The Middle East’s Franz Ferdinand Moment

Why the Islamic State's claimed attack in Yemen could spark an Arab World War.

Shiite Houthi crisis in Yemen
epa04676409 Yemenis inspect the scene of a suicide attack which targeted three days ago a Houthi mosque in Sana'a, Yemen, 23 March 2015. According to local reports at least 140 people were killed and some 345 others wounded on 20 March in three suicide attacks targeting two mosques in Sana'a frequented by supporters of the Houthis, the attacks being claimed by a group allegedly affiliated with the organisation calling themselves the Islamic State (IS), as unrest continues to grip the country as various armed groups continue to battle each other following a Houthi takeover of the capital in September 2014 which effectively led to the collapse of the interim government. EPA/YAHYA ARHAB

Did the Islamic State start a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran? The crisis in Yemen is one of the more complicated stories to emerge from a complicated region. It involves a cyclone of explosive elements: religious extremism, proxy war, sectarian tension, tribal rivalries, terrorist rivalries, and U.S. counterterrorism policies. There is little consensus on which element matters most, although each has its fierce partisans.

There was no shortage of events that could have ignited this volatile situation. Yet one in particular stands out: The March 20 synchronized suicide bombing of two mosques in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, which killed more than 140 people. The mosques were targeted specifically as gathering places for members of Yemen’s Houthi rebels, a political movement with roots in the minority Zaydi sect of Shiite Islam (although the coalition it leads in Yemen covers a number of different parties and issues).

The bombing provided a pretext for an already-surging Houthi rebellion to mass, mobilize, and deploy forces, advancing on the former government’s last major stronghold in the port city of Aden. This in turn prompted Saudi Arabia to begin airstrikes on Houthi positions and mass forces on its border with Yemen in advance of a possible ground invasion.

The Yemen branch of the Islamic State quickly claimed responsibility for the March 20 bombing. The attack was disavowed almost as quickly by its rival, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which said attacking a mosque was inconsistent with the guidelines for jihad put forward by al Qaeda’s increasingly absentee emir, Ayman al Zawahiri, which emphasize avoiding Muslim casualties.

Within Yemen, there are many conspiracy theories about the attack, including that it was carried out by a party (other than Islamic State) with a vested interest in providing a pretext for a Saudi invasion.

It’s getting hard to escape the feeling that the Sanaa bombing might be the Middle East’s “assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand” moment — the literal gunshot that has come to serve, if incompletely, as an answer to the question: “How did World War I begin?” (It should be noted that the assassin’s cause, which was more or less independence for Yugoslavia, was more or less achieved as a result of the ensuing war.)

But the mystery of who was actually responsible for the attack has been eclipsed by the ensuing rush to war, leaving an open-ended question about how much agency we should assign to the Islamic State for activities outside of Iraq and Syria.

Four fundamental questions arising from this chain of events illuminate the strategic and intelligence challenge ahead for any country that is invested in the fight against the Islamic State.

  1. Was the Islamic State in any way responsible for the bombings?

This is the most obvious question, and one that remains somewhat ambiguous as of this writing. The jihadist group has not to date provided any evidence to support its claim, such as images or “martyr will” videos by the alleged bombers. It claimed the attack on Twitter and later in its English-language Dabiq magazine, showing redacted photos of several individuals it claimed carried out the attack.

The Islamic State certainly has the capability to accomplish an attack of this scale, which employed only four suicide bombers. AQAP admitted in a November video that the Islamic State was succeeding in dividing its ranks, so there’s no serious question about whether it has at least some presence in Yemen. The group has been highly selective about claiming a presence beyond Iraq and Syria, declining to ratify pledges of loyalty from locales such as the Philippines and Indonesia — the fact that it did ratify the pledge from Yemen, therefore, strongly suggests its presence in the country is more than ephemeral.

Because of a long history of political intrigue and manipulation of terrorist groups by various parties, most notably former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, there are competing theories about a “false flag” style attack designed to advance one agenda or another. This possibility can’t entirely be ruled out, but is even less likely to be proven. In the absence of such proof, we are left with the Islamic State’s claim, AQAP’s denial, and no clear path to identifying another suspect.

But even if the Islamic State is responsible, what does exactly does that mean?

  1. Did the Islamic State order this specific attack, or more generally exhort attacks on Houthis?

The Islamic State has definitely staked out a position that Yemen’s Houthis should be aggressively targeted as a primarily Shiite movement, and it has criticized AQAP for being insufficiently aggressive on this front, accusing them of trying to look reasonable in front of “the sorcerous media, palace scholars, deviant parties, and their herds.”

Based on these public statements, Islamic State members and supporters in Yemen would almost certainly feel free to carry out attacks on Houthis without requiring more specific guidance from the group’s central leadership. Even if there was no covert authorization of this particular attack, the message being sent by the terror group’s leadership was clear.

But the puzzle of whether this attack was specifically directed by the Islamic State’s leadership leads into a broader question of critical importance.

  1. Does the Islamic State have the capacity to command and control forces outside its territory?

Prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, al Qaeda controlled the activities of its key operatives down to a fairly minute level for such a covert organization. Osama bin Laden often tended to the granular details of attacks, famously scouring photos of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, attacked by al Qaeda in 1998, and pointing out where the car bombs should be placed. The terrorist organization was in many ways hierarchical and centrally commanded, although at a level far below what a state is capable of. Documents recovered from bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, showed that al Qaeda continued its attempts to maintain command-and-control through at least the al Qaeda founder’s death.

No one believes that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi sits in a situation room, like President Barack Obama, monitoring live video feeds of operations in progress. But in theory, there are a wide range of sub-state control mechanisms available to him.

It’s possible that the Islamic State’s forces outside of Iraq and Syria are largely self-organized — taking their cues from the group’s public statements, but generally following their own programs otherwise. But we should also be wary of assuming that is the case, especially when there is evidence to the contrary.

The level of visible coordination between the Islamic State and its recognized provinces –primarily an exchange of technical capability among their respective media branches — appears to vary from place to place. In Libya, Egypt, and Nigeria (home to Boko Haram, the most recent group to align with the group), the local branches showed significant upgrades to their communications apparatus, bringing them roughly in line with the central branch’s standards.

The upgrade to Boko Haram’s media operations is particularly noteworthy. It began just weeks ahead of its merger with the Islamic State and proceeded briskly: An audio recording of Boko Haram emir Abubakar Shekau swearing loyalty to the “caliphate” was released by the Islamic State’s propaganda operatives online, and almost certainly required a sign-off from the group’s senior leadership before being released.

It’s easy to see how the channels that enable this level of coordination can also be used for command and control. The release of Shekau’s pledge clearly involved private communications between Boko Haram and Islamic State senior leadership, given that audio of the pledge was transferred to the group prior to its public release. A private message could easily have traveled the same route.

However, in the Islamic State’s Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Afghanistan “provinces,” visible communications improvements have been more modest, and propaganda output has been less prolific. Each province has a different security posture, and those that control significant territory seem to communicate more easily and more often.

Taken together, all of this strongly suggests the Islamic State has robust communications capabilities, including at least some capacity to transmit instructions from its senior leadership. Meanwhile, its branches outside Syria and Iraq may have individualized limitations as far as their ability to send messages or receive instructions from the central command.

This capacity appears to be significantly more advanced than al Qaeda’s equivalent infrastructure, based on the most recent intelligence. Reports suggest that al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri has gone silent for months at a time. Al Qaeda’s public media output has also dropped precipitously over the last few years, slowing to the barest trickle since the Islamic State declared its caliphate last June and rarely responding in a timely manner to current events.

  1. Was the Sanaa attack carried out with the specific intention of escalating Yemen’s civil war into a regional conflict?

If the Islamic State was indeed responsible for the attack, and if its senior leadership is capable of directing such an attack with some specificity, the final question to consider is whether its strategic calculus is deep enough to have anticipated the escalating regional response. In this, it may be instructive to look at its history in Iraq.

In February 2006, al Qaeda in Iraq — the predecessor to the Islamic State — bombed the Shiite al-Askari shrine in Samarra, known as the Golden Mosque. The attack touched off days of sectarian violence across Iraq that left thousands dead, precipitating a full-fledged civil war that AQI was well-positioned to exploit. It hit the mosque again in 2007.

While the civil war in Yemen is more than just a sectarian conflict, Islamic State statements have made clear that it sees the same kind of opening in Yemen that its predecessor saw in Iraq. Many Houthis are Shiite, although they also have Sunni allies.

In late 2014, the Islamic State issued blistering statements loaded with sectarian language accusing AQAP of inadequate resolve to fight the Houthis, saying “the car bombs have not yet roasted their skin, nor have the explosive belts and IEDs cut their joints.” This prompted an equally hot response from the al Qaeda affiliate, which accused the Islamic State of dividing its ranks.

If the Islamic State senior leadership specifically directed the Sanaa attack, it likely hoped to touch off waves of retaliatory sectarian violence within the country. What it got instead was a Houthi declaration of war, followed by Saudi airstrikes on Houthi positions in response, with additional intervention in support of the Saudi action beginning to crystallize in Egypt and Pakistan.

It is increasingly clear that the Islamic State thinks it can benefit from the chaos of a regional war with a fragile and uneasy alliance among enemy forces beset by their own internal tensions. Certainly, the jihadist group benefits from the preoccupation of two of its primary targets — Saudi Arabia and Iran — with destroying each other. And their decision to fight it out in Yemen creates space for the Islamic State to grow in that country as well.

It may not be the first time the Islamic State has outperformed its own expectations. Some reports have suggested that the group did not expect to capture Mosul during the June offensive that put the group on the world’s radar. What both attacks show, however, is that the Islamic State’s hyperactivity, combined with a keen instinct for going for the jugular, have allowed it to manipulate its outsized reputation and provoke a disproportionate response.

While history will ultimately decide the long-term significance of the Sanaa bombing and how much weight to put on the actions of the Islamic State in Yemen, it is not safe to assume that the al Qaeda splinter group and self-proclaimed caliphate is merely pursuing a campaign of random or purely opportunistic terrorist attacks. Instead, we should examine the consequences of its actions outside of Iraq and Syria: The group is seeking to escalate internal and regional tensions among its most dangerous foes, believing that if its provocations result in a full-blown regional war, it will thrive in the chaos.

While the Islamic State may not be able to fully predict the consequences of its attacks, that hardly matters if even a small percentage outperform expectations to the extent seen in Mosul and Sanaa. The safest strategic assumption is that the Islamic State is pursuing strikes it can leverage into wider conflicts through misdirection and sleight of hand, pitting its enemies against each other and reaping a windfall of benefits from the aftermath.

Sadly, this realization may have come too late to douse the fires of a new regional war across the Middle East.

J.M. Berger is co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror and is a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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