No other actors have benefited more from Saudi intervention in Yemen than extremist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS). Part of Saudi Arabia’s strategy to avoid putting their own troops on the front lines is to air-drop weapons and money to local militants fighting the Houthis—which comprise a range of actors including tribal forces, Islah Party members, pro-Hadi popular resistance committees, and some Southern separatist wings. According to local witnesses in Taiz, Abyan, and Aden, Saudi Arabia allegedly airdropped weapons and money to militants who at times fight alongside al-Qaeda, including Abyan fighters under the leadership of Abdul Latif al-Sayed, a former al-Qaeda leader fighting with the popular resistance committees loyal to Saudi-backed President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi. 

This support has benefited al-Qaeda, which continues to fight Houthis in the central provinces of Aden, Abyan, Shabwah, Mareb, and Taiz. Saudi Arabia has also indirectly supported al Qaeda’s efforts by allowing them to solidify territorial control in other areas. In Mukalla, al-Qaeda looted military bases and banks in April 2015 and declared the city an Emirate. There, the group has been able to govern alongside a local tribal council under the leadership of Khaled Batarfi and even launched a new local paper, Al-Masra. Mukalla is the fifth largest city in Yemen, capital of the oil rich Hadramout province, and has a strategic oil harbor that is now run by al-Qaeda, with all its revenues going to its militants. 

However, rifts within al-Qaeda have grown more pronounced since Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the group’s top leader in Yemen, was killed by U.S. drone strike in June 2015, leaving a leadership vacuum. Clashes erupted during a meeting between followers of Jalal Beleidi, a prominent al-Qaeda leader in Abyan, and those of Abdul Latif al-Sayed, a former al-Qaeda leader who rebranded himself as a leader of the popular resistance committees and whom Beleidi blamed for al-Qaeda’s expulsion from Abyan in 2012. Beleidi’s followers ambushed Sayed’s car, leading to violent clashes between the two factions in the streets of Zinjibar. 

These divides within the group are compounded by disagreements between Emirati and Saudi officials over which anti-Houthi militants are too extreme to support. Most anti-Houthi militants, politicians, and activists are from Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups, whom Saudi Arabia’s new leadership is content to support. Yet these are explicit enemies of the UAE, which has for years sparred with domestic and international branches of the Brotherhood and designated the Brotherhood, IS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Houthis all terrorist groups in November 2014. For instance, the Saudi airdrops to tribal leader Hamoud al-Mekhlafi—a leader of anti-Houthi popular resistance committees who fights alongside al-Qaeda militants in Taiz—caused the UAE in August 2015 to delay the advance of its armored tanks from Aden to Taiz in protest. Likewise, in Aden, the UAE refused to support any Muslim Brotherhood figures and even publicly accused the Islah Party of stealing the humanitarian aid the UAE Red Crescent supplied to displaced people. The UAE is instead fighting these groups by supporting southern separatists.

The internal conflict within al-Qaeda (and between Saudi Arabia and the UAE) is increasingly benefiting the Islamic State. Frustrated young men who are inclined to join extremist groups get more frustrated when they see jihadi leaders in conflict with each other. Internal disputes make these youth spurn those involved as not real jihadis. Thus the dispute within al-Qaeda is increasingly driving young men to IS—which is more united, as it is a new organization. Furthermore, as a declared enemy of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the Islamic State is removed from their rift over al-Qaeda and the Brotherhood. The new group with its new name has not yet developed affiliations with regional or international parties conflicting over Yemen, giving them a greater sense of legitimacy among some Yemenis. 

Since the start of the war, the Islamic State has successfully targeted about ten mosques in Sanaa and Saada, killing hundreds of Zaidi and Shafii attendees. On October 6, 2015, IS appeared even more powerful when four suicide bombers using stolen armed vehicles as car bombs attacked two joint Saudi–UAE military command bases and killed fifteen people in the Qasr Hotel in Aden, hoping to target Prime Minister Khaled Bahah and his ministers shortly after they returned from their exile in Riyadh. More recently, IS has ramped up its attacks in Aden. On December 6, 2015, they assassinated Jaafar Mohammed Saad, the governor of Aden, one day after they also assassinated Mohsen Alwan, chairman of the Aden-based anti-terrorism court, and two senior intelligence officers. This helps them advance their vision of the “Aden–Abyan Province” that would serve as an IS capital in Yemen. More recently, on January 28 an IS car bomb exploded near Hadi’s presidential palace in Aden, killing twelve. 

For now, the Islamic State’s influence remains mostly confined to Sanaa, Bayda, and Aden, though they are gaining support in other Houthi-controlled areas in the northwest. But reversing these advances will be particularly difficult, as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda gain greater support among Salafi groups angered by their defeats at the hands of the Houthis—making the Saudi gambit particularly dangerous in the long term.

Nasser Arrabyee is a Yemeni journalist based in Sanaa.