The militant Islamist group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was formed in January 2009 through a union of the Saudi and Yemeni branches of al-Qaeda. Jihadist antecedents in the region, though, date to the early 1990s when thousands of mujahedeen returned to Yemen after fighting the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. Headquartered in Yemen, AQAP has been characterized by counterterrorism analysts as the most active and lethal Qaeda affiliate, intent on striking at both the U.S. homeland and regional targets. A foiled airliner bomb plot (LAT) and a suicide bombing in the capital of Sanaa that killed nearly a hundred Yemeni soldiers (Reuters), both in May 2012, underscored these objectives.
Yemen, long a fractured and fragile nation, remains so following the ouster of president Ali Abdullah Saleh in February 2012 after nearly a year of anti-government protests. AQAP is attempting to exploit the instability to consolidate its power base in the country's south. Meanwhile, the United States has expanded counterterrorism operations--particularly drone strikes--in the area. Experts question the viability of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi's transitional government and whether the impoverished country is continuing inevitably toward failed statehood.
A Legacy of Jihad
In the late 1980s, the Saleh regime helped foster jihad in what was then North Yemen by repatriating thousands of Yemeni nationals who had gone to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Many of these jihadists returned to take up arms against the Soviet-backed Marxist government in what was then South Yemen. Some were eventually integrated into the Saleh regime, while others were deployed in the post-unification years (1990) to battle secessionist forces in the south.
The returning Yemenis were joined by some Arab veterans of the Afghan war, foremost among them Osama bin Laden, who advocated for a central role for Yemen in global jihad. A corps of jihadists who had trained under bin Laden in Afghanistan formed the militant group known as Islamic Jihad in Yemen (1990-1994), one of several jihadist predecessors to AQAP (CTC). Other such groups include the Army of Aden Abyan (1994-1998) and al-Qaeda in Yemen, or AQY (1998-2003).
In October 2000, a skiff piloted by two members of AQY detonated several hundred pounds of explosives into the hull of the USS Cole moored in the port of Aden. Seventeen U.S. servicemen were killed in the attack. Two years later, another suicide bombing orchestrated by AQY, this one on the French oil tanker M/V Limburg, further highlighted the threat to Western interests in the region. Several of the militants involved in the Limburg plot would eventually hold top leadership positions in AQAP.
Following the Cole bombing and the al-Qaeda-led attacks on September 11, 2001, the Bush administration pushed the Saleh government to begin aggressive counterterrorism operations against AQY. Washington also dispatched Special Forces and intelligence personnel to Yemen to aid the campaign. A U.S. drone strike in 2002, the first such U.S. operation in the region, killed AQY's leader, Abu Ali al-Harithi (BBC), and by the end of 2003, AQY faced a precipitous decline. However, most experts believed Saleh's commitment to combating extremism was highly suspect--claims supported by several reports of militant releases or "escapes" (Australian).
In February 2006, twenty-three convicted terrorists escaped from a high-security prison in Sanaa. The jailbreak marked a critical turning point for al-Qaeda in the region. Many of the escapees worked to "resurrect al-Qaeda from the ashes" (PDF) and launch a fresh campaign of attacks.
In late 2008, a successful crackdown by the Saudi government led remnants of the local al-Qaeda franchise to flee across the border and unite with the resurgent jihad in Yemen. By 2009, the two branches merged formally under the banner of AQAP (BBC). "The merger effectively transformed al-Qaeda from a local chapter to a regional franchise," says Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen, "and moved it one step closer toward becoming a group capable of global action."
The primary goals of AQAP are consistent with the principles of militant jihad, which aims to purge Muslim countries of Western influence and replace secular "apostate" governments with fundamentalist Islamic regimes operating under sharia law.
AQAP has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks in the region since 2006. These have included the failed August 2009 assassination attempt (NYT) on Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef; an attack on the U.S. embassy in Sanaa in 2008; attacks on Italian and British embassies; suicide bombings (CNN) targeted at Korean tourists in March 2009 and Belgian tourists in January 2008; four oil pipeline bombings; attacks on several oil facilities; and the bombing of a Japanese oil tanker (CBC) in April 2008. In May 2012, a disguised AQAP suicide bomber (BBC) killed more than ninety Yemeni soldiers rehearsing for a military parade in the capital of Sanaa, the largest attack since President Hadi assumed power.
AQAP has also been behind attacks and plots on the U.S. homeland, including Nidal Malik Hasan's shooting rampage at the U.S. Army's Fort Hood base in November 2009; Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's failed 2009 Christmas Day bombing; Faisal Shahzad's attempted 2010 Times Square bombing; and the foiled May 2012 airliner bomb plot (CBS).
An Effective Propaganda
The primary goals of AQAP are consistent with the principles of militant jihad, which aims to purge Muslim countries of Western influence and replace secular "apostate" governments with fundamentalist Islamic regimes observant of sharia law. Associated AQAP objectives include overthrowing the regime in Sanaa; assassinating Western nationals and their allies, including members of the Saudi royal family; striking at related interests in the region, such as embassies and energy concerns; and attacking the U.S. homeland.
A 2011 report from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point says the group displays an impressive talent for message control, "assimilating broadly popular grievances into a single narrative in which jihad remains the only solution to the country's multiple crises."
But the group has suffered some significant losses in recent years that have affected its ability to recruit Muslims in the West. Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan (LongWarJournal), central figures in the AQAP's production of English-language propaganda, were killed in an October 2011 U.S. drone strike in Yemen.
Leadership and Funding
In a 2010 counterterrorism policy paper, Barak Barfi, a research fellow with the New America Foundation, notes that AQAP is hierarchical (PDF), compartmentalized, and highly decentralized, allowing it to withstand attacks and arrests and still continue to operate. The group has also mastered recruitment through propaganda and media campaigns. A bimonthly AQAP magazine in Arabic, Sada al-Malahim (the Echo of Battles), is tailored to a Yemeni audience and offers theological support and praise for jihadists.
AQAP is often cited as the jihadist franchise ideologically closest to the al-Qaeda core (Stratfor) due to many of its members' history with Osama bin Laden. Nasir al Wuhayshi, who served as bin Laden's chief personal secretary, is believed to be the leader of AQAP. Wuhayshi was rumored killed in August 2011, but his death remains unconfirmed. Bill Roggio of the Long War Journal reports that under Wuhayshi's orders, AQAP created Ansar al Sharia, the political front for its operations in south Yemen. U.S. intelligence officials have also said that if alive, Wuhayshi would be a "top contender" to assume command of al-Qaeda's global network should its leadership in Pakistan suffer defeat.
Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri (BBC) is the organization's chief bomb maker, believed responsible for making explosives for the failed Christmas Day attack in 2009 and the foiled airliner bomb plot in May 2012.
It remains difficult to accurately count AQAP's membership--some experts estimate a few hundred individuals. Financing for the al-Qaeda network as a whole, according to U.S. officials, comes from sources that include bank robberies, kidnappings, drug proceeds, and phony charities. A December 2009 classified memo from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indicated donors in Saudi Arabia were "the most significant source" of funding to Sunni terrorist groups (NYT), including al-Qaeda.
Yemen's Troubled Landscape
Yemen faces ongoing political and economic challenges that will shape the threat posed by AQAP in the coming years. According to the Congressional Research Service, more than 40 percent of the country's twenty-three million people live in poverty, and Yemen is largely dependent on foreign aid. Several international agencies warned in May 2012 that Yemen is on the verge of a "catastrophic food crisis" (AFP) requiring immediate attention. Limited natural resources (including fresh water), low literacy rates, high unemployment, and rapid population growth put the country at great risk of becoming a failed state.
The new government of President Hadi, who replaced Saleh in February 2012, is weak outside Sanaa and faces an entrenched opposition, including members of the former regime. The Hadi administration is charged with several significant political tasks, any one of which could derail the two-year transition process outlined in the Gulf Cooperation Council plan (YemenObserver). These include restructuring the military (perhaps the most difficult), holding a national dialogue, redrafting the constitution, and holding parliamentary and presidential elections.
Western capitals fear a secessionist movement in the south, known as al-Herak (Reuters), could push the country toward civil war and provide AQAP with an ideal environment in which to further recruit and expand its operations. Since May 2011, the military has led an offensive against an al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist uprising in the southern province of Abyan (al-Jazeera). "Though AQAP may still be plotting international terrorist attacks, the group's leadership has clearly decided to launch a wide scale domestic insurgency and transform AQAP from an al-Qaeda affiliate to a more Taliban-like movement as well," says CRS.
The Countering Terrorism Center, on the other hand, says that while AQAP may gain greater operational latitude in some parts of the country, other opposition groups, "virtually all of whom enjoy far more support than AQAP," will serve as natural offsets to al-Qaeda and help marginalize their jihadist message.
U.S. Policy in Yemen
The United States paid little attention to AQAP, and Yemen in general, until the attacks on the USS Cole and the events of 9/11. In the wake of the failed 2009 Christmas Day plot, the Obama administration ordered a major review of U.S. policy toward Yemen that led to a three-fold strategy: focusing on combating AQAP in the short term, increasing development assistance in the long term, and organizing international support for stabilization efforts.
The U.S. campaign of targeted killings of AQAP members is likely to expand with the construction of several secret drone bases in the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa.
In January 2010, the Obama administration officially designated AQAP a Foreign Terrorist Organization, and several leaders of the organization have subsequently been placed on U.S. State Department sanctions list (UPI). The sanctions attempt to disrupt the network of financial support for terrorists and terrorist organizations.
The United States has collaborated with Yemen on counterterrorism for a number of years, but the Saleh regime's violent crackdown on protestors in 2011 strained this relationship to the breaking point. Events culminated in May 2011 with the U.S. backing of the GCC transition initiative that removed Saleh from power. Despite the political turmoil associated with regime change, U.S. officials have stated they expect counterterrorism operations in Yemen to continue.
In May 2012, the Obama administration issued an executive order that threatens to sanction Yemeni individuals who attempt to disrupt the political transition under President Hadi. "The U.S. needs President Hadi in order to move away from President Saleh's regime so that it can do what it wants in Yemen, which is to target al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," said Johnsen. "Hadi needs the U.S. because (he) himself doesn't have a very strong base of support within Yemen."
The U.S. campaign of targeted killings of AQAP members is likely to expand with the construction of several secret drone bases in the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa. As of early 2012, drone strikes in Yemen are on the rise (WashPost).
In the long term, Soufan says, "You have to counter the [al-Qaeda] narrative, the ideology," and prevent them "from becoming part of opposition society."
This CFR backgrounder explores targeted killings, which have become a central component of U.S. counterterrorism operations around the globe. Despite pointed criticism over transparency and accountability issues, analysts say the controversial practice seems likely to expand in the future.
This report from the Congressional Research Service provides background on U.S. relations with Yemen and an analysis of the impoverished country's evolving political situation, including prospects for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.