Yemen’s conflict has given rise to multiple armed groups, with the Amaliqa Brigades making headlines for their impact on conflict dynamics as they pushed the Houthis out of Shabwa and parts of Marib. We spoke with Yemen researcher Laurent Bonnefoy about the Amaliqa Brigades and their connections with wider Salafist networks.
1) The recent gains by the Amaliqa Brigades have once again garnered significant attention towards the group. While much of the media coverage has cast them as a Salafist group, many others have pushed back against this, describing them instead as Salafist-led. What is your read on the Amaliqa and how do you see the difference between the two descriptors?
The labeling of individuals and groups in Yemen has always been the object of debate among the actors themselves. Much like the label ‘socialist’ before or ‘jihadi’ over the last two decades, ‘Salafi’ is controversial and has been increasingly used by the adversaries of some groups to delegitimize them. I would thus always be cautious when it comes to using it in the context of militia groups active on the ground. First, I feel that the fighters are more diverse than we usually think, mobilizing around issues of protection of land or for salaries, more frequently than for an ideology – despite the fact at some point Salafism may have been a powerful fuel to fight outside one’s territory. Furthermore, Salafism has been, over recent years, diluted through its merger with wider movements. The development of strictly Salafi fighting groups has been the exception.
Nevertheless, it is clear that a number of leaders of the Amaliqa Brigades have had a trajectory that connects them directly to Salafi networks. The most prominent are certainly Abu Zar’a (aka Abdulrahman al-Muharami), originating from Yafea, and Hamdi Shukri al-Subayhi, who were allegedly trained in Dammaj, the cradle of the Salafi movement in Yemen. Both were traumatized by the forced closure of Dammaj after the institute was besieged by the Houthis in 2014, much like their Southern Transitional Council (STC) counterpart, Hani bin Burayk, who stands as the vice-president of the movement. As second tier Salafi figures before 2015, they gained prominence through the military confrontation with the Houthis, in particular in Aden.
It is also significant that the reference to the Amaliqa, often translated in English as Giants, can be understood as a religious one, and yet it is ambiguous in the references it carries. The name appears in the Quran as a powerful tribe that existed before Islam, as well as in the Old Testament as an archenemy of the Jews. This reference, much like the motto ‘God is great’ which appears on the group’s logo, justifies the depiction of the Amaliqa as Salafi-led. However, in the minds of many Yemenis, it was also the name of elite forces that were established under President Ibrahim al-Hamdi in the 1970s and thus has a nationalist and secular meaning.
2) How do you place the Amaliqa within the context of the wider proliferation of Salafist military groups in Yemen?
Since the war started, one of the most significant trends within the fragmented Salafi movement has been its militarization. The war put a brutal end to dynamics of politicization that had emerged after the ‘Yemeni Spring’ of 2011 around the Rashad Union. Due to the longstanding rivalry with the Houthis, Salafis of all shades were easy to mobilize as the fighting in Aden in 2015 has shown. Also, contrary to a number of tribesmen who appeared reluctant to fight beyond the borders of their own territory, Salafi militiamen were ready to reach out and fight the Houthis wherever they were. This is the reason why leaders like Abu al-Abbas in Taiz or Basam al-Mihdar in the South gained some prominence, in particular through the support they received from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
And yet, I would be cautious when it comes to stating that we are witnessing a proliferation of Salafi military groups in Yemen. Contrary to the Syrian model which gave birth to a multitude of militia groups based on specific ideologies, Salafi groups have rapidly merged with other, non-ideological movements or militias, if not with the army. Such has been the case for instance with Abu al-Abbas’s group, which is integrated with the 35th armored brigade. The Amaliqa brigades were also characterized by their relationship with Tariq Saleh as they were fighting on the west coast, and they coordinate with other groups including the STC and the Shabwa elite forces. While Salafis may be controlling foot soldiers, I doubt that they have the political upper hand or are even looking for it, and this is probably the reason why they are supported by regional players.
3) What would you say are the main ways that the ongoing conflict has changed Salafism in Yemen, both on a personal and organizational level?
Clearly, a change of generations has occurred. I would say that we now have a third wave of Salafis. After the founding fathers, symbolized by Muqbil al-Wadi’i until his death in 2001, the generation of heirs was caught in endless feuds that fragmented the Salafi movement on issues linked to politicization. The third wave, embodied by men with credentials gained on the battlefield, is less concerned with ideological and religious purity and manifestly accepts being instrumentalized by regional powers.
Interestingly, the second generation has been marginalized in part due to its unwillingness to clearly engage in the fighting. After his forced eviction from Dammaj by the Houthis in 2014, Yahya al-Hajuri spent time in Saudi Arabia but never fully endorsed the coalition’s military strategy. He recently returned to Yemen, growing more vocal and apparently ready to play a role on the front, but has been marginalized. Similarly, Muhammad al-Imam’s strategy of conciliation with the Houthis in Maabar, some 25 kilometers north of Dhamar, discredited him in the eyes of many Salafis.
4) Conversely, how do you think the increasing importance of armed Salafist groups in various parts of the country has changed Yemen? (How) will this shape things once the conflict eventually ends?
I’m not certain that, as such, the role played by Salafis on the military front has actually changed Yemen, in particular as the depth of their instrumentalization by the regional players is made so visible. I’m always puzzled by the fact leaders like Hani bin Burayk don’t even pretend to conceal the fact they are dependent on the UAE’s strategy. His profile picture on Twitter, bearing a UAE flag, and his numerous visits to Abu Dhabi are probably not helping the Salafis, who had often been depicted as puppets of the Saudis since the 1980s, appear as defending the interests of ordinary Yemenis or of Muslims.
At the social level, it is difficult to measure current changes in habits or religiosity. Nevertheless, I’m concerned that the sectarian narrative, pushed by the Salafis, others, and most prominently by the Houthis, continues to gain relevance in the eyes of many. Mending this rift will be a very difficult task for sure.
5) How should key stakeholders and policymakers reckon with the increasing importance of these groups? Is it a matter of attempting to increase engagement?
The integration and moderation debate has for a long time concerned analysis on Islamist movements. Are societies better off – meaning less likely to be affected by violence – when Islamists are participating in politics, or should these actors be excluded and criminalized? Is participation the best way to achieve moderation? Obviously, one can only answer these difficult questions in a nuanced way. Yemeni rulers appear to have considered for decades that Islamists of various shades should be accommodated. Salafis were among the main beneficiaries of this strategy and Dammaj had established a special relationship with much of the security apparatus. To a large extent, this strategy proved effective before it deteriorated after 9/11, both because of state repression and because of the internal evolutions of Islamists, in particular of the jihadis.
In the context of the current war, the integration of Salafi fighters in wider military efforts is, in a way, repeating this strategy – albeit implicitly and probably with new agendas formulated in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. It is difficult to know what the outcome will be, but it is doubtful that the interests of ordinary Yemenis is really taken into account. However, policymakers at all levels need not necessarily take sides in the integration and moderation debate. Most importantly, they need to be able to adapt to the Salafi interlocutors, who, whether they like it or not, are a part of the political and religious spectrum in Yemen.
Laurent Bonnefoy is a CNRS researcher in Sciences Po (France). He has written extensively on Yemeni politics and religious movements. His publications include Salafism in Yemen. Transnationalism and Religious Identity (Hurst, 2011) and Yemen and the World. Beyond Insecurity (Hurst, 2018).
Adam Baron is a writer and political analyst. He was based in Yemen from 2011–2014. He is also a YPC Board Member.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Yemen Policy Center or its donors.
Fatima Saleh (Arabic)