Something disturbing is happening in Yemen. And unfortunately, it has nothing to do with the country’s declining oil reserves, dried up water resources, nor the Yemeni government’s problems with the Houthis to the north and the secessionists in the south.
Rather a new internal conflict is arising in Yemen that could have devastating consequences, both for the country’s weak government and for American interests: a potential civil war between Yemeni Shiites and Yemeni Sunnis.
At first glance, you may be wondering why this is news. Indeed, for those watching the small Gulf Arab state closely, it’s no surprise that Shiites and Sunnis have many disagreements. Yemen’s Zaidi Shia population, which comprises close to 45 percent of the people, is disenfranchised politically and is often subjected to harsh repression from the government’s security services, particularly in the northern province of Sa’da. (President Ali Abdullah Saleh is ironically a member of the same Zaidi sect.) It isn’t that big of a surprise to learn why Shiites in northern Yemen are staging an insurgency — the disconnect between those living in the capital and those living in the countryside is extraordinarily wide.
Yet the conflict between Yemen’s Shiites and Sunnis may be taking a violent step into further escalation. Late last month, November 24, close to thirty people attending a Shia religious procession were reported killed in an Al Qaeda suicide attack. It was the first time in the history of the organization’s Yemeni branch that the group mounted an operation deep in the Shia heartland of the country. And while only a single attack by a single Al Qaeda franchise, it should serve as a warning to both the United States and its fledging Yemeni partner. In an attempt to further destabilize the country, Al Qaeda may be trying to foment the same sectarian violence that the group so effectively orchestrated in Iraq.
Al Qaeda hasn’t been wasting time. A mere two days after the first operation, its operatives killed two more Shiites en route to a religious funeral. Two deliberate attacks in two days against Shiite targets is quite significant, even by Yemen’s standards.
Thus far, there has not been much from the White House and the State Department in response to the attacks. In fairness, President Barack Obama has a lot on his docket right now, including a war in Afghanistan that he is attempting to salvage and nuclear talks with Iran that his administration is desperately trying to steer in a productive direction.
But the White House, and the region in particular, should be wary of these two cases. Al Qaeda has indiscriminately targeted Shiites before. The result — a deep division between Shiites and Sunnis and a two year Iraqi civil war — was nothing short of horrific. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula may be taking a page from the Iraqi experience, hoping to make the Yemeni government even weaker than it already is. The last thing Yemen needs is another conflict that could become unmanageable, if not chaotic.