June 30, 2017

AQAP Post-Arab Spring and the Islamic State

Originally published in The Washington Institute

This paper is part of a compilation resulting from a workshop on al-Qaeda convened by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in March 2017. The entire volume, representing different perspectives, is available for download at http://washin.st/pfocus153.

AL-QAEDA IS STRENGTHENING in the shadows of Yemen’s civil war. Two years of turmoil created conditions that have enabled al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to build and expand a popular support base that will persist beyond the current conflict. AQAP’s absence from the headlines is deliberate, not a sign that the group is weak. Instead, AQAP is more deeply embedded with the local population and will require more than a counterterrorism strategy to defeat.

The post–Arab Spring crackdown on AQAP and the Islamic State’s arrival in Yemen in late 2014 seemed to challenge AQAP’s position. An increase in counterterrorism operations after the Arab Spring weakened AQAP only temporarily. The victories Yemeni president Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi’s military achieved against AQAP in 2012 were hollow, permitting AQAP to regain its position as Hadi’s attention drifted elsewhere. AQAP could not stop the Islamic State from gaining ground in Yemen, but the Islamic State’s clumsy efforts to impose its ideology on a Yemeni base not ready to accept it undercut the group’s popularity. AQAP’s means and methods of operating in Yemen, as well as its reputation, enabled it to survive challenges from both the Yemeni state and the Islamic State and to emerge stronger for them.

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