People and police gather at the site of a car bomb attack outside the Qubbat al-Mahdi mosque in Yemen’s capital Sana’a June 20, 2015. Islamic State group said it was behind the car bomb that exploded in Yemen’s capital near the mosque. (Reuters)
The Islamic State is present in Yemen and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. That reality may well lead U.S. policymakers to see Yemen as a front in the counter–Islamic State fight. That would be a mistake. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remains the real threat in Yemen, and international counterterrorism efforts ought to focus on that group, despite its skillful efforts to stay below the radar. The Islamic State needs a footprint in Yemen so that it can claim to be a global Salafi-jihadist movement. The group’s assertion that it is the legitimate authority over Muslims requires that it actively develop a presence across the Muslim-majority world. Yemen is critical terrain for the Islamic State because of its position on the Arabian Peninsula—the birthplace of Islam— and the al-Qaeda presence there. While the Islamic State is unlikely to be able to establish a solid base in Yemen, it will retain a meaningful presence there that will support its narrative and compete with al-Qaeda for leadership of the global Salafi-jihadist movement. It will almost certainly lose that competition in the long run, however.