Regular jihadist attacks in South will undermine President Hadi’s position in fresh peace talks and so further prolong conflict
A suicide bombing struck the Sawlaban military base in Aden on 18 December, killing at least 49 Yemeni soldiers and wounding roughly 60 more, just one week after a near identical attack at the same site that left 50 troops dead (see our last Report). A local Islamic State (IS) affiliate again claimed responsibility shortly after the blast via the Amaq news agency, which released images of the incident.
The first Sawlaban strike followed a brief lull in violence in Aden. However, as we discussed last time, local security operations had only temporarily disrupted IS’s presence in the city and so the group has been able to again carry out a regular tempo of attacks there. President Hadi’s Government, which is based in Aden, will have been embarrassed by a second strike on its own forces in a week, especially since security measures that were supposedly boosted following the 10 December bombing have apparently failed. Hadi has therefore subsequently called on the Governor of Aden to step up security and intelligence sharing efforts in a bid to contain jihadist activity.
Hadi’s demands reflect how he needs to be seen as delivering effective governance, which will help him to present himself as Yemen’s legitimate President. This was highlighted by his first visit on 25 December to the southern port city of al-Mukalla, which was recaptured from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in April 2016. However, that same day, AQAP-linked militants were likely behind an attempted assassination targeting the Governor of Hadramawt, of which al-Mukalla is the capital, in the town of Shibam. Two bodyguards were killed, and the incident will help fuel perceptions that the Government is unable to maintain basic security levels. It also illustrates the difficulties that Hadi faces in effectively combating IS and AQAP at the same time as his forces remain focused on fighting the Houthi rebels further north. Consequently, there will remain a considerable jihadist presence in southern Yemen so long as the wider conflict continues.
However, the sustained level of jihadist violence in the South will erode Hadi’s credibility in fresh peace negotiations that are likely to start once the new US administration is in place later this month, making it harder to resolve the conflict. This is because continued attacks, and Hadi’s unpopularity as a result, will further reduce the Houthis’s incentive to make major compromises to Riyadh, even if President-elect Trump adopts a harsher approach to the rebels’ Iranian backers as expected. The intensity of the fighting between the two sides and the level of jihadist violence fuelled by the instability are therefore unlikely to relent in the coming months despite the prospect of renewed international efforts to secure a political settlement.