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Secessionists and sectarianism: Yemen’s more combustible security crises

In Yemen, there are far more significant sources of conflict with a far greater potential for escalation and loss of life than imminent terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

With the evacuation of American and British government personnel from Yemen in recent days due to intercepts regarding imminent terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, it would be logical to conclude that terrorism is Yemen’s greatest impediment to peace and stability. It is not. In fact, there are far more significant sources of conflict with a far greater potential for escalation and loss of life.

Most notably, the country is embarking upon a National Dialogue process intended to produce a constitution as well as an elite bargain capable of keeping the nation intact. The future of southern Yemen – formerly an independent country prior to 1990 – is one of the key issues at hand along with never-before-seen levels of sectarian tensions and violence. This piece addresses each of these issues in turn.

Suicide bombing, Sana'aA young man takes a picture at the scene of a suicide bombing in Sana'a that was intended to kill Yemen's Defence Minister, September 2012. Demotix/Luke Somers. All rights reserved.

The Southern question

The southern population, long egged on by elites hoping to gain power in an independent state of South Yemen (or “Southern Arabia”), has become radicalized to such an extent that the situation is combustible. Nearly the entirety of the south’s population strongly supports the Southern Movement, known as Al Hiraak al-Janubi (or simply as Hiraak), and nearly all demand secession for their region rather than half-measures such as decentralization or federalism. And the fervor has escalated, in no small part thanks to Yemeni security forces’ increasing tendency to shoot live ammunition into crowds of reportedly peaceful southern demonstrators in Aden, in particular. While concrete figures are hard to come by, most media counts suggest that Yemen’s security forces had, in the first four months of 2013, shot and killed as many southern protesters as they had in all of 2012.

Protestors don’t just chant. They throw rocks and block roads several days a week. Parents and others are so committed to the cause that they have not balked when Southern Movement demonstrations force schools to close two or three days every week. This is not a movement that will go anywhere or which will be appeased. Many are simply waiting for the day that another shooting of Hiraak protesters sends the south into full-blown rebellion. If it does, there is little doubt that the northern-dominated military will be able to subjugate a region which has relative little weaponry and comparatively few tribal militias.

But, while the south will not succeed in breaking away from the remainder of Yemen, it will pull the country into chaos. The oil revenues on which the central government relies will dry up overnight due to conflict in the south (which is home to much of the country’s oil and oil pipelines). Public sector spending will be transferred overwhelmingly towards the country’s security services, and progress towards anti-corruption, democratization, decentralization, and political legitimization will be set back by at least a decade.  Western aid agencies and foreign firms will increasingly flee the country, further disrupting an economy which is already in shambles.

To boot, the human rights abuses likely to occur in violently pacifying the south, particularly urban areas such as Aden and Mukallah, will lead many in the west to sever its ties with the country and its factionalized-but-capable military. Without a credible state, oil and gas revenues, or an internationally-supported military, Yemen will risk becoming a fully “ungoverned space” where, indeed, terrorism will be able to flourish even more than it has in the past. The international community will, when the dust settles, find itself tasked with not just bolstering a fledgling state but with attempting to reconstitute one, as in Somalia or post-2001 Afghanistan.

Sectarian tensions and violence

Meanwhile, looking beyond “the Southern Question”, as it is known, Yemen increasingly faces one of the few security and humanitarian calamities it had previously managed to avoid: sectarianism. External support, particularly from Saudi Arabia, for conservative Salafist and Wahhabist groups in Yemen has re-shaped the religious landscape. These orthodox Islamist groups have pushed a social, cultural, and political agenda – and labeled Yemen’s Shias as infidels. Zaydi Shias, who long saw themselves more in ethnic or cultural than sectarian terms, are responding to this threat in a relatively predictable manner: taking greater pride in their identity and seeking to defend it using all means necessary.

The Al-Houthi militia/movement, which has been actively promoting Zaydi culture and interests in Yemen for more than a quarter century, has increasingly responded to Sunni provocation. The Houthis control much of northern Yemen and, despite six rounds of conflict with the Yemeni military and one with the Saudis, this shows little sign of weakening. In fact it appears to be growing, deepening its inroads in major central cities such as Taiz and Sana’a. Iran, which practices a fundamentally different form of Shia Islam than Yemen’s Shias, has nonetheless been happy to facilitate the rise of sectarian tensions and support members of the Houthi movement.

The Yemeni people, while long tolerant of varied religious groups, are increasingly looking for a sense of purpose and meaning among the chaos, poverty, and conflict they encounter. The desire for a sense of identity is particularly strong among the roughly two-thirds of Yemenis who are under the age of 25. Sectarian groups and their allied militias – along with foreign and home-grown terrorist movements such as Al Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia – offer not only an identity and sense of belonging but also payments and weapons to their fighters. They will continue to grow, and stability in Yemen and the rest of southern Arabia will feel their effects in the coming years. Sectarian tensions will escalate, and further conflict and violence will result, particular as the country approaches presidential and parliamentary elections in or after February 2014.

Terrorism remains a major challenge in Yemen. Despite the end of large-scale insurgent violence in and around Abyan, where Al Qaeda and its affiliates held a large swathe of territory for 14 months, tribal and governmental forces have continued to square off against terrorist fighters week in and week out in southern Marib governorate and other parts of the country. Furthermore, broader instability arising from the Southern Movement and sectarianism will create openings which Al Qaeda and its affiliates – including members of the Somalia-based Al Shabaab – will exploit to the fullest extent feasible. However, terrorist groups themselves do not pose nearly the same threats to security as southern and sectarian tensions. Greater international resources, attention and expertise must be mobilized to address these challenges. With a long record of winner-takes-all politics, Yemen’s leaders are unable to understand the threat these challenges pose – and several have sought to promote internal tensions as a way of propelling their careers. Hence, the challenges are ones which members of the international community must engage with and address before they lead to the sorts of widespread internal conflict which Yemen has not seen in its recent history.

About the author

Steven A. Zyck is a research fellow with the Overseas Development Institute’s (ODI) Humanitarian Policy Group in London, and Co-Editor of Stability: International Journal of Security & Development (www.stabilityjournal.org). He has been conducting research and advising international stakeholders in Yemen for much of this year.


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