The Islamic State in Yemen has changed over the past two years from simply being a branch of the transnational jihadist movement to an entity resembling a proxy or a tool in a broader conflict between regional players. The United States and its allies should be wary of taking at face value claims made by the group and must closely monitor regional states and their respective Yemeni partners, which benefit from the existence of jihadist actors such as ISIS. These regional patrons along with their proxies in the war-torn country have been using ISIS as a justification for their expansionist policies, as a scapegoat for politically motivated acts of aggression, or as a disruptor of the peace process, and a vehicle through which to stoke tensions inside the Saudi-led Arab coalition.
Broadly speaking, there are three main power bases in Yemen: 1) An internationally recognized government based mainly in Riyadh and aided by the Saudi-led Arab coalition; 2) The Iran-backed Houthi movement based in Sanaa along with some regional sympathizers; and 3) The separatist Southern Transitional Council based in the southern port city of Aden and supported by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Each of these three camps is internally divided into rival factions whose motives and loyalties change over time. Understanding this complex landscape can help to explain apparent contradictions whereby rival actors may align in using ISIS as a strategic proxy. Analyzing ISIS’s evolution over the past two years suggests that a new version of the group has emerged that is as much a political pawn as it is an independent actor.