. This draft was reviewed by a Ministerial Committee, but the committee was unable to finalize its task due to developments in the country. Therefore, Yemen’s National Counterterrorism Strategy had not been officially adopted or implemented by the end of 2016.

Yemen employs the U.S.-provided Personal Identification Secure Comparison and Evaluation System (PISCES) in an effort to secure borders and identify fraudulent travel documents. In spite of the conflict, Yemen has been able to maintain traveler screening at a limited number of points of entry.

In past years, the Yemeni government’s Coast Guard forces played a critical role in interdicting weapons and other illegal materials destined for Yemen-based terrorist groups, although Yemen’s maritime borders remained extremely porous due to a lack of capacity. In 2016, Yemen’s military, including the coast guard, was degraded as a result of the current conflict. Although AQAP lost control of Mukalla in April 2016, the coast remained highly vulnerable to maritime smuggling of weapons, materials, and goods used to finance AQAP and other terrorist activities. In the past, U.S. partners provided training and technical assistance in a number of counterterrorism-related areas, although the conflict in-country precluded these efforts in 2016.

Countering the Financing of Terrorism: Yemen is a member of the Middle East and North Africa Financial Action Task Force (MENAFATF), a Financial Action Task Force-style regional body; however, Yemen did not participate in MENAFATF meetings in 2016. There was no information from Yemen’s financial information unit (FIU), which operates out of the Houthi‑controlled Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) in Sana’a. The FIU and its functions were not transferred to the Yemeni government-controlled CBY in Aden.

For further information on money laundering and financial crimes, see the 2017 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), Volume II, Money Laundering and Financial Crimes:

Countering Violent Extremism: Throughout 2016, the Government of Yemen leadership stressed the importance of countering violent extremism as the country moves forward towards a peace deal. The Government of Yemen will need to focus on the details of such a plan once conditions allow.

International and Regional Cooperation: The Government of Yemen continued to cooperate with and be advised by the Gulf Cooperation Council, the United States, and other donor countries as it focused on working towards a peaceful solution to the conflict. Despite the challenges, the Government of Yemen remained an international partner as it worked to reestablish rule of law within the territory it holds.