Archive photo of a military camp for ISIS in Al-Bayda, North Yemen (Al-Naba)

Did ISIS Make a Comeback to Yemen?


Sat, 30-07-2022 04:34 PM, Aden

Ibrahim Ali* (South24) 

Two security incidents in the governorates of Al-Bayda and Hadramout, two weeks ago, stirred many questions about the reality of ISIS return to Yemen after a hiatu phase that began in late 2020 due to a series of mistakes and threats which accompanied the organization since its emergence in this country in 2014. 

After two years of lethargy, ISIS declared suddenly that it carried out a suicide operation against the Houthis in the central area of Afar in Al-Bayda governorate, according to the ISIS-affiliate Al-Naba news platform. The platform described talking about the destruction of ISIS in Yemen two years ago as “allegations” although it admitted that this is the first attack carried out by the organization since its activities stopped in 2020. 

ISIS’s comeback in Yemen has dominated the coverage of media outlets not only through Al-Bayda operation. Two days after announcing carrying out the operation, the security authorities in Hadramout said they arrested senior ISIS-affiliate commanders including Idris Mohsen Al-Marfadi known as “Abu Mohammed Al-Madani” and Saleh Ashour Fajeej known as "Ubadah Al-Adani" who is the commander of ISIS Artillery Battalion. 

ISIS emergence

ISIS emergence in Yemen dates back to October 2014 when dissidents from AQAP swore allegiance to ISIS Emir in Iraq, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, who was killed by a US operation in Barisha, Syria in 2019. 

Due to its poor capabilities, ISIS branch in Yemen wanted to assert itself by implementing bloody operations in mosques affiliated with the Houthis in Sanaa. However, this beginning was the first move towards the end. The initial impressions about the organization obstructed its ability to attract new members among tribes. This caused the return of a number of its members to AQAP according to videos published by the latter at that time.

On the other hand, ISIS launched qualitative terrorist operations, especially in the Southern capital city of Aden which was selected as a theatre of its operations since it was liberated from the Houthi in late July 2015. In January 2016, ISIS announced carrying out 33 assassination operations and 4 bomb car attacks that killed 34 and injured 43. In Aden alone, according to a report published by Al-Jazeera Net in 2016, ISIS claimed responsibility of all latest operations through car bombs or suiciders which targeted military and local authority officials in Aden. 

Later in 2019, ISIS declared responsibility of carrying out a bloody operation that targeted the STC-affiliate Security Belt Forces in Aden. This came during the disputes that erupted between the STC and the Yemeni government accused of its ties with radical Islamists in August 2019.

The Yemeni branch tried to move the experience of ISIS main center in Iraq to Yemen without considering the differences between the two countries. This led the Yemeni branch to remain ostracized. It even failed to benefit from the Houthi control on the capital Sanaa to attract new members in the Sunni ranks like what AQAP did. 

Along with that, the disputes between ISIS in Yemen and AQAP branch have developed into armed clashes since 2017 as Al-Bayda witnessed violent confrontations and mutual semi-daily target operations. For the newly-formed organization which has little financial and manpower capabilities, the normal losses during the confrontations were considered a big blow. Unlike AQAP, ISIS had no influence in any Yemeni governorate after it gathered all its members in Al-Bayda following the Arab Coalition’s declaration about the beginning of security and military operations to normalize conditions in Aden in 2016. However, the influence of the organization in Al-Bayda remained limited. It was limited to areas in Wald Rabi' district in which some areas were controlled by AQAP also. 

Its presence in small geographical areas along with its staunch foe meant the continuing depletion until the end and nothing else. On the other hand, the Houthis didn’t launch any attacks against the two parties in the governorate which was controlled by them during that period. The Houthis probably believed that the fighting between ISIS and AQAP and the depletion related to it will serve their interests. After three years of confrontations, the Houthis reached an agreement with AQAP to withdraw from areas under their control in the district according to our exclusive sources. They launched a decisive battle against the embattled and exhausted ISIS and managed to settle it in their favor after killing all organization’s members including its Emir Abu Alwaleed Al-Adani.

However, the more dangerous factor for ISIS is that it was subjected to security penetration at the level of its hard base according to the author’s exclusive sources who confirmed the occurrence of clashes between elements of the organization and one senior ISIS commander in Al-Bayda after they doubted him. After killing him, they found calls from Britain and international intelligence agencies on his mobile phone. The sources also stressed that the penetration emerged in more than one incident without giving more details about them. Accordingly, it can be said that what happened to the organization two years ago was a logical result of a series of previous incidents and not related to the decisive battle in Wald Rabi' district.

The reality of ISIS's comeback 

As a result of all previous incidents, ISIS’s comeback through the latest operation in Al-Bayda and through the security achievement in Hadramout constituted a big surprise and raised many questions about its reality and nature as well as what it means in the short and medium term. There is no doubt that ISIS’s comeback is interesting as it goes beyond the idea of ISIS’s attempt to assert itself through a single operation to the fact that the organization’s presence became actually tangible and can move from one governorate to another. 

The nature of the operation is not apparently a mere unilateral one as the implementation of such a suicide operation requires preparations by explosive experts and prior reconnaissance monitoring of the target. Looking at the area of the attack (Al-Bayda) makes talking about the end of ISIS two years ago lack accuracy. Nonetheless, the question about the nature of ISIS’s comeback and the future of its existence in Yemen is still ongoing. 

A single operation

In this regard, a former jihadist believes that the latest operation of ISIS in Al-Bayda may not reflect a real comeback of the organization if we look at his previous position. He told “South24” that “talking about ISIS’S comeback is too early due to the lack of manpower and the planning elements in addition to the unsustainability of the operations”. He believes that the latest operation will remain a single one and doesn’t suggest huge danger. If ISIS carries out other operations, they will be over long periods according to him.

In general, the former jihadist added that ISIS will try to return and benefit from his previous experience. However, the AQAP’s presence factors in Yemen are stronger than the ISIS’s. As for the security achievement in Hadramout, the former jihadist believes that it hard to comment about it. He put it along with the Bayda operation within the same context to connect the two incidents with the idea of ISIS’s comeback in Yemen. 

Tribal sources told “South24” that they are not aware of any ISIS activities in the governorate, especially in the organization’s previous areas. A source close to ISIS denied he knows about the presence of ISIS cells in Hadramout. 


Based upon that, it can be said that ISIS’s comeback to Yemen is not excluded. However, the latest operation in Al-Bayda remains only an indicator about this. It is hard to build upon the security achievement in Hadramout without knowing all its details. In general, the developments of the incoming days, weeks and months will reveal the ambiguity of this issue.

*Ibrahim Ali is a pseudonym of a researcher specialized in the armed group affairs. He demanded anonymity for personal reasons.