When we started our series to better understand the Islamic State system, we identified the wilayat (“what is taken charge of”, “what is ruled”) as unit of analysis and as a system, which can then be monitored to foresee and warn about the overall developments of the Islamic State (see Understanding the Islamic State’s System – Structure and Wilayat, 4 May 2015). Since then, evolution has taken place on the ground, while the body of knowledge gathered by students of the Islamic State has grown. This is notably the case for Yemen. Back in May 2015, our understanding, grounded in the evidence available then, was that there was one wilayat in Yemen, wilayat Sanaa, loosely categorised as part of those wilayat where fighting was preeminent and only extremely sparse administrative/Sharia’h activity took place (in light grey on our map). We now have seven wilayat in Yemen and, since 20 March 2015, the Islamic State has carried out there at least 29 attacks, which killed at least 389 people (see references in bibliography – the detailed spreadsheet of the attacks is available here for members only).
We thus focus here on the Islamic State in Yemen, to enhance our understanding of what is happening on the ground, start evaluating what could happen in the future, while using developments to test and update our understanding. We shall first look at what appears to be a “country-level” organisation for the Islamic State in Yemen. We shall then turn to the seven wilayat existing in Yemen, and analyse the situation there in a forward-looking way. We shall conclude with an assessment regarding the Islamic State in Yemen – an incomplete one as a full assessment would demand considering all actors on the ground – while reviewing main findings from the Yemeni case regarding our understanding of Islamic State’s wilayat for strategic foresight and warning.
A wali for Yemen
On 13 November 2014, al-Baghdadi’s announced in the audio message “Even if the Disbelievers Despise Such”, that the Islamic State and its Khilafah would now also extend to the land of Yemen, besides other areas (English transcript on Pietervanostaeyen website).
If wilayat and wali are announced for Yemen, in al-Baghdadi text (see image below), there is no further specification, about the practical administrative implementation of this expansion, following the general acceptation of all the pledges of allegiance made so far by Yemeni groups. The explanations given in the related Dabiq #5 (Al Hayat media center, 22 Nov 2014) are no more precise.
The quest for a wilayat Yemen
It would seem, however, that some students of the Islamic State deduced from this speech that the Islamic State was then creating one wilayat for Yemen (e.g. TRAC; Johnsen; Perkins; The Soufan group, all 2015). However, if we take the case of Libya, also mentioned in al-Baghdadi’s speech for example, we know that we have three wilayat: wilayat Tarabulus, wilayat al-Barqah and wilayat al-Fazzan (e.g. Aaron Zelin, “The Islamic State’s model“, The Washington Post, 28 January 2015), and apparently no overall Libyan wilayat. Thus, there is no direct link between the announcement of al-Baghdadi and the potential creation of a single wilayat for Yemen.
Nonetheless, many analytical texts since then mention the existence of a wilayat Yemen or wilayat al-Yemen or wilayat Yaman (ibid.).
Thorough examination of all Dabiq issues, of most Islamic State video psyops products since November 2014* as well as of the “Islamic State News Bulletin” (Al-Bayan Radio, official transcripts – full series between 13 Oct 2015 and 19 February 2016; official transcript, 23 April 2015), however, do not mention either anywhere the creation of such a country-wide wilayat. On the contrary, they underline the creation of multiple wilayat as shall be detailed below.
A wali, a sharia committee and military and security chiefs for Yemen
Yet, it is highly likely that a wali for Yemen and some modicum of “central” leadership exist for Yemen, as surfaced first in an article written by Johnsen in July 2015, grounded in interviews with local sources.
This finding was confirmed and refined in December 2015 when dissent within the Islamic State emerged. We would thus have a wali, appointed by the Khalifah over Yemen, who was then reaffirmed in his mission (answer to the dissenters, 19 December letter by Abu Ubaydah Abd al Hakim, “Member of the Shura Council of the Caliphate” in Bill Roggio and Thomas Joscelyn, “Divisions emerge within the Islamic State’s Yemen ‘province’“, The Long War Journal, December 23, 2015). According to comments on an Al-Qaeda video portraying a defector of the Islamic State, this wali would be an “Abu Sulayman, previously a military official” (Caillet, tweet 28 December 2015) and not, as believed since Johnsen’s interviews (Ibid.), a Saudi known as Abu Bilal al Harbi, or Nasser al Ghaydani.
We would also have at general level for Yemen, according to the signatories of the letter of dissent, a sharia committee, an official responsible for Yemen’s military and a chief of security, three members of the former and the latter dissenting along ten other “senior leaders and 55 fighters” (Roggio and Joscelyn, ibid., see note below for the full quote**). This is confirmed by another letter of dissent signed 24 December 2015 which has, among others as signatories “two members of the province’s Security Committee (Sheikh Salman al Lahiji and Rawaha al Adeni) and a member of the Preaching Committee” (Roggio and Joscelyn, “More Islamic State members reject governor of Yemen Province“, The Long War Journal, 28 Dec. 2015).
We would thus find here reproduced the central level of the Islamic State, minus the Shura council: wali (representing the Khalifah), sharia committee, Military Diwan and probably Diwan al-Amn al-Aam (see “The Calif and Legitimacy“; and “Means of violence“). the existence of a “Yemen-level” structure is also reminiscent of the Islamic State’s structure as known for 2013, during the latest phases of the conquest in Syria and Iraq and before the declaration of the Khilafah, when we probably had deputies for Iraq and Syria (Barrett, Nov. 2014, using The Telegraph, 9 July 2015).
This unexpected “country-level” without a corresponding wilayat underlines the fluidity and pragmatism of the Islamic State’s leadership, who adapts the organisation according to the situation on the ground. It may also be an indication of the strategic importance of Yemen as much militarily, as ideologically (in the competition against Al-Qaeda and Saudi Arabia and in the hatred against Shiites – see “At War against a Global Islamic State – The Fall into Extreme Sunni-Shi’ite Tensions”, 1 February 2016) and logistically (with the opening on the Gulf of Aden and the Bab el Mandab chokepoint – see At War against a Global Islamic State – Facing a Strategic Trap in Somalia?, 14 December 2015).
The existence of this country-level “expansion-type” state structure may also signal the seriousness of the efforts deployed by the Islamic State in Yemen, where mobilisation of potential fighters is currently most probably a priority. Indeed, in September 2015, Taylor Luck estimated that the Islamic State in Yemen was “just surviving”, and if it had “several “sleeper-cells” totaling some 100 to 200 fighters” near Sana and Aden, it still did not control any area in Yemen (“In Yemen, Islamic State is struggling to claim mantle of Sunnis’ champion“, Christian Science Monitor, 29 Sept 2015). Another estimate pointed out that since the Islamic State started building up its presence in Yemen in June 2014 with initially 80 men, the number of fighter had grown to reach 300 in June 2015 (Sami Aboudi, “In Yemen chaos, Islamic State grows to rival al Qaeda“, Reuters, 30 June 2015). Furthermore, Ashraf al-Falahi underlined, in November 2015 that “IS [is] enjoying some popular support in predominantly Sunni areas (such as Shabwah, Al-Bayda, Lahej and Taiz), and especially in areas that have suffered the atrocities of the Houthis and their allies, who perpetrated human rights violations against unarmed civilians. The IS-affiliated factions thus are welcomed as protectors from such transgressions.” (“Islamic State extends its tentacles into Yemen“, Al Monitor, 30 Nov 2015). These sympathies may then be used, once a stabler stronghold is built.
A struggle for mobilisation is thus highly likely, and the latest episodes of dissent and defection to Al Qaeda show it is far from being a battle won (e.g. Roggio and Joscelyn, Ibid.; Caillet series of tweets 28 December 2015; Thomas Joscelyn, “Islamic State defector in Yemen apologizes to al Qaeda“, The Long War Journal, 23 January 2016 ).
Let us now turn to the Islamic State’s organisation on the ground and the seven wilayat in Yemen.
Seven wilayat in Yemen
We find seven wilayat in Yemen, namely wilayat ‘Adan Abyan, wilayat al-Bayda, wilayat al-Liwa’ al-Akhdar (Ibb and Taiz), wilayat San’ā’, wilayat Hadramawt, wilayat Lahij, and wilayat Shabwah, (Kroontz, “Desknote: The Growing Threat of ISIS in Yemen“, AEI Critical Threats, 6 May 2015; Zelin, “The Islamic State’s Territorial Methodology“, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Research Note No. 29, January 2016; Islamic State documents see below in Bibliography).
How are we to analyse the situation in these wilayat in a way that not only allows us to better understand the Islamic State in Yemen, but also helps us estimate the possible evolution of the situation in the future, while relating it to the overall changing strength of the Islamic State?
In May 2015, we underlined the importance of estimating, for each wilayat, the degree of Islamic State-like administrative and military control over the population and the territory, while media control would start being implemented as soon as possible, even for the least advanced groups, to assess the overall potential strength of the Islamic State. In January 2016, Zelin made the same argument, and suggested a specific framework, developed out of three case studies including the Yemeni wilayats to follow the phases of development of the Islamic State (“The Islamic State’s Territorial Methodology“: 1). Zelin suggests that the Islamic State follows an ideal-type pattern split in two larger phases, pre- and post- territorial control. We shall here focus on pre-territorial control, which corresponds to the situation in Yemen.***
According to Zelin, pre-territorial control articulates around five sometimes overlapping steps, through a “process [which] is linear”: “intelligence [“(sleeper cells, infiltration of groups, creation of front groups)”], military, dawa (missionary activities: [reaching out to the population and early territorial control]), hisba (moral policing and consumer protection), and governance” (Ibid: 1).
Despite the interest of identifying five elements along which to gauge the evolution of a pre-territorial control for a wilayat, notably because components of these elements may be used as indicators, the idea of these steps as a linear process for all pre-territorial control when establishing a wilayat is problematic. Zelin’s framework does not consider earlier findings, for example in Christoph Reuter’s article (Der Spiegel, 18 April 2015) in the case of pre-territorial control in Syria for Raqqa or Manjib in Aleppo: “The group recruited followers under the pretense of opening a Dawah office, an Islamic missionary center. Of those who came to listen to lectures and attend courses on Islamic life, one or two men were selected and instructed to spy on their village and obtain a wide range of information.” Thus, in these cases, we indeed had an intelligence phase, but it could not be separated from the dawa one. We shall see below that, when looking at the details of each Yemeni wilayat, the idea of a linear process as described by Zelin is again questioned by facts. As a result, it may be interesting to retain Zelin’s five elements, but to discard the linear process.
Keeping in mind this assessment, we shall adopt a more detailed approach, considering both time and different wilayat – as much as a current dearth of open information allows.
First, it is interesting to look at the dynamic pattern of attacks across wilayat, which can be summarised in the graphic below (1 was attributed to mark an attack when the number of killed was unknown):
It would thus seem, in terms of attacks, that wilayat ‘Adan Abyan, wilayat San’ā’, and wilayat Hadramawt, increasingly stand out in terms of importance, the others being minor. We can also see a relative increase in activity since October 2015. Note that Zelin also stated that the Islamic state appeared stronger in Hadramawt (2016: 15).
The types of attacks are also important to consider. Until October 2015, most of the attacks carried out – notably by wilayat San’ā’ were through explosive device and against Houthi (thus Shi’ite) mosques (the timing for those carried out in June and July can also be explained by the Ramadan). Attacking Houthis, as already noted above, is part of the overall ideological extreme escalation into which the Islamic State has entered as part of its competition against Al-Qaeda and Saudi Arabia. It is thus partly mobilisation, partly legitimacy struggle, both being intimately linked. Note that these types of attacks do not fit neatly with any of Zelin’s categories (2016), as they may be seen as a merging of his steps “intelligence”, “military” and “dawa“.
Since October 2015, attacks have been solely carried out against government officials and, increasingly, military positions. We shall notably underline on 21 November 2015, in wilayat Hadramawt, the “major surprise assault on Yemeni barracks west of Hadramawt. The operation began with an assault on the Shubām, Sirr, and al-Qārrah barracks on the road between the regions of Say’ūn and al-Qutun after first cutting of their supply routes” (Islamic State News Bulletin – Al-Bayan Radio). It is this attack, or rather the alleged lack of proper support to it by the wali which generated the dissent described above (Roggio and Joscelyn, Ibid.). With this attack we reach a new military stage as it shows strategy, capabilities and intention to start attacking and taking over much larger targets. We are beyond classical asymmetrical small “hit and run”, or in the case of the Islamic State, “hit and die”, actions. The latter, however continues, as with the 17 February 2016 attack in Aden: “Wilayat Adan-Abyan claims the suicide attack on the Ras Abbas Military camp in Aden with 20 killed” (J. Faraday, Tweet 17 Feb 2016, announced on”Islamic State News Bulletin”, Al-Bayan Radio on 18 Feb 2016). Yet, even in that case, we should also point out a willingness and capability to attack targets that are larger than a vehicle, or a patrol.
The dissent that took place in December and alleged related defections to Al-Qaeda (Roggio and Joscelyn, Ibid.; Caillet, ibid.; Joscelyn, Ibid.) have the potential to mark a stop in what could have been seen otherwise as indication of a step-up in military activities towards territorial and population control. We may wonder if the wali – and some of its advisors, but obviously by all means not all – did not estimate it was too early for the Islamic State to move fully towards more open and aggressive military activities and that it needed first more mobilisation, training, and overall foundations’ activity.
Let us now add what we know of the remaining activities of the Islamic State in the Yemeni wilayat, and look first at the pattern of publication of the psyops videos. We obtain the following chart:
We see a pattern, which, as previously, shows the rising importance of wilayat Hadramawt and in a lesser way wilayat ‘Adan Abyan. Meanwhile wilayat San’ā’ and wilayat Shabwah, which were very active at the start of the period have not published anything since mid-September. Of course, this does not mean that they will not become active again in the future, all the more so considering the crucial role of wilayat San’ā’ in competition for legitimacy and mobilisation against Al-Qaeda. This summary analysis of timeline of publication, added to the evolution of attacks, would tend to confirm the rising importance of wilayat Hadramawt and wilayat ‘Adan Abyan.
We should underline, here, that wilayat Hadramawt is also an important stronghold for Al-Qaeda and is to some extent under the latter’s domination (Bruce Riedel, “Al-Qaida’s Hadramawt emirate“, Brookings, 12 July 2015).
According to information available (which is extremely sparse), we can now include military training camps (Zelin, 2016), mentions of elements of governance (from wali to sharia committees, see sources below, notably Zelin, 2016), add it to the dynamic evaluation above and estimate tentatively with shades of grey the importance and strength of each wilayat of the Islamic State on the Yemeni map, not forgetting to also relate them to the other wilayat of the Khilafah with white for no or hardly any activity and black for advanced state-building. Those wilayat which are assessed as developing more strongly in the future are outlined with a black line.
As conclusion, we may thus estimate that the Islamic State, with the appointment of a “general staff” at country level will most probably continue its efforts at expansion across the Yemeni wilayat. The presence of this central leadership may be an asset to strategically coordinate mobilisation, military attacks and thus conquest which goes hand-in-hand with state-building activities, but one which is not without adding challenges, considering notably the tribal character of Yemen (e.g. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, “Yemeni implosion pushes southern Sunnis into arms of al-Qaida and Isis“, The Guardian, 22 March 2015), and as shown by the December 2015 episode of dissent.
The Islamic State is likely to be refocusing on wilayat Hadramawt, wilayat ‘Adan Abyan, and wilayat San’ā’, with an increased likelihood to see more operations of a military type taking place there – including attacking government apparatus – aiming at moving forward towards conquest, while more operations of a dawa type will continue.
Any more detailed assessment – such as the possibility to start activities of state-building in areas the Islamic State would more or less control – as well as proper evaluation of the likelihood of success or failure of their various efforts would need to consider the other actors – and factors – on the Yemeni battlefield, i.e. the environment and the crucial challenge that water has become (e.g. Chris Fitch, ‘Will Yemen run out of water?“, Geographical, 2 Feb 2015), the population, the Houthi actors and alleged Iranian support, the rather-Sunni actors supporting President Hadi, Al-Qaeda, and the Saudi-led intervention force, including the use and impact of mercenary forces (e.g. Emily B. Hager and Mark Mazzetti, “Emirates Secretly Sends Colombian Mercenaries to Yemen Fight“, without forgetting the tribal quality of the Yemeni stage, as we did at the time for Syria, or are doing for Libya – (Readers interested in commissioning such strategic foresight and warning analysis, with or without scenarios, as confidential work or for public publishing should contact us).
In terms of methodology, compared with our initially outlined framework (Structure and Wilayat), we must underline that the pragmatism of the Islamic State in adapting to local circumstances is again stressed in Yemen. Relatedly, we must revise the principle suggested by Al-Tamimi after studying the evolution in Sinai (“The Islamic State and its ‘Sinai Province’”, Pundicity, 26 March 2015), according to which the Islamic State must be sure enough of the strength of a main group when declaring a wilayat. Indeed, the groups corresponding to wilayat declared in Yemen were obviously relatively weak. We may only offer conjecture about the reason for the creation of seven wilayat in Yemen.
The framework suggested by Zelin to further specify part of our more general approach – the grey area before a modicum of territorial control – although attractive, cannot be easily applied as a linear process. It is however to be considered as far as the presence of various elements (see above) is concerned – an important point as this suggests specific indicators to monitor. Nonetheless, dynamics within each categories must be introduced, while interactions among them must be sought. Furthermore, the nature of military attacks carried out must notably be examined.
The Yemeni case again reaffirms the importance of considering the fluidity of war, as well as dynamics and interactive processes.
* We rely here on psyops video products found on the internet as well as on those catalogued on Jihadology.net. However, with the heightening of the crackdown against Islamic State related websites and social networks account, not only by states but also by various actors such as Anonymous, it is increasingly difficult to find Islamic State psyops products. What is won against radicalisation is also a loss for researcher and analysts and thus on understanding and knowledge of the Islamic State.
** “The dissenters include three members of the organization’s “sharia committee” (identified as Sheikh Abu Hajar al Adani, Sheikh Abu al Shayma al Muhajir, and Sheikh Abu Muslim al Mansour), the “province’s” military emir (Abu ‘Assim al Bika), and the chief of general security (known as “Sadiq”).” Roggio and Joscelyn, ibid.
***Post-territorial control is nothing else than the dynamics of state-building of the Islamic State we started uncovering in detail previously, e.g. The Calif and Legitimacy; Means of Violence; Money, Wealth and Taxes.
Featured image: Still from video“A Year of the Caliphate – Wilāyat Ṣana’ā’”- 21 June 2015.
Sources used to estimate the numbers of attacks and casualties and to obtain the two graphs:
- all Dabiq issues: #1 to #13.
- Islamic State video psyops products since November 2014 (notably through Jihadology.net).
- “Islamic State News Bulletin”, Al-Bayan Radio, official transcripts – full series between 13 Oct 2015 and 19 February 2016; official transcript, 23 April 2015 – dates of attacks and of announcements may differ by one day.
Articles and reports
- Ashraf al-Falahi, “Islamic State extends its tentacles into Yemen“, Al Monitor, 30 Nov 2015.
- Joshua Koontz, “Desknote: The Growing Threat of ISIS in Yemen“, AEI Critical Threats, 6 May 2015.
- Aaron Zelin, “The Islamic State’s Territorial Methodology“, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Research Note No. 29, January 2016.
Al-Tamimi, Aymen, “The Islamic State and its ‘Sinai Province’”, Pundicity, 26 March 2015.
Barrett, Richard, The Islamic State, The Soufan Group, November 2014.
Caillet, Romain, series of tweets translating and commenting an Al Qaeda video of an alleged disappointed ex-Islamic State’s member, – tweet 28 Dec 2015.
Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, “Yemeni implosion pushes southern Sunnis into arms of al-Qaida and Isis“, <span “>The Guardian, 22 March 2015.
Johnsen, Gregory D., “This Man Is The Leader In ISIS’s Recruiting War Against Al-Qaeda In Yemen“, <span “>Buzzfeed News, Jul. 6, 2015;
Joscelyn, Thomas, “Islamic State defector in Yemen apologizes to al Qaeda“, The Long War Journal, 23 January 2016
Luck, Taylor, “In Yemen, Islamic State Is Struggling to Claim Mantle of Sunnis’ Champion,” Christian Science Monitor, September 29, 2015
Perkins, Brian M., “Wilayat al-Yemen: The Islamic State’s New Front“, Terrorism Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 16 August 7, 2015, Jamestown Foundation.
Roggio, Bill and Thomas Joscelyn, “Divisions emerge within the Islamic State’s Yemen ‘province’“, The Long War Journal, 23 December 2015.
Roggio, Bill and Thomas Joscelyn, “More Islamic State members reject governor of Yemen Province“, The Long War Journal, 28 Dec. 2015.
TRAC Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium), “Islamic State in Yemen ( ISY, ISISY) and Islamic State Saudi Arabia (ISKSA, ISISKSA)” n.d.;
TSG IntelBrief, “The Many States of the Islamic State”, The Soufan group, May 27, 2015.
Zelin, Aaron, “The Islamic State’s model“, The Washington Post, 28 January 2015