The Damage Of Dammaj: How Sectarian Tensions Fuel ISIS In Yemen

The terror group is gaining ground due to ongoing chaos in the war-torn country.

People walk past a building one day after air strikes destroyed it in Sanaa, Yemen June 6, 2018.  (photo credit: KHALED ABDULLAH/ REUTERS)
People walk past a building one day after air strikes destroyed it in Sanaa, Yemen June 6, 2018.
Nineteen-year-old Mohammad Rajeh still remembers his hometown in Yemen, from which his family fled three years ago. “The city of Taiz was a paradise,” he explained. “But as soon as the war began, my family left. We might have to go back now since we can no longer afford the taxes and rent here,” Rajeh told the Media Line from his new home in neighboring Saudi Arabia.
Indeed, Taiz is far from a paradise. Located in southwest Yemen, the country’s third largest city has become the site of violent clashes between Salafist groups, Houthi rebels, and government loyalists—a microcosm of the greater sectarian war that has plagued Yemen for nearly four years.
“The only way to survive in Yemen is by stealing and killing,” Rajeh said, “there is no food, no water, no shelter.” His extended family, which was left behind in Taiz, still struggles to make ends meet. “The country today is governed by the laws of the jungle—the strong eat the weak to survive,” he asserted.
Prior to the civil war breaking out in 2015, Yemen had promising prospects for its future. It was considered a success story of the Arab Spring, the wave of revolutions that swept across the Middle East and North Africa. Although the Yemeni people took to the streets to demand the resignation of Ali Abdullah Saleh, their longtime president who had been in office for over a decade, the protests did not amount to massive public unrest.
Following pressure from Gulf states, the White House and European nations, President Saleh eventually agreed to cede power and depart Yemen. He was succeeded by his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. For the first time in history, the people of Yemen felt a true sense of hope.
Yet things took a downturn when Saleh re-emerged from exile and allied with Ansar Allah, an armed group of insurgents belonging to Yemen’s Houthi minority, in an effort to topple Hadi’s newly-elected government. The rebels took over the capital Sana’a, fighting government forces at key strategic sites throughout the city, including the presidential palace. Hadi was forced to resign and flee, first to the port city of Aden and later to Saudi Arabia. His loyalists, backed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, have been fighting Houthi rebels ever since.
“The fault lines in Yemen are very blurry and it’s hard to tell who exactly is fighting who,” according to Andrea Carboni, who oversees the Yemen desk at ACLED, an organization that monitors political violence in the region. “Each sectarian group has multiple factions associated with it, and sometimes they even fight each other.”
Carboni is alluding to the unusual alliances that have emerged in Yemen, where the old proverb “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is an everyday reality rather than a cliché. The war, for example, has brought together Salafist rebels, vying to unite Yemen under Islamic rule, with Southern Separatists, who seek to form an independent state. A close partnership has also been forged between the Saudi-led coalition and Al-Qa'ida terrorists, who receive training and funding from their Gulf patrons in return for help in battling the Houthis.
“Take for example Abu al-Abbas, who is the commander of one of the largest Salafi brigades in Taiz,” Carboni related, “he has ties with Al-Qaeda, for which he was put under international sanctions, yet he is supported and funded by the Saudis and the Emiratis.”
Within this toxic environment, conditions are ripe for extremist groups like the Islamic State (ISIS) to prosper. Over the last few months, dozens of ISIS fighters have returned from Syria to Yemen, where they have srated building up their power and establishing local support networks.
“In some places we see the Islamic State forces join ranks with Al-Qa'ida, which is the more established and prominent of the two groups in Yemen,” explained Dr. Gabriele vom Bruck, from London's School of Oriental and African Studies, “but in other places, the two organizations have been directly contesting each other.” Just last week, ISIS forces killed a group of 13 Al-Qa'ida operatives in the Al-Baida region. In response, Al-Qa'ida launched a direct assault on the local ISIS headquarters, killing over 25 of its members and seizing military equipment from the premise.
While both movements adhere to a radical Salafist doctrine, there is an important distinction between them. “Al-Qa'ida has been engaged in a decade-long process of building relationships with tribal leaders across Yemen,” Carboni noted to The Media Line. “It provided basic necessities and catered to the population’s growing needs where the Yemeni government failed to do so,” so it is widely-respected by many people in the country. ISIS, however, is a new player in this arena.
Another important distinction is that while Al-Qa'ida is for the most part opposed to assaults on mosques, in particular, and civilian targets, generally, the Islamic State openly condones such attacks.
Yet according to some observers, the local competition between the two Salafist movements might only be temporary. Dr. Elisabeth Kendall, an expert in Islamic Studies at the University of Oxford, believes that ISIS forces are liable to be absorbed into Al-Qa'ida, thereby blurring the lines between the two movements and making it harder for coalition forces to differentiate between elements on the ground. This eventuality would also give birth to one of the largest terrorist franchises in the Middle East.
Testimonies obtained by The Media Line from opposition forces validate this concern. One Yemeni rebel, who sustained severe wounds in a recent clash with the Houthis, suggested as much to The Media Line from his hospital bed in Taiz. “Why should I care about the identity of those who want to join the fighting, so long as they are willing to fight by our side and help us against the Houthis?” he asked rhetorically. “Our ultimate goal is to liberate every inch of this great country from the hands of the Houthi aggressors, and we’ve only been successful at doing so when we joined ranks and worked together with other groups.”
Indeed, the fight against the Houthis, a Zaidi sect associated with Shia Islam, has, historically, united Yemen’s majority Sunni population. It provided various armed groups in Yemen, which would otherwise be competing against each other, with the impetus to collaborate.
The Houthis, meanwhile, have long been marginalized by the central Yemeni regime, which accounts for their grievances and objection to the internationally-recognized Hadi government.
“The Western media tends to portray the fighting in Yemen as a proxy war between the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-backed Hadi loyalists,” vom Bruck told The Media Line, “but the situation on the ground is not that clear-cut.” Indeed, tensions between Houthis and Sunnis in Yemen predate the civil war and even the outbreak of the Arab Spring. They extend back to the early 1980’s.
Perhaps the most important milestone in the history of these turbulent ties is the October 2011 Siege of Dammaj, a small town in the Sa'dah region of northwest Yemen which in the past was primarily controlled and populated by Houthis.
“The Saudis, which share a border with this part of Yemen, always sought to exert their influence in Sa'dah,” vom Bruck elaborated. To this end, they opened the Dar al-Hadith religious seminary in the town of Dammaj in the early 1980’s. The head of this institution was a notable Saudi-educated sheikh by the name of Muqbil bin Hadi al-Wadie, who turned the small town into a pilgrimage site for thousands of students from across the world who sought to study Salafism in its purest form.
While Al-Wadie refrained from entering politics and encouraged his followers to do the same, his influence as a distinguished preacher remained widespread. And while he openly condemned Osama bin Laden, his seminary in Dammaj was viewed by many as an incubator for terrorists.
In 2011, Houthis living in the vicinity of Dammaj accused their Sunni counterparts of smuggling weapons into the town and establishing a military post at Dar al-Hadith. Fearing growing Saudi influence in the region, they demanded that the Salafists at the seminary surrender their arms.
“Once that didn’t happen, the Houthis imposed a siege on the town,” vom Bruck recounted. Houthi fighters surrounded Dammaj and prevented food and other crucial supplies from entering the city. Dar al-Hadith and its 10,000 students were besieged for over two weeks as violent clashes erupted between the two sides.
Despite several ceasefire attempts brokered by the Yemeni government, the battle persisted. It culminated in a Houthi ground offensive targeting the seminary that resulted in the deaths of dozens of Salafists. Many students fled Dar al-Hadith, taking refuge in other parts of Yemen. Salafists, meanwhile, vowed to retaliate at first opportunity.
“The rhetoric we hear today in places like Taiz and Aden is directly tied to the events in Dammaj a few years back,” vom Bruck noted to The Media Line. “Many of the fighters involved in the war today were groomed there, at Dar al-Hadith.”
Carboni agrees. “You cannot understand the Sunni resentment of the Houthis without understanding these historical events and the tensions they bred,” he stressed. In the Al-Hudaydah region in western Yemen, for example, displaced Salafists from Dammaj reportedly have welcomed ISIS fighters with open arms. The failure of jihadi leaders to protect Dar al-Hadith effectively pushed young men into the Islamic State’s sphere of influence.
“The final piece of this puzzle,” Carboni added, “is the internal division between the Saudis and the Emiratis.” Although often referred to as an “international coalition,” the Saudi and Emirati forces operating in Yemen are far from an integral military entity operating in harmony. “Saudi Arabia’s goal is to ultimately expand its sphere of influence in Yemen, especially in the north,” vom Bruck stated, “while the Emiratis are mostly interested in what is happening in the south.” This has prompted the two countries to back rival factions in Yemen in what appears, at times, like contradictory approaches to tackling the same crisis.
While Saudi Arabia is aggressively supporting and arming Salafist groups claiming to fight all those remotely related to Iran, the United Arab Emirates is much less tolerant of these radical groups. And while Riyadh views this strategy as a key mechanism to strengthening and protecting the Gulf’s Sunni identity, Abu Dhabi is wary of potential backlashes.
“This is a major threat to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but they are taking it far too lightly,” vom Bruck concluded. “They believe that because the Houthis are their most important enemy they can somehow deal with the others when the time comes, but that’s a total miscalculation."
In fact, the chaos created by the Saudi-Emirati disputes have already limited the coalition’s ability to act, pushing disenchanted Hadi supporters to look for partners elsewhere. The Islamic State has been working hard to lure these men and women into its ranks by marketing itself as a new organization that is beholden to no country.
Back in Saudi Arabia, Rajeh, whose immediate family is waiting to see what happens in Taiz before returning home, shares this concern. “People in Yemen are tired,” he told the Media Line. “We were promised help from the coalition to end the war, but nothing is changing on the ground. Nothing is happening. If Saudi Arabia and the Emiratis can’t do it, then maybe someone else can.”