Changing Dynamics In The Global Jihad Movement: Jihadis In Yemen Torn Over ISIS

Jan 23rd, 2015 | By | Category: Weekly Washington Updates
Islamic State monsters shooting their captives.

Islamic State monsters shooting their captives.

Reprinted from


In recent months, tensions have been rising within the jihadi movement in Yemen between supporters of Al-Qaeda and supporters of the Islamic State. Beginning some 18 months ago with the announcement of the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in April 2013, the tension peaked recently when, in November 2014, a Yemeni jihadi group swore loyalty to ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, as part of a joint move by jihadi groups in a number of countries.

Al-Baghdadi expressed his satisfaction with the Yemeni group’s oath of loyalty, and in a speech stated that he accepted it and declared Yemen a new province in the Islamic Caliphate.

It should be noted that ISIS, which sees itself as the legitimate leadership of all Muslims, seeks to expand beyond the areas of Iraq and Syria that it currently controls; accordingly, its leaders have stated that its declaration of the Islamic Caliphate renders all jihad groups worldwide illegitimate and that these groups must therefore swear fealty to the new caliphate.

Until recently, the leaders of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which covers Yemen, were careful to respect ISIS and refrained from publicly criticizing either it or its leader Al-Baghdadi’s declaring himself leader of all Muslims worldwide – in contrast to Al-Qaeda Central, which explicitly renounced ISIS. Moreover, following the establishment of the U.S.-led international coalition to fight ISIS, AQAP leaders expressed sympathy with this organization, and called on Muslims around the world to attack Western targets in retaliation for coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria and in order to deter future attacks.

They even defended ISIS fighters against clerics’ and jihadi organizations’ accusations that they were extremists and Kharijites, stating that they were faithful mujahideen.

However, it appears that ISIS’s penetration into Yemen, as expressed by the Yemeni mujahideen’s oath of fealty and Al-Baghdadi’s declaration, threatens the leaders of AQAP, as it challenges both their leadership and their group’s status as the spearhead of Yemeni jihad. In the wake of the declaration, AQAP publicly criticized ISIS, rejected Al-Baghdadi’s legitimacy as the leader of all Muslims, and reiterated its allegiance to Al-Qaeda.

The result is a schism in AQAP, between the faction remaining loyal to Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri and AQAP leader Nasser Al-Wuhayshi and the faction that now calls itself Jund Al-Khilafah (Army of the Caliphate) that is loyal to Al-Baghdadi. This tension is also playing out on social media, where AQAP leaders are making tremendous efforts to convince their audience that theirs is the correct path, in addition to making preaching tours and delivering addresses to members of the group.

This crisis in AQAP is raging at a time when the Houthis have taken over the Yemeni capital of San’aa as well as many of the centers of power in the country, and continue to consolidate their power there – a situation for which ISIS has implicitly blamed AQAP.

This report will review the background of the inter-jihadi tensions in Yemen, as well as AQAP’s attitude towards ISIS, reactions to the declaration of the establishment of an ISIS affiliate in Yemen, and the internal debate over this issue among jihadis in the country.

Early Signs Of Support For ISIS In Yemen

Since Al-Qaeda’s inception, Yemen has served as the hub of its activity in the Arabian Peninsula; AQAP, which was established in 2009, became Al-Qaeda’s flagship affiliate, and also serves as its forward command for planning and carrying out attacks around the world. However, ISIS’s impact has also been felt by the jihadi stream in Yemen. As ISIS reaped success on the battlefield – while Yemeni jihadi groups, chiefly AQAP, received blows from the Yemeni army, the Houthis, and American drone strikes – ISIS gained in popularity in the country. Witnessing ISIS’s achievements in Iraq and Syria, many members of Salafi-jihadi groups in Yemen began viewing ISIS as the hope for the future, and publicly expressed this view.

ISIS’s influence among Salafi-jihadi elements in Yemen began to increase in late 2013. Articles published on jihadi forums and social networks expressed support for this orgainzation even before its declaration of a caliphate in June 2014. One example of this is a February 2014 letter by a woman calling herself Umm Hazem Al-Awlakiyya titled “The Awlaki Support for the Islamic State” – that is, an expression of support for ISIS from the Yemeni Al-Awlak tribe (of which AQAP official Anwar Al-Awlaki was also a member).

Umm Hazem expresses unreserved support for ISIS, claiming that it is trying to implement the concept of an Islamic caliphate, which was the dream of Al-Qaeda leaders as well, including Anwar Al-Awlaki, whom she calls her mentor. She wonders why so many in jihadi circles oppose ISIS: “The Islamic State presents its massive project as a state-building project that does not forgo growth and prosperity, alongside all the elements [necessary] for an [Islamic] state.” Umm Hazem expresses her admiration for Al-Baghdadi as “a man who carries on his shoulders the project of a borderless state… [and therefore] he is naturally subject to the harsh hostility and marginalization he experiences.”

Other shows of support from Yemen include songs of praise for the Islamic State written by Yemeni citizens. Thus, for example, the Twitter hashtag “Yemeni Songs in Support of the Islamic State” featured an audio recording by Yemeni jihadis singing songs of praise for ISIS and Al-Baghdadi and calling on them to continue on their path and expand the caliphate’s borders. Another example is a video uploaded by Yemeni jihadis showing them celebrating ISIS’s June 2014 conquests in Iraq.


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