Yemen’s Fight Against Terrorism

The government conducts deradicalization programs to defeat al-Qaida and Daesh


Terrorism has no limits and respects no boundaries. It is a phenomenon that plagues the world and needs to be addressed. To succeed in the fight against terrorism and violent extremism, governments must adopt a holistic approach. This, however, cannot be realized without maintaining stability, security and the rule of law. Many countries facing terrorism take these three basic foundations for granted when designing their strategies.

The Republic of Yemen, before the Youth Revolution of 2011, possessed all three of these foundations to some extent, yet it failed because of the lack of political will. After 2012, however, Yemen had the political will and a firm commitment to fight terrorism in line with the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative. Only by restoring the state and overturning the coup of September 2014 can any efforts to combat and prevent terrorism and violent extremism in Yemen bear fruit.

Yemen: A victim of terrorism

Yemen is on the front lines in the fight against terrorism and has been a victim of this phenomenon for years. In December 1998, a group headed by Abu al-Hassan al-Mehdar, leader of what was called the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, killed four British and Australian tourists in Yemen. Al-Mehdar was supported by Abu Hamza al-Masri, who was sentenced in January 2015 to life in prison after being found guilty of 11 counts of terrorism, including in Yemen, by a federal jury in the United States.

In October 2000, al-Qaida launched a suicide attack on the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Cole at the port of Aden, which resulted in the death of 17 U.S. Sailors. In the aftermath of the attack, the U.S. and Yemen began cooperating on security; however, it was not until after September 11, 2001, that cooperation to combat terrorism was reinforced. Unfortunately, terrorism has been on the rise in Yemen ever since, and Yemenis have borne the brunt of it. In one of the ugliest terrorist attacks by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, terrorists stormed a military hospital in Sanaa in December 2013, killing 56 people and wounding 215 others with machine guns and hand grenades. In May 2012, an AQAP suicide bomber claimed the lives of over 100 young cadets from the Central Security Forces as they were rehearsing for the Yemen National Day parade in Sanaa. In August 2016, a Daesh affiliate claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing against an army recruitment center in Aden that resulted in over 70 deaths and 80 wounded. And in December 2016, Daesh perpetrated two separate attacks within eight days of each other in and around an Aden military base, killing 88 people and injuring 79.

In Aden alone during 2016, AQAP and Daesh carried out 11 other deadly attacks. In 2016, in only Aden and Al Mukalla, AQAP and Daesh killed 337 military, security personnel and new recruits and injured 313 others. AQAP has for years targeted not only military and security personnel but also intelligence officers effective in tracking and exposing its networks. These attacks show how brutal and indiscriminate AQAP and Daesh are in targeting Yemenis.

Government counterterrorism efforts

Since the 2000s, during the term of then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, government measures to address this issue were mainly security related and were intended more for soliciting foreign aid than combating terrorism. Even though Yemen started one of the first deradicalization programs to fight terrorism in its early stages, which was supported by the international community — especially the U.S. — the Saleh regime was unwilling to address the root causes of terrorism.

However, between 2012 and 2014, the new government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi was successful, against all odds, in designing a new comprehensive counterterrorism approach that can be fully implemented in more parts of the country as government forces recapture territory from the Houthi-Saleh militia with the assistance and support of the Arab Coalition and the international community.

Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi addresses the 71st United Nations General Assembly in September 2016. REUTERS

Early attempts at deradicalization

In 2003, Yemen launched one of the first deradicalization programs in the region, headed by well-respected Islamic cleric, Judge Hamoud al-Hitar, head of the Yemen Supreme Court and a former minister of religious endowments. Judge al-Hitar was also led the dialogue committee within the program, in charge of initiating a program aimed at engaging potential terrorists who have been arrested or captured. The first phase of the program was successful, according to al-Hitar, with 364 participants (out of a total of 420) freed after they renounced radical ideology and proved to have no criminal connections. Nevertheless, this program, using the motto “ideology can only be countered with ideology,” lasted only three years, until late 2005.

The program had two phases: Phase one was a direct dialogue and rehabilitation subprogram, which was successful and showed positive results because many participants abandoned their previous radical interpretations of Islam. Phase two was a reintegration subprogram that proved more difficult to accomplish for several reasons. One was Saleh’s security apparatus deliberately mishandling those released after phase one. Perhaps the most important reason was the unwillingness of the then-government to support the program, made evident by the lack of state media coverage and the reluctance by Saleh’s regime to adopt its strategy and vision. This, eventually, led to the program’s termination at the end of 2005, despite its promising initial success.

Security and counterterrorism units

Under Saleh, most if not all support and assistance provided by international partners — mainly the U.S. — was channeled to create and reinforce certain security apparatuses and counterterrorism units controlled by officials close to Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, who was head of the Republican Guards and oversaw the special forces. His nephew, Amar Mohammed Saleh, was the first deputy of the newly created National Security Bureau and oversaw the al-Qaida file there. Another nephew, Yahya Mohammed Saleh, was chief of staff of the Special Security Forces (formerly known as Central Security Forces) and supervised the Counter Terrorism Unit.

The Saleh regime’s objective was to build up the security and military apparatus in the name of counterterrorism operations, while at the same time undermining other deradicalization programs designed to address the core problems. Saleh was not only reluctant to eradicate al-Qaida in Yemen, he seemed to have used it for his benefit. “Al-Qaeda Informant,” a 2015 investigation by al-Jazeera news “detailing information gathered from interviews with a former al-Qaeda operative,” exposed dubious dealings between the old regime security apparatus and the al-Qaida network. The informant stated that a senior security official close to Saleh was involved in providing al-Qaida with explosives only three months before the September 2008 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa. Other government sources have indicated that even as late as 2015, Saleh still maintained links with AQAP. The sources believe Saleh maintained dealings with AQAP during its year-long occupation of Al Mukalla as part of his campaign to undermine the legitimate government.

Yemen’s new approach

After the election of President Hadi in February 2012, the government shifted from focusing merely on military and security options in the fight against terrorism and violent extremism to a two-pronged approach. The government knew that reviving Yemen’s early attempts at deradicalization and reintegration programs was as important — if not more so — than military and security options. This does not mean that the government abandoned or reduced its military operations against AQAP; on the contrary, military operations have intensified since 2012.

The government’s new approach has been to develop a comprehensive strategy with cross-cutting executive measures. These measures needed to be both sustainable and, most important, commensurate with available resources. The comprehensive strategy focused on two main aspects: a military and security aspect, and a political, economic and social aspect. This approach led to the formation and adoption of Yemen’s new counterterrorism strategy.

A comprehensive strategy

On August 28, 2012, President Hadi instructed the government to revise and adopt a Comprehensive National Counterterrorism Strategy (CNCS), originally drafted by the High-Level Security Committee and taking into account inputs from all ministries including education, information and justice. On September 18, 2012, the government adopted the new strategy and created the High-Level Ministerial Committee, headed by the minister of foreign affairs, to supervise implementation by developing executive measures and budgetary requirements for each ministry to ensure execution. By August 2014, the work was done at the technical level; however, by that time the government was engulfed by political events leading to the coup of September 21, 2014. After that, the CNCS never saw the light of day.

Rehabilitation and reintegration

President Hadi issued a presidential decree in May 2014, creating a committee to reactivate and further develop Yemen’s rehabilitation and reintegration program. The committee was headed by the National Security Bureau and consisted of members from other relevant ministries and authorities including the foreign affairs, religious endowments, education, human rights and legal affairs ministries.

The committee focused on creating a rehabilitation and reintegration center to engage potential terrorists captured or arrested. The goal was not to create a detention facility, but rather a center for deradicalization and countering violent extremism programs. The committee, with the assistance and support of international partners, including the U.S., Saudi Arabia and the United Nations, was preparing to launch a pilot project in Sanaa. Drawing from Yemen’s previous efforts and other similar centers’ experiences (including from a visit to Mohammed bin Nayef Counseling and Care Center in Saudi Arabia), the committee worked to develop comprehensive subprograms such as ideological counseling; physical, mental and spiritual health assessment; educational and vocational training; and reintegration, post-release and family welfare programs. However, the security and political situation in Yemen after the 2014 coup caused deradicalization efforts to once again come to a complete halt.

Military operations against AQAP

In May 2011, during the Youth Revolution, AQAP was able (with only about 200 militants) to capture the city of Zinjibar and other areas in Abyan governorate. This attack was widely seen as an attempt by then-President Saleh to prove to the world that only he could provide stability in Yemen.

In May 2012, just three months after being elected, President Hadi ordered his first massive military campaign against AQAP called Operation Golden Swords, led by Maj. Gen. Salem Ali Qatan, commander of the Southern Military Region and the 31st Armored Brigade. Within a month, Zinjibar, Jaar and other areas in Abyan were liberated, although scattered AQAP militants remained. Unfortunately, on June 18, 2012, an AQAP suicide bomber assassinated Maj. Gen. Qatan in Aden. Frustratingly, Yemen’s two main counterterrorism forces that had received the bulk of the U.S. support did not participate in the campaign, remaining in Sanaa mainly because of their commanders’ reluctance and loyalty to Saleh. President Hadi has since, as part of restructuring the Armed Forces, replaced those commanders to ensure the loyalty of these elite and well-trained counterterrorism forces to the nation instead of to certain individuals.

In April 2014, the government launched another massive military campaign against AQAP in Shabwah and Abyan governorates. Those were successful as well; however, they were affected and derailed by the Houthis’ escalation in Amran governorate leading up to the coup in Sanaa in September 2014.

Liberating al Mukalla

In April 2015, AQAP militants captured Al Mukalla, the major city in Hadhramout governorate — the largest governorate in Yemen. AQAP controlled the city for a year during the instability that followed the Houthis’ coup. During that time, AQAP managed to acquire substantial financial resources by looting banks and collecting taxes and fees from the city’s port.

In April 2016, the government, supported by Arab coalition forces, liberated Al Mukalla and drove out AQAP. Since then, the government has been sweeping aside the remaining AQAP pockets in many governorates (including Aden, Shabwah and Abyan) and dismantling any other possible safe havens in Yemen.

AQAP’s narratives, like those of its mother organization, are based on the false assertion that it is the “true” follower of Islam. AQAP uses both takfiri (accusing others of apostasy) narratives and conspiracy theories against the West to justify killing Muslims and non-Muslims. Before the Houthi coup, this radical ideology was not an effective local recruitment tool; financial incentives were more attractive.

In the past, many in the ranks of AQAP were foreigners — as many as 70 percent, according to President Hadi in an April 2014 speech. Many AQAP followers are not believers in al-Qaida’s radical ideology, but are attracted by money rather than preaching.

After the Houthis embarked on their illegitimate quest to control Yemen, AQAP introduced a slightly different narrative. As they invaded other governorates, the Houthis carelessly labeled all those who opposed them as either Dawaesh (members of Daesh), affiliates of al-Qaida, or simply takfiris. AQAP used this blind accusation as part of its revised propaganda to appeal to Sunni communities who otherwise were not interested in or influenced by al-Qaida radical ideology. Instead of focusing solely on labeling its opponents as apostates, AQAP portrays itself as the defender of Sunni Islam against the Shia Houthis, but still regards the government and the Arab coalition forces as its main targets.

As for the Houthis, they, too, have benefited from stirring up sectarianism in Yemen. They used AQAP and Daesh terrorist attacks against civilians in Sanaa as propaganda to recruit followers in what they called “jihad in the name of Allah.” This was their justification when they invaded the southern governorates in 2015. Ironically, that is the same misused Islamic banner al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations use to justify killing others.

The way forward

The military option is not enough to defeat terrorism and violent extremism. The solution must be a comprehensive one. Military operations are and will continue to be an integral part of the fight against AQAP and other terrorist organizations in Yemen. However, without incorporating deradicalization and other development programs, a military approach alone will only exacerbate the problem.

The government is therefore determined to revive and implement its CNCS. This will allow it to provide more public services, to introduce more development projects, and to foster new relationships of trust and cooperation with its citizens. The government now controls more than 80 percent of Yemen and, despite facing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, continues to rebuild liberated areas and to provide basic public services. Furthermore, Yemen will continue to conduct military operations against AQAP’s safe havens and cooperate closely with the U.S. in all fields, including counterterrorism operations.

The U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism in 2012 stated that the Yemeni government under President Hadi “remained a strong U.S. counterterrorism partner,” and Yemen reaffirms its readiness and willingness to remain so. It is imperative, however, to emphasize the need to reinforce Yemeni counterterrorism units and implement other deradicalization and development programs through support and assistance from Arab coalition countries, the U.S. and the international community. And most important, it is imperative to reinstate state institutions and to maintain stability, security and the ability to uphold the rule of law.

Objectives of Yemen’s Comprehensive National Counterterrorism Strategy

  1. Eradicate terrorism and eliminate the sources and root causes of extremism and its financing in all Yemeni governorates.
  2. Reactivate the role of the security committees in all governorates and establish emergency units.
  3. Assist the Military Committee, created by the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative, to fulfill its mandate, especially the maintenance of stability and security.
  4. Raise awareness of the adverse effects of terrorism and extremism.
  5. Encourage citizens to assist and cooperate with the security and military apparatus in countering terrorism and extremism.
  6. Protect society from the spread of extremism.
  7. Eliminate terrorist organizations along with their members and leaders.