Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in 2010: The Intensification of the Near War
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is a Yemen-based al Qaeda franchise that has demonstrated the ability to conduct attacks in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. In 2010, the group waged a “far war” targeting the West and a “near war” against the Yemeni government. AQAP has conducted an intensifying campaign against Yemeni government and military targets since June 2010, increasing the tempo of strikes against Yemeni military checkpoints, security convoys, and other security and intelligence facilities. AQAP has displayed tremendous sophistication in tactics and propaganda, and it has distinguished itself as the most visible and active arm of al Qaeda currently operating.
Al Qaeda has been active in Yemen since the early 1990s and evidence suggests that the Yemeni government tolerated an al Qaeda presence in exchange for immunity from its attacks. Yemen pursued al Qaeda militants in 2002 and 2003 with U.S. cooperation and substantially weakened the al Qaeda leadership in Yemen. In February 2006, militants organized a prison break in which 23 high-value al Qaeda prisoners escaped, including Nasser al Wahayshi, and Qasim al Raymi. These operatives rebuilt al Qaeda in Yemen over the next several years.
A January 2009 video statement featuring AQAP's declared leaders, Wahayshi (Abu Basir), his deputy Said al Shihri (Abu Sufyan al Azdi), military commander Raymi (Abu Hurayrah), and Mohamed Atiq Awayd al Harbi (al Awfi) announced a merger of the Yemeni and Saudi al Qaeda branches into a unified regional franchise. Militants who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom are also "graduates" of American and allied detention facilities, have since relocated to Yemen to reinforce AQAP. Further, more exigent security challenges to the stability of Yemen's government even before the most recent round of unrest in the Middle East have diverted attention and resources from combating AQAP.
AQAP Rhetoric: A merging of radical and domestic opposition to U.S. presence
AQAP has refined its rhetoric throughout 2009 and 2010 as its strategy has become clearer. AQAP initially articulated a strategy of supporting Gaza and carrying out jihad against the “crusader-wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan by striking supply bases located in the Arabian Peninsula at the time of the merger. The statement described Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh and other Arab leaders as “servants of the cross” and agents of the “Zio-Crusader Campaign.” Government heads in the Arabian Gulf were characterized as corrupt and unjust members of a “gang directed by their masters, the Americans.”
In early 2009, AQAP had not yet generated much support within the Yemeni public, and early rhetorical efforts were made to frame AQAP's agenda as beneficial to Yemenis. In an interview released in January Wahayshi defended against accusations that AQAP targets Muslims, regardless of nationality, arguing that Muslim victims of attacks are only those who are “complicit in the 'Crusader Zionist campaign.'” By August 2009, AQAP further refined its objection to regimes such as Saleh's to distinguish between apostate rulers and the members of military or security forces that ill-advisedly served such rulers, leaving room for defection within the ranks of Saudi and Yemeni security forces. These statements exhorted individuals within the security apparatus to cease serving any regime that “fights Allah” and “follows Jews and Christians,” or at the very least, urged them to be neutral towards AQAP.
A September 2009 AQAP communiqué justified the attempted assassination of Saudi Deputy Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef and illustrated this point: “Nayef stood with his soldiers as defenders of the Americans and an obstacle… defending them when he could have stood as a bystander.” A statement by Ibrahim al Rubaish, the spiritual leader of AQAP and a former Guantanamo detainee, explained that the attack demonstrated to Saudi and Yemeni security forces that they would be held accountable should they continue to obey leaders whose orders they “put before Allah's command.”
AQAP's rhetoric grew more threatening to the Saleh regime towards the late summer and autumn of 2009. A video released on September 8 that featured AQAP military commander Raymi depicted a clash between AQAP militants and Yemeni security forces as part of a campaign within the “Crusader war led by unjust America against Islam.” Anwar al Awlaki, a radical American-born Yemeni Islamist preacher who joined AQAP, wrote in a blog post that the clash was the “beginning of the greatest Jihad… to free the Arabian Peninsula from tyrants.” Similar communiqués urged the Yemeni ummah, the Muslim community, to provide logistical support, stockpile weapons and supplies, and organize into small cells in order to join in a religiously-sanctioned jihad against the “traitor, oppressive, corrupt rulers of the Arabian Peninsula.” The language in AQAP statements during this period increasingly focused on Saleh as an active perpetrator of injustice rather than a corrupt puppet of the West.
By late autumn 2009, AQAP rhetoric shifted to focus on the foreign military presence following a series of high-level U.S.-Yemeni government meetings. AQAP lambasted Saleh's regime for allegedly opening offices to spy on the group and for having signed agreements with the U.S. against it as early as October 2009. AQAP tied the “presence of American intelligence offices, FBI and CIA, in Sana'a and in Aden” and “the provision of support and protection to American fighters” to Saleh's government.
This rhetorical shift attempted to show solidarity with “the proud sons from the tribes of defiant Yemen” and was unequivocally damning of President Saleh's cooperation with the U.S. AQAP’s response to a series of airstrikes on al Qaeda hideouts and training facilities in December demonstrated a sustained effort to curry the support of disaffected tribes and frame Saleh's regime as “actively killing [the tribe's] Muslim peoples.” Press releases from AQAP's media foundation, al Malahem, in the spring of 2010 continued to focus on the Yemeni government's support for a supposed Western-backed offensive against Muslims; in March AQAP referenced the $70 million in 2009 military aid provided to Yemen by the U.S., highlighted the promise to raise this aid to $150 million in 2010, and challenged Yemeni government claims that airstrikes in Yemen were conducted strictly by Yemeni forces. AQAP military commander Raymi said in an October 2010 statement that Saleh's insistence on appeasing the United States will lead to his “ruination” much like that of former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.
Recent AQAP communiqués have reflected an intensification of operations in Yemen and claim responsibility for an extensive campaign of attacks against Yemeni government and military targets since June 2010. The statements justify the attacks as deterrents against further Yemeni military counterterrorism operations. AQAP claims that its attacks, the accounts of which are replete with detailed anecdotes and specific body counts of Yemeni government officials and soldiers, undermine “the political security institution upon which Ali Salih depends on to collect information and to spy for the sake of the American warplanes.” The details of such accounts suggest a significant level of organization, coordination, and operational planning behind AQAP activities.
AQAP’s Near War
The recent themes in AQAP rhetoric mirror a drastic escalation in a campaign of AQAP attacks on the Yemeni government. AQAP had previously focused exclusively on its far war, operations against Western interests, rather than its near war against the Yemeni government. Early suicide attacks against foreign tourists and Western targets punctuated increasingly bold pronouncements by Wahayshi's growing organization, known then as al Qaeda in Yemen, in 2007 and 2008. It attacked a group of Spanish tourists in July 2007, Belgian tourists in January 2008, and the U.S. Embassy in Sana'a in September 2008. On March 14, 2009, AQAP suicide bombers attacked South Korean tourists in Hadramawt. Four days later, AQAP militants executed a suicide attack against a South Korean official convoy investigating the previous bombing. AQAP planned and executed the December 25, 2009 attack on Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines Flight 253 and has attacked British embassy targets two times in 2010.
AQAP's near war was not the group's primary focus throughout 2009. The group described its first open clash with Yemeni forces in the August 3, 2009 statement as the beginning of a campaign to rid the Arabian Peninsula of “enemies of the ummah.” Shortly thereafter, AQAP executed a bold assassination attempt on Saudi Deputy Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef on August 28, 2009. Sporadic attacks on the Yemeni military continued in early 2010.
The summer of 2010 marked an inflection point in AQAP's near war. On June 19, four AQAP militants dressed as women attacked the Yemeni intelligence headquarters in Aden, killing eight military guards and freeing ten prisoners. Less than a month later, twenty AQAP militants executed a coordinated attack on the intelligence and security service headquarters in Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan governorate, killing three and wounding 11 security officials. Between these major operations, AQAP stepped up attacks in southern Yemen in July, striking checkpoints in Abyan, Dhaleh, and Lahij governorates. AQAP attacked Yemeni government targets an unprecedented 20 times in the month of August. Assailants attacked senior politicians, security, and intelligence officials almost daily, including Haidarah Saleh al Shadadi, the General Director of Planning and International Cooperation on August 12, Ali Abdul Kareem Fadhal al Ban, a Director of Intelligence in Lahij governorate on August 13, senior intelligence officer Qassem Abdulkarim in Zinjibar on August 17, and Dhaleh's Director of Intelligence Abdul Khaliq Shae'a on August 20. In addition to systematically targeting senior and field-level security officials, AQAP militants repeatedly assaulted security officers, soldiers, and policemen with small arms fire and hand grenades throughout southern and central Yemen. There were no reported attacks executed against traditionally preferred targets such as western embassies or the country's oil infrastructure within Yemen during this period.
The campaign against Yemeni targets continued in the early fall following a series of Yemeni military operations in Abyan, Dhaleh, and Shabwah governorates. Yemeni forces launched at least four multi-day operations against AQAP militants in late August and September. The operation around the town of Hawta in Shabwah governorate resulted in a five-day standoff between AQAP gunmen and Yemeni security forces in late September. AQAP militants also attacked government targets in central Yemen, in Shabwah and Ma'rib governorates, as well as the capital, Sana’a. AQAP sustained its campaign against the Yemeni security apparatus throughout October, initiating at least 19 distinct attacks. Many of these attacks targeted officials on a published hit-list, distributed on September 10. The success of AQAP's attacks demonstrated the group's operational capabilities and ability to follow through on its threats.
AQAP now maintains a high-level of intensity in both its far war and near war. It has continued its campaign against the West with both regional and international strikes punctuating a violent campaign against Saleh's domestic security apparatus. On October 6, two militants fired a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) at a British Foreign Office convoy, injuring one Foreign Office staffer and three bystanders. At the end of October, several sophisticated parcel-bombs containing 300-400 grams of the explosive PETN were discovered on passenger and cargo planes, severely disrupting freight and parcel traffic in the region. The parcel plot provided a clear indication that AQAP remains committed to its far war and that the group continues to adapt its methods and identify security weaknesses.
Before AQAP's intensification of its near war in 2010, the Yemeni government prioritized its resources to counter its most pressing threats: the al Houthi rebellion in the north, and the southern-based secessionist movement in the south. The government had alleged a link between AQAP and the Southern Movement, allegations that both groups separately denied and to which there is little supporting evidence. Throughout 2010, Yemeni security forces conducted operations in the north and south, particularly throughout the Abyan governorate in response to an intensification of AQAP attacks in the region. These operations played into AQAP's tactical shift by prompting reports of indiscriminate shelling of villages and other brutal tactics. Southern Movement leader Ali Salem al Beidh swayed domestic opinion against such heavy-handed responses, accusing Saleh of using the pretext of fighting an exaggerated AQAP enemy in the south to secure financial assistance from its allies and silence the south's peaceful independence movement. AQAP echoed these claims in a March 29, 2010 communiqué. The statement, coupled with tactical shifts such as infiltrating into and conducting attacks in secessionist strongholds in Abyan governorate, constituted a sophisticated strategy aimed at inflaming an angry domestic population and increasing international criticism of Saleh for misappropriating counterterrorism aid for a distinctly separate threat.
In the fall of 2010, AQAP continued to confront the Yemeni security apparatus and government. AQAP has proven its ability to adapt quickly to exploit popular sentiment in Yemen, experimenting with new strategies while pressing harder with successful ones; it continues to agitate tribal leaders in the wake of airstrikes, while mounting a vicious campaign of guerrilla attacks and violent assassinations of security and intelligence officials. AQAP is increasingly becoming a direct threat to Saleh's regime.
The parcel plot that unfolded at the end of October reinforces AQAP's commitment to a far war against the West to complement its regional agenda. The implication is that this amounts to, at the very least, a temporary dovetailing of U.S. and Yemeni interests united against AQAP. It remains to be seen whether this tactical alignment of U.S.-Yemeni interests will bring AQAP closer to defeat in 2011.
“AQAP Responds to Abyan Airstrike,” SITE Intel Group, December 27, 2009. Available on SITE.
Please see: “Yemen: Background and U.S. Relations,” Jerry M. Sharp, Congressional Research Service, November 1, 2010. Available: http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL34170.pdf
“Qaeda Claims Deadly June Attack on Yemen Intel HQ: Statement,” Agence France-Presse, July 11, 2010. Available: http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5gqEaZ_NqfR6T3_lMgkw5U3siKJow