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Country Reports on Terrorism 2021: Yemen

(February 27, 2023)

Overview:  Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), ISIS-Yemen, and Iranian and Iran-backed terrorist groups such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) and Hizballah exploited the political and security vacuum created by conflict between the internationally recognized Republic of Yemen government and the Houthis, as well as conflict between the government and the Southern Transitional Council (STC).  Additionally, IRGC-QF exploited the conflict to expand Iran’s influence and enable Houthi cross-border terrorist attacks against Saudi Arabia.  UN reporting has highlighted connections between IRGC-QF and the Houthis, including the provision of lethal aid used to undertake attacks against infrastructure in Saudi Arabia impacting civilians.

The Republic of Yemen government controlled roughly two thirds of the country’s territory, although Houthi-controlled areas contained 70 percent to 80 percent of the population, including the capital, Sana’a.  Implementation of the 2019 Riyadh Agreement, which called for a power-sharing agreement between the government and the STC, was incomplete and failed to eliminate tensions in the South, where AQAP turned for safe haven following Houthi gains in al-Bayda governorate.

The Republic of Yemen government cooperated with the U.S. government on counterterrorism efforts but could not fully enforce CT measures or reliably undertake operations across the country because of instability, violence, and degraded capabilities.  A security vacuum persisted, which provided AQAP room to operate.  In territory controlled by the government and government-aligned forces, there were instances in which counterterrorism charges were used as a pretense to detain independent journalists (especially female journalists) who published articles critical of local authorities.  Security Belt Forces affiliated with the STC and UAE continued to play an important role in CT efforts, as they exercised control over significant parts of Aden and Abyan; however, they have also been accused of human rights abuses, including in detention facilities they operate.  ISIS-Yemen has been severely degraded, and many affiliates likely have reintegrated into local militias.  AQAP remained active in central Yemen, most notably in al-Bayda.  When the Houthis pushed into al-Bayda, AQAP scattered to neighboring Abyan and Shabwah governorates.  In November, AQAP leader Khaled Batarfi posted a video justifying reduced activity in Yemen as an opportunity to recruit and leave AQAP’s foes to weaken one other.

2021 Terrorist Incidents:  Attacks attributed to AQAP decreased in 2021, compared with 2020.  Methods included sniper fire, VBIEDs, ambushes, armed clashes, kidnappings, and targeted assassinations.  Notable terrorist incidents included the following:

  • In March, AQAP-affiliated gunmen killed eight soldiers and four civilians in an attack on a checkpoint controlled by Security Belt Forces in the Ahwar district of Abyan.
  • The UN Panel of Experts reported that AQAP kidnapped five government officials in Shabwah on June 14, whom they later released on July 5.
  • In November, AQAP claimed several attacks in al-Bayda.
  • Houthi cross-border attacks, some of which the United States has described as terrorism, are addressed in the Saudi Arabia section.

Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security:  Yemen made no significant changes to its CT legal framework in 2021.  Yemen does not have comprehensive counterterrorism legislation.

Draft counterterrorism legislation has been pending in Parliament since 2008.  Before the outbreak of the conflict, the draft was under parliamentary review.  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 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 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 2021.

Yemen employed the U.S.-provided Personal Identification Secure Comparison and Evaluation System (PISCES) integrated border security management system, which was being expanded and upgraded at year’s end.

Yemen, with the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the UK participated in the Yemen Security Working Group, which included military and diplomatic representatives and developed cooperative capacity-building initiatives for Yemeni military and security forces.  The Department of State-funded training on operational border security management, air cargo control and strategic trade enforcement, vehicle interdiction, and cross-border infectious disease management.

The Yemeni Coast Guard assisted in interdicting weapons and illegal materials destined for terrorist groups.  They took custody of detained crews in at-sea transfers from stateless smuggling vessels interdicted by the U.S. Navy.  Yemen’s maritime borders remained porous and vulnerable to maritime smuggling of fighters, weapons, and other material 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) in Aden continued incremental efforts to implement IMF Diagnostic Report recommendations to enhance AML/CFT capacity.  The government was unable to fully implement FATF and IMF recommendations and UNSCRs related to terrorist financing because of the lack of judicial capacity and ability to exercise power throughout Yemen’s territory.  Since 2010, FATF has identified Yemen as a risk to the international financial system because of its AML/CFT deficiencies.  The number of commercial banks that comply with providing AML/CFT transaction information increased despite Houthi pressure.  In December, the president appointed a new CBY board and Governor who has emphasized improving Yemen’s AML/CFT capabilities.

Countering Violent Extremism:  There were no significant changes in 2021.  The UN Panel of Experts on Yemen reported that Houthi summer camps for children provided basic military training and encouraged hate speech and violence.  The Saudi Arabia King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center Child Soldiers Rehabilitation Program in Yemen launched in 2017 was suspended in 2020 because of COVID-19 and evaluated in 2021 for relaunch in 2022.

International and Regional Cooperation:  The Republic of Yemen government continued to cooperate with the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, the GCC, the United States, and other countries in pursuit of a political solution to the conflict.  Yemen is a member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Arab League.

Source: Country Reports on Terrorism 2021, U.S. Department of State, (February 27, 2023).