Why violence is on the rise in Yemen

Yemen’s deadliest terror attack in decades left hundreds of casualties. Judy Woodruff talks to Nabeel Khoury, a former State Department official in Yemen, about rising violence, ethnic tensions and power struggles in that country.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We want to take a closer look at today's violence in Yemen and what it says about the state of that region.

    Joining me now is Nabeel Khoury. He had a career in the Foreign Service and was the deputy chief of mission in Yemen for the State Department from 2004 to 2007.

    Welcome to the program.

    NABEEL KHOURY, Former State Department Official in Yemen: Happy to be here.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, a terrible situation today. Over a hundred and, what is it, 30 were killed, over 300 wounded, worst violence in decades. How do you explain this?

  • NABEEL KHOURY:

    Well, this attack was perpetrated against the Houthi in principal, who are in charge in Sanaa.

    But, unfortunately, a soft target was chosen, meaning a mosque, where Zaidi Yemenis go.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Zaidi, a particular group.

  • NABEEL KHOURY:

    Zaidism is a part of Shia Islam. It broke off Shia Islam centuries ago. But it's closer to Shia Islam than it is to Sunni Islam.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So it was a — these are vulnerable sites, these mosques?

  • NABEEL KHOURY:

    They're vulnerable because they're not well-protected.

    They are also — I think the attackers, probably ISIS, need to inject a sectarian tone to the chaos and to the fighting that are already taking place. Up until now, the Yemenis have not really been against one another on a religious basis. They're divided tribally. They're divided according to regions of the country.

    But the fact is that the north has a lot of Zaidi Shia Muslims and the south Sunni, and ISIS is likely trying to play on that to — hoping to recruit a lot of Sunni fundamentalists to their cause.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    ISIS being Sunni, having Sunni roots.

    But, you know, today, we heard from — ISIS made a statement saying they — claiming responsibility. From the White House, from the administration, though, we heard some skepticism about that, that they weren't ready to accept that.

  • NABEEL KHOURY:

    Right.

    Well, there's always skepticism when something like that happens and before any real intelligence comes in or any real indication, any real proof. But — so I think, at this point, though, since I don't work for the White House, I can speculate and analyze. And I think it's likely.

    ISIS doesn't have a major presence in Yemen, but they have declared the beginning of a cell for themselves there. They are competing with al-Qaida for influence. And I wouldn't be too surprised if it was a small group of them that did this.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, how does that fit in though to what ISIS is doing? We know — we know they're very active in Iraq and Syria. How does this fit into that?

    You said — you called it a cell. Does that mean they're tightly connected to Iraq, Syria, ISIS, or not?

  • NABEEL KHOURY:

    Well, they could be tightly connected or they could simply Yemenis inspired by ISIS.

    ISIS's strength is north in Syria and in Iraq. But they have declared that they would like to establish an Islamic caliphate all over the Arab Muslim world. So having a foothold in Yemen would be good for their expansion. But Yemen is so chaotic and there are so many fighting factions there that ISIS will probably not make a big dent there.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Where does this leave the situation, though, in Yemen? Because you have the president who's fled the capital, is off some…

  • NABEEL KHOURY:

    Now he's fled his palace in the south.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Fled the palace in the south.

    You have al-Qaida, I guess, in the north. You have the Houthis have taken over. What — who's in charge?

  • NABEEL KHOURY:

    Well, the Houthis are in charge in Sanaa and north of Sanaa all the way to the Saudi border.

    But, in Sanaa itself, they are not fully in charge. They have taken over government offices and army barracks. But they are challenged every day. So, further south, in other words, the areas of Aden, the areas of Ta'izz, or areas of the Hadhramaut, there are factions who are all against the Houthis, but they are not united.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And what about the United States? The U.S. was seen as backing the president, who's not in — who's nowhere to be found right now. What is the U.S. policy in Yemen?

  • NABEEL KHOURY:

    Yes.

    Well, U.S. policy is to cling on to the legitimacy of the presidency of President Hadi in Yemen, because he was genuinely elected by his people. The U.S. position is also to cling to the national dialogue, the negotiations that have been going on between various factions of Yemen led by a United Nations envoy.

    But, realistically, the president of Yemen no longer controls even a quarter of Yemen, and the national has come to a dead end. There is a dead heat, a struggle for power in Yemen. The Houthis are the strongest in the country. If they are not seriously opposed, they could take over the whole country.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And so we watch to see what — how U.S. policy develops.

  • NABEEL KHOURY:

    We watch to see. The U.S. so far has not had any contacts with the Houthis, so them taking over the whole country is not good news for the U.S.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Nabeel Khoury, we thank you very much for being with us.

  • NABEEL KHOURY:

    Happy to be here.