Country Brief: Yemen


The United States has had a strong counterterrorism presence in Yemen for years. U.S. drone operations have focused attacks on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which emerged in Yemen in 2009 and evolved to become the most dangerous al Qaeda affiliate. However, U.S. efforts to address AQAP and, more recently, ISIS, have been complicated by an ongoing civil war that has morphed into a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen.


Yemen is a key battleground against the two most dangerous terrorist groups: al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS. For many years, the absence of rule of law throughout Yemen has allowed terrorist groups to proliferate there, and today it is one of the most active terrorist breeding grounds.

In October 2000, al Qaeda bombed the American destroyer USS Cole while it sat in a Yemeni port. After 9/11, the United States decimated al Qaeda in Yemen, but by 2006 the group had recovered, and in 2009 it merged with al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia to become AQAP. Like ISIS in Syria, AQAP has taken advantage of instability in Yemen to seize territory, create safe havens, and conduct operations overseas.1

Fort Hood shooter Nadal Hassan emailed with Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born al Qaeda leader who was killed in Yemen in 2011.2 AQAP trained the Christmas Day Bomber, who tried to destroy a Detroit-bound airliner in 2009.3 The United States has thwarted several other plots, including an attempt to destroy U.S.-bound cargo planes in 2010,4 and a 2012 plot to bring down an airliner with an underwear bomb.5 More recently, AQAP claimed responsibility for the attacks on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo6 in January 2015, as well as the November 2015 suicide attack on a Mali hotel.7

Over the past decade, AQAP has suffered significant losses at the hands of American counterterrorism operations, including:

  • Jalal Baleedi, top commander for AQAP (February 2016)8
  • Nasser al Wuhayshi, leader of AQAP (June 2015)9
  • Shawki al Badani (November 2014)10
  • Saeed al Shirhi (July 2013)11
  • Fahd al-Quso (May 2012)12
  • Anwar al Awlaki (September 2011)13

Before 2012, the United States used Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones, to attack AQAP from the sky, while the Yemeni military fought on the ground.14 The current conflict in Yemen forced the United States to withdraw personnel from the country while drawing the focus of the Yemeni military away from AQAP. The lack of a ground presence has restricted U.S. insight into terrorist operations.

Meanwhile, ISIS has expanded into Yemen, claiming responsibility for a horrific car bomb in March 2015 that killed over 130 people.15 Vying with AQAP for control, ISIS has bombed Shia mosques across Yemen.16 In December 2015, it claimed responsibility for assassinating one of Yemen’s regional governors.17 Even more recently, ISIS took responsibility for the January 28, 2016 car bombing outside the Yemeni president’s residence, killing eight people. U.S. officials are divided on whether ISIS or AQAP present the more dangerous threat to the U.S. homeland.18

Both AQAP and ISIS take advantage of the chaos created by Yemen’s civil war, aligning with local Sunni tribes who also oppose the Houthis, who are Shia and backed by Iran.19 Until the warring sides can agree on a political solution, the widespread instability will offer a terrorist safe haven while denying on-the-ground intelligence necessary to accomplish U.S. goals.

Yemen’s Civil War

After North Yemen and South Yemen united in 1990, the United States backed President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a strongman who helped U.S. counterterrorism officials target AQAP. Under Saleh, a group called the Houthis began a rebellion in north Yemen, which ended in a 2010 ceasefire.20 Arab Spring protests in 2011 forced Saleh to transition power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.21

The Houthis resumed their armed insurgency and captured Yemen’s political capital of Sana’a in 2014. Hadi fled south to Yemen’s economic capital, Aden, with the Houthis close behind. Saudi Arabia gathered several other Arab states22 and invaded Yemen in support of Hadi, intending to drive the Houthis out of south Yemen.23 The year-long war has killed over 6,500 people, including many civilian victims of Saudi airstrikes.24 Peace talks in Switzerland have stalled.25

Although the United States opposes the Houthis and is arming26 the Arab coalition, U.S. forces are not participating directly.27 U.S. officials have pressed the Saudis to avoid civilian casualties, but have yet to level any public criticism.28 This reflects an American sensitivity to doubts by Arab leaders that the United States is committed to their security, particularly in light of the Iran nuclear agreement. However, there is no military solution to the conflict in Yemen. Although the Saudi-Hadi offensive has pushed the Houthis away from Aden, expelling the Houthis from the Sana’a will be much harder.

Yemen has emerged as a key focal point for competition between Shia-majority Iran and Sunni-majority Arab states. Iran has provided longstanding support for the Houthis, and continues to arm them with heavy weapons. The United States has warned Iran to stop such arms shipments.29 Saudi Arabia eyes the Iran-backed Houthis on its southern border as an obstacle to regional dominance.30 A Houthi state might invite Iran to base military forces on Saudi Arabia’s southern border. Although the civil war in Yemen war is about politics, not religion, AQAP is determined to frame the fight as a Sunni-Shia struggle.31

In the absence of stability, terrorists can plan to strike targets in the United States. A diplomatic solution that restores stability in Yemen is critical if the United States wants to resume counterterrorism cooperation with Yemeni security forces. To this end, the United States must use its diplomatic leverage to convince the warring parties to resume stalled peace talks.32

End Notes