In Yemen in April, Shaikh Saleh Al Sharafi, a representative of religious scholars and shaikhs in the Hadramout province delivered a speech addressing a large crowd of different Hadrami tribes in Mukalla, the capital of Hadramout. The speech was made to announce the union of Noah and Sipan (major tribes in Hadramout) and to reaffirm the support of the Sunnis and Ahal Al Jamaah, and urge the tribes to confront Al Houthis or rafidis as he described them.
This speech prompted some local and regional observers to portray him as salafist extremist and to question his political affiliations, despite his emphasis on the fight against terrorist groups, including Al Qaida.
Like many other religious leaders in Hadramout, Al Sharafi is used to delivering such speeches in Friday sermons in the Shuhadaa and Omar mosques in the port city of Mukalla. This specific speech was not the only one to the gathering, but it was the one that made it to the social networks and media outlets in Yemen and in the Gulf countries, providing an informal public statement that the conflict in Yemen is a sectarian one pitting Sunnis against Shiites.
Although Al Houthis have avoided employing sectarian terminology before entering Sana�a under the illusion that they represent the people, whether Shafi�i or Zaidi, their mask fell after they took control of state institutions and moved their troops towards the southern and northern territories. Their famous slogan: �Death to America, death to Israel, Victory for Islam� was replaced by a new one: �Death to Takfiris, and Daesh (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) followers�!
Al Houthis and their allies are devoting all their media power to link the popular resistance in the South and in the North to Al Qaida, so as to get the international green light to eliminate the resistance and gain the international community�s support. The recent trend of the US government in Yemen may reinforce Al Houthis� position indirectly, as the US persists with the drone programme despite the blurry political scene as a result of the ongoing war. The latest drone strikes killed four Al Qaida operatives in the presidential palace in Mukalla and almost the same number in the city of Al Mesenah in Shabwa shortly after the local resistance has succeeded in liberating the city from Al Houthi forces.
The continuation of the drone program in Yemen may reduce the risk of Al Qaida there and hit the group�s overseas operations, but it certainly will not end its existence. And the success of Al Houthis in controlling the southern provinces does not indicate the end of Al Qaida and Ansar Al Sharia in Yemen.
The sudden entry of Ansar Al Sharia into Mukalla last April, with mortars and Katyusha rockets, coupled with the withdrawal of the forces under the leadership of Abdul Karim Sabri and the commander of Brigade 27, confirms that ending Al Qaida�s activities does not depend on the Americans or Al Houthis alone. As a terrorist organisation it has been exploited by various sides through its different branches. These include loyalists of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh or by influential political groups to protect their political interests in the South.
�Unity does not mean fighting against Sunnis� � this was announced by certain imams in some mosques in Mukalla. It is another confirmation by Hadramout�s religious figures that there is a tendency to fight Sunnis inside Yemen and to assert that the conflict is a sectarian one.
The Popular Resistance inside Aden is not fighting on a religious basis but from a political perspective, aiming to prevent the expansion of Al Houthis. The same is true of the Popular Resistance in northern cities, while their enemies � Al Houthis and Saleh loyalists � see their fight from a sectarian perspective. They say they came to fight extremist groups, which is a paradoxical and irrational.
This may cast doubt about the limits and reality of the sectarian element in the Yemeni crisis and put the conflict in its proper context as a war for specific political goals. The sectarian element is certainly being used to nourish the conflict in this dispute.
The strange contradictions between the various parties, even among those fighting from within the same trenches, increase the complexity of the problem in Yemen, making it more difficult to diagnose and solve.
What is happening now in Hadramout � in the divisions between political forces on the ground between Al Qaida, the National Council, the local authorities, and those supporting upholding of legitimacy � may indicate that the alleged Al Qaida under the leadership of Khalid Batarfi in Mukalla does not have the upper hand in Hadramout. And is not expected to do that in the near future.
Maneuverability of terrorist organisations in Yemen poses questions about the numbers of those organisations, their prevalence, and their current roles in the military confrontations in Yemen, especially in nourishing and enhancing the sectarian element.
Daesh�s unsuccessful attempts through questionable videos and Twitter declarations to affirm its presence in Yemen is mainly aimed at attracting a mass momentum of Muslim youth, especially through exploiting the confrontations in Yemen and concentrating on Daesh�s role in the fight against Shiites. Daesh claim to have killed a group of Al Houthis in Shabwa in April may back this interpretation.
Daesh as an organised structure with military bases and media outlets does not exist in Yemen. But that does not mean there are no small groups or individuals loyal to Daesh scattered in different parts of Yemen; however, they do not form the basis for a future emergence of Daesh in Yemen as a terrorist entity that may compete with Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. As a result, it is difficult for Daesh to establish a strategy to �remain and expand� in Yemen, which is a characterisation of its strategy that was addressed by researcher and former US intelligence officer Jessica Lewis McKevitt in regard to Daesh strategy in Iraq.
Vows made by Qasim Al Rimi in Abyan and Nabil Al Dahab in Radaa about the so-called Ansar Al Sharia attacking Al Houthis may indicate that the various extremist organisations in Yemen share the goal of eliminating Al Houthis. But the dilemma may arise in some attempts to shuffle the cards and take advantage of this trend among extremists, and to put the Popular Resistance in the same trench as the terrorists. In fact, this is what Al Houthis themselves are doing right now.
Al Houthis� own way of fighting whether in the South or the North is based on a shaky logic of portraying various Yemeni citizens as Takfiris, which is alarming. On the other hand, some elements in the opposite front are proceeding with their war against Al Houthis along sectarian grounds. Sadly, this attitude has begun to spread progressively among the Yemeni people themselves. Getting rid of this destructive approach will help to conquer fanaticism and could open the door to finding a solution for Yemen�s ongoing crisis. It also could bring about the spirit of compromise in any possible political dialogue in the near future.
Originally published May 31st 2015 in Gulf News