Source: AEI's Critical Threats Project

April 06, 2011

Examining the Potential Relocation of al Qaeda Leadership

Opponents of the war in Afghanistan claim that denying al Qaeda a safe haven in Afghanistan and Pakistan would have minimal effect in the war against terror because the al Qaeda leadership could easily relocate and establish its base of operations elsewhere. In reality, al Qaeda’s required environmental conditions preclude a majority of territories. The territory where the al Qaeda leadership can re-establish itself is, in fact, finite.[1] The existence of an al Qaeda franchise or affiliated movement is one of the prerequisites for a potential destination for the leadership because of trust established between individuals over time. Two likely locations are apparent: Yemen and Somalia.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is an al Qaeda franchise that currently bases its operations out of southern and eastern Yemen. The terrain there is similar to the difficult terrain found along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and provides some protection from counterterrorism operations. Arabic is the local language, which will facilitate assimilation and movement in the country for the al Qaeda leadership. And, in ideological terms, the Arabian Peninsula is significant because of the presence of Muslim holy sites.

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Yemen may prove to be advantageous to the al Qaeda leadership because of the current conditions in the country and long-established relationships with AQAP’s leaders. A myriad of socioeconomic challenges and two internal security threats have hobbled the capacity of the Yemeni government, which has little authority outside of the capital. The regime relies on support from a large patronage network, which has given leverage to al Qaeda sympathizers within the government.[2] Further, the central government has not pressured tribes to give up the protection of local AQAP militants for fear of a backlash. The Yemeni government’s security resources go towards fighting the al Houthi rebellion in the north and the secessionist movement in the south. To date, al Qaeda operatives in Yemen have not faced sustained counterterrorism operations and have relative freedom of movement in their areas of operations.

Widespread anti-government protests in Yemen will further detract attention from AQAP. Yemen’s government does not perceive AQAP as a current existential threat to the regime, a calculation that has arguably increased the operating space of the group. The regime has directed its limited resources to putting down the protests, which could make Yemen’s already-porous border easier to infiltrate and further strains the operations of security forces in AQAP’s safe havens in Yemen. The group also has the opportunity to exploit internal conflict in order to strengthen its foothold to further its own goals in Yemen, similar to what al Qaeda and the Sadrist Movement did in Iraq.

Established personal relationships between al Qaeda senior leaders and AQAP’s leadership offer additional advantages. For example, Nasser al Wahayshi, AQAP’s leader, served as a personal assistant to the leader of al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden. Much of AQAP’s leadership has also trained or fought in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Further, Guantanamo detainees who returned to AQAP may have developed relationships with other detainees who returned to operate under the al Qaeda leadership. The level of trust shared between the two groups would reassure the al Qaeda leadership of its safety in Yemen. Finally, there is a history of integration or acceptance of like-minded leadership in Yemen. AQAP formed when the Saudi and Yemeni branches of al Qaeda merged and both leaderships were incorporated into the new organization’s structure.[3] This development may indicate a willingness within AQAP to become subservient to the al Qaeda leadership or, at the very least, a willingness to accept and respect the leadership’s presence in Yemen.

Relocation to Yemen carries risks for al Qaeda senior leadership, however. Tribal protection seems to be reliant upon personal connections to or influence over tribes and contingent upon the individual not bringing harm to the tribe. Many of the al Qaeda leaders lack the established connections in Yemen that would automatically grant them protection.[4] The presence of the al Qaeda leadership in Yemen would also likely increase the intensity of counterterrorism efforts in the country. Yemen has cooperated inconsistently with the U.S. in counterterrorism operations in the past and there would be pressure on the Yemeni government to target al Qaeda figures. Yemeni and U.S. counterterrorism efforts following the USS Cole bombing in October 2000 and the September 11 attacks significantly weakened al Qaeda in Yemen and decimated the leadership. Finally, it is not clear how AQAP would react to the presence of the al Qaeda leadership in Yemen despite established personal relationships. The al Qaeda leadership has coexisted with other like-minded affiliates without conflict and has not interfered with the leadership of other groups. On the other hand, AQAP has operated independently of the al Qaeda leadership for several years and may not agree to any loss of that independence should it be challenged.[5]

A second potential destination could be Somalia. Al Shabaab, a radical Islamist group with ties to al Qaeda, controls most of southern and central Somalia and threatens to collapse the weak government. The group has progressively solidified its control over territory in Somalia since 2007 and has established safe havens within its territory. There is no significant presence of an allied force outside of the capital, Mogadishu, and there is also a lack of serious counterterrorism efforts focused on Somalia. The UN-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) does not have the capabilities to target al Shabaab and the African Union peacekeeping force does not have the mandate to conduct offensive operations. Neighboring countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya have focused their efforts on eliminating al Shabaab’s presence from along their borders. Al Shabaab leaders have reached out to the al Qaeda leadership in their statements and the group also has a history of offering protection to al Qaeda figures. The group shelters leaders from al Qaeda in East Africa, an indication that the group would likely accept an al Qaeda leadership presence under its protection.

Somalia also presents many difficulties for the al Qaeda leadership, which failed in its attempts at establishing a strong and enduring al Qaeda network in the Horn of Africa in the 1990s.[6] It is questionable whether the al Qaeda leadership could even secure safe passage from its current location to the Horn of Africa. The most important challenge associated with seeking al Shabaab’s protection is that despite many of al Shabaab’s leaders having traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the al Qaeda leadership does not have a known personal relationship with al Shabaab’s top leaders.[7] Al Qaeda’s leadership would have to rely entirely on al Shabaab’s protection for survival because of an inability to communicate with the local population in the Somali language and limited access to scarce resources on the ground. The leadership would not be able to survive without access to al Shabaab’s network. Further, the terrain does not afford protection because it is primarily a flat desert. The leadership would be exposed to surveillance and at risk of airstrikes.[8] In September 2009, U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) killed al Qaeda in East Africa leader Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan in a raid in southern Somalia.[9] Similar to Yemen, it is likely that the relocation of the al Qaeda leadership to Somalia could spark counterterrorism operations in the country.

Yemen and Somalia could both offer some sort of sanctuary to the al Qaeda leadership, but the decision to remain along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is an indication that it does not sense an immediate threat to its survival. Transferring or gaining access to an established support network will take time without pre-existing, vetted networks in place. The al Qaeda leadership has not yet opted to relocate despite increased pressure from international counterterrorism efforts. Should the leadership be forced to find another safe haven, consideration of personal safety and the ability to continue operations will play into the decision. It is likely that al Qaeda leaders recognize the challenges of relocating and that they have judged it more advantageous to remain in an established safe haven for the time being.


[1] Charlie Szrom and Chris Harnisch present an argument for this in their report, "Al Qaeda’s Operating Environments: A New Approach to the War on Terror,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, March 2011. Full text available:
[2] Yemen freed Tawfiq bin Attash, also known as Khallad, after receiving a phone call from Osama bin Laden asking for his release. Khallad helped bomb the USS Cole and aided 9/11 hijackers Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Mihdhar. See the 9/11 Commission Report, pp. 155-6.
[3] The leader of al Qaeda in Yemen, Nasser al Wahayshi, is the recognized leader of AQAP. Said al Shihri, the current deputy leader of AQAP, was the leader of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia.
[4] The al Qaeda leadership could coerce support from locals; evidence from Iraq indicates that there is the potential for this to backfire in the long run should resentment build and locals feel empowered, however.
For further information on how al Qaeda established itself in Iraq, please see Frederick W. Kagan’s, “Al Qaeda in Iraq,” The Weekly Standard, vol. 12, no. 48, September 10, 2007.  Available:
[5] AQAP’s most recent international attacks, the 2009 Christmas day attack and the 2010 parcel plot are the first major attacks not to have ties back to Pakistan.
[6] Al Qaeda attempted to establish itself in Somalia in the early 1990s; its efforts broadly fell short of its expectations. For more information, please see “Al-Qaida’s (Mis)Adventures in the Horn of Africa,” Center for Combating Terrorism at West Point. pp. 19-24.
[7] A December 2010 unification of al Shabaab and Hizb al Islam, a radical Islamist group, added Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys to al Shabaab’s senior leadership. Uncovered al Qaeda communications from the 1990s mention Aweys as a leading figure in Somalia and detail meetings between him and al Qaeda operatives. Senior al Shabaab leaders Sheikh Mukhtar Robow “Abu Mansur” and Mukhtar Ali Zubayr “Godane” are believed to have trained and fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan and studied in a Pakistan madrasa, respectively.  There is the possibility that the individuals may have made contact with like-minded al Qaeda members while in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
[8] On September 26, 2010, a military helicopter fired a rocket at a house in the port city of Marka where al Shabaab leadership was meeting. The attack narrowly missed killing key leaders. See “Helicopter Attacks Militant Meeting in Somalia” by Mohamed Ibrahim and Jeffrey Gettleman, New York Times, September 26, 2010. Available:
[9] Some analysts believe that Nabhan had a relationship with al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan.