Ten Years After 9/11: Al Qaeda's Reemergence in Yemen

September 20, 2011

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) senior leader Nasser al Wahayshi. (SITE Intelligence Group)

The September 11, 2001 attacks refocused attention on Yemen’s role in the al Qaeda network; however, ten years later, Yemen now hosts one of al Qaeda’s most virulent franchises, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). AQAP has attacked the United States twice in the past two years; both times, bombs were successfully placed on planes destined for American cities. These attacks serve as reminders that despite progress made against core al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the al Qaeda network remains strong elsewhere. This year, Yemen’s entry into the Arab Spring presented AQAP and like-minded al Qaeda affiliates with a new opportunity to exert control in south Yemen, and possibly to pursue a strategy that would put AQAP in position to attack targets in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Ten years distanced from the September 11 attacks, al Qaeda in Yemen is stronger and perhaps better positioned than it was to launch attacks against American targets.

Al Qaeda’s activities in Yemen have spanned two decades. On December 29, 1992, a Yemeni group with al Qaeda connections bombed two Aden hotels frequented by U.S. Marines, the Gold Mihor and the Movenpick. Al Qaeda would strike again in Aden. On January 3, 2000, al Qaeda attempted to attack the USS The Sullivans in Aden port. The second attempt on October 12, 2000 on the USS Cole killed 17 American servicemen. The success of the attack on the USS Cole, an attack that Osama bin Laden supervised directly, provided a jumpstart for al Qaeda’s organization in Yemen and for al Qaeda’s recruiting activities. Osama bin Laden recognized the USS Cole attack planner Abd al Rahim al Nashiri as the leader of al Qaeda’s operations in the Arabian Peninsula; Nashiri actively planned attacks on U.S. targets following the Cole bombing. Another senior al Qaeda operative, Tawfiq bin Attash, or Khallad, was connected to the Cole bombing and would play a role in the 9/11 attacks. Both Nashiri and Khallad are high-value detainees at the Guantanamo bay detention facility. Fahd al Quso, arrested by Yemeni authorities for his involvement in the Cole bombing, would later re-emerge as an operative in AQAP after escaping from Yemeni custody.

Yemen joined the United States in its fight against terrorism after the 9/11 attacks. The Pentagon deployed American Special Forces to Yemen to train counterterrorism units; efforts also focused on developing Yemen’s Navy and Coast Guard to patrol the country’s 1,500-mile-long coast. By November 2002, Yemen had arrested 104 suspected al Qaeda operatives, including 15 suspects connected to the USS Cole attack. The first U.S. airstrike outside of Afghanistan on an al Qaeda target killed six al Qaeda operatives on November 3, 2002 in Ma’rib governorate in Yemen. Al Qaeda’s chief operative, Abu Ali al Harithi, was killed along with five others in the car, including U.S. citizen Kamal Derwish, also known as Ahmed Hijazi. Over the next few years, counterterrorism operations in Yemen weakened al Qaeda there.

The Yemeni commitment to pursuing unpopular counterterrorism operations has not remained steadfast. On February 3, 2006, 23 al Qaeda members tunneled out of a maximum security prison in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, allegedly with high-level support from Yemen’s Political Security Office. This escape was not the first: ten of the Cole suspects escaped in a similar fashion in 2003 and were recaptured within a year. Those who were not killed or recaptured reinvigorated al Qaeda in Yemen; among them were Nasser al Wahayshi and Qasim al Raymi. Al Qaeda’s Yemen branch also benefited from the imported expertise of Saudi al Qaeda operatives, who fled Saudi Arabia during a sustained crackdown on al Qaeda by Saudi authorities. Among the Saudis who joined al Qaeda in Yemen were eleven former Guantanamo detainees including Said al Shihri and Mohamed Atiq Awayd al Harbi, also known as al Awfi. Shihri and Awfi, along with Wahayshi and Raymi, would appear in the January 2009 video statement announcing the merger of the Yemeni and Saudi al Qaeda branches into al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

AQAP is now al Qaeda’s most operationally active franchise. It conducts both a far war – targeting the West – and a near war against the Yemeni government. In the far war, AQAP has struck internal foreign targets, such as the suicide attack on South Korean tourists in Hadramawt in March 2009, and external targets. For example, the 2009 Christmas day attack, in which AQAP-trained operative Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253 with an explosive device sewn into his underwear, highlighted the group’s determined ability to attack the United States. Abdulmutallab failed to detonate his device. The underwear bomb was markedly similar to the device used in an AQAP suicide attack on Saudi Deputy Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef in August 2009. In the near war, AQAP focused on Yemeni government and military sites. Over the course of 2010, AQAP operatives increasingly partook in the near war, evidenced by a series of attacks on Yemeni intelligence headquarters and officials.

The attacks on the central state may have served as the needed catalyst to spur the Yemeni regime to focus its efforts on countering AQAP. More serious threats to the Yemeni state, such as an armed rebellion in the north and a growing secessionist movement in the south, drew resources away from the fight against AQAP. The calculus changed in 2010. Yemen met AQAP’s aggressive pursuit of government officials and military targets with multi-day operations against AQAP strongholds; however, Yemen failed to defeat the group within Yemeni territories. The U.S. actively backed Yemen’s ramp-up in counterterrorism operations against AQAP. American military assistance helped to support Yemen’s elite, U.S.-trained counterterrorism units, for example. In December 2009, the U.S. conducted a series of airstrikes in Yemen targeting AQAP leadership. The strikes failed to kill the intended targets – Nasser al Wahayshi was one – but did kill other AQAP operatives. The civilian casualties incurred elicited a backlash from the public, however. The airstrikes continued and another on January 15, 2010 failed to kill Qasim al Raymi. A subsequent May 2010 airstrike killed a Yemeni mediator instead of an AQAP operative, prompting the mediator’s tribe to take up arms against the government. The U.S. would not execute another airstrike in Yemen for nearly a year.

Since early 2011, AQAP and like-minded affiliates have taken advantage of the cover provided by the Arab Spring in Yemen. The Yemeni regime withdrew troops from Yemen’s south to protect regime interests in Sana’a, creating a security vacuum. An al Qaeda-linked militant group, calling itself “Ansar al Sharia” (Supporters of Islamic Law), seized control of Jaar in Abyan governorate in March 2011. Ansar al Sharia launched its offensive on Zinjibar, Abyan’s capital, out of Jaar and gained control of the strategic city at the end of May. From Zinjibar, Ansar al Sharia expanded the areas under its control to include most of the Aden-Abyan road and the coastal town of Shaqra, located on the road between Abyan and Shabwah. The Yemeni military, whose southern contingent is based in Aden, has failed to defeat the insurgent militant group, despite a three-and-a-half-month offensive. By September 12, the army had only regained partial control of Zinjibar. Whether the Yemeni military will continue to make gains against the militants and reestablish control remains to be seen.

The unrest in Yemen has created openings to target AQAP operatives and leadership. It appears that in a bid for U.S. support, the Yemeni regime increased intelligence cooperation. U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) has flown armed drones over Yemeni airspace, for example. U.S. airstrikes on May 5 in Shabwah governorate narrowly missed the intended target, Yemeni-American radical Islamist cleric Anwar al Awlaki. A second strike on July 14 reportedly targeted Fahd al Quso on the road between Shaqra and Zinjibar in Abyan. Quso survived the strike. Independent of JSOC activities, the U.S. has increasingly worked with the Yemeni military in the south. The Yemeni government has stated that the U.S. has provided intelligence and logistical support to Yemeni forces operating in Abyan.

AQAP has significantly increased its operating space in Yemen over the course of the Arab Spring. Additionally, the terrorist group has strengthened its ties to al Shabaab, an al Qaeda-linked militant group operating across the Gulf of Aden in Somalia. Prior to this summer, the al Shabaab and AQAP public relationship remained limited to rhetorical ties. The indictment of Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame in the U.S. revealed operational ties between the two terrorist groups. Warsame, who had fought with al Shabaab, trained with AQAP for a year on explosives. He also attempted to negotiate a weapons deal with AQAP for al Shabaab. Somali militants have also been reported in south Yemen fighting under Ansar al Sharia’s name. This relationship between al Shabaab and AQAP may serve as a force multiplier and certainly facilitates the sharing of tactics, techniques, and procedures.

Yemen’s role in the al Qaeda network has grown over the past ten years. Awlaki and Samir Khan, who lived in North Carolina, have actively sought to make the radical Islamist ideas espoused in al Qaeda’s ideology available in English. This pair helped AQAP pioneer al Qaeda’s English-language outreach efforts by publishing an electronic magazine, Inspire. The recruiting efforts in Inspire are not focused on attracting English-speaking recruits to fight in Yemen; rather, they focus on expanding al Qaeda’s campaign of violence into the west. The magazine provides would-be terrorists with the necessary tools to make bombs and a religious justification to use these bombs on American civilians. Both Awlaki and Khan are currently believed to be hiding in Yemen.

The Yemeni regime has been a partner in the war on terror, albeit an inconsistent one, and is now in a state of crisis. U.S. policy toward Yemen, however, should not be. The United States has laid out the goal of disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda and its affiliates worldwide in the post-9/11 world. That goal has yet to be met in Yemen, and is moving farther from reach as the Yemeni state collapses. The strategic objective of defeating AQAP and its like-minded affiliates in Yemen cannot be achieved solely through the removal of AQAP’s top leadership. Yemen’s environment permitted al Qaeda to re-emerge stronger after its leadership was removed in the early 2000s. Conditions in Yemen, even before the outbreak of the Arab Spring, are favorable for al Qaeda’s operations. The expansion of AQAP’s operating space during the Arab Spring underscores the importance of denying all al Qaeda groups safe haven. Ten years after the September 11 attacks and nearly eleven years after the USS Cole bombing, the threat remains in Yemen.