Strengthening of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

Strengthening of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

Strengthening of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula resulting from continued political instability in Yemen and the expansion of Houthi territorial control

Internal political instability, backlash against U.S. counterterrorism operations, and interference by neighboring states has contributed to rising violence and fractionalization in Yemen. The country faces an insurgency led by the Houthis, a Shia rebel group with links to Iran. Houthi insurgents took control of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in September 2014 and, following failed negotiations, seized the presidential palace in January 2015, leading President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and his cabinet and newly appointed Prime Minister Khaled Bahah to resign and flee to the southern city of Aden. Hadi later rescinded his resignation, declaring that the Houthi insurgents’ decision to dissolve the parliament and set up a new ruling council was illegitimate. He eventually fled to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he currently resides.

UN-mediated talks among Houthi militants and opposing political parties have failed to reach a solution. The intervention of regional powers in Yemen’s conflict threatens to draw Yemen into the broader Sunni-Shia divide. In March 2015, a coalition of Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia launched a campaign of air strikes against the Houthi insurgent group with U.S. logistical and intelligence support. Iran is believed to be providing the Houthi rebels with military assistance, and tensions with Iran rose in April 2015 when the coalition imposed a naval blockade, obstructing supply lines to the Houthis. In response, Iran dispatched its own naval convoy, which temporarily threatened a military confrontation. To date, the conflict has killed more than 2,800 people and displaced another one million.

Ongoing political turmoil in Yemen has created a vacuum in which al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and other terrorist and insurgent groups can freely operate. AQAP has used this opportunity to expand its territory and seize critical infrastructure. Meanwhile, the self-declared Islamic State has also begun operations in Yemen, carrying out attacks in the capital, Sanaa, targeted at Shiite Muslims and Houthi headquarters.

AQAP, which formed in 2009 when the Saudi and Yemeni branches of al-Qaeda merged, is considered the most dangerous al-Qaeda affiliate to U.S. national security, underscored by the January 2015 murder of eleven employees of the French satirical weekly newspaper, Charlie Hebdo. The United States is deeply invested in combating terrorism and violent extremism in Yemen. It has collaborated with the Yemeni government on counterterrorism since the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, beginning drone strikes there in 2002. Through 2014, the United States had carried out approximately ninety-five drone strikes. However, the overall U.S. strategy for counterterrorism in Yemen relies heavily on Yemini ground forces, a relationship that effectively ended when Bahah and Hadi resigned. The Houthi insurgency—and growing chaos within Yemen—increases the risks posed by Yemeni terrorism, while simultaneously threatening the United States’ ability to deal with it.

Background Information
Breaking News
Primary Sources
Latest CFR Analysis
Related CFR Experts