The Islamic State in Yemen claimed credit for the brutal execution of 15 Yemeni soldiers who were captured in the city of Azzan in Shabwa province earlier this month. The treatment of the captured soldiers by the Islamic State presents a stark contrast to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) handling of captured Yemeni soldiers.
The Islamic State’s “Media Office for Shabwa Province” released a short, two minute 19 second video called “Eliminating the Apostates” on Twitter today. The video was obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
In the video, the Islamic State displays 15 Yemeni soldiers. Local media reports indicated that tribal militias overran a military camp operated by the Yemeni Army’s 2nd Mountain Brigade in the city of Azzan in Shabwa province on April 12. Islamic State fighters from “Wilayat Ataq,” or Ataq province (Ataq is a city in Shabwa province), are reported to have executed the Yemeni soldiers days later, on April 14.
The 14 Yemeni soldiers are shown kneeling on the ground. Several of the captives are heard moaning and crying as armed Islamic State fighters stand behind them. Several of the soldiers identify themselves and their unit.
The video then briefly shows an Islamic State fighter sharpening a knife, then four of the captives are beheaded. The heads of the four soldiers are displayed on the ground. The Islamic State fighters then shoot 10 other soldiers, who are blindfolded and kneeling with their hands behind their backs, in the head. Finally, another soldier from the “Second Naval Brigade” is identified before he is shot in the head multiple times.
The graphic execution of the Yemeni soldiers draws a contrast in methodology between the Islamic State and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the dominant jihadist group in Yemen. The Islamic State has been challenging al Qaeda for control of the global jihad.
The Islamic State in Yemen, like other Islamic State branches in the Middle East and Africa, has been indiscriminate in its application of violence. In its first major attack in Yemen, the group killed more than 100 people in suicide attacks that targeted Houthi mosques in the capital of Sana’a. The Houthis, a Shiite group that is backed by Iran, have taken over most of northern and eastern Yemen, and have encroached on areas in the south. The Islamic State has accused AQAP of being soft on the Houthis, and has sought to cleave off the more hardline elements of AQAP’s rank and file.
AQAP was quick to distance itself from the Sana’a mosque attacks, saying that it was “committed to the guidelines” issued by al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri, who prohibited “targeting mosques, markets, and public places out of concern for the lives of innocent Muslims, and to prioritize the paramount interests.” [See LWJ report, Analysis: Why AQAP quickly denied any connection to mosque attacks.]
Unlike the Islamic State, AQAP has sought to convert captured Yemeni soldiers to its cause, and has also used the soldiers as part of its propaganda effort against the Yemeni state and the US. In a video released in October 2013, AQAP questioned Yemeni soldiers who were captured during a raid on a base in Shabwa province. In a back and forth with a Yemeni Army captain, the AQAP interviewer said that the Yemeni military and the US “are in the same trench.”
“The [American] spying drones are in the sky and you are on the ground,” the jihadist said to a group of Yemeni soldiers.
“What is the difference between you and the Americans? Haven’t you thought about this issue? Haven’t you considered yourselves and the Americans in one front? When Americans bombard our brothers with unmanned drones, who collect their bodies? It’s you the soldiers. You take their bodies. You and the Americans are in one front,” the AQAP leader continued.
But the AQAP leader then said that the soldiers are not the are not the target of AQAP’s wrath, and appealed to the soldiers to quit fighting alongside the Americans and join AQAP’s cause.
AQAP’s strategy of limiting its attacks to military and government targets has built support amongst some Yemeni tribes. The Islamic State’s execution of the Yemeni soldiers is unlikely to build similar support. According to Yemeni media reports, the tribes in Azzam that participated in the raid that resulted in the capture of the Yemeni troops have disassociated with the jihadist group after the execution of the soldiers.