Down but not out: AQAP could rebuild despite military pressure
Despite being operationally degraded, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is rebuilding under its current leader, Khaled Batarfi, and it remains intent on regenerating the ability to strike in the West. AQAP constitutes a threat, especially to Yemen’s stability, and the security of the Gulf states and the United States. Counter-terrorism pressure weakened AQAP significantly. This was compounded by leadership losses due to US drone strikes. Internal discord also weakened the group as factions disagreed over what needed to be done. Yet robust local ties, the presence of veteran Al Qaeda operatives, and Yemen’s ongoing conflicts are all factors that will help AQAP reconstitute in the future. The Yemen theater serves as a support zone for Al Qaeda’s global jihad, where fighters can train and develop capabilities to deploy on the battlefield, either in conflict areas within the Middle East and Africa or in the West. AQAP became the key attack node within Al Qaeda’s network, leading the global jihad efforts against the West by planning several attacks and encouraging lone-wolf assaults
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is Al Qaeda’s Yemen-based affiliate that has conducted terror attacks both domestically and internationally. It advances Al Qaeda’s global jihad objectives by focusing its external attacks on the “far” enemy — the West and especially the United States — while making gains against its “near” enemy — the Yemeni government and other local and regional actors. Since its founding in 2009, the group has become one of the most prominent branches of Al Qaeda because of its role in conducting and inspiring attacks against the West, the senior Al Qaeda figures that comprised its leadership, and its propaganda production. AQAP has proven resilient to counterterrorism operations over the years, finding sanctuary in remote areas in Yemen where the group has been able to rebuild after suffering losses and exploiting Yemen’s endemic problems to operate and recruit in the country.
Al Qaeda was active in Yemen long before AQAP’s founding. Yemenis who fought in the Afghan jihad against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s returned home in the early 1990s. Al Qaeda’s first terror attack targeted US marines unsuccessfully in Aden in 1992, and early Al Qaeda cells were responsible for the USS Cole attack in 2000. The Yemeni government cracked down on Al Qaeda in the early 2000s, but 23 operatives escaped from prison in February 2006, which marked Al Qaeda’s return. The group’s Yemeni leaders joined forces with Saudi Al Qaeda members who had fled counterterrorism operations in the Kingdom to form AQAP in January 2009. The presence of Al Qaeda veterans in Yemen, including the return of some former Guantanamo detainees to the battlefield, created strong links between AQAP and Al Qaeda’s global leadership.
Today, AQAP is operationally degraded, but is rebuilding under its current leader, Khaled Batarfi, and it remains intent on regenerating the ability to strike in the West. The UN estimates AQAP has a few thousand members, including a small foreign-fighter contingent, operating from strongholds in central and southern Yemen. It continues to exploit opportunities in Yemen’s various conflicts to further embed within the local population to strengthen.
AQAP’s operational capabilities are largely concentrated in small attack cells, and it routinely uses improvised roadside bombs and small arms, though its tactics are less refined than when it was at its height of power. AQAP may be seeking to regenerate revenue streams. Notably, AQAP kidnapped several UN employees in February 2022 and appears to be holding them for ransom. Previously, it had conducted kidnappings-for-ransom in Yemen, targeting foreigners and Yemenis alike for cash. In recent years, AQAP may have become involved in criminal networks and war profiteering after coming under financial strain.
AQAP remains a persistent threat, especially for the United States and the Gulf states. Counter-terrorism pressure, especially from 2016 through 2019, weakened AQAP significantly. This was compounded by leadership losses due to US drone strikes. Internal discord also weakened the group as factions disagreed over what needed to be done. Yet robust local ties, the presence of veteran Al Qaeda operatives, and Yemen’s ongoing conflicts are all factors that will help AQAP reconstitute in the future.
AQAP’s role in Al Qaeda’s global network
Yemen provides Al Qaeda a toehold in the Arabian Peninsula, which sits on the Bab Al Mandab strait that connects Middle Eastern oil markets to Europe and North America, and links maritime shipping routes between Asia and Europe. Yemen is also on a smuggling route connecting eastern Africa with South Asia.
AQAP has thus become an important node within the global Al Qaeda network. The Yemen theater serves as a support zone for Al Qaeda’s global jihad, where fighters can train and develop capabilities to deploy on the battlefield, either in conflict areas in the Middle East and Africa or in the West. AQAP became the key attack node within Al Qaeda, leading the global jihad efforts against the West by planning several attacks and encouraging lone-wolf assaults. It also provided crucial support to other Al Qaeda affiliates, such as training Somalia’s Al Shabaab members in explosives, working with Al Qaeda cells in Egypt and Libya, and sending a cell to support the jihad in Syria.
AQAP has been historically close to Al Qaeda’s senior leadership, ensuring that its own advanced Al Qaeda’s long-term goals. The personal ties between senior Al Qaeda and senior AQAP leaders are extensive, including multiple AQAP leaders who had close relationships with Osama Bin Laden or Ayman Al Zawahiri. Additionally, many AQAP leaders became part of the global Al Qaeda leadership. The late founding leader, Nasser Al Wuhayshi, was Al Qaeda’s general manager since at least 2013, for example, and the late Shariah official, Nasser Bin Ali Al Ansi, was a deputy general manager since at least 2010. Furthermore, veteran Al Qaeda operatives like Ibrahim Al Qosi are still part of AQAP today, despite the high attrition rate of AQAP’s senior leadership.
For Al Qaeda, its Yemeni affiliate advances its global objectives. AQAP subscribes to Al Qaeda’s doctrine based on its Salafi-jihadist ideology, which emphasizes a “phased approach based on local conditions”. analogizing from how Islam spread initially under the Prophet Mohammed and the Rightly Guided Caliphs. AQAP depicts itself as part of a vanguard force for Islam and seeks to build influence among the local populace by developing social, familial and other ties to various communities. Already, it is deeply embedded in certain tribes in southern Yemen through intermarriages. Locally, it endeavors to transform how Yemenis live their lives and eventually, empower a government that enforces Al Qaeda’s fundamentalist and puritanical interpretation of Islam. AQAP carries forward the banner of jihad by attacking foreign targets in Yemen and attempting transnational terror attacks against the West.
AQAP’s media arm speaks to Al Qaeda’s global network, would-be recruits and its local Yemeni audience. Al Malahem Media Foundation’s output dominates Al Qaeda’s global propaganda, having established itself at the forefront in promoting the group’s objectives over a decade ago. The Yemeni-American cleric, Anwar Al Awlaki, and Pakistani-American Samir Khan, were behind AQAP’s glossy English-language magazine Inspire, which placed Al Qaeda’s radical narrative and call for jihad next to easy-to-follow guides for do-it-yourself terror attacks. Awlaki recruited many foreign fighters and his works continue to inspire attacks, even after his death in 2011 in an American drone strike in Yemen. Khan was also killed in the same attack. AQAP’s media arm remains the most important Al Qaeda media operation as of 2022, increasing the global network’s ability to recruit and inspire lone-wolf attacks.
AQAP’s ‘near war’ in Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula
Ultimately, AQAP seeks to establish an Islamist polity in the Arabian Peninsula that enforces its radical and extremist interpretation of Islam. It seeks to do this through outreach to the local population to build a community of believers that will rise up behind it against the governments. AQAP’s outreach includes integrating into local tribal structures through marriage; backfilling governance gaps — security, conflict resolution or basic needs — when possible, to develop relationships with communities; and slowly increasing its influence over swathes of territory outside of the Yemeni government’s reach, including mobilization of local Sunni militias to expand its influence. It has cooperated with groups that do not share these objectives but whose short-term interests align, and it fights those who actively stand in its way.
It identifies the Saudi, Yemeni, Emirati and the other Gulf governments as its enemies, as well as their international backers. Yet it has prioritized attacking each differently based on the conditions within Yemen, its own strength, and the counterterrorism pressure each has brought to bear against AQAP. In its early years, and when Saudi citizens comprised more of its senior leadership, AQAP consistently attempted attacks against Saudi targets. AQAP originally tempered its attacks against Yemeni targets to avoid provoking a crackdown on its activities. But when the Yemeni government collapsed during the 2011 uprising, AQAP moved into parts of southern Yemen, including Abyan and Shabwah, under the name of “Ansar Al Sharia” and declared an emirate.
A Yemeni counterterrorism offensive rolled back AQAP’s gains, but the group reconstituted in 2013–2014, and again took advantage of opportunities as civil war broke out in 2015. It seized Yemen’s third-largest port city, Mukalla in Hadramawt province, under the name, ‘Sons of Hadramawt’ and went on to take control of large parts of southeast Yemen. It administered territory, learning from its earlier experience, and gradually enforcing aspects of its governance. A 2016 counteroffensive began reversing AQAP’s gains, and by 2019 its operations were disrupted and it was weak. Currently, AQAP is in the process of rebuilding its strength in central Yemen.
AQAP has sought to build relationships within Yemen’s complex tribal structures. Its leaders identified lack of tribal support as the biggest obstacle to its own success in Yemen — and have thus sought to keep the tribes on AQAP’s side or at minimum, not opposed to its activities. It actively recruits from within different regions of Yemen, adopting local narratives to create a sense of shared purpose, as well as attracting foreign fighters who seek to participate in global jihad. The group contextualizes its propaganda, drawing references to historical feats and the strength of the tribes, and positioning its own battle as an extension of these efforts for independence. It frequently addresses the Sunni tribes of Yemen, calling for them to take up arms to throw off their oppressors as well as to join the ‘battle for Islam’.
The group identifies the Houthis as one of its enemies in its near war. AQAP declared the Houthis to be rafidah, the Arabic term for apostates, in late 2010, and used sectarian language to declare them a legitimate target. At the time, AQAP attacked Houthi gatherings — importantly, it did not wage war on all Zaidi Shiites in Yemen. However, it called on the Sunni tribes to rise up against the Houthis in 2015, making common cause to ally with local tribes in the civil war and casting itself as a ‘Sunni army’ striving against a Shiite movement that aims to undermine tribal authority. Daesh in Yemen (Daesh-Y) has challenged AQAP’s authority and is an enemy of the group, despite their similar ideological leanings. Daesh-Y, founded in 2014, has contested AQAP’s role as the vanguard for ‘Islam’ in Yemen but has never been able to establish a significant foothold in the country. AQAP’s more tailored, localized approach, including its adoption of some tribal customs over rigid conformation to an ideology and more Yemeni faces, has made the group more appealing to Yemenis than the local Daesh affiliate. AQAP avoided direct clashes for a few years, but tensions escalated into fighting in 2018–2019. Daesh-Y became focused almost exclusively on fighting AQAP, and the clashes weakened AQAP while almost eliminating Daesh’s Yemeni affiliate. The fighting petered out in 2021, and today, Daesh-Y remains a marginal threat.
Currently, AQAP is engaged on two fronts in its near war: One against the Houthis and Daesh-Y in Bayda in central Yemen and the other against government counterterrorism forces in southern Yemen. Bayda has been critical terrain for AQAP since it made inroads in 2012. Since then, the group has portrayed itself as a defender of the Sunni tribes against the Houthis (and Daesh-Y), describing the frontline as a “keystone” in the civil war. Its ability to fight decreased from 2017 onward, though it appears to be rebuilding capacity. In 2022, AQAP conducted multiple attacks against the Houthis in Bayda, primarily targeting Houthi vehicles with roadside bombs and eschewing direct firefights with the Houthis. AQAP’s second front is against the Yemeni security forces that were involved in counterterrorism operations in recent years. The group was pushed out of populated areas but retained its historical safe havens. From there, AQAP has been able to strike — ambushing convoys or attacking checkpoints seemingly with the intent to kill local commanders.
AQAP’s ‘far war’ against the West
AQAP’s desire to conduct external attacks remains undiminished. AQAP, like Al Qaeda writ large, conducts transnational terrorist attacks against American and other Western targets to force the West to withdraw support from Muslim-majority governments. In Yemen, AQAP blames the United States for propping up the former and current governments, for backing Saudi Arabia, and for its role in supporting the Arab Coalition’s military intervention in Yemen. AQAP has thus prioritized first striking US targets as well as possibly threatening Saudi or UAE targets. The group has also identified individuals in the West who have desecrated Prophet Mohammed’s name as targets for assassination and sought to inspire individuals to conduct small-scale attacks in the West to advance the global jihad. The organization took responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack in France in 2015, after the gunmen stated they belonged to AQAP. Counterterrorism pressure has severely degraded AQAP’s ability to conduct transnational terrorist attacks, but the group has the necessary components to regenerate this capability. Innovative explosive designs have been AQAP’s signature, including the August 2009 body cavity bomb used in the assassination attempt against Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, the December 2009 underwear bomb, the October 2010 printer cartridge bombs, and the 2012 laptop bomb. The group may still have individuals who trained under, or learned from students of, AQAP’s explosives mastermind Ibrahim al Asiri, who was killed in 2017. A Norwegian AQAP operative who trained under Asiri, explosives expert Anders Cameroon Ostensvig Dale, was arrested this year, for example. The prevalence of small drones in Yemen, and their improvisation as precision-guided munitions, creates a risk that AQAP may deploy weaponized drones. The group has also successfully facilitated and inspired attacks, with clear connections to the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack. AQAP’s most recent attack in the West was the 2019 shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida. Finally, AQAP may be seeking to redevelop a maritime threat using water-borne explosives similar the USSCole bombing.
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