From the perspective of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Yemen’s COVID-19 crisis and the instability stemming from the country’s “southern question” represent opportunities as well as threats. AQAP’s future will largely depend on Khalid bin Umar Batarfi, who became the group’s new leader after a US drone strike killed his predecessor, Qasim al-Raymi, at the start of this year.
Batarfi inherits an AQAP that is smaller and more domestically oriented than it was under al-Raymi, and a shadow of the AQAP which was led by Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who was behind the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks and the seizure of the city of Mukalla, on the Gulf of Aden. Despite former successes, the extremist group has shifted its attention to internal issues in Yemen, largely due to being targeted by foreign military powers, ISIS’ local franchise, Emirati-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) forces, and Iranian-supported Houthi fighters.
Since President Trump took office, US jets and drones have carried out 85 strikes in Yemen, with 36 drone strikes reported in 2018 alone and nine more in 2019. In recent years, widespread defections coupled with multiple territorial and personnel losses led some experts to expect post-al-Raymi AQAP to fragment.
Nevertheless, Batarfi looks poised to take advantage of the new forms of chaos in Yemen to revive AQAP’s status as an internationally feared terror group. Worryingly for Washington, Batarfi was already in charge of the group’s external operations when AQAP claimed responsibility for orchestrating last year’s deadly shooting at US Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida.
The spread of COVID-19 in Yemen threatens millions of lives due to the ongoing lack of food and medical supplies as consequence of the civil war.
The spread of COVID-19 in Yemen threatens millions of lives due to the ongoing lack of food and medical supplies as consequence of the civil war. Before coronavirus reached Yemen, the survival of approximately 24 million Yemenis (80 percent of the country’s population) depended on humanitarian aid. Yemen’s population is not only threatened by the spread of the virus but also by the likely mismanagement of the looming health crisis within the divided country.
For instance, in the territories they control, the Houthis have already promoted a culture of denial regarding the virus in an attempt to cover its spread. As such, most rebel fighters and citizens in northern Yemen avoid reporting symptoms and seeking treatment. Officially, in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital and most populous city, the Houthis have recorded only four cases since May.
Equally problematic, in the territories under the jurisdiction of the UN-recognized government led by President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, the number of confirmed cases is suspiciously low (1,318 cases as of July 9). It is estimated that while COVID-19 spreads undetected, up to one million people could already be infected.
AQAP is well positioned to benefit from such mismanagement of the health crisis. The Houthi leadership views the virus mainly as a threat to its resources, and underestimates how failing to respond to it can easily undermine their popular support base in the north. Meanwhile, from its exile in Saudi Arabia, the Hadi administration is not proving capable of doing anything to effectively cope with the pathogen.
There is good reason to worry about AQAP’s potential to increase its engagements with local communities through charitable actions.
There is good reason to worry about AQAP’s potential to increase its engagements with local communities through charitable actions (digging wells, providing medical treatments, paying widows monthly allowances, etc.) at a time when Yemenis lack confidence in their country’s internationally recognized government when it comes to addressing COVID-19 and other issues.
If Batarfi commits to an active, soft power approach he could successfully revamp the group’s domestic popularity which proved key for the group’s survival and its ability to recruit new fighters in its recent past. When it comes to AQAP’s course of action in those areas of Yemen where the organization enjoys less grass-roots support, it is more likely that Batarfi will seek to weather the storm and make gains after the virus’ spread, reducing the group’s current exposure.
Undoubtedly, AQAP has also benefitted from the spread of COVID-19 abroad and by the economic impact of the pandemic on key external foes involved in Yemen. The US, which despite its intention to disengage from the Middle East is still the main coordinator of counter-terrorism operations in the region, continues to struggle with the health crisis domestically.
Iran – the main supporter of the Houthis – and the region’s worse hit country by the pandemic, continues to suffer from Washington’s crippling sanctions and does not currently enjoy the degree of influence needed to prompt a more decisive effort by Houthi militias against AQAP.
Saudi Arabia is currently coping with unprecedentedly low oil prices—caused by the halt of most economic activities in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19 worldwide—and with the need to sustain more efforts inside Yemen following Abu Dhabi’s military disengagement from the war-ravaged country.
There is no guarantee that Yemen’s unresolved “southern question” won’t fuel more bloodshed in the future.
Although, in late July, the Hadi government and STC agreed to accelerate the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement, which they signed in Saudi Arabia in November 2019, there is no guarantee that Yemen’s unresolved “southern question” won’t fuel more bloodshed in the future.
As the parties interpreted the accord’s terms for implementation differently in the past and other issues (such as the future role of al-Islah) continue to dim the prospects for a long-term and sustainable peace between Hadi and the STC, there is always a risk that they will return to fighting before long. Such instability in Aden and other parts of the country that once belonged to South Yemen can benefit AQAP which thrives on chaos and confusion.
Despite Khalid Batarfi having many obstacles to face, political turmoil and the COVID-19 pandemic can boost AQAP’s ability to re-organize. Arguably, a leader who is from the Arabian Peninsula, such as Batarfi, can help the organization to exploit local dynamics. Yemen’s internal divisions and the lack of transparency about the coronavirus pandemic across the country, provide the perfect context for the group.
In addition, both Saudi-led forces and the Houthis have shifted resources away from the fight against AQAP in order to prioritize other issues. Therefore, it is likely that in the next 12 months the region shall witness a new revival of AQAP as the organization takes advantage of the ongoing chaos.
Co-author: Christopher “Bobby” Leacock is an intern at Gulf State Analytics.