Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) chief Rashad al-Alimi formally announced the formation of the Nation’s Shield forces in late January, a Saudi-funded military force of eight battalions led by Salafi commander Bashir al-Madrabi that was officially declared last September, but which is composed of Al-Yemen Al-Saeed brigades formed over the previous year. The units operate directly under Al-Alimi, who, unlike most other members of the PLC, had no military forces of his own. So far, units have been deployed to Al-Dhalea, Abyan, and Lahj. There are also efforts to bring three Giants Brigades battalions commanded by Hamdi Shukri al-Subaihi under the Nation’s Shield umbrella. Last year Al-Subaihi refused to get involved in the UAE-Southern Transitional Council (STC) battle to oust Islah-affiliated forces from Shabwa after his battalions had helped eject Houthi forces from the northwest of the governorate earlier in 2022. He was subsequently the target of several assassination attempts, suspected to have been perpetrated by pro-STC groups. The STC is uneasy over the creation of the new force, which it perceives as a threat to its control of Aden and other southern areas.
Further military bases are being planned, as the Nation’s Shield forces apparently already number between 16,000 and 20,000 soldiers. A further 120 armored vehicles have been sent via Al-Wadea on the Saudi-Hadramawt border. Riyadh is having cash brought over the border to pay the group’s personnel directly, avoiding the Aden branch of the Central Bank of Yemen. The aim is apparently to avoid demands for Riyadh to restore frozen salaries to other military and security forces, notably those affiliated with the STC. This circumvention highlights the extent to which governance has broken down amid PLC bickering, and the willingness of Riyadh to take extraordinary measures to prevent southern Yemen from slipping outside its sphere of influence. By March, soldiers were reportedly leaving STC-affiliated Security Belt forces to join the Nation’s Shield ranks in search of a steady income.
Fighting Heats Up in Hudaydah
Intense clashes continued between the Houthis and the Joint Forces along the border between Hays and Al-Khawkhah districts in southern Hudaydah in early January and continued for much of the month. Houthi forces carried out regular drone attacks and reportedly utilized heavier weapons, including a tank, in their attempts to advance south. At least three Joint Forces soldiers were killed and 27 others wounded in the first week of January, while on the Houthi side two were killed and 27 wounded. Fighting on the same fronts during the last two weeks of December claimed the lives of five members of the Joint Forces and injured 42, and killed 13 Houthi fighters and wounded more than 110 others.
The fighting continued in southern Hudaydah later in the month, with clashes between Houthi forces and Joint Forces along coastal areas in southern Al-Tuhaytah district and in the Al-Sard area in the north of Hays district. In neighboring Taiz, Houthi forces clashed with Islah-affiliated forces in the Taiz Military Axis on several fronts. Houthi forces also conducted naval exercises near the international shipping lane off the coast of southern Al-Tuhaytah district. The site of the drills was likely chosen for its proximity to the shipping corridor and Zuqar Island, where the Joint Forces’ naval operations are based. Houthi forces also continued to build out and reinforce a network of trenches and fortifications in southern Al-Tuhaytah, consisting of several tunnels and interspersed with landmines disguised as rocks.
Hostilities in southern Hudaydah heated up again in late February. Houthi forces launched eight drone attacks on Joint Forces stationed in Wadi al-Mareer in southern Jabal Ras district, amid simultaneous advances by Houthi forces to the west. Six Houthi fighters were killed and 37 wounded, and one pro-government soldier was killed and 17 wounded. Fifty kilometers to the south in northern Taiz, Houthi forces attacked Joint Forces in the Al-Barah area of Al-Maqbanah district. The northern Taiz front had been quiet since November 2021, when the Joint Forces redeployed south from Hudaydah city.
Al-Qaeda Threat Remerges
Khaled Batarfi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), issued a rare video message in January, in which he attacked the PLC for allowing US influence in the country and the STC for their recent operations against AQAP in the southern governorates of Abyan and Shabwa. Batarfi, who took over leadership in 2020 after Qassem al-Raymi was killed in a US drone strike, accused the STC of working with US forces in Hadramawt and Al-Mahra and called on local tribes to help AQAP fight back. The speech marked a rhetorical if not a strategic shift, in that Batarfi included the Houthi movement and its Iranian backers in Al-Qaeda’s list of enemies, which also comprises STC forces and the Saudi-led coalition. The AQAP strategy laid out in 2021 had focused on the “far enemy” of Western powers and their regional allies, an approach that reflected AQAP’s withdrawal from areas where it had fought Houthi forces early in the war, but also the growing influence of Iran-based senior Egyptian Al-Qaeda leader Saif al-Adel. Batarfi’s attack does not appear to indicate a new policy of targeting Houthi forces, but rather a rhetorical move to win the support of southern tribes who oppose the STC’s attempts to extend its influence into eastern Yemen and to placate internal critics who have been unhappy with the soft approach toward the Houthis. Indeed, the speech gave the impression that AQAP is planning on doubling down with operations against PLC and STC targets, possibly in the major southern conurbations of Aden and Mukalla.
The STC’s counterterrorism operations have not been without consequences. In recent months, Al-Qaeda has planted hundreds of roadside bombs targeting counterterrorism forces in Abyan and Shabwa. A US drone strike in the Al-Samda area of Marib’s Wadi Abidah reportedly killed three suspected members of AQAP, including one of AQAP’s top bomb makers, Hassan al-Hadrami. But the unremitting death toll from IEDs has brought STC forces into conflict with locals. Armed tribesmen in central Abyan’s Mudiya district rose up against STC-affiliated counterterrorism forces after the latter carried out a series of home raids and arrested suspected Al-Qaeda members accused of a roadside bomb attack. Nine people were killed in the ensuing clashes and dozens of families were displaced before a ceasefire was mediated. Following a meeting between representatives of the aggrieved tribes and the STC-affiliated commander of the Abyan Military Axis, an agreement was reached to release the detained tribesmen, although the situation remains tense.
US strikes on Al-Qaeda figures continue. In February, top AQAP leader Hamad bin Hammoud al-Tamimi, aka Abdulaziz al-Adnani, was reportedly killed in a US drone strike on his home in the Marib al-Wadi district. Al-Tamimi was the most prominent Saudi leader in AQAP and the head of its Shura Council.
The Houthi movement also announced a prisoner exchange with AQAP in February, after it was first made public by Al-Qaeda. The Al-Qaeda statement, made through local affiliate Ansar al-Sharia, said two prisoners had been released by each side. Head of the Houthi prisoner affairs committee Abdelqader al-Mortada tweeted on February 19 that three Houthi fighters had been returned, in exchange for two Al-Qaeda prisoners captured during fighting in Al-Bayda governorate. The swap was later defended on Twitter by deputy foreign minister Hussein al-Ezzi, who said the movement was prepared to make deals with any group to secure the release of prisoners. Houthi-AQAP prisoner exchanges go back to 2016, but have never been acknowledged publicly.
Houthis Reinforce, Reengage
With the relative lull in frontline violence that has persisted since the expiration of the truce, the authorities in Sana’a continue to rearrange their military affairs, strengthening their position on various fronts. The government has noted that Houthi forces are renewing efforts to win the support of tribes in critical locations – the Al-Abidah in Marib, where Marib city and the oil fields in the east remain under government control, and the Al-Subaiha in Lahj, who reside in lands near the Bab al-Mandab Strait and the area controlled by Tareq Saleh’s UAE-backed National Resistance forces. The Houthi authorities’ ongoing conflict with the Bani Nawf tribe in Al-Jawf, on the other hand, is connected to the movement’s effort to establish control over rebellious tribes and lands in the south and southwest of the governorate. The Houthis also seem to be beefing up their air capabilities, calling back pilots for active duty following the surprise appearance of helicopters at a series of military parades in September. It is unclear whether Houthi forces possess the parts to repair or maintain the aircraft for operational use.
Apart from the ongoing fighting in Hudaydah, the Houthis have renewed operations on fronts in Taiz. In January, Houthi forces launched simultaneous attacks on Islah-affiliated Taiz Military Axis forces on fronts in and around Taiz city. Fighting was reported on the following fronts: Asifrah, Wadi Al-Zanouj, and the Air Defense camp, north of Taiz city; Jabal Habashi district, Al-Siyahi, and the vicinity of Mount Han in the Hathran area of Al-Taiziyah district, to the west ; Tashrefat, Wadi Sal, and Kalaba area, to the east; and the Al-Shaqab front in Sabr al-Mawadim district in southern Taiz governorate. While the decline of violence since last year’s truce and the ongoing Saudi-Houthi talks suggest the possibility of progress toward a negotiated settlement, violence continues on fronts across the country – including outside Marib city, in Al-Dhalea and Lahj, and along Al-Bayda’s borders with Abyan and Shabwa – and could easily escalate should groups see opportunities to extend their control or improve their relative negotiating position.