On Monday, the Shi’ite Houthi rebels that had been protesting in the thousands for days in Yemen’s capital Sana’a made sweeping military gains in the city, capturing government offices and military installations and prompting some reports to speak of their “almost complete control of the capital.” The Houthis’ stunning advance came only one day after they signed a peace agreement with the Yemeni government calling for the formation of a new inclusive government.
Local press reports on Monday described the complete absence of any Yemeni security services on the streets of Sana’a and the consolidation of the strong Houthi presence in the city. Houthi militias were reportedly fortifying their positions and setting up checkpoints on strategically significant roads in the capital, including Hadda, Sitteen, and Zubayri.
In a sign of their new-found power, the rebels raided the downtown residences of Ali Muhsin, security adviser to the Yemeni president and key military commander, and Hameed al-Ahmar, leader of the Yemeni Alliance for Reform party. Both men hail from the powerful Ahmar clan, part of the Hashid tribal confederation, and have been vocal supporters of the main Sunni party, Islah. On Sunday, Muhsin also clashed with the Houthis at the former headquarters of the First Armored Division and subsequently fled.
Over the weekend, the Houthi rebels took control of many other homes, offices, and military bases in the Yemeni capital. They reportedly seized tanks and armored vehicles from Yemeni military headquarters, which they drove out of the city to their northern strongholds on Monday.
The rebels also attacked Yemen’s state television headquarters, burning its two main buildings in an attempt to take control of the facilities. Additionally, the Houthis seized the vehicle of Sana’a’s mayor, Abdulwader Hilal, at one of their checkpoints in the city.
A week of clashes in Sana’a have left 340 people dead and have wounded at least 900, according to a senior official in Yemen’s Defense Ministry. Thousands of Sana’a residents have fled the fighting. Despite these figures, Yemen’s Interior Ministry ordered all troops to not clash with the Houthi rebels in an effort to avoid more bloodshed and ensure that the Houthis will live up to the peace deal.
The changing security situation in Sana’a and the resulting power vacuum, both in the capital and throughout much of the country, grant al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) the opportunity to capitalize on the current chaos. As early as March 2014, AQAP announced the formation of a new armed group called Ansar al Shariah in the Central Regions, charged with targeting the Shi’ite Houthi rebels. On Monday, AQAP took credit for a suicide attack in Sa’adah province that targeted a “large gathering” of Houthis and allegedly resulted in the deaths of “tens of Houthis including leaders.”
Al Qaeda and its branches are known to exploit political and security vulnerabilities to consolidate power, including in Yemen. In 2011, when Yemeni troops were recalled to Sana’a in an attempt to quell the Arab Spring protests calling for the ouster of longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh, AQAP took advantage of the security vacuum and seized vast areas of southern Yemen. In March 2011, AQAP even announced the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Abyan province. Regardless of the fate of the current Houthi offensive, AQAP appears poised to benefit from the upheaval it could engender.