Overview: AQAP, ISIS-Yemen, and Iran-backed terrorist groups such as Hizballah and the IRGC-QF continued to exploit the political and security vacuum created by the ongoing conflict between the Republic of Yemen government under the leadership of President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi, internationally recognized as the legitimate Government of Yemen, and Houthi militants, as well as the ongoing south-south conflict between the Republic of Yemen government and the Southern Transitional Council (STC). Additionally, IRGC-QF continued to exploit the conflict to expand Iran’s influence in Yemen. UN and other reporting have highlighted connections between the IRGC-QF and the Houthis, including the provision of lethal aid used by the Houthis to undertake attacks against critical infrastructure sites in Saudi Arabia. Media reports suggest that Hizballah may also be supporting the Houthi militants.
The Republic of Yemen government, in partnership with the Saudi-led coalition, controlled less Yemeni territory at the end of 2020 than it did in 2019. The Republic of Yemen government’s loss of control over additional parts of its territory resulted from political and military tensions in the South and Houthi advances in other governorates of the country. In the South the STC temporarily declared “self-administration” between April and July, which was not recognized by the international community. Negotiations to implement the 2019 Riyadh Agreement culminated in the December 30 return of a newly formed government to Aden, but this failed to eliminate tensions in the South, where AQAP and ISIS-Yemen maintained significant areas of influence. Concurrently, Houthi militants who controlled the de jure capital of Sana’a and surrounding northwest highlands, as well as the port city of Hudaydah, made key advances eastward and southward to parts of the governorates of al-Jawf, al-Bayda, and Ma’rib.
The Republic of Yemen government cooperated with the U.S. government on CT efforts; however, because of the instability and violence, as well as its own degraded capabilities, the Republic of Yemen government could not fully enforce CT measures or reliably undertake operations across the country. A large security vacuum persists, which provides AQAP and ISIS-Yemen room to operate. Although there were few CT gains in 2020, Yemeni security forces undertook a successful raid against suspected AQAP members in al-Mahra’s capital, al-Ghayda, on October 2, resulting in the death of three suspected terrorists and the arrest of two others. Security Belt Forces loyal to the STC continued to play an important role in CT efforts, as they exercised control over significant parts of Aden, Abyan, and Shabwah. ISIS-Yemen remained considerably smaller in size and influence compared with AQAP but remained operationally active and continued to claim attacks. AQAP remained active in central Yemen, most notably in al-Bayda, demonstrating its ability to move within the country.
2020 Terrorist Incidents: Attacks attributed to AQAP and ISIS-Yemen decreased in 2020, compared with 2019. Methods included suicide bombings, vehicle-borne IEDs, ambushes, armed clashes, kidnappings, and targeted assassinations. Notable terrorist incidents included the following:
- On August 15, AQAP militants executed and then crucified a dentist in al-Bayda governorate and later bombed his clinic. AQAP accused him of participating in an alleged espionage network on behalf of the U.S., Saudi, and Emirati governments and the Houthi militia.
- On August 27, AQAP militants executed six persons in al-Bayda. AQAP accused the victims of belonging to the Houthi militia.
- On December 7, suspected AQAP militants killed six persons affiliated with the STC in Abyan governorate.
Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: Yemen made no significant changes to its CT legal framework in 2020. 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 Parliament since 2008. Before the political instability in Sana’a that forced the 2015 relocation of the Republic of Yemen government, 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 terrorist fighters and terrorist 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 the 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 2020.
Yemen enhanced its border security procedures in November, when the Ministry of Interior’s Office of Immigration, Passport and Naturalization Authority began upgrading its traveler screening process at some government-controlled points of entry. Yemen employs the U.S.-provided PISCES integrated border security management system to secure borders and identify fraudulent travel documents, but deployment to all points of entry controlled by the Republic of Yemen government was still in progress at year’s end.
The Republic of Yemen government worked with international partners to reestablish the rule of law in government-controlled areas. Yemen, with the United States, the UK, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, participates in the Yemen Security Working Group, which includes military and diplomatic representatives from member states and develops cooperative capacity-building initiatives for Yemeni military and security forces. This year, EXBS funded the training of 15 Yemeni Coast Guard officials on small motor maintenance, 19 port officials on port operations, and 89 Border Guardsmen on vehicle interdiction, as well as the participation of 12 senior officials in various security conferences. Most of the conferences and all the port operation training occurred virtually, because of COVID-19 restrictions.
The Yemeni Coast Guard played a 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 of MENAFATF.
The Republic of Yemen government-controlled Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) continued incremental efforts to implement International Monetary Fund Diagnostic Report recommendations to enhance AML/CFT capacity, but owing to a lack of judicial capacity and territorial control the Republic of Yemen government is unable to fully implement IMF recommendations and 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, and the Republic of Yemen government has limited capacity to resolve these deficiencies. For example, the CBY in Aden sought transactional information from commercial banks for AML/CFT compliance. Commercial banks, however, resisted complying owing to Houthi pressure on their Sana’a-based bank headquarters. In November the Aden CBY referred some bank branch managers for criminal prosecution over their refusal to comply. Houthi leaders in Sana’a retaliated by dispatching security forces to seize computer servers and enforce a temporary closure of several large commercial banks. A mediated resolution saw Sana’a-based banks resume providing basic compliance information to CBY Aden, but not at the level of detail needed to meet international AML/CFT standards.
In January the Prime Minister reconstituted the National Committee for Combating Money Laundering and Financing of Terrorism. The committee includes 17 members from relevant ministries and concerned institutions, as well as representatives from the Yemen Banks Association and the Chambers of Commerce.
Countering Violent Extremism: There were no significant changes in 2020.
International and Regional Cooperation: Yemen is a member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. The Republic of Yemen government continued to cooperate with the GCC, the United States, and other donor countries, as it focused on working toward a political solution to the conflict. Yemen is a member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Arab League.