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 date to the early 1990s, when thousands of mujahedeen returned to Yemen after fighting the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. Analysts rate the Yemen-based group as the most lethal Qaeda franchise, carrying out a domestic insurgency while maintaining its sights on striking Western targets. As the ranks of so-called "al-Qaeda central" in Pakistan have thinned, the umbrella organization's core may shift to Yemen. In August 2013, indications of an AQAP-sponsored plot led to the closure of more than two dozen U.S. diplomatic facilities across the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia.
Yemen, long a fractured and fragile country, is increasingly so since the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in February 2012. AQAP has exploited the instability, establishing a domestic insurgency based in the south. Meanwhile, the United States has expanded counterterrorism operations—particularly drone strikes—in the area. Experts question whether President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi's transitional government can pull back the impoverished country from the brink of failure.
A Legacy of Jihad
In the late 1980s, the Saleh regime fostered jihad in what was then North Yemen by repatriating thousands of Yemeni nationals who had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. Saleh dispatched these mujahadeen to fight the Soviet-backed Marxist government of South Yemen in a successful bid for unification, and subsequently, to crush southern secessionists.
The returning Yemenis were joined by other Arab veterans of the Afghan war, foremost among them Osama bin Laden, who advocated a central role for Yemen in global jihad. A corps of jihadists who had trained under bin Laden in Afghanistan formed the militant group Islamic Jihad in Yemen (1990-1994), one of several AQAP predecessors. 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, which was moored in the port of Aden. Seventeen U.S. servicemen were killed. Two years later, another suicide bombing orchestrated by AQY, on the French oil tanker M/V Limburg, killed one crew member and further highlighted the threat to Western interests in the region. Several 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 pressed the Saleh government to begin aggressive counterterrorism operations against AQY. Many analysts believe Saleh may have stoked the jihadist threat—perhaps facilitating prison escapes of convicted terrorists—to ensure Western backing for his embattled regime, which viewed northern insurgents and southern secessionists as a greater threat than al-Qaeda.
Washington dispatched Special Forces and intelligence personnel to Yemen to aid the counterterrorism campaign. A U.S. drone strike in 2002, the first such operation in the region, killed AQY's leader, Abu Ali al-Harithi. By the end of 2003, AQY faced a precipitous membership decline.
In February 2006, twenty-three convicted terrorists escaped from a high-security prison in the capital of Sana'a, a 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. Among them was Nasser al-Wuhayshi, who today leads AQAP.
In late 2008, a crackdown by the Saudi government led remnants of the local al-Qaeda franchise there to flee across the border and unite with the resurgent jihad in Yemen. The two branches merged in 2009.
The U.S. State Department estimates the organization has "close to a thousand members." This represents dramatic growth from some two-to-three-hundred members in 2009, Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen notes, even as so-called al-Qaeda central, based in Pakistan, has declined.
AQAP has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks in the region since 2006. These have included the failed August 2009 assassination attempt on Saudi prince Mohammed bin Nayef; an attack on the U.S. embassy in Sana'a in 2008; attacks on Italian and British embassies; suicide bombings targeting Belgian tourists in January 2008 and Korean tourists in March 2009; bombings of oil pipelines and production facilities; and the bombing of a Japanese oil tanker in April 2008. In May 2012, a suicide bomber killed more than ninety Yemeni soldiers rehearsing for a military parade in the capital of Sana'a, the largest attack since Hadi assumed power in early 2012.
AQAP has also attempted, unsuccessfully, to strike the U.S. homeland: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to bomb a Detroit-bound jet on Christmas Day, 2009, but failed due to a technical malfunction; two attempts to down Chicago-bound cargo planes with bombs disguised as printer cartridges were intercepted in October 2010 based on Saudi intelligence; and a May 2012 attempted bombing of a U.S.-bound airliner was foiled by a double agent.*
More than half of the 166 prisoners held in the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay are Yemenis, and President Barack Obama's long-standing pledge to shut down the facility is contingent on repatriating them. But some U.S. lawmakers have objected, raising concern about the prisoners' return to the battlefield through detention and reintegration programs.
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 Sana'a; 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.
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. The U.S.-born Anwar al-Awlaki and Pakistani-American Samir Khan were central figures in AQAP's production of propaganda aimed at Western audiences. Though they were killed in an October 2011 U.S. drone strike, their English-language propaganda magazine Inspire continues to be published. U.S. Major Nidal Hasan exchanged emails with Awlaki prior to his shooting rampage at the U.S. Army's Fort Hood in 2009.
Analysts say that AQAP's messaging attracts recruits by "minimiz[ing] global jihad while emphasizing national struggle," focusing on jihad as an answer to local grievances while remaining focused on what jihadists call the "far enemy"—the United States, particularly for its unholy alliance with Saudi Arabia.
Leadership and Funding
AQAP is hierarchical [PDF], compartmentalized, and decentralized, analysts say, which allows it to withstand attacks and arrests.
Wuhayshi, AQAP's leader, served as bin Laden's aide-de-camp in Afghanistan for some four years. He was reportedly appointed "general manager" of al-Qaeda by Ayman al-Zwahiri, bin Laden's successor, in July 2013. In this capacity, Long War Journal's Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio report, he is "positioned to coordinate the activities of al-Qaeda's robust affiliates in the heart of the Middle East and Africa," and "make sure that the regional affiliates continue to devote some of their assets to targeting the West."
Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, the organization's chief bomb maker, made explosives for the failed 2009 Christmas Day bombing, demonstrating the technical capacity to avoid typical airport detection and strike at the United States.
Financing for the al-Qaeda network, according to U.S. officials, comes from sources such as 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, 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. One of the poorest Arab countries, Yemen had a poverty rate of 54.5 percent in 2012, the World Bank estimates. Rapid population growth has heightened pressure on natural resources—especially water—and public services. Unemployment is rampant.
As the Arab Spring protests spread to Yemen in 2011, Saleh moved troops deployed throughout the country to Sana'a in a last-minute bid for survival. Amid the ensuing security vacuum in the south, Islamist militias seized territory in the southern province of Abyan. Ansar al-Sharia, an Islamist insurgent group that analysts say is either a rebranding of AQAP or a nationalist-Islamist insurgency more loosely affiliated with AQAP, declared Abyan an Islamic emirate. The "Taliban-like insurgent movement" [PDF] has restored social services, repaired infrastructure, and established sharia courts.
The transitional government of President Hadi is weak outside Sana'a and faces an entrenched opposition, including members of the former regime, as well as an insurgency in the north and secession movement in the south. The Hadi administration faces a delicate balancing act as it fulfills the requirements of the Gulf Cooperation Council-sponsored (and U.S.-backed) transition plan. These include restructuring the military, redrafting the constitution, and holding parliamentary and presidential elections. The National Dialogue, mandated by the GCC to hammer out a power-sharing agreement between Sana'a and the province, is set to present a list of grievances, reforms, and recommendations for a new constitutional system in the fall of 2013. Hadi says that if the dialogue fails, civil war may ensue—creating further instability for AQAP and Ansar al-Sharia to exploit.
U.S. Policy in Yemen
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: combating AQAP in the short term, increasing development assistance in the long term, and organizing international support for stabilization efforts.
In January 2010, the Obama administration designated AQAP a foreign terrorist organization, and amended the order to include Ansar al-Sharia after a May 2012 suicide bombing killed ninety-six in Sana'a. The United Nations has maintained sanctions on AQAP's leadership since 2010.
The United States collaborated with Yemen on counterterrorism since the Cole bombing and 9/11 attacks, but the Saleh regime's violent crackdown on protestors in 2011 strained the relationship. Events culminated in May 2011 with the U.S. backing of the GCC transition initiative that removed Saleh from power. In May 2012, the Obama administration issued an executive order threatening sanctions on individuals who disrupted the political transition under President Hadi. Hadi maintains strong relations with the United States, analysts say, because his domestic base is not particularly strong.
The U.S. campaign of targeted killings expanded with the construction of secret bases in the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa. As intercepted communications in the summer of 2013 led the United States to believe AQAP was spearheading an al-Qaeda plot, the United States closed over two dozen diplomatic facilities, accompanying the precautionary measure with a significant escalation of the drone campaign. The United States expanded its target list to include lower-level militants (as opposed to operational leaders), carrying out nine strikes.
In all, the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) have carried out seventy-nine drone strikes in Yemen under the Obama administration (the Bush administration carried out one, in 2002). Conservative estimates suggest 386 enemy and 84 civilian casualties, while the New America Foundation, compiling local and international news reports, puts the total killed between 630 and 876 as of August 13, 2013.
Despite tactical successes, including the killing of Awlaki, Khan, and possibly Said al-Shihri, who, after his release from Guantanamo Bay, rose to AQAP's number-two position, critics challenge the strategic wisdom of drone strikes. Some analysts argue that they engender anti-Americanism, alienate populations from the Yemeni government, and make aggrieved kinsmen of victims sympathetic to AQAP, perversely swelling AQAP's ranks. Signature strikes, in which targets are chosen based on behavioral profiles, remain particularly contentious.
*A previous version of this Backgrounder attributed an attempted 2010 car bombing in Times Square to AQAP. The would-be attacker, Faisal Shahzad, was reportedly inspired by Awlaki's English-language propaganda, but had no contact with AQAP.