Hybridity is a permanent dynamic of the Yemeni defence sector. However, due to the rise of new military actors, the intertwining of political, local and tribal loyalties has undergone a further deep reformulation since the complete breakdown of the transitional process in 2014 and the start of the Saudi and Emirati-led military intervention in 2015. The reconfiguration of power relations in Yemen has resulted in a hybridized military marked by three emerging features. First, a growing hybridization between formal and informal military actors, generating loose and unstable alignments or alliances. Second, Yemen’s defence sector has shifted from a national system based on the neo-patrimonial army to a pattern characterized by multiple and competing ´state` umbrellas with militias at the center of military hybrid structures. Third, hybridity and patronage still remain salient dynamics of the Yemeni defence sector, though performing through different mechanisms.

Military Actors and Shifting Alignments

Currently, three ´governments` exist within Yemen’s territorial boundaries: the internationally recognized executive led by interim president Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi, based in Aden after the 2015 Huthis’ coup in Sana’a, where the Northern Shia insurgents established a parallel government, given the tactical alliance with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. After the killing of Saleh in December 2017 by Huthis’ militants, his loyalists opted for realignment with the recognized government, although maintaining a certain degree of autonomy. In 2017, the Southern secessionists self-proclaimed the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in Aden: allied with president Hadi against the Huthis (who are supported by Iran), the STC can rely on its own defence sector, predominantly constituted by militias backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and then institutionalized by Hadi in 2016, thus turning into state-legitimized forces.1

Hybridization: Militias Become Defence Pillars

Eleonora Ardemagni
Eleonora Ardemagni is an Associate Research Fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) and Teaching Assistant at the Catholic University of Milan.

The reconfiguration of power relations has resulted in growing hybridization between formal and informal military actors, triggered by the crumbling of the official armed forces in 2011 and the presence of three ´governments` claiming for authority on the Yemeni territory. Looking at the defence sector in frontlines as well as in security governance, two simultaneous processes can be isolated. From one hand, remnants of the former regular armed forces confer legitimacy on non-state militias, turning them into regular security actors (the “regularization process”); on the other hand, segments of the former official armed forces act as auxiliary forces of the militias (the “ancillarization process”).2 Former president Saleh’s loyalists represented the regular security sector of the past regime: but in 2014-2017, most of them sided with the Huthi rebels. The Huthis’ alliance of interest with Saleh allowed them to improve military expertise and capabilities, till to infiltrate and partially amalgamating with Saleh’s patronage system anchored in the regular defence sector. The Huthi movement, with an elitist origin and leadership (sayyid; plur. sâda), managed to won the backing of many tribesmen in the North, thus recruiting and mobilizing fighters also from the tribal social stratum once supportive of the former regime. Moreover, Iran and Hezbollah’s progressive support for the Huthis gave them the access to the structured, sophisticated network of the Shia militias backed by Teheran. Official institutions also adopt ´irregular faces` as survival strategies: president Hadi is building a new defence sector comprising non-state actors, as the state-legitimized Emirati-backed forces. In 2012, Hadi formed by decree the Presidential Protection Unit: with an unclear command structure under the defence minister authority, it is unofficially headed by his son Nasser and exclusively charged with president’s protection. In the contested city of Taiz, Hadi allowed the creation of the 5th Presidential Protection Battalion to fight against the Huthis.

Through the history, Yemen’s regimes have repeatedly employed a coup proofing strategy of promoting informal military actors to counterbalance the regular armed forces. But differently from now, militias were auxiliary groups of the official armed forces, which remained the backbone of the military. Between 1904 and 1948, Imam Yahya fragmented the military to counter the Northern army, still tied to the Ottoman legacy and influence: he established two parallel armies and a personal guard. During the Saada wars (2004-10), Saleh sponsored the “Peoples’ Front/Army” (jabhah shabiyya/jaish shaabi): this militia of Islamist tribal volunteers faced the Huthis in Northern highlands supporting the regular army. In May 2012, interim president Hadi deployed the army alongside local popular committees, to dismantle the proto-emirates of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Abyan region.

Security Governance: A ´Patchwork` Scheme

Given the presence of three “governments” in Yemen, security governance is now managed thanks to ground-up arrangements: informal forces fill the vacuum left by the army, or share governance with its remnants. There isn’t a top-down security order in Yemen today, because of the great localization of security, but rather many, adjacent security orders, built upon hybridization between formal and informal military groups, thus depicting a “patchwork security” scheme. Patchwork security means that fractured states, as Yemen, opt for locally-based security agreements and not for overall, national frameworks: competing security providers multiply on the territory, as the cases of coexistence/cooperation between armies and armed non-state actors, leaving room for hybrid security experiences of combat and, later, governance.3 This kind of security governance is marked by horizontal, rather than vertical power relations: hierarchies are shaped at a local level, since the central state is not only unable to provide security on the whole territory, but it is also contested and adopts ´irregular faces` to survive.

In Aden, each area or district has its own security providers, sometimes with mixed-control: the SBF, the Presidential Protection Unit, secessionist militias, jihadi groups. In Hadhramawt, the HEF and army’s units of the 1st Military Zone carved-out two areas of influence: the first one stands in Mukalla and the coast, the second one is located in Northern Wadi Hadramawt. In Sanaa and its outskirts, former Saleh’s loyalists rule the territory with the Huthis’ Popular Committees, thus fostering contamination between the best structured élite force of Yemen and the most fluid and informal peripheral militia.

Hybridization is also observable in many battlefields. In Hodeida, Tareq Saleh, the nephew of the former president, heads the National Salvation Forces (NSF), a fighting coalition including loyalists of the disbanded Republican Guard, local combatants of the Tihama Resistance and Salafi Southerners of the “Giants Brigade”. In Taiz, the Abu Al-Abbas Brigade fights against the Huthis alongside state-legitimized forces (as the 5th Presidential Protection Battalion) and was reportedly cooperating with Tareq Saleh’s units to ease the Emirati-led offensive towards Hodeida, started in June 2018.4 In the province of Sanaa, remnants of the disbanded First Armoured Division of the army, headed by General Ali Mohsin Al-Ahmar (currently vice president and supreme deputy commander of the armed forces), face the Huthis alongside tribal militias.

Patronage At Times of Militias

Patronage shifted from a neo-patrimonial system of power, related to a dysfunctional but existent central state, to a network of warlords, given the collapse of the national framework and the rise of competing territorial fiefdoms. In this context, military commanders become local intermediaries between communities and patrons, also foreigners. Patronage remains a constant in Yemen’s defence sector, but patron-client relations had to adapt to a new scenario marked by enhanced hybridization between formal and informal security actors: the Yemeni military is no more ´army-centred`, but has turned into a series of ´composite umbrellas` with military hybrid structures. Segments of the former regular armed forces are resurfacing: Saleh’s loyalists, now under the military guide of Tareq Saleh, and Ali Mohsin, represent two networks of kinship and patronage still influent in Yemeni balances. Ali Mohsin clusters what remains of the Yemeni army (Yemen’s National Army Coordination Centre is now located in Marib), with strong linkages to the Islah party (which encompasses Yemen’s Muslim Brothers and the Salafis) and the Saudis.

External Penetration More Risky Than Hybridity

The involvement of external actors in Yemen’s military is definitely more perilous than hybridity in the armed forces: foreign states play, for power politics, with conflicting political identities and local ambitions, thus magnifying the Yemeni defence sector’s fragmentation trend. The cohabitation and even the hybridization between army and militias is not unusual for Yemen, nor the presence of tribal-military-commercial leaders with autonomist goals. What’s new is the extremely weakness and internal polarization of the defence sector, coupled with the involvement of foreign players in Yemen’s security landscape (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iran). Segments of the regular defence sector and state-legitimized forces present conflicting features: divided on geography, ideology, loyalty and external backing, they already embody the “North” and the “South” armies. As a matter of fact, Ali Mohsin and Saleh’s groups defend Northern interests and they are widely hated by Southerners, who mainly support the Emirati-backed forces: their webs of patronage claim for a federal but united Yemen, just the opposite of the peripheral militias’ aspirations for Southern independence. Therefore, patchwork security frames not only the vagueness and the volatility of Yemen’s micro-security orders, but also their unmanageable coexistence within a unified state.

This article was originally published on the Italian Institute for International Political Studies website.


1 The Security Belt Forces (SBF, deployed in Aden, Abyan and Lahj), the Hadrami Elite Forces (HEF) and the Shabwani Elite Forces (SEF) were organized, funded, equipped and trained by the UAE to roll-back the insurgents and combat jihadi groups. Founded in early 2016, these militias execute military, police and judicial tasks: they technically fall under the Interior Ministry (the SBF) or the army (HEF; SEF), although they continue to answer to the Emiratis, not to president Hadi.

2 Especially on this point, I am grateful to Yezid Sayigh.

3 Eleonora Ardemagni and Umberto Profazio, New Armies for a New Era. Decrypting Post-2011 Arab Military Reform Trends, Nato Defense College, Research Paper no.145, March 2018

4 According to the United Nations, the Abu Al-Abbas Brigade “hold territory inside the city and exercises rights and responsibilities exclusive to the legitimate government”. United Nations Security Council, Panel of Experts on Yemen, January 26, 2018, S/2018/68, p. 100.