WASHINGTON – As the Iranian-backed Shiite Houthis take over the Yemeni capital, there are indications the U.S. and the Houthis may be teaming up to battle a common foe, al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula, or AQAP.
Senior U.S. intelligence official Michael Vickers has indicated that despite the political unrest in Yemen, the U.S. has developed an intelligence relationship with the Houthis that may allow the U.S. to continue its counterterrorism attacks against AQAP.
The undersecretary of defense for intelligence, Vickers told the Washington-based Atlantic Council that it is a “safe assumption” that the U.S. maintains these intelligence ties.
This revelation comes even as the Obama administration has suspended its counterterrorism operations in Yemen with the resignation of U.S. ally and Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Yemeni security services, which provide intelligence to U.S. drone operators for the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, reportedly have been taken over by the Houthis.
Like the U.S., the Houthis are fighting AQAP and “we’ve been able to continue some of our counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida in the past months,” Vickers said.
Vickers also indicated some counterterrorism operations, such as drone flights against AQAP targets in Yemen, could continue even with the Houthis in charge of the capital.
Vickers’ comments underscore separate reports that U.S. officials are pushing to open talks with the Houthi leaders to continue intelligence cooperation and operations against AQAP, notwithstanding the insurgent group’s ties to Iran.
Vickers said the priority will continue to be confronting AQAP, saying they are “probably the most dangerous of al-Qaida’s organizations in terms of sophistication of its technology and its aim to launch sophisticated attacks.”
He added that the amount of territory across North Africa and the Middle East that comprises a safe haven for the global jihadist threat is “greater than at any time in our history.”
As WND reported, AQAP has become even more dangerous with the increasing indications that elements of the Sunni jihadist group are swearing allegiance to the Islamic State, or ISIS.
Houthis control much of the northern part of Yemen, which includes the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, but AQAP controls vast amount of territory in the southern part of the country.
Barbara Slavin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a correspondent for Al-Monitor, said that Middle East Institute analyst Charles Schmitz had told her that Houthis generally don’t attack Americans but recently did fire shots at a U.S. diplomatic vehicle at a checkpoint. No one was injured.
She said that while the Houthis use similar slogans as Iran of “Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse the Jews and Long Live Islam,” she said an alliance of convenience between the U.S. and the insurgent group has emerged against the spread of AQAP.
The prospect of further U.S. cooperation – even behind the scenes – with the Houthis also may be emerging given the increasing effort by the U.S. to reach an accommodation with Iran on its nuclear program.
As WND has pointed out, Iran gains the most from the Houthi takeover of the Yemeni capital as well as from the uncertainty that has emerged at the same time with the death of Saudi King Abdullah.
Schmitz told Slavin that the Houthis “are not terrorists.” The challenge, Schmitz said, is “talking sense to the Saudis” to get them to agree to give the Houthis more influence in the Yemeni government.
The Houthis represent Shiites in Yemen, who comprise about a third of Yemen’s population of 25 million people.
While the Houthis have been seeking a transitional government under Yemeni President Hadi, who just submitted his resignation prompting the political crisis in the country, they have not been seeking the government’s overthrow.
The Yemeni parliament that remains in place is set to discuss further the prospect of a political settlement with the Houthis, who initially were offered some concessions but not enough.
Abu al-Malek Yousef al-Fishi, an ideologue of the Houthis, proposed setting up a presidential council that would include the Houthi-led groups, the army and some political parties.
In a Twitter message, Fishi said that with the resignation of Hadi, Yemen was heading toward “security, stability, tranquility and prosperity.”
“I propose setting up a presidential council of the honorable revolutionary and political components, and in which the army, security and popular committees will be represented, so everybody will participate in managing what remains of the transitional period,” Fishi said.
With Hadi’s resignation, the head of the Yemeni parliament now takes charge of the country.
Just after Hadi resigned, Yemeni Prime Minister Khalid Bahah also resigned, saying he didn’t want to be part of the country’s collapse.
That left the head of the Yemeni parliament, Yahya al-Rayi, temporarily in charge.
Analysts say Rayi, who has the backing of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, tends to be pro-Houthi.
If the government in Sana’a were to totally collapse, however, analysts say AQAP stands to benefit the most, since it gives the jihadist group that claimed responsibility for the Jan. 7 Paris terrorist attack even more areas in which to operate.
F. Michael Maloof, senior staff writer for WND/ G2Bulletin, is a former security policy analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He can be contacted at [email protected].