Overview: Throughout 2019, AQAP, ISIS-Yemen, Hizballah, the IRGC-QF, and other Iran-backed terrorist groups continued to exploit the political and security vacuum created by the ongoing conflict between the Yemeni government under the leadership of President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi, recognized by the UN Security Council as the legitimate government of Yemen, and the Iran-backed Houthi militants. Additionally, IRGC-QF has exploited the conflict to expand its influence in Yemen. UN and other reporting have highlighted the connection between the IRGC-QF and the Houthis, including the provision of lethal aid used by the Houthis to target civilian sites in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Media reports suggest that other FTOs, such as Hizballah, may also be supporting the Houthi militants.
The Republic of Yemen Government, in partnership with the Saudi-led coalition, controlled the majority of Yemeni territory at the end of 2019; however, in August the UAE-backed secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) seized control of the Republic of Yemen Government’s temporary capital, Aden. With the November 5 signing of the Riyadh Agreement between the Republic of Yemen Government and the STC, the two parties agreed to end three months of hostilities in Yemen’s South. The agreement allowed for the return of the Republic of Yemen Government prime minister to Aden on November 18. It also aims to produce a more inclusive, representative cabinet and bring all military forces under the Republic of Yemen Government umbrella. Iran-backed Houthi militants controlled the capital of Sana’a and surrounding northwest highlands, and they largely controlled the port city of Hudaydah, among other areas. AQAP retained areas of influence inside Yemen, though the terrorist group was pushed back by Republic of Yemen Government and UAE-backed local security forces over the course of the year.
The Republic of Yemen Government cooperated with the U.S. government on CT efforts; however, because of the instability and violence in Yemen, as well as its own degraded capabilities, the Republic of Yemen Government cannot fully enforce CT measures across the country. A large security vacuum persists, which provides AQAP and ISIS-Yemen room to operate. Most counterterrorism gains in 2018 were reversed in 2019, as some UAE forces withdrew and other security forces supported by the UAE disbanded. Republic of Yemen Government and tribal pressures continued to complicate AQAP’s freedom of movement. AQAP and ISIS-Yemen continued to carry out terrorist attacks throughout the country, including in government-held territory. UAE-backed Yemeni Security Belt Forces, which played a significant role in CT efforts, were used by the STC to exercise control over significant parts of Aden in August. The November 2019 Riyadh Agreement aims to bring them under Republic of Yemen Government control. ISIS-Yemen remained considerably smaller in size and influence compared with AQAP, but it remained operationally active and continued to claim attacks against AQAP, Yemeni security forces, and the Houthis militants.
2019 Terrorist Incidents: AQAP and ISIS-Yemen terrorists carried out hundreds of attacks throughout Yemen in 2019. Methods included suicide bombers, VBIEDs, ambushes, armed clashes, kidnappings, and targeted assassinations. Notable terrorist incidents from 2019 include:
- On April 2, unknown gunmen kidnapped and killed a patient at Al Sadaqah hospital in Aden. The incident caused Doctors Without Borders to suspend all new admissions to the hospital.
- On August 1, ISIS-Yemen claimed responsibility for a suicide attack on a police station in Aden. The attackers used multiple suicide VBIEDs to attack a police station in Aden’s Omar al Mokhtar neighborhood, killing 11 people and injuring 29 others.
- On August 2, AQAP gunmen stormed al-Mahfad army base in southern Abyan province, killing 19 soldiers.
Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: Yemen made no significant changes to its CT legal framework or to its law enforcement and border security procedures in 2019. Yemen does not have comprehensive CT legislation. Owing to a lack of resources and organization, police forces throughout the country struggle to exert authority.
Draft CT legislation has been pending in the Parliament since 2008. Before the political instability in Sana’a that drove the Republic of Yemen Government from the capital in 2015, the draft was under review by the three parliamentary subcommittees responsible for counterterrorism (Legal and Constitutional Affairs; Security and Defense; and Codification of Sharia Law). The law would facilitate the detention of suspects and include mandatory sentencing for several terrorism-related crimes. There have been no clear moves to implement legal structures compliant with UNSCRs 2178 and 2396 related to countering foreign terrorists and travel, although the Republic of Yemen Government continues to institute some noteworthy measures to combat terrorist travel. There are limited commercial flights operating out of airports in Yemen, and the government does not have the capacity or resources to implement UNSCR 2309 mandates on aviation security.
Before March 2015, Yemen’s National Security Agency and President’s Office drafted a National Counterterrorism Strategy. A ministerial committee reviewed the draft but was unable to finalize it because of political instability. Thus, Yemen’s National Counterterrorism Strategy had not been officially adopted or implemented by the end of 2019.
Yemen employs the U.S.-provided PISCES system to secure borders and identify fraudulent travel documents. Despite the conflict, Yemen has been able to maintain traveler screening at a limited number of points of entry.
In past years, the Yemeni government’s Coast Guard played a critical role in interdicting weapons and other illegal materials destined for Yemen-based terrorist groups, although the nation’s maritime borders remained extremely porous. The central-southern coast remains highly vulnerable to maritime smuggling of fighters, weapons, materials, and goods used to support AQAP and ISIS-Yemen.
Countering the Financing of Terrorism: Yemen is a member MENAFATF.
In 2019, the Central Bank of Yemen committed to implementing International Monetary Fund Diagnostic Report recommendations to enhance AML/CFT capacity, but no specific steps have been undertaken to date. Owing to a lack of judicial capacity and territorial control, the Yemeni government is unable to fully implement UNSCRs related to terrorist financing. Since 2010, FATF has identified Yemen as a risk to the international financial system because of its strategic AML/CFT deficiencies.
The government has committed with the STC to enhance management of state revenues and announced in December the formation of a committee authorized to inspect and audit customs and tax collection points to ensure that funds were not diverted from government coffers.
Countering Violent Extremism: There were no significant changes in 2019.
International and Regional Cooperation: Yemen joined the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS in 2019. The Republic of Yemen Government continued to cooperate with the GCC, the United States, and other donor countries as it concentrated on working toward a political solution to the conflict. Despite the challenges, the Republic of Yemen Government remained a dependable international partner as it worked to reestablish the rule of law within the territory it holds. Yemen, with the United States, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, participates in the Yemen Security Working Group, which includes military and diplomatic representatives from its three member states, and develops several cooperative capacity-building initiatives for Yemeni military and security forces. For example, in July, 15 Yemen Coast Guard personnel participated in a two-and-a-half week ship boarding and inspection course held in Aden and delivered by the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime’s Global Maritime Crime Program. In addition, around 150 Yemen Border Guard members participated in five Export Control and Related Border Security-funded iterations of Yemen Border Interdiction Training in Riyadh. Yemen also belongs to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Arab League.