• Al-Qaeda seizes southern cities after Saudis push rebels back
  • Gulf Arabs direct fire at Iran allies, not Islamic State

As Saudi Arabia’s allies try to bomb Islamic State out of its strongholds in Syria and Iraq, the kingdom’s war in Yemen is enabling jihadists to seize new ones.

Al-Qaeda took over two cities in south Yemen on Wednesday, local media said. In the key port of Aden, whose recapture from Shiite rebels was the biggest success for Saudi-led forces in Yemen, there are growing signs of a militant presence. Al-Qaeda’s flag has flown above the police station in the war-scarred al-Tawahi neighborhood, and graffiti on the road to Taiz warns that “the Islamic State is strong.” Students at Aden University have been warned not to mix with the opposite sex.

Saudi-led air-strike in Sana’a
Saudi-led air-strike in Sana’a
Photographer: Mohammed Huwais/AFP via Getty Images

All that is grist to the mill for critics who say the world’s biggest oil exporter, already squeezed by the slump in crude prices, is storing up more trouble by fighting the wrong war. In making the Shiite Houthi rebels their military priority, the argument goes, the kingdom has inadvertently empowered more dangerous enemies -- Sunni jihadists who have repeatedly called for the overthrow of the Al Saud ruling family.

The Saudis and their allies “prioritize the fight against what they see as Iranian allies over the fight against Salafi jihadists,” Gregory Gause, a professor of international affairs at Texas A&M University, said by e-mail. “They think that they can clean up the latter after they have taken care of the former,” he said. “It is a dangerous and risky bet.”

Iran Priority

For Gause and other analysts, there’s a parallel with the U.S. war in Iraq, now widely seen as having strengthened Islamist militants. Saudi Arabia got caught up in that backlash, suffering a series of bomb attacks that roiled energy markets.

Still, the Saudis and their chief ally in Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, mostly cite Iran as their biggest threat, accusing the Houthis of being tools to spread the Islamic Republic’s influence on the Arabian peninsula. It’s part of a wider concern about Iran’s growing power after this year’s nuclear accord and signs of detente with the U.S. The rebels say their ties with Iran are limited, and Western diplomats have expressed skepticism over the degree of Iranian involvement in Yemen.

Ali al-Ahmadi, a spokesman for pro-Saudi forces in Aden, denied that there’s a noticeable Islamic State or al-Qaeda presence in the city. But he acknowledged that some militants joined the fight against the Houthis, and said that if Saudi-backed forces can’t bring security to Aden, that “would definitely boost the groups’ presence.”

Hind al-Amodi, a journalist and activist in Aden, said that presence can already be felt. She said she rarely used to wear a veil when going out, but now feels safer that way because of the jihadists.

“Most women cover their faces now,” she said in a phone interview. “Some prefer to just stay at home.”

Growing Toll

The Houthis, the targets of Saudi anger after toppling a Gulf-backed government, have been effective fighters against jihadist groups in the past. As the rebels have been pushed back in southern Yemen, al-Qaeda-linked groups have taken control of territory, including the port of Mukalla in April. On Wednesday, the militants seized the cities of Zinjibar and Jaar in Abyan province, al-Masdar news website reported.

The Saudis say restoring Yemen’s legitimate administration will help reimpose order and prevent groups like al-Qaeda from exploiting the conflict. The Gulf coalition began airstrikes in March and has since deployed ground troops. More than 2,600 civilians have died since the bombing began, according to the United Nations, and dozens of Gulf soldiers have been killed.

Meanwhile, the preoccupation with Yemen has reduced the Gulf Arab role in U.S.-led missions against Islamic State in Syria, Lt. Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., commander of the U.S. Air Force Central Command, told reporters last month in Dubai. While Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. formally joined that coalition, they’ve flown few sorties in recent months, while Yemen has been targeted with airstrikes almost daily. U.S. officials have expressed support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen, while also calling for steps toward a political settlement.

‘Freedom of Maneuver’

Jihadists have targeted Saudi Arabia in the past, bombing oil installations and killing Western and Saudi nationals. The kingdom, which contains Islam’s holiest sites and is accused by al-Qaeda of collaborating with its Western enemies, began a crackdown against the group in 2003. Yet Saudi Arabia is also criticized for financing the spread of a fundamentalist version of Islam that creates a fertile environment for extremism.

In Yemen, it has taken root. Al-Qaeda militants regrouped there after they were pushed out of Saudi Arabia, and used their base in the country to plan the killings at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. Islamic State has claimed several attacks in Yemen and Saudi Arabia since the war began.

There’s no sign of the Yemen conflict ending anytime soon: the Houthis still hold much of the country, even as jihadist groups emerge in the “liberated” areas.

Al-Qaeda now has “almost complete freedom of maneuver across much of southern Yemen,” Ludovico Carlino, a senior analyst at IHS Country Risk, said in an e-mailed note.

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