Violent extremism and terrorism in Yemen


What are the different groups involved in violent extremism and terrorism in Yemen? What are the structural drivers/enabling factors of violent extremism (e.g. poverty, unemployment, weak governance, state sponsorship, etc.)? What is the (un)appeal of violent extremism and violent extremist groups?


  • Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) first gained control of territory in 2011 when it took advantage of political chaos; it once again managed to take control of territory following the current civil war, which began in early 2015.
  • AQAP’s aim is to create a number of smaller emirates, which will eventually link to form a caliphate when they deem the time is right.
  • AQAP is extremely well financed and has carried out a number of successful bank raids, kidnappings, as well as receiving finances from taxes through controlling ports and from smuggling.
  • Islamic State (IS) operations in Yemen are currently fairly minimal and it does not share the same support as AQAP, as IS’ tactics of mass killings and mosque bombings are at odds with societal and tribal norms.
  • The civil war against the Houthis has opened up a vacuum for extremist groups to operate in, as not only are the Houthis the main focus of the government and coalition forces, but the government and coalition have also often made alliances with extremist groups in the fight against the Houthis.
  • Bad governance and instability have allowed extremist movements to embed politically and exploit the situation to gain support; AQAP has taken particular advantage of this by providing services in previously marginalised areas.
  • The perception of the population towards governance, levels of corruption, and the ability of the government to deliver services and security is extremely low, thus creating dynamics favourable to the rise of extremism.
  • Sectarianism has increased with the onset of the civil war, particularly as the Houthis make inroads into territories where Sunnis live. Extremist groups are able to take advantage of this increase in sectarianism and offer the Sunni population a means to take revenge or protect territory.
  • The proxy nature of the conflict with Saudi-Iranian competition in the Gulf being played out in Yemen, further amplifies the sectarian nature of the war and focuses the battle on a Sunni versus Shiite narrative, which in turn is used by extremists to gain supporters and justify violence.
  • Poverty in Yemen is a serious issue and there are large regional disparities in poverty levels, thus creating marginalised communities. The connection between poverty and marginalisation are a key contributing factor to the rise of AQAP in Yemen.
  • The ‘hard’ countering violent extremism (CVE) actions carried out by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and United States mainly against AQAP often negatively impact on the population, which in turn is used by AQAP for propaganda and recruitment purposes.
  • The majority of the population does not share the ideologies of the extremist groups; motivations for supporting and joining these groups is rather found in the history of bad governance and the dynamics of the civil war.
  • Although the tribes do not necessarily share the ideologies of the extremist groups, their allegiance with groups such as AQAP has been a source of legitimacy and recruits.
  • Salifism in Yemen does not have a history of extremism, rather it was previously a factor in encouraging loyalty to the government; however, the dynamics of the civil war has pushed the support of the government more and more towards violence


Suggested citation

O’Driscoll, D. (2017). Violent Extremism and Terrorism in Yemen. K4D Helpdesk Report. Brighton, UK: Institute of Development Studies.