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Civil war in Yemen set to get worse

comment Updated: Mar 22, 2015 21:31 IST
Hindustan Times


The world has witnessed such jaw-dropping brutality in recent months- from the gunning down 132 children at Peshawar in December, the execution of cartoonists at Paris in January to the frequent accounts of enslavement and beheadings by the Islamic State (ISIS)- that it has become difficult to respond to newer images of violence.

Yemen, a neighbour of Saudi Arabia with a population of 26 million and a long 2,000-km coastline, endured a gruesome act of suicide bombing on March 20, when five men blew themselves up among congregations at two mosques in the capital Sana’a, killing at least 135 people.

A group claiming to be the Yemeni branch of ISIS has claimed responsibility.

The operational link between the attack and ISIS is sketchy at the moment but it will be no surprise if the latter is indeed involved as the civil war in Yemen has drawn in a range of State and non-State players from the region.

Last week’s bombing was directed at civilians affiliated to the Houthi rebels — based in north Yemen belonging to the Yazidi sect, a branch of Shia Islam — who took control of the capital last September. The rebels made astonishing progress, taking advantage of the churning prompted by the Arab spring that led to the fall of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012 and accession of his ineffective successor Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Yemen has also been a known al-Qaida base that prompted several drone attacks by Washington over the years, including on Yemeni-American preacher Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011.

Al-Awlaki is believed to have inspired many high-profile terrorists including Said Kouachi, one of the gunmen involved in the Paris attacks. Besides al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Yemen is also host to other militants who back the secessionist movement in south Yemen, which is demanding a separate State.

The conflict in the country, which is already split along north-south and Sunni-Shia sectarian lines, is bound to worsen following the Friday attacks. Hostility towards Houthi rebels, who are represented as heretics, could see Sunni leaders make common cause with terrorist groups.

Al-Qaida, which is being upstaged by ISIS, is looking for opportunities to refresh its brand. Saudi Arabia and Iran both contend for influence in Yemen, backing opposite sides.

Riyadh is particularly paranoid about Tehran wielding clout on its southern border and will bankroll Yemeni resistance against Iran-backed Houthis while simultaneously aiming to counter AQAP. And ISIS, which is facing reverses at the hands of Iran in Iraq, will be keen on opening other fronts when possible, in part to extend its sway over the jihadi world. It does sound a lot like state failure.