Whether carried out in coordination or independently, the bloodthirsty attacks that occurred in Aden and Abyan last weekend appear to serve the joint interests of all extremist groups in Yemen (Houthis, the Islamic State [IS] group, Al-Qaeda).
This is the opinion of many Yemeni observers who doubt that the series of attacks was a mere coincidence or even a product of rivalries between these groups.
Whether or not their conjectures are correct, the southern reaction the following day when northern Yemenis were rounded up into trucks and expelled from the south throws into relief once again some of the most critical issues in the Yemeni crisis: the relationship between the north and the south, continued unity and legitimacy.
The terrorist attacks last weekend occurred soon after the UAE had announced its intention to restructure its military presence in Yemen.
Accordingly, one of the aims of the party responsible for the attacks might have been to test the Emirate’s will to withdraw militarily or redeploy.
Since being driven out of the south as the result of Operation Golden Arrow in 2015, the Houthis had not launched an attack against Aden.
However, Houthi militia leaders have intimated that they would threaten the south again if the Saudis took the place of the UAE in Aden.
All three attacks struck security targets (Al-Jalaa military camp in Buraiqa district in Aden, a police station in the Sheikh Othman district in Aden, and a military base in Al-Mahfad district in Abyan).
Clearly, another aim of the attacks was to drive home the notion that security in Aden is fragile and that the security forces are not strong enough to control the south and prevent the dissemination of chaos which serves to advance the agendas of the parties responsible for these terrorist attacks.
While some Yemeni observers believe the attacks were coordinated, suggesting, for example, that the suicide bombing against the police station served as a decoy to facilitate the attack against Al-Jalaa camp, it is more likely that the fragile security situation in Aden lured the attackers to pounce at once.
Still, there is evidence that a certain division of labour was at work, even if it falls short of active coordination. It is noteworthy, for example, that the Houthis only claimed responsibility for the attack against Al-Jalaa camp the following day (Friday) and stressed that they were responsible for this attack alone.
Earlier, Houthi sources also claimed that their forces were responsible for the suicide bombing against the police station. But they quickly backtracked when it was reported that it was carried out by a suicide bomber, which does not fit the Houthis’ modus operandi.
Nevertheless, they waited until IS claimed responsibility for the attack as well as the attack against the soldier Mufid Al-Mahbashi in Sheikh Othman on the grounds that he had served as an investigator in Aden’s Mansoura prison in which many members of the organisation are being held.
It is unlikely that the Houthis are planning to reinvade the south. Apart from being incapable of such an action, now it is doubtful that they would even envision such a drive in the future since the south had never been part of the Zaidi imamate that the Houthi Movement seeks to revive.
On the other hand, if Houthi forces do reopen the south as a front in the civil war, they will rely primarily on the instruments of war that they have come to use with increasing frequency, namely drones and missiles, and they will gauge the use of these instruments according to developments related to Riyadh’s military support for forces in the south or in order to induce those forces to take a particular political position.
Despite the many differences between them, both sides (the Houthis and the Southern Movement) share the desire to turn the clock back to before Yemeni unification and, therefore, both seek to undermine the outputs of the national dialogue conference that resulted in a proposed six-region federal system.
They both also realise that their designs can only be achieved through an imposed fait accompli, instead of political mechanisms.
As for IS and Al-Qaeda, Yemen is indeed an arena of competition between them and they are now in the process of repositioning themselves in the south in the manner that existed before the war in 2015.
Although IS presence in Yemen is still relatively weak, especially compared to other regions in which it operates, it has capitalised on recent developments to reassert itself, motivated by the fact that it regards the Security Belt forces as a hostile Salafi entity. For similar reasons, Al-Qaeda’s re-emergence in Abyan comes as no surprise.
It, too, lost previous rounds of battle against the Security Belt forces. At the same time, it is driven by its rivalry with IS. It is perhaps no coincidence that Al-Qaeda seized control of the base in Al-Mahfad on Friday, the day after IS claimed responsibility for the attack against the police station in Sheikh Othman in Aden.
Recent security related developments in the south appear to be propelling towards the collapse of what remains of Yemeni unity. Indeed, the effective partition on the ground lacks only formal recognition and the measures to shore it up.
Reports of renewed tensions between the presidential guard in Aden and Security Belt forces lend weight to this assertion. As an agency of the internationally recognised government, the presidential guard opposed the forced expulsion of northerners from the south on the grounds that it threatened Yemeni unity.
The Security Belt forces, for their part, see the presence of the government in Aden, even if only as a temporary exigency, as a burden and an impediment to the Southern Movement’s secessionist drive.
A recent tweet by Hani Bin Breik, vice president of the Southern Transitional Council, left no doubt as to the movement’s primary aims: “The just solution for peace is to establish two states. The southerners will take part in the establishment of their new state and they agree that there should be secure borders between the two countries, that these borders should be designated as those that existed before May 1990, and that the borders with neighbouring countries should be secured, that the interests of all should be observed, that blood should be spared and that the government of legitimacy has become a plague on both the north and the south.”
In light of the foregoing, the south might not be plunged back into the type of warfare it experienced in 2015, but it will likely see a resurgence of clashes between diverse parties and fronts determined to turn political equations in their favour.
The legitimate government will be the weakest link in these dynamics which also involve two parties that have locked horns but that simultaneously share the same aim, which is to split Yemen into two.
Disintegration is a natural by-product of military escalation and it has long since gained ground over the forces of cohesion. As skirmishes between north and south continue, one can also expect a rise of subsidiary battles in the south between a number of forces that are battling to come out on top in the south.
The Yemen crisis, as a whole, is reconfiguring itself now that the south has re-emerged at the centre of events. Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of recent developments is how Houthi-Southern Belt dynamics impact on the fate of the legitimate government and on the unity of the Yemeni state the government stands for.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Aden, Abyan attacks: Why now?