Yemen File

The Yemen File is an analysis and assessment of the Yemen conflict and the Salafi-jihadi movement in Yemen.

Yemen File: AQAP did more than just inspire the Pensacola attack

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Yemen: AQAP played an active role in the December 2019 Pensacola attack.

The al Houthi Movement in Yemen: Al Houthis are now attempting to reach Ma’rib city from southern al Bayda governorate.


The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Yemen

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) played an active role in the December 2019 attack at a US naval air station in Pensacola, Florida. The FBI announced on May 18 that it had discovered extensive links between AQAP and the attacker, Saudi national Mohammad al Shamrani, who killed three US sailors and injured eight others during the December 2019 shooting.

Shamrani maintained extensive ties with AQAP for years. The FBI revealed that Shamrani radicalized in 2015 and established contact with AQAP before arriving in the US. Shamrani joined the Royal Saudi Air Force with the intent of planning an attack. He planned the Pensacola attack and communicated with AQAP operatives until the night before. One operative whom Shamrani contacted was AQAP militant Abdullah al Maliki. 

The FBI exploited the information found on Shamrani’s phones to target AQAP militants in Yemen, including Maliki. The US conducted an airstrike targeting Maliki in northern Yemen in early May, likely killing him.[1] The FBI remarked that the information it extracted from Shamrani’s phones aided the operation targeting Maliki.

Information from Shamrani’s phones may also have been used to target the late AQAP emir Qasim al Raymi. A US airstrike killed Raymi in northern Yemen in late January. This strike occurred shortly before AQAP claimed responsibility for the Pensacola attack in a prerecorded speech by Raymi in early February. Raymi’s recording may have also created opportunities for signals intelligence to locate him independent of the information from Shamrani’s phones.

More from AEI and CTP:
Al Qaeda’s role in the Pensacola shooting and what it means” by Katherine Zimmerman

US air strikes have strained AQAP’s internal divisions. AQAP’s current emir, Khaled Batarfi, highlighted the group’s internal rifts during a speech in February following Raymi’s death. Batarfi stressed that spies compromise member safety, highlighting internal rifts within the group. AQAP’s al Malahem media foundation released a document and audio recording about a “cabal” within the group on May 11, marking the second statement on its internal divisions in 2020.[2] The statements accused several AQAP members of challenging the group’s shari’a court.

These members also proposed surrendering the fight against the Islamic State in Qayfa district in southern Yemen’s al Bayda governorate to internationally recognized Yemeni government forces. The revelation that at least some of the information used to target AQAP leaders came from Shamrani’s phones may assuage some internal disputes about potential spying, but strategic disputes over AQAP’s prioritization will likely continue.

The Islamic State in Yemen is likely attempting to take advantage of AQAP’s internal disputes by urging al Qaeda militants to defect. The Islamic State in Yemen released a documentary on April 29 criticizing al Qaeda’s decision-making post–Arab Spring. [3] The Islamic State criticized AQAP’s support for the post-revolution Egyptian and Tunisian governments. It urged al Qaeda militants to defect to the Islamic State. AQAP and the Islamic State are fighting for influence and territorial control in al Bayda governorate in southern Yemen.




The al Houthi Movement in Yemen

Al Houthi militants may have shifted their ground operational movement in northern Yemen in an attempt to reach Ma’rib city. The al Houthi movement launched a ground military campaign in northern Yemen in late January to isolate Ma’rib governorate’s oil fields and deny the internationally recognized Yemeni government of Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi access to the key resource. The al Houthi movement may now be attempting to advance toward Ma’rib city from the south through al Bayda governorate’s Qaniya district, rather than from the west through Ma’rib governorate’s Sirwah district.

Anti–al Houthi forces are repelling the al Houthi movement’s attempted advances toward Ma’rib city. Hadi government forces *claimed repelling an al Houthi attack in Qaniya district on May 12. Saudi-led coalition airstrikes also *targeted al Houthi positions in Qaniya on May 14. 

Figure 1. Yemen

 Source: Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute

Anti–al Houthi forces attempted to expel al Houthi militants from a strategic district in southern Yemen in April. This most recent operation to recapture al Bayda governorate’s Mukayras district is the latest of several attempts to seize the district since al Houthi forces occupied Mukayras in 2015.

Anti–al Houthi forces intended to prevent the al Houthi movement from expanding toward southern Yemen from Mukayras. Mukayras is a strategic district because of its road network. The road running through Mukayras leads southward to Abyan governorate and Yemen’s southern coast. It runs northward to the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, and Ma’rib governorate, where the al Houthis are currently waging their aforementioned northern campaign.

Anti–al Houthi forces *announced their intent to recapture Mukayras in November 2019 and began *preparing for the operation in December. Al Houthi militants *sent reinforcements to Mukayras in January 2020 in response. The opposing sides *clashed south of Mukayras in February, and the al Houthis deployed additional reinforcements to Mukayras in March. This deployment may reflect the al Houthis’ increased confidence after making significant territorial gains in northern Yemen in March.

Anti–al Houthi forces launched the operation to push al Houthi militants out of Mukayras on April 8, *escalating clashes with al Houthi militants in the area. They have since *targeted al Houthi militants between April and May, *claiming recapturing al Houthi–held territories in Mukayras in late April and *early May. Fighting has stalled since.

The al Houthi movement continued its vocal support for Lebanese Hezbollah. The al Houthi movement condemned Germany’s designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and expressed solidarity with the group on April 30.[4] The al Houthi movement has been part of Iran’s “Axis of Resistance” since 2015. Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah have helped al Houthi militants develop their media, military tactics, and political organization. The al Houthis have also supported other Axis of Resistance members in a limited capacity, including conducting a fundraiser supporting Hezbollah in July 2019.[5]


[1] “AQAP Official Abdullah al-Maliki, Targeted in US Airstrike in Yemen, was Associate of Pensacola Shooter,” SITE Intelligence Group, May 18, 2020, available by subscription at

[2] “AQAP Exposes Cabal Within Group of Individuals Challenging its Shariah Court, Proposing to Turn Over Fighting Front,” SITE Intelligence Group, May 14, 2020, available by subscription at

[3] “IS Fighters in Yemen Explain AQ’s ‘Deviation’ Following Arab Spring in Video Documentary,” SITE Intelligence Group, April 30, 2020, available by subscription at

[4] “Houthis Condemn Germany’s Crackdown on Hezbollah, Expresses Solidarity with Group,” SITE Intelligence Group, April 30, 2020, available by subscription at

[5] “Houthi Rebels Fundraise for Hezbollah,” SITE Intelligence Group, July 15, 2019, available by subscription at; and “Houthi Rebels Report Funds collected for Lebanese Hezbollah,” SITE Intelligence Group, July 23, 2019, available by subscription at

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