The Enemy of my Enemy is my Friend: How AQAP and Houthis Work Together Against South Yemen

 February 12, 2023 

Mohamed Mohamed

Mohamed is a pseudonym for the original author. The name was changed for his safety and security.

Late last year, tribal leaders and other prominent figures in the Al-Baydaa governorate in central Yemen, which the Houthis primarily control, helped broker an agreement between the Houthi group and Al-Qaeda. The treaty allowed Al-Qaeda members to move freely in the governorate and stipulated that the Houthis would not pursue the terrorist group. This agreement was sponsored by the governorate's senior sheiks and clerics in exchange for the Houthi group's commitment to protect the area and focus their attacks on what they referred to as "mercenaries of aggression," or the pro-STC forces, and the government coalition forces supported by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. On the other hand, AQAP will focus its attacks on the STC's Security Belt forces in Abyan and the Shabwah Defense Forces in Shabwah, both bordering Al-Baydaa Governorate.

Residents have reported suspicious movements of armed groups in rural districts and mountainous areas, with an influx of military vehicles and masked gunmen carrying RPGs and other weapons. They said these groups move around in the late-night hours in the mountains and valleys of Alsawma'ah district and other districts bordering Abyan.

There have been previous agreements of this type between the Houthis and Al-Qaeda, including the exchange of several prisoners. Some experts think that this agreement was a response to the STC's counterterrorism operation "Arrow of the East," which started on August 23, 2022, to push AQAP out of Abyan, and in particular to the Southern Forces entering Wadi Omarn in Mudiyah, the largest Al-Qaeda stronghold in Abyan, as well as the military agreement recently signed between Yemen and the UAE.

Brigadier General Thabet Saleh has said that cooperation between Al-Qaeda and the Houthis and between Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood has been known for a long time and was expected to lead to a joint agreement for the Al-Baydaa Governorate eventually.

Thabet emphasized that the cooperation between these two groups is evident, with the exchange of prisoners being the most basic form of collaboration.

Radio Monte Carlo International reported in April 2016 that the Houthis and Ansar al-Sharia, the local affiliate of al-Qaeda, had completed a prisoner exchange agreement in the Al-Baydaa governorate of Yemen. The deal resulted in the release of approximately 100 captives from both sides. This was not the first prisoner exchange between the two groups. On October 1, 2015, the two parties conducted a similar deal in the Dhi Na'em area of Al-Baydaa Governorate, where more than 20 prisoners, including nine al-Qaeda members, were exchanged for over 11 Houthis. This exchange was kept secret.

In April 2016, a more significant prisoner exchange occurred in the city of Mukalla in the Hadramout Governorate. The exchange involved the release of more than 100 prisoners from both sides, including terrorists who had been caught before the Houthis gained control of the capital, Sanaa, in September 2014. The exchange, considered the largest of its kind, was conducted in secrecy and unannounced in the city of Seiyun. Over 70 Houthi captives were exchanged for more than 50 al-Qaeda militants.

The latest prisoner exchange deal Between AQAP and the Houthis took place on January 19, 2023. 

Thabet also added that the Al-Bayda governorate in Yemen is strategically located and significant for both the Houthis and Al-Qaeda. The governorate's proximity to other governorates, such as Sana'a, Ma'rib, Shabwa, Abyan, Lahj, and Al-Dhalea, makes it an important region for the Houthis' aggression against the south and Marib. Al-Bayda is also a tribal governorate, where extremism and terrorism have been easily implanted due to tribal and social factors. Al-Qaeda took control of Qifah and Rada'a with the help of some tribal leaders, according to U.S. Treasury Department designations. Additionally, the U.S. Treasury designated the governor of Al-Baydaa, saying that "he delivered aid to AQAP and used his position as a political leader in the al-Bayda Governorate, Yemen, to facilitate the expansion and settlement of AQAP in the governorate."

According to Brigadier General Thabet Saleh, there have been numerous acts of terrorism committed against individuals from the south by a collaboration between the Houthis, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS. The most significant of these crimes was the handover of the city of Mukalla and the coastal region of Hadramout to Al-Qaeda in 2015. Other incidents have taken place in Abyan and Aden, such as the assassination of Abu Al-Yamama (Munir Al-Yafei) and the terrorist attack on the Sheikh Othman police station. Also, the media outlets associated with these groups work together to incite violence against southerners and to justify and conceal these crimes.

Journalist Shaja' Hissam Buhaibeh noted that the Houthi group and Al-Qaeda have been serving each other in the Al-Baydaa governorate from the start and are both working against the Arab coalition and its military forces, particularly those supported by the UAE. He said that the Houthi group had used Al-Qaeda as a front to show Europe and the U.S. that they are partners in the fight against terrorism while saying that they are protecting the Shiite minority in Yemen from extremist Sunnis.

Shaja' also stated that the alliance between the Houthis and Al-Qaeda was demonstrated when Al-Qaeda took control of a camp in the Bayhan district of Shabwa before the Houthi takeover. Al-Qaeda then transferred their heavy and light weapons to a mountainous region in Al-Baydaa, which the Houthi militia later took possession of. The Houthis used these weapons to fight against tribal groups that opposed their coup.

On February 13, 2015, AQAP took control of the 19th Infantry Camp in Bayhan, Shabwah, looted the tanks, military vehicles, and heavy equipment, and moved them to Al-Baydaa.

These tactics are from the same playbook used by Iran in Iraq and Syria, where on the one hand, they provide support to ISIS, and on the other, they claim to fight ISIS to protect the Shiites in Iraq. The Houthi group has been utilizing the same tactics of leveraging al-Qaeda and ISIS's presence to gain international legitimacy and support. It's also reminiscent of late Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's double game dealing with Al Qaeda.