April 04, 2011

Quick Take: al Qaeda and its Affiliates Exploit Yemen Unrest

Violent protests and instability continue to build in Yemen as political negotiations remain inconclusive.[1] Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Qaeda’s most active franchise, stands to benefit from a political and security situation that could lead to state fragmentation or collapse. There are recent indications that al Qaeda-linked groups have already taken steps to establish themselves in the southern governorate of Abyan, which once served as a sanctuary for the Islamic Army of Aden,[2] a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, and is an AQAP stronghold.  

On March 31, local sources reported that al Qaeda militants had declared an Islamic emirate in Abyan over a local radio station. The militants also issued an edict prohibiting women from being in public without a male relative as a chaperone. On March 26, local officials and security sources reported that AQAP militants had seized control of parts of Abyan governorate, including a weapons factory, most of Jaar town, and the nearby Khanfar mountain, which has a radio station. U.S.-trained counter-terrorism units stationed in Abyan were rumored to have been called back to defend the area surrounding the capital, Sana’a.[3] Al Qaeda’s ability to expand its influence in Yemen will grow should political negotiations remain stalled and the security situation continues to deteriorate.

It is unlikely that there will be a quick resolution to the political unrest in Sana’a. President Ali Abdullah Saleh has backed away from previous concessions to step down from power within the year, and is instead seeking to remain in his position as a figurehead until the 2013 presidential elections. Both the youth movement and the main opposition bloc, the Joint Meeting Parties, have called for Saleh’s resignation in their separate plans for a transition of power. Further, both groups have called for Saleh’s relatives, including those in charge of Yemen’s counter-terrorism units, to step down and for Yemen’s security forces to be reorganized. External actors also have had a seat at the negotiating table. The U.K. and U.S. ambassadors have been present at negotiations. U.S. officials have made it clear that the continuation of counter-terrorism cooperation in Yemen against AQAP is of primary concern for the U.S.[4] The collapsed March 26 deal, for example, would have permitted Saleh’s relatives to have continued to command Yemen’s counter-terrorism units.

The current unrest has further weakened state control over governorates outside of Sana’a and has created space that radical Islamist groups may seek to exploit.

The Critical Threats Project is tracking these developments in Yemen closely as they unfold. Please see Gulf of Aden Security Review for a daily brief on the situation Yemen.


[1] Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, has remained largely peaceful since March 18, when government snipers killed over fifty protestors. Violent, government-orchestrated crackdowns on protestors have occurred in Hajjah, Hudaydah, Taiz, and Aden.
[2] The Islamic Army of Aden, also known as the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, is a group of former mujahideen who returned to Yemen in the early 1990s. The group worked with the government in the early 1990s to fight against separatists in Yemen’s south, but withdrew support from the government in 1996 when President Saleh refused to implement shari’a in Yemen. Jane’s Sentinel reports that the group renounced violence in 2003, but “remains committed to the implementation of shari’a in Yemen.”
[3] Iona Craig, “Amid Region’s Unrest, al-Qaeda Makes Inroads in Yemen,” USA Today, April 1, 2011. Available: http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2011-04-01-yemen01_ST_N.htm
[4] Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted the importance of Yemeni counterterrorism operations on ABC’s “This Week” on March 27, 2011. Transcript available: http://www.defense.gov/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=4800
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