Little-Known Military Brigades and Armed Groups in Yemen: A Series
This series maps the activity of little-known military brigades and armed groups proliferating throughout the conflict in Yemen. Mapping these actors has become relevant for understanding future trajectories of violence in Yemen as some of them have developed significant combat capabilities with shifting allegiances. While some follow their own interests, others have clear allegiances to the internationally recognized government or the Southern Transitional Council. As with actors in other conflict scenarios, such allegiances are, however, never set in stone. Rather, allegiances are a fluid process, shifting due to changes of outside circumstances (e.g. the behavior of a patron) or battlefield victories. In order to be better prepared for these changes, this series maps the activity of such military brigades and armed groups — some of them have become relevant already, while others may see their turn towards increased relevance in the future.
After Houthi-Saleh forces advanced on the south of Yemen in early 2015, a number of local groups took up arms to fend off the incursion. Members of these groups constitute the bulk of what would become the Hazm Brigades. The Hazm Brigades appear to be a special force of the Southern Resistance, an umbrella armed group established originally in 2014 as the armed wing of the separatist Southern Movement (Aden Live, 18 January 2014). Today, a number of the Southern Resistance’s components are fighting for the interest of the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) (for more on the STC, see the previous ACLED series: Yemen’s Fractured South). The Hazm Brigades, however, were originally established by the Hadi government and served under its command and control structure. Since 2019, four Hazm Brigades have been active in the border between Taizz and Lahij governorates in southwest Yemen (Aden Time, 2 May 2019). The presence and increased reported activity of these groups along the traditional borders of South Yemen in recent years make them of special importance. They assume a strategic role in securing western access points into southern territory from Houthi forces and other threats.
Background and Structure
The origins of the Hazm Brigades are not entirely clear. According to local media, the official establishment of the Hazm Brigades that are currently active can be dated back to May 2016 (Al Mawqea, 21 May 2016). Pro-Hadi Deputy Minister of Defense for Human Resources Abdul Qader Al Amudi was given the task of forming three brigades named Hazm 1, Hazm 2, and Hazm 3 (Al Mawqea, 21 May 2016).1Although the initial plan was to name the brigades Hazm 1, Hazm 2, and Hazm 3, they are now known, and referred to throughout the piece, as the 1st Hazm Brigade, the 2nd Hazm Brigade, and the 3rd Hazm Brigade. The plan was to station them, respectively, in Bab El Mandeb (Taizz), Al Anad base (Lahij), and Abyan governorate. In May 2019, the fourth Hazm Brigade was formed under the leadership of Fahman As Subayhi to support other southern forces on the Hayfan-Tur Al Bahah and Ayrim frontlines in the upper Taizz-Lahij border (Aden Time, 2 May 2019).
It is possible that the Hazm Brigades had their roots in military groups such as the ‘39th Brigade – Hazm 2’ led by Mohammed Ali Bin Salama (Shabwa Press, 16 July 2015), as well as the ‘3rd Brigade – Hazm’ led by Ahmad Abdullah At Turki As Subayhi.2One source mentions that the 131st Brigade, which was active in Sadah pre-2015, became the 2nd Hazm Brigade (Al Ayyam, 4 September 2019). The 131st Brigade was led by Fadhl Hassan Al Amry (Yemen News Agency SABA, 4 May 2014), who is currently the leader of the 4th Military District and the 2nd Hazm Brigade. This is plausible as militant fighters in Yemen are usually more faithful to their commanders than to the higher structures of which the commanders are a part. Brigadier General Ahmad led his brigade, which fought alongside the Southern Resistance in 2015, on the southern coast between Bab El Mandeb (Taizz) and Shurayjah (Lahij), an area that coincides approximately with the Subayha region where the Hazm Brigades currently operate.
This region is home to the militant and powerful Subayha tribe.3Given the size of the Subayha tribe, it is considered by media sources to be a tribal group and is sometimes referred to as the Subayha tribes, in the plural form, as it is composed of a number of subtribes that share a common lineage. Many southern military commanders that have occupied important positions on both sides of the STC-Hadi government divide come from that tribe.4Most notably ex-Minister of Interior Maj. Gen. Mahmoud As Subayhi (Al Jazeera, 9 March 2015), who was captured by Houthi-Saleh forces and whose exclusion from a list of prisoners to be exchanged was taken as a sign of betrayal by some Subayhis. Other notable commanders that come from the tribe: Ahmad Abdullah At Turki As Subayhi, previous commander in the pro-Hadi Army and current governor of Lahij; Wadhah Omar Saeed As Subayhi, Security Belt commander for the Subayha axis (Facebook, 17 March 2021); Mohammed Yaslam As Subayhi, Aden Ring Belt chief of staff (Aden Time, 20 January 2021); Hamdi Shukri As Subayhi, leader of the 2nd Giants Brigade and deputy leader of the Giants Brigades (Facebook, 12 March 2021; Bawabati, 18 February 2020); Mazen As Subayhi, human resources chief officer of the Facilities Protection Forces (Aden Time, 24 May 2020); and Faruq Al Kaalouli As Subayhi, leader of the 9th Saiqa Brigade (Facebook, 1 August 2019). Evidently, the Subayha tribe played a key role in stopping the progress of Houthi-Saleh forces in 2015, regarding the incursion as an invasion of their territory by a northern force (Ash Sharq Al Awsat, 25 November 2015; Twitter, 26 November 2015). The tribe’s territory, which coincides with the Hazm Brigades’ area of activity detailed below, as well as the origins of the brigades’ fighters, including leaders and senior commanders,5Appendix 2 notes the commanders of each of the brigades. point to strong ties between the brigades and the Subayha tribe.
The strength of these ties suggests that the Hadi government’s decision to equip and formalize the Hazm Brigades can be understood as an effort to reward the tribe’s role in fending off the Houthi-Saleh threat in the south. Additionally, due to its influence in large parts of Lahij and neighboring governorates, the Subayha tribe needed to be factored into the calculations of regional powers that aimed at exerting influence in the south of Yemen, namely the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In this context, the brigades can be understood as an attempt by the UAE, through the Hadi government, to integrate members of the Subayha tribe into its patronage network in Southern Yemen (for more on the UAE’s role in southern Yemen, see the ACLED series: Yemen’s Fractured South; and this ACLED report on the UAE’s Role in Yemen and the Horn of Africa).
The lack of a de facto common leadership between the four Hazm Brigades, and the fact that some of the commanders of these groups have changed in the past few years, make it difficult to view them as different units of the same group. The Hazm Brigades seem to act more like independent yet similar units unified only by their broad allegiance to Southern Yemen. For example, the 4th Hazm Brigade is more overtly affiliated with the leadership of the STC, in contrast with the other three brigades that seem to be relatively more neutral. ACLED, however, groups the different Hazm Brigades as one single actor in its dataset as this allows for consistent coding when sources refer to a generic Hazm Brigade without specifying the unit.
Since 2016, the brigades have not only expanded with the establishment of the fourth brigade, but their areas of activity have also changed. Initially, the 1st Hazm Brigade, also known as ‘Hazm Zayed’ or ‘Awal Zayed’ (Aden Al Ghad, 22 January 2019), was tasked with securing Bab El Mandeb and the lower borders between Taizz and Lahij governorates from the advances of Houthi-Saleh forces. In 2017 and 2018, the brigade engaged Houthi forces on the western coast in Al Waziiyah and Dhubab districts in southern Taizz, with activity centering around Jabal Kahbub and intensifying in summer 2018 (Saadah Press, 6 March 2017; Al Wattan, 9 May 2018; Al Wattan, 18 July 2018).6Note that ACLED data record few events involving the Hazm Brigades in Jabal Kahbub and the Bab El Mandeb front over the 2016-2018 period because most of the events were reported by pro-Houthi sources, who usually refer to their opponents as ‘mercenaries’ without any more details. However, the Hazm Brigades have most likely played a major role in fighting there, as evidenced by the fact that the ‘liberation’ of the Kahbub front from Houthi forces was announced by the 3rd Hazm Brigade itself (Al Mashhad Al Araby, 11 May 2018). Meanwhile, the 2nd and 3rd Hazm Brigades were engaged in fighting Houthi forces in the upper portion of the Lahij-Taizz borders around the Hayfan-Tur Al Bahah front (Aden Time, 11 September 2018) (see Figure 1 below).
In summer 2019, the establishment of the Joint Operations room on the western coast to coordinate the different components of the anti-Houthi National Resistance Forces (NRF) led to a change in the activity of the Hazm Brigades in southern Taizz (for more on the NRF, see this previous ACLED report on UAE-backed forces on the western front). The brigades seem to have shifted from districts in southern Taizz and the southern parts of the Taizz-Lahij borders northward, consolidating their presence in the Hayfan-Tur Al Bahah and Ayrim fronts, shown in Figure 2 below, where nearly all of the Hazm Brigades activity is now being recorded.
One important note on the activity of the Hazm Brigades is that it is likely underrepresented due to sourcing limitations. Some sources, for instance, are likely to include them under the banner of the Southern Resistance, or group them under generic labels such as ‘southern armed forces.’ Pro-Houthi reporting also refers to any opponent forces as ‘aggression forces’ or ‘mercenary forces.’ In addition, it seems that it took the media some time to take note of the brigades after their creation and to start treating them as independent entities. As a result, and because ACLED only codes the Hazm Brigades in an event when they are explicitly mentioned by the source, the number of events in which they are recorded may amount to an underestimate, particularly around Jabal Kahub, where most events were sourced using pro-Houthi media at a time when the brigades were relatively unknown.
Currently, the Hazm Brigades are heavily present in western Lahij, with the 2nd Brigade occasionally operating from Al Anad military base (Aden al Ghad, 8 February 2021), while the 3rd Brigade is headquartered in Kharaz camp (Mion Press, 7 January 2021). Local media reports suggest that the 4th Brigade is the most active of the brigades, operating in Hayfan, Tur Al Bahah, and Ayrim (Facebook, 28 April 2020) (see Figure 2 above).
The Hazm Brigades also took part in joint operations with Saudi-led coalition forces and other pro-UAE and pro-STC groups in Taizz governorate. In 2018, the 1st Hazm Brigade provided support to the NRF-affiliated Giants Brigades in Kadhah (Taizz) (Aden Al Hadath, 1 September 2018). Today, the 4th Hazm Brigade and the 9th Saiqa Brigade regularly coordinate military operations in Hayfan frontlines (Facebook, 29 August 2020; Facebook, 2 March 2021). However, given the overlapping territories, the coexistence of these armed groups is not entirely peaceful. In July 2020, the 2nd Hazm Brigade and the 2nd Giants Brigade led by Hamdi Shukri As Subayhi clashed near Al Anad base where the Hazm Brigade was operating (Al Masdar, 10 July 2020). The clashes ended with the intervention of the governor of Lahij Ahmad Abdullah At Turki As Subayhi (Aden al Ghad; 15 July 2020).7Ahmad Abdullah At Turki As Subayhi, the current governor of Lahij, was also the commander of the 3rd Brigade – Hazm mentioned in the start of the piece.
Although the Hazm Brigades seem to be affiliated with other pro-STC forces in Southern Yemen, they have steered clear of clashes between the STC and pro-Hadi forces in Abyan (for more on Abyan clashes, see this recent ACLED profile on Aden Security). The first three Hazm brigades have conspicuously maintained distance from both camps. The sole focus of the Hazm Brigades has been fighting Houthi forces in Taizz and on the Taizz-Lahij border. However, renewed clashes between pro-Hadi forces and Houthi forces in northern Taizz could lead to less interaction between the Hazm Brigades and Houthi forces in eastern Taizz, due to increased Houthi investment of resources there. The Hazm Brigades could then simply focus on securing the strategic locations that they hold, or also expand their activity elsewhere in Subayha territory, bearing the risk of colliding with other local forces in a competition for influence.
In any case, the activity of the Hazm Brigades should continue to be monitored closely due to their role as gatekeepers of the western access points into Lahij, and by extension into the interim capital, Aden. Their strategic role also lies in the fact that they are currently deployed along the traditional borders of South Yemen. In addition to the Houthi threat, Taizz is home to a number of competing armed groups with potentially expansionist aims that could destabilize the already fragile south. For instance, the Hazm Brigades will need to secure southern territory from the possible threat of armed forces affiliated with the Islah party, which are influential in Taizz and have expanded to control strategic locations in the coast of Lahij governorate (Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, 24 May 2021). There is also the responsibility of keeping watch on the NRF, which are positioned on the western coast and who established their own political bureau in March 2021, in a move that could signal a desire to expand influence (Twitter, 25 March 2021). Despite common Emirati patronage and the presence of Subayhi tribesmen in leadership positions within NRF-affiliated forces, the NRF are ultimately under the commandership of Tariq Saleh, the nephew of late former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. As a result, they are seen as a northern force of the previous regime that marginalized the south, and thus should be treated with caution and kept at distance.
The strong tribal ties as well as the influential military commanders among the ranks of the Hazm Brigades will likely allow them to fulfill their intricate role. However, this hinges on the commanders’ ability to continue navigating the intersection of interests of territorial southern tribes on one side and key political actors on the other, as well as maintaining the allegiance of their fighters through, among other things, securing them payment.
Appendix 1: Disambiguation
According to one source, the Hazm Brigades got their names from the Saudi-led coalition Operation Decisive Storm (‘عاصفة الحزم’ — ‘Asifah Al Hazm’) (Al Quds, 11 March 2017). They are not the only armed groups to do so. There are various pro-coalition armed groups and units in Hadi-controlled areas that have the word ‘Hazm’ in their name and that are either still active or have been subsumed under other groups. Here are some notable groups that have names similar to the Hazm Brigades, and should not be confused with them:
Hazm Salman is an armed group established by a presidential decree in August 2015 (Rai Al Youm, 28 August 2015; Al Jazzera, 28 August 2015). Initially, the group consisted of 4,800 southern fighters who were enlisted in the pro-Hadi military, and was led by Fadhl Abdo Mohammad Hassan (Facebook, 24 September 2015; Facebook, 31 August 2015). It is active in Aden. It is plausible that the 1st Hazm Brigade is referred to as ‘Hazm Zayed’ or ‘Zayed Brigade’ in relation to Emirati crown prince Mohammed Bin Zayed, to be contrasted with Hazm Salman which refers to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
The Hazm Battalions (Kataeb Al Hazm) are special security forces that operate as an extension of Aden security and that report to the leadership of the STC (Al Mashhad Al Araby, 11 December 2019; Al Omanaa, 29 December 2019; Al Baud4, 3 January 2019; Al Baud4, 25 April 2018). The 6th Hazm Battalion also took part in securing Mahfad (Abyan) after the Saudi-led coalition, led by Emirati forces, expelled Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) forces from Abyan (Tahdeeth, 7 November 2017; Al Ayyam, 8 November 2017, Aden Al An, 7 November 2017). Sources might refer to these forces and Al Hazm brigades both as ‘Kataeb Al Hazm,’ however a telling distinction between the two groups is the different commanders.
Al Hazm Brigades are brigades in the Sudanese Army that are part of the Saudi-led coalition. They are active in northern governorates and along the Saudi-Yemen border (Al Ain, 20 September 2018 ; Twitter, 6 April 2020; Euronews, 7 June 2021).
Appendix 2: The Hazm Brigades
|1st||Major General Abdul Ghani As Subayhi||Major General Abdul Ghani was also the Head of Operations in the Bab El Mandeb axis.||Crater Sky, 7 July 2020|
|2nd||Major General Fadhl Hassan Al Amry||Major General Fadhl Al Amry is also the head of the 4th Military District. The Chief of Staff of the 2nd Hazm Brigade, Brigadier General Najib Saad, is also from the Subayha tribe.||Al Omanaa, 2 March 2021;|
|3rd||Brigadier General Mahmoud Saeed Sayel As Subayhi||Brigadier General Mahmoud replaced Omar As Subayhi at the helm of the 3rd Hazm Brigade in January 2017, after he was killed in battle.||Facebook, 21 January 2021|
|4th||Colonel Wafi Al Ghabs As Subayhi||Colonel Wafi replaced his brother Fahman As Subayhi who was the head of the Hayfan Resistance. The official spokesperson of the 4th Hazm Brigade, Fawzi As Subayhi, is also from the Subayha tribe.||Youtube, 2 July 2020 ;|
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