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In Yemen, Chronic Instability May Decrease the Likelihood of Mass Killing

As one of the 20 countries most likely to experience the start of a new episode of state-led mass killing, according to our statistical risk assessments, Yemen demands our attention. In recent weeks, several countries have shut their embassies in Sanaa, and the UN has continued to warn of the potential for civil war.

More disconcerting, though, are reports that the Houthi rebels, who recently seized power in the capital, are using brutal tactics to repress nonviolent protests there. Last week, the New York Times reported that

“The Houthi rebels…are systematically targeting peaceful protesters in the capital with death threats, abductions and severe beatings, according to activists and human rights groups. The increasingly brutal tactics, they say, are meant to halt demonstrations that erupted ­after the Houthis toppled Yemen’s pro-American government in Sanaa last month and then dissolved parliament.”

Our expert opinion pool currently places Yemen among the five countries worldwide most at risk of a new episode of mass killing, with slight increases in its estimated risk over the last few weeks. In fact, we’ve been paying close attention to Yemen since the Early Warning Project’s inception; the country has been unstable for years, and the current situation comes on the heels of intense protests in the fall.

Despite numerous civilian casualties in the protest waves of recent years and the long-running civil war in the north, noncombatant civilians have rarely been targeted in Yemen’s political violence, and the country has not yet seen an episode of mass killing as we define it. We wondered what might be preventing that from happening, and what we might expect to see as precursors to mass killing if that were to change.

From our statistical risk assessments, we can infer that one of the factors driving Yemen’s risk of state-led mass killing is the idea that when the power of elites is threatened, those in power might take steps to violently eliminate that threat. This is one explanation of why mass killings occur that our statistical model considers. In Yemen’s case, that assessment alerted us to the risk of a mass killing perpetrated by forces loyal to President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi prior to his forced resignation. Now, it should also alert us to the risk of mass killing perpetrated by the Houthis as they attempt to consolidate power.

But will that come to pass? Not necessarily, according to two experts we spoke with, and they suggested that Yemen’s chronic instability is part of the reason why.

Adam Baron, Visiting Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, recently told us that “if you use a statistical model, it would suggest that mass killing could happen because Yemen ticks off all of the categories.” Unlike Syria, though, Yemen is not under tight control and waiting to “break down. It’s always been broken down and so people are generally used to negotiating these types of situations and avoiding targeted violence.” Another reason mass killing is unlikely, Baron said, is Yemen’s tribal system. “The tribal system is structured around conflict management and does prevent things spiraling out of control [to mass killing] in the vast majority of cases.”

Laura Kasinof, freelance journalist and former New York Times reporter in Yemen agreed that mass killing is improbable:

“To intentionally murder another is a very weighty matter in Yemeni society that then ignited blood feuds and other problems…the country has a history of conflict, and that’s just not the way wars are fought in Yemen. As well, it is very unlikely that women would be targeted in conflict in Yemen as their status is protected in Yemen’s tribal culture.”

Both also agreed that, tribal norms aside, there is little strategic advantage to be gained by perpetrating a mass killing in Yemen right now. According to Baron, “There’s no reason for any of the factions to commit a mass killing at this point, and while Internally Displaced Peoples numbers are disturbing, there’s no real logic to target a specific group.”

Given the various and changing actors in Yemen, there is also the potential for non-state groups to perpetrate mass killings. Indeed, our opinion pool question intentionally does not specify whether mass killing is committed by the state or non-state actors.

On this front, Kasinof saw acts of terrorism targeting civilians perpetrated by groups loyal to Al Qaeda as the most likely scenario. Those groups might join Al Qaeda simply out of opposition to Houthis, and “A war between the Houthi rebels and Al Qaeda would threaten civilians in population centers around the country. That hasn't happened yet, but there is potential for such a conflict. Though it is still unlikely that one group would commit genocide against another in Yemen.”

Kasinof also drew our attention to the risk of a separatist civil war in the South:

“What could happen is Yemen’s southern regions declare independence from the Houthi controlled north. This could ignite a civil war between the north and south, or an internal civil war within the south, where southerners from the various regions fight one another. What is more likely in Yemen than mass killing is the complete breakdown of the nation state, and that the country would consist of locally-run fiefdoms that occasionally fight one another. Another option is that a major civil war is fought — but again, in Yemen this is most likely to be between combatants, though civilians would suffer as collateral damage from artillery fire and other heavier weapons.”

In closing, Kasinof offered this caveat: “One of the things I learned while living in Yemen is that predicting what is going to happen in Yemen is a dangerous game.” As difficult as that task may be, we believe that our risk assessments can help to reduce that uncertainty at least a little bit.