The Shifting Tactics of AQAP

Originally published in The Corner: National Review Online
November 24, 2010

Security checkpoint in Yemen (Photo by LocalSurfer. Available at Flickr.)

On Saturday, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) published a special edition of its English-language magazine, Inspire, in which the details of “Operation Hemorrhage,” the October parcel plot, are described. (The Yemen-based al-Qaeda franchise claimed credit for the plot in a statement released on November 5.) This issue and past issues of Inspire are valuable for what they reveal about AQAP’s current operations in its campaigns abroad and at home.

AQAP’s campaign of violence abroad relies on two groups: Western recruits undertaking self-initiated operations and AQAP militants carrying out sanctioned operations. The first issue of Inspire, published on July 11, targeted potential Western recruits. Specifically, it called for an expanded campaign of violence characterized by lower-scale, more frequent attacks in the West — a shift away from the tradition of spectacular attacks on high-value targets. The far war, for AQAP, will be waged by untrained recruits who take the initiative, put together the tools it has provided (e.g., information on how to execute an attack without formal training, tips on avoiding surveillance), and pull off smaller attacks in the U.S. and other Western countries. By emphasizing smaller operations that are less likely to draw attention in the planning stages, AQAP is attempting to exploit U.S. homeland-security measures.

In addition to these Western recruit targets, there is also the operational capacity AQAP has built in Yemen to execute international attacks. The parcel plot outlined in the recent special edition of Inspire is a prime example of this Yemen-based operational capacity. AQAP claims that the entire plot took three months and six operatives to plan and carry out, and only cost $4,200. Their head of foreign operations writes: “You [the West] either spend billions of dollars to inspect each and every package in the world or you do nothing and we keep trying again.” By downgrading the strategic value of its targets and increasing the frequency of its attacks, AQAP has attempted to increase to cost of securing the homeland against terrorism, forcing a choice between costly security measures and continued attacks.

AQAP has intensified its campaign at home as well — the second issue of Inspire featured a photo spread of AQAP’s operations against the Yemeni military in Abyan governorate. Their first major attack on a Yemeni target was on June 19, 2010, when four militants stormed the Yemeni intelligence service’s building in Aden, freeing ten prisoners and killing eight military guards. On July 14, twenty AQAP militants executed a coordinated attack on police and intelligence headquarters in Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan governorate.

The campaign in Yemen has only intensified following a series of Yemeni military operations against AQAP strongholds in Abyan, Dhaleh, and Shabwah governorates. AQAP now characterizes Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, whom they formerly portrayed as a puppet of the West, as an active enemy and the head of a “traitor” government. AQAP military commander Qasim al Raymi warned Saleh that he is “digging [his] own grave,” and the recent special edition of Inspire highlighted Saleh’s statement following the parcel plot that he would “combat al-Qaeda.” The Yemeni government is now a direct target of AQAP attacks because of its complicity in the global war on terror.

AQAP has diversified its tactics and targets since the Christmas Day attack to include more frequent, smaller-scale attacks on lesser-value targets and has begun targeting government infrastructure in Yemen. The group’s strategy, however, remains the same: Attack the West and its allies.