Al Qaeda in Yemen is Down But Not Out

Published September 18th, 2018 - 11:30 GMT
Yemeni fighters loyal to the government ride in the back of a pickup truck while closing in on a suspected location of an Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leader in February. Saleh Al Obeidi / AFP
Yemeni fighters loyal to the government ride in the back of a pickup truck while closing in on a suspected location of an Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leader in February. Saleh Al Obeidi / AFP

By Eleanor Beevor

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, has been on a roller coaster of fortune over the past few years of the Yemen conflict. A heavy drone campaign against the group, as well as their territorial losses, has taken away the gains the group made in the early years of the war.

But this shouldn’t be taken to mean that the AQAP threat is on the wane. How much of a threat AQAP presents in future depends on how Yemen will emerge from its horrific war, and how much help it is given recovering.

If Yemen is given meagre help rebuilding, and a traumatised population is left desperate for the stability and service provision that a weak post-conflict state cannot provide, someone will arise to fill the governance vacuum. It might not be AQAP as we know it now, but the group has doubtless shaped jihadist influences in Yemen for the years to come. That being said, Yemenis have resisted AQAP as much as they have helped it. If they are to rebuild their country, AQAP will lose out.

Al Qaeda has had a presence in Yemen for decades, and launched some of its most infamous attacks from there in the 1990s and early 2000s. Osama Bin Laden’s ancestors hail from the Hadramawt region of Yemen, and Yemenis made up a large proportion of the foreigners who travelled to fight alongside the mujahedeen against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Many of those Yemenis returned to their homeland, hoping to find a new outlet for their cause. And some found an odd kind of favour with the state.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a dictator who had ruled Yemen for decades, liked to maintain his power by leveraging allies and enemies against each other, making his rule the last barrier to the chaos he was himself stoking. This meant that a lot of extreme Islamists and Al Qaeda sympathisers were recruited into the Yemeni security forces, where they were used against Saleh’s primary enemies, the socialists. Thus a nascent, if scattered radical Islamist movement was able to gain a foothold in Yemen. From there, it began to attack foreign targets.


The October 2000 bombing in Aden of the American destroyer ship USS Cole was a prelude of things to come. Back then, America had little idea of Al Qaeda’s reach and capability. The attack in Aden caught the US Navy off guard - the USS Cole had only docked to refuel when Al Qaeda suicide bombers approached the ship in a motorboat and detonated hundreds of kilograms of explosive, killing seventeen marines.

The attack was believed to have been orchestrated by Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi citizen of Yemeni descent, and Jamal Badawi, a Yemeni, and the leader of the cell behind the attack. It was thought to have been overseen by Osama Bin Laden. But after the September 11th attacks a year later, the danger that Al Qaeda presented was no longer in any doubt. 

The real dawn of AQAP as a unit was in 2006, when 62 inmates escaped a prison in Sana’a. 23 of them were known Al Qaeda members. And they were in all likelihood assisted in their breakout by the Yemeni security services, since the tunnel they escaped through started being dug from outside the prison.

Among those who escaped were Jamal Badawi, Bin Laden’s close aide Nasser al-Wahishi, and the veteran Al Qaeda fighter Qassim al-Riymi. These men would go on to form the core of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and they united the Saudi and Yemeni factions of Al Qaeda to do so.

But up until the Arab Spring, AQAP focused its efforts on foreign attacks, in concert with Al Qaeda senior leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Whist Al Qaeda as a whole has always embraced the idea of a global caliphate, it differs from its progeny-turned-enemy ISIS over how that caliphate should be established. ISIS leadership felt that if the population had to be brutalized into submission for the caliphate to happen, the end justified the means.

Al Qaeda has instead been of the opinion that popular will should be behind the caliphate’s creation, and that people needed to be “shown the way” of Islamist rule, after which they would surely get behind it. AQAP had some infamous voices cheering for it.

AQAP’s former spokesman Anwar al-Awlaki is one of the jihadist world’s most influential propagandists, and recordings of his sermons continue to inspire Islamist radicalism. AQAP was also the first Islamist terrorist entity to produce an English language magazine, “Inspire”, with Awlaki at the helm, to try and lure new recruits. Awlaki’s death by drone strike in 2011 cemented his status as a jihadist martyr.

After the popular uprising against Saleh’s rule amidst the 2011 Arab Spring, there followed a period of chaos, marked by a hapless transition of power to his Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Saleh was not really ready to give up power.

Rather than accept defeat, he sided with the brewing Houthi insurgency against the new President Hadi. In the confusion that followed, AQAP seized control of two southern cities – Jaar and Zinjibar. They were pushed out by government forces within twelve months.

But in the year that they controlled those cities, AQAP managed to alienate much of the population, as well as key tribal leaders, by trying to maximize their control through harsh Sharia law. The group’s leader at the time, Nasser al-Wahishi, later decided that this had been a mistake, and that populations needed to be allowed to incorporate Sharia step by step.


However, AQAP did have a prolonged period of territorial control over Mukulla and some of the surrounding Hadramawt province in 2015. It was the chaos and instability caused by the Houthis that gave them the window in which to take Mukulla, the fifth-largest city in Yemen. AQAP’s period of hold on Mukulla represented the group’s greatest period of strength.

Having learned from its past failings, it delegated much of the city’s governance to tribal authorities, thereby softening its approach. It also managed to make a vast amount of money. Not only did it loot over $100 million in cash from the city’s banks. It also was at one point making up to $2 million a day from taxes on Mukulla port, which it managed to do by slashing regulations and attracting a great deal more traffic to it.


Their good fortune didn’t last. In 2016, Emirati-backed local forces retook Hadramawt, and AQAP fled. The Al Qaeda view of the story is that it was a “strategic retreat” to avoid the loss of civilian life. But it is hard to spin the story as good news for AQAP, since the group has lost a great deal of power along with its territory. Dr. Elisabeth Kendall, a Senior Fellow in Arabic at the University of Oxford and an expert on Yemen told Al Bawaba:

“The outbreak of war in 2015 in Yemen’s west was a golden opportunity for AQAP to expand and entrench in Yemen’s east, but it has suffered a significant reversal in its fortunes over the past two years. Losing its territorial stronghold in 2016 was significant. This forced AQAP to shift from governance to guerrilla tactics. During 2017, AQAP was still able to carry out 273 attacks, all domestic and mostly small scale. But in 2018, the frequency of AQAP attacks has more than halved owing to decimation by drone strikes and infiltration by spies. AQAP’s media output has also decreased dramatically.” 

Under the Trump administration, restrictions on drone strikes have been significantly loosened. Drones have had an undeniable impact on AQAP, and have resulted in the deaths of some of their top commanders. Their former leader Nasser al-Wahishi was killed by a strike in 2015. But they have come with costs too. There have been numerous devastating incidences of civilians killed by drone strikes. And this has a tendency to turn the population against both America and its allies, in this case the Saudi-led coalition and the internationally recognized Yemeni government.

It is such conditions of despair and resentment amid chaos that led to AQAP’s rise. The terror group may be on a downturn now. But if the Yemeni population continue to be brutalized and impoverished throughout the war, conditions for a resurgence will be ripe. And this is especially so if the country is left in devastation after the war. Dr. Elisabeth Kendall added: 

“The terrorism problem has not gone away. Rather, it means that the jihad movement is starting to fragment. We’re seeing the rise of smaller pockets of local extremists, operating more independently. Going forward, the risk of various jihad groups surging or aligning remains high, particularly if the governance vacuum increases as the war drags on. Any peace deal will need to be coupled with strong investment at grass-roots level and take account of regional grievances. Otherwise, the various jihad splinters may find common cause again and bring with them disillusioned sectors of the population.”

The countries that have had a hand in the destruction of Yemen must take responsibility to help repair it when the war is over. If they do not, then a fight that was made in the name of their own security could very well come back to haunt the

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