September 11, 2015
AQAP: A Resurgent Threat
Al Qaeda’s Yemen-based affiliate has been quietly expanding as the country descends further into civil war. It may be one of the few beneficiaries of Yemen’s collapse, other than the Islamic State, which is developing its own Yemeni franchise. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has taken advantage of the turmoil to try its hand at governance again and build support among Sunni tribes angered by the Houthi takeover of large swaths of the country.
Yemen’s civil war has secured nearly all of AQAP’s immediate military objectives. The West retreated. The Yemeni military and security forces, what is left of them, are no longer fighting AQAP. Those elements that remain are divided and degraded, operating without a central command, and have no incentive to enter into another fight. The Yemeni state is broken, and local authorities have filled the void. Mediation efforts with Yemeni stakeholders have not yielded much progress on the political front, and even if a new central government emerges, it will have to work hard to rebuild relationships with provincial and local authorities. Finally, there is an active insurgency in Yemen rooted in Sunni communities that provides an opportunity for AQAP to further establish itself.
The conditions are ripe for success, and AQAP is an adaptive organization. It appears to have learned from strategic errors in 2011 and 2012, which led to a popular uprising against it. The late AQAP emir, Nasir al Wuhayshi, advised his Algerian counterpart in the summer of 2012 that, based on AQAP’s experiences in Abyan, meeting the people’s basic needs was the first step in governance. The group also appears to have copied tactics from al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra, and has better integrated itself into the population, by using local governance structures for example. Additionally, the broad mobilization of Sunnis against Houthis is giving AQAP momentum on which to draw. This condition was not present during the Arab Spring and will only further serve AQAP’s interests.
AQAP’s gains in Yemen could have disastrous consequences. AQAP was behind at least four major attempted attacks on U.S. interests outside of Yemen, and all of those occurred when the group was weaker than it is today. AQAP is also still a key asset for the global al Qaeda network, providing overall leadership guidance, sharing expertise, and coordinating transnational attacks. AQAP’s growing strength in Yemen could reverberate throughout the al Qaeda network, raising the stakes in the competition between al Qaeda and the Islamic State to lead the global jihadist movement.
Tapping into Yemen’s Insurgency
The Yemeni insurgency began in earnest after the Houthi takeover of the central Yemeni government in January 2015, though many local militias had mobilized months earlier. Yemen’s complex political dynamics influenced the process. Many of those opposed to the Houthis also opposed the central government, but saw the Houthis as an invading force. These “popular resistance forces” draw from the local population and fight to protect their territory. They are not mobilizing along sectarian lines, but view the conflict in terms of the distribution of power. Despite the absence of religion as a primary factor, the frontline of the conflict ran through Sunni populations, creating a prime opportunity for AQAP in such places as al Bayda, Shabwah, and Abyan, especially as AQAP tapped into the insurgency’s momentum.
AQAP had already declared the Houthis as an enemy, describing them as heretics taking orders from Iran, who must be stopped.[a] By fall 2014, AQAP had expanded its campaign against them. Militants began conducting smaller-scale, disruptive attacks against Houthi positions and began assassinating Houthi officials. The campaign focused initially on the capital, Sana’a, and also al Bayda governorate, where AQAP already had some limited support. AQAP conducted mass-casualty attacks against the Houthis, such as a December 18 twin suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED) strike in the Red Sea port city of al Hudaydah.
The dedication of resources to the fight against the Houthis had little tangible effect on AQAP’s continued campaign against the Yemeni military. AQAP was able to sustain the same level of activity against the Yemeni military even as it increasingly targeted Houthis. This shows that AQAP had maintained some sort of reserve capability, and also that it was probably able to add strength over time. AQAP took advantage of the breakdown of Yemeni security forces in January 2015 and attacked now-isolated Yemeni military bases. Between February and April 2015, AQAP attacked the bases of the 19th Infantry Brigade in Shabwah, the 39th Armored Brigade in Abyan, and the 23rd Mechanized Brigade in Hadramawt. AQAP seized weaponry in each attack. These weapons were probably distributed to AQAP forces in Abyan and Shabwah; there is little evidence of them appearing in al Bayda. Complex AQAP attacks against the Yemeni military ended in April, when it was evident the Yemeni military had effectively disbanded.
AQAP’s primary effort on the ground is against the Houthis, and it is using this fight to make inroads among other Sunni populations that have mobilized in resistance. It claims to be active on all fronts against the Houthis and to be running training camps for new fighters. Jalal al Marqishi, an AQAP military commander who led the fight in 2011 and 2012, characterized AQAP’s presence as both direct and indirect, including training and providing supplies and military advice. The group’s recent media releases include training videos on how to build improvised explosive devices (IEDs), for example.[b] AQAP appears to be attempting to replicate Jabhat al Nusra’s success in gaining acceptance by using its military capabilities in service of goals important to local interests.
The alignment of AQAP’s objectives with those of the popular resistance militias created an alliance where it might not otherwise have existed, especially since AQAP’s ideology is foreign to most Yemenis. It is within this space that AQAP seems to have been able to expand its base within the insurgency. AQAP is now a dominant force in such places as al Bayda, where its ability to organize military offensives against the Houthis seems to have led local tribal militias to accept the presence of AQAP forces.[c] AQAP’s presence in al Bayda is strategically important because a vital road from Yemen’s capital to the southeast runs through the governorate, providing direct access to central Yemen.
AQAP had previously made inroads there, particularly in northwestern al Bayda, where some of the local tribes openly supported it in 2012. The group has expanded since, building on anti-Houthi sentiments among local tribes. Though some clans were initially neutral to the Houthis’s arrival in al Bayda, the deaths of fellow tribesmen began to drive popular resistance against the Houthis, and so AQAP stepped in to take advantage. For example, AQAP reportedly formed an alliance with the al Hamiqan tribe in southeastern al Bayda in February 2015 to fight the Houthis. AQAP has been careful to limit collateral damage and that has prevented a backlash against the group and allowed it to exploit local anger at the Houthis.[d] While the tribes may still turn on AQAP once the common enemy is defeated, opportunities to integrate AQAP’s forces into local militias and personnel into local governance structures may mitigate this risk.
The Saudi-led military intervention is also creating opportunities for AQAP. In mid-July, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates deployed troops alongside newly trained Yemeni forces in Aden after a nearly four-month-long air campaign against the Houthis. The coalition rolled back Houthi gains in Aden before focusing on Lahij and Abyan. AQAP is among the groups filling the power vacuum behind the coalition’s advances. AQAP militants briefly seized buildings in Aden on August 22, and residents report AQAP forces are still in the city.e AQAP has also seized buildings in Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan, which AQAP held in 2011 and 2012. The coalition forces, including the Saudis, Emiratis, and Yemeni militias, are not focused on AQAP’s growing presence behind their frontline.
AQAP’s Experiment with Governance in Hadramawt
The deterioration of the Yemeni military has allowed AQAP to develop a safe haven in the country. It has been able to gather resources in areas removed from the frontlines, such as in Yemen’s eastern Hadramawt governorate. AQAP seized control of al Mukalla, one of Yemen’s three major port cities, on April 2, 2015. But AQAP did not raise the tell-tale black flag immediately. Instead, the group took a softer approach. Its forces in al Mukalla adopted the name, Sons of Hadramawt, and called for a local council to govern the city. Al Mukalla-based leaders established the Hadhrami Domestic Council (HDC), a local council of Salafist-leaning individuals responsive to AQAP demands, which took over governance from the Sons of Hadramawt on April 13.[f] The failure of a powerful anti-government tribal alliance, the Hadramawt Tribal Confederacy (HTC), to re-secure al Mukalla, first by force and then by negotiation, suggests that AQAP’s influence is durable.[g]
The HDC runs the local government and administers the city. The Sons of Hadramawt maintain a security presence in the city, but reports from al Mukalla described AQAP as operating in the shadows rather than openly, as it did in Abyan governorate during 2011. The Sons of Hadramawt turned over control of al Mukalla’s infrastructure in the months following the initial seizure, including returning control of the airport. It is very likely that the Sons of Hadramawt is still able to move resources in and out of al Mukalla’s air and sea ports, which will help AQAP support its efforts in southern and central Yemen.
The Sons of Hadramawt police the city, and it operates a group called the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice that is essentially a religious police force. The group enforced a ban on the mild narcotic qat starting in early May, burning what it had seized in the street, and issued another warning against the drug in early July. Violence is used sparingly, but as an example. AQAP publicly executed two men accused of providing the information that led to the death of the group’s former emir, Nasir al Wuhayshi, on June 17 and hung their bodies from a bridge as a warning. At the end of July, the Sons of Hadramawt also publicly flogged individuals it claimed had used hashish. The group seems to have cemented its presence in the city. Residents protested against AQAP in late April and early June, but these demonstrations died out. Protesters in July cited the uptick in U.S. airstrikes in the area as a grievance and there were reports of the HDC negotiating AQAP’s withdrawal from the city, yet it remains in control through the Sons of Hadramawt and the HDC.[h]
AQAP may be seeking to expand its control over Hadramawt. There are reports that Sons of Hadramawt convened a meeting in Shihr city in the district next to al Mukalla in early August. AQAP seized the major infrastructure in the city, including the oil terminal and the seaport, in April, but there had been no attempt to govern.At the end of July, however, there were indications that AQAP may have been seeking to re-open the front in Wadi Hadramawt, the HTC’s stronghold, which may be an attempt to secure the oil infrastructure there. On July 31, AQAP conducted a SVBIED attack targeting the 135th Brigade in al Qatan, after more than four months of near inactivity[.2]3 A second roadside bomb attack on August 4 injured two soldiers in Sayun, Hadramawt. The resumption of a front in Wadi Hadramawt would probably mobilize the HTC to prevent further gains by AQAP, though the HTC leadership may acquiesce to AQAP in order to avoid further conflict.
An Enduring Threat
AQAP’s threat is heightened by its position within al Qaeda’s global network. There have been a series of reports over the past two years that AQAP is working with al Qaeda individuals in Syria to target the United States or the West and that individuals trained by AQAP’s imaginative bomb-maker, Ibrahim al Asiri, have moved into Syria. Al Asiri is the mastermind behind AQAP’s most innovative and difficult-to-detect bombs, and he continues to improve his designs. AQAP probably maintains a connection to Syria—and therefore the foreign fighters in Syria—through the al Qaeda cell operating alongside Jabhat al Nusra, dubbed the Khorasan Group.
Significant attrition within AQAP’s leadership in 2015 has not reduced the threat.[i] AQAP, like other al Qaeda groups, is resilient to attrition. Al Asiri remains at large and he has replicated his capabilities among apprentices. The death of Nasir al Wuhayshi, who had been emir since 2007 and had become Al Qaeda’s global general manager in 2013, did not cause notable shifts in AQAP’s Yemeni operations. Qasim al Raymi, AQAP’s military commander, who had been at al Wuhayshi’s side since 2006 and had overseen AQAP’s major transnational attacks, now commands the entire organization and has pledged bay`a(allegiance) to al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri. A potential challenge for the group, however, will be replacing several leading religious leaders killed in recent drone strikes.[j] It is not readily apparent who will become that voice for AQAP, which will become a more important issue as the Islamic State expands in Yemen.
The emergence of the Islamic State in Yemen increases the pressure on AQAP to sustain its success. The Islamic State’s leadership has openly described their al Qaeda counterparts as having abandoned true jihad and pursuing a failed strategy.[k] The Islamic State’s continued victories in Iraq and Syria, and its newfound strength in Sirte, Libya may encourage some Yemenis to support the Islamic State over AQAP, as will some Yemeni Salafist sheikhs declaring support for the Islamic State, such as Sheikh Abdul Majid al Raymi.[l] An AQAP judge from Ibb, Ma’moun Abdulhamid Hatem, may have facilitated the initial growth of the Islamic State in Yemen. He publicly supported the group initially and the first major Islamic State suicide attack drew on recruits from Ibb. Recruitment by the Islamic State still appears limited though, and the group is restricted to operating as small cells. However, the Islamic State has signaled it may challenge AQAP in al Bayda, expanding from its current focus on Sana’a.[m] For the time being, it is unlikely that the Islamic State will overtake AQAP as the predominant jihadist group in Yemen. AQAP is deepening its own relations with Sunni tribes and remains sensitive to Yemeni tribal `urf (customs), but AQAP must maintain its momentum with an ongoing narrative of victory if it is to prevent the Islamic State from making further gains.
As has been noted, the Islamic State’s rise in the global jihadist movement challenges al Qaeda. Al Qaeda’s response will probably be to attempt to prove that its strategy—one that uses attacks against the West to undermine support for governments in Muslim-majority lands—remains successful. As a result, al Qaeda is likely under pressure to conduct a spectacular attack against the West in order to demonstrate its continued relevance. That would almost certainly involve AQAP’s well-developed capabilities, which have been enhanced by its expanded safe haven in Yemen. The persistence of AQAP’s bomb-making capabilities and its expertise in transnational attacks underpins the enduring threat from that group. A July 30 statement attributed to al Asiri noted that AQAP has “chosen war against America” and that “America is first.”
The leaders of both al Qaeda and AQAP have again begun pushing for smaller-scale lone-wolf attacks in the West.[n] AQAP first began calling for such attacks, which it calls lone jihad, in July 2010, with the release of its English-language magazine Inspire and regular statements from the late radical cleric Anwar al Awlaki. Khaled Batarfi, a senior AQAP commander who was freed from al Mukalla’s prison when AQAP took control of the city, appeared in an August 4 video that praised the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris and the Chattanooga shooter in the United States. Batarfi called for Muslims to expand the “jihad uprising,” and cited lone jihad as helping to achieve global goals.
AQAP’s recent successes in Yemen provide an important possible indicator of its future plans. The group remains strong and will probably continue to expand unless forces are deployed to combat the group. Its ability to tap into the momentum driving the anti-Houthi insurgency indicates an understanding of Yemeni political dynamics, which will help it integrate with tribal militias. This ability to better integrate with local forces strengthens its support among the population. Additionally, AQAP’s control of al Mukalla through local councils may serve as a template for how the group attempts to dominate other populated areas. Its ability to funnel supplies from al Mukalla to the frontlines makes the city a strategic resource that it is unlikely to relinquish without a significant military campaign. And AQAP’s strengthening relationship with some Sunni tribes may enable it to replicate structures in al Mukalla elsewhere, extending the areas under its effective, but indirect, control.
The group’s apparent focus on Yemen, however, masks its threat to the United States, with which AQAP remains at war. AQAP’s enlarged sanctuary grants it additional freedom to develop, test, and train individuals on new explosive devices designed to slip through security measures. And the new leadership needs to prove it is just as capable as its predecessors, if not more so, in attacking the United States.