ISIS gains a foothold in recently abandoned Yemen

Ed opened the morning with a thorough rundown of the suboptimal state of the security situation in Yemen. The deteriorating conditions in that key state on the Arabian Peninsula prompted American, British, and French embassies to shut their doors on Tuesday. The State Department has also asked Americans to refrain from visiting that country following what is widely considered to have been a coup by Iran-backed Houthis rebels.

Despite reports that the United States is prepared to shift its allegiances in that nation and give up on the deposed Western-backed government in Sanaa and support the Houthis, this ascendant rebel faction is not returning the kindness.

“Houthi rebels took all U.S. Embassy vehicles parked at the Yemeni capital’s airport and wouldn’t let departing U.S. Marines take their weapons with them, a top Sanaa airport official said about the latest evidence of unrest in an Arab nation long seen as key in America’s fight against terrorists,” CNN reported.

According to the official, the Houthis seized many U.S. Marines’ weapons at the airport, and the American troops also handed over some to random airport officials Wednesday.

The previous night, embassy officials burned tens of thousands of documents and destroyed weapons that were inside the Sanaa embassy’s storage warehouses, Yemeni employees of the embassy said.

That’s an inauspicious sign.

Once touted by President Barack Obama as a model for his administration’s preferred counterterrorism strategy, Yemen is today in shambles. Yemen’s fate is indicative of a region-wide collapse of the administration’s approach to preventing the aspiring terrorist cells from exporting attacks to the West.

“Whether it’s an empty slogan or an honest expression of the movement’s views, the US will have to come to grips with a new reality: Its counterterrorism model is in tatters, at a time when efforts to target AQAP have gained a renewed urgency – one of the murderers who participated in the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris last month trained with the group in Yemen,” Dan Murphy recently wrote for The Christian Science Monitor.

And it appears that AQAP is going to soon have some competition as the preeminent terrorist organization in Yemen. According to a report in Reuters, loyalty to that faction of al-Qaeda among rank and file terrorist aspirants is ebbing in favor of support for the Islamic State. At least one al-Qaeda-linked group has reportedly shed its prior affiliation and pledged allegiance to ISIS.

State authority in Yemen has unraveled since a Shi’ite Muslim militia formally seized power last week and the Sunni AQAP has sworn to destroy it, stoking fears of sectarian civil war.

“We announce the formation of armed brigades specialized in pounding the apostates in Sanaa and Dhamar,” the purported former AQAP supporters wrote, referring to two central provinces.

“We announce breaking the pledge of allegiance to the sheikh, the holy warrior and scholar Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri … We pledge to the caliph of the believers Ibrahim bin Awad al-Baghdadi to listen and obey,” they said.

The United States reportedly backed the Houthis out of convenience. Despite the group’s support from Tehran, their hatred for AQAP made them a partner of necessity for the West. But former Sanaa-based journalist Adam Baron is skeptical of this strategy’s long-term efficacy.

In the larger sense, the Houthis are also helping AQAP. They’re creating a situation where a lot of Yemeni Sunnis feel increasingly marginalized. You’ve seen situations where more mainstream Sunni tribesmen have fought alongside Al Qaeda against the Houthis.

In addition, this whole situation has thrown Yemen into political uncertainty, accentuating the power vacuum that Yemen has experienced for quite some time. So that’s also something that will help Al Qaeda, because they feed off of power vacuums.

“We saw similar things happening in Syria,” former Yemen-based New York Times reporter Laura Kasinof agreed. “ISIS came out as the strongest force against the Assad regime, and Syrians who in the past wouldn’t have wanted to ally with them started to ally with them. A similar thing could happen in Yemen, and that’s very problematic.”

With the shuttering of Western embassies in Yemen and the loss of a reliable and friendly government in Sanaa, the United States is unable to pursue a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy in this volatile part of the world. America has lost its eyes in Yemen, for the most part, and insurgent Islamists are not wasting any time taking advantage of that new reality.