On March 20th, suicide bombers killed more than 100 people and wounded hundreds more at two major mosques in Yemen’s capital of Sana’a during midday prayers. Up to four men targeted the Al Badr Mosque and Al Hashoosh Mosque, both of which are under control of the Zaidi Shiite, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
It is not clear yet who is responsible for the attack, but experts say it resembles prior al-Qaeda bombings. Supporters of the Islamic State (ISIS), however, claimed responsibility via social media on Friday, but there have been no official announcements from the jihadist group. If this claim were true, it would be ISIS’s first big attack in Yemen.
These bombings occurred the day after conflict in the southern city of Aden between the Houthis and forces still loyal to Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, where warplanes targeted the presidential palace. President Hadi, who is supported by the United States, has been based in Aden ever since leaving Sana’a when the Houthis ousted him and took over Yemen’s government earlier this year.
There has been an escalation of violence in Yemen ever since the Houthis seized power, particularly because al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the terrorist group’s most effective branch based in the southern part of Yemen, has repeatedly battled with the Iranian proxy, based primarily in the northern part of the country.
AQAP has carried out terrorist attacks against the Houthis on several occasions while the Shiite rebels are trying to strengthen their position by seizing more territory and stamp out those who oppose their rule. Regardless of who wins, the situation is detrimental to U.S. interests. Al-Qaeda is a jihadist terror group seeking to ultimately destroy western civilization while the Houthis are an arm of Iranian expansion throughout the region, whose slogan is, “Allah is the greatest of all, Death to America, Death to Israel, A curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam.”
To make matters worse, ISIS now has a presence in Yemen, indicating that the group is expanding its reach. In fact, some supporters of AQAP renounced their loyalty to al-Qaeda and pledged it to ISIS last month. According to CNN, the group has a presence in at least three provinces in southern and central Yemen. If ISIS was responsible for the March 20th bombings, it is a troubling indicator that the group is increasing its presence there, eyeing Yemen as the next target for the growing caliphate.
While there is no real ideological difference between the al-Qaeda and ISIS views of the Houthis, ISIS is known to emphasize the targeting of the “rafidah” (derogatory name for Shia) to a far greater extent than al-Qaeda. As a result, ISIS may be well positioned to take advantage of any anti-Houthi backlash from the majority Sunni Yemeni population. The rivalry between both militant Sunni groups adds another dynamic to the already complicated situation on the ground.
The March 20th attack on the two Houthi-controlled mosques in Sana’a is a continuation of what is already occurring in Yemen but may be an indication of more violence to come. The Houthis and AQAP are battling for supremacy, and the introduction of ISIS into the picture only complicates and worsens matters.
The United States has no good options in Yemen, especially after abandoning its embassy there, but it must monitor the situation and ideally continue to carry out drone strikes against AQAP while trying to limit Houthi (Iranian) expansion. One fact is certain, though; President Barack Obama’s strategy in Yemen, which he touted a few months ago as successful, has failed.