Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

FormedJanuary 2009
DisbandedGroup is active.
First AttackMarch 15, 2009: AQAP claimed responsibility for killing four South Korean tourists with a suicide bomb in the city of Shibam in southeast Yemen. (4 killed, 4 wounded). [1]
Last AttackApril 16, 2015: Taking advantage of the chaos in Yemen during the civil conflict between the Houthis, the government, and other Yemeni forces, AQAP seized the Riyan Airport near the city of Mukalla in southern Yemen. [2]
UpdatedMay 12, 2015

Narrative Summary

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was formed in 2009, when the Saudi and Yemeni branches of Al Qaeda (AQ) merged in Yemen after Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism efforts drove AQ’s Saudi branch across the Yemeni border. [3] The roots of the organization reach back to the 1990s, when mujahideen who had been fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan, including both Yemenis and foreigners whose own countries refused to let them return, resettled in Yemen and were repatriated by the ruling Saleh regime. While most of these former mujahideen became integrated in Yemeni society, a small group remained determined to carry out violet jihad. Some reportedly cooperated with the regime to fight the Marxist government in Southern Yemen until the country was unified, while others fought for the opposition. Osama bin Laden was among a group of foreign Afghan veterans who resettled in Yemen. Bin Laden began training and financing jihadists in the country in the early 1990s, and formed a militant group called Islamic Jihad in Yemen, which lasted from 1990-1994 and was a predecessor to AQAP. [4] [5]

Another more direct predecessor group was Al Qaeda in Yemen (AQY). AQY members were responsible for the bombing of the USS Cole in addition to other attacks in the early 2000s, but U.S. and Yemeni counterterrorism efforts largely incapacitated the group by 2003. [6] It wasn’t until Qasim al-Raymi and Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who would soon become AQAP’s leader, escaped a high security prison in Sana’a in 2006 that AQY began to recover and carry out attacks again. After ongoing Saudi Arabian crackdowns, many members of Al Qaeda fled to the Yemeni border and in 2009, AQAP was officially established. [7]  (See AQY profile for more information on AQY.)

AQAP announced its formation in a video made by Wuhayshi, Raymi and Said Ali al-Shihri, a Saudi national who was released from Guantanamo Bay in November 2007. The three members announced that Al Qaeda’s branch in Saudi Arabia and AQY would merge to create the new AQAP. Raymi and Shihri pledged allegiance to Wuhayshi, and suggested that AQAP would also include the Yemen Soldiers Brigade, another AQ franchise in Yemen. [8] The merger was acknowledged by Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. [9] Four days later the group released a 19-minute video titled: "We Start from Here and We Will Meet at al-Aqsa," outlining their goals and ideology.  [10]

Following the merger, AQAP officially began to launch and claim attacks within and beyond Yemen’s borders. In August 2009, an AQAP suicide bomber attempted to assassinate Saudi prince Mohammed bin Nayef, but failed. On October 29, 2010 AQAP hid parcel bombs on cargo planes sent to a U.S. address, but the plot was foiled. Although the plot failed to result in casualties, it drew more global attention to AQAP and led some analysts to consider it more dangerous than even Al Qaeda’s core headquartered in Pakistan. [11] AQAP was also accused of training Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, commonly known as the “underwear bomber,” who attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound plane by injecting chemicals into a package of Pentrite explosive in his underwear on Christmas Day of 2009. This attack solidified fears that AQAP had become a global threat, and prompted the U.S. to increase development aid to Yemen. [12] However, even with funding to combat the group, AQAP remained highly active. Many Yemenis suspect that the government, in spite of its collaboration with the U.S., also maintained ties with AQAP. This alleged relationship could partly explain its resilience. [13]

The group’s threat is also evident through their propaganda mechanisms, as they have improved recruitment measures through media campaigns. AQAP issues a bimonthly magazine, Sada al-Malahim (“The Echo of Battles”), which is tailored to Yemeni audiences and publishes fatwas and praises jihadists. [14]. AQAP also produces English propaganda aimed at a Western audience through Inspire magazine, a project initiated by U.S.-born Anwar al-Awlaki and Pakistani-American Samir Khan. [15]. Despite the deaths of Awlaki and Khan in an American drone strike in 2011, the magazine continues to be published and remains influential. [16] [17].

In 2011, AQAP leaders established an offshoot organization called Ansar al-Shariah Yemen (ASY) in southern Yemen. [18] ASY is an admitted rebranding attempt by AQAP leadership, which claimed that the change was meant to attract more Yemenis to Shariah rule. [19] The U.S. State Department has listed the name as an alias for AQAP. [20] ASY was strong at its outset, taking over parts of southern Yemen by spring 2011 and holding them for over a year. The group was successful during its governance of the area, providing services like electricity and water in addition to enforcing Shariah law, before an anti-militant government offensive drove its members out. [21]


While the Saudis were able to dislodge AQAP from their country in 2008, doing the same in Yemen has proved to be more difficult. [22] Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, has described AQAP as "the most active operational franchise" of Al Qaeda beyond Pakistan and Afghanistan. There have been growing military campaigns against AQAP which include drone strikes and efforts by U.S. special operation troops deployed in Yemen but despite the efforts, the group continues to grow.

AQAP claimed responsibility for the January 2015 attack on the Paris headquarters of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which killed twelve people. [23] While it is unclear how involved the group actually was in the planning of the attack, it was confirmed that one of the gunmen had trained in Yemen. [24]

The conflict in Yemen, which erupted in February and March of 2015, has given AQAP room to expand. From its base in the south and southeast, AQAP has fought against both the sitting government and the Houthi rebels. [25] In April 2015, AQAP seized an airport and a port on the Gulf of Aden and freed up to 300 members from prison. The withdrawal of American intelligence officers from the country in April 2015 amidst growing security concerns has reduced the number of American drone strikes that prior, had been relatively effective in limiting the group’s movements. [26] [27] However, facing new enemies in the Houthis and rivals in ISIS affiliates that have joined the fight in Yemen, it remains to be seen whether or not the conflict will continue to benefit AQAP.

Leadership

  1. Nasser al-Wuhayshi (2009 to Present): Wuhayshi, also known as Abu Basir, is the current AQAP leader, and also reportedly serves as a general manager of AQ. Reports of his death in 2011 were unsubstantiated.[28]
  2. Qasim al-Raymi (2009 to Present): Raymi, also known as Abu Hurayra, is the current military commander of AQAP. Raymi has been reported dead multiple times, most recently in 2011. However, he was proven alive when he appeared in a 2013 video apologizing for a deadly AQAP attack on a hospital in Yemen.[29]
  3. Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri (2009 to Present): Asiri is a bomb maker for AQAP believed to be responsible for creating some of the most high-profile AQAP bombs, such as those used in the attempted assassination of Saudi prince Mohammed bin Nayef and the attempted bombing of an airplane en route to Detroit, both in 2009.[30]
  4. Nayif Mohammed Saeed al-Qhatani (2009 to April 2010): Qhatani was a senior leader in AQAP, responsible for establishing AQ cells and training camps in both Yemen and Saudi Arabia. He is known for serving as a connection between the Yemeni and Saudi branches of AQ before the merger. Qhatani was killed in a shootout with Saudi security forces in April 2010.[31]
  5. Anwar al-Awlaki (2009 to September 30, 2011): Awlaki, a dual American and Yemeni citizen and the group's chief ideologue, was killed by an American drone strike in Southern Yemen in 2011, setting off a national debate on the legality of killing American citizens without a trial.[32]
  6. Said Ali al-Shihri (2009 to September 10, 2012): Shihri, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, became AQAP's deputy emir and held that post until he was killed in a military operation in Yemen in September 2012. Shihri was responsible for determining targets, recruiting new members, planning attacks, and assisting in operational support for carrying out attacks.[33]

Ideology & Goals

AQAP has a global jihadist agenda.  The group seeks to expel foreigners from the Arabian Peninsula and spread jihad to Israel to "liberate Muslim holy sites and brethren in Gaza." [34] AQAP also condemns Arab leaders who have imposed blockades on Palestine and promises to save imprisoned jihadists in Saudi Arabia. [35]

AQAP, in conjunction with Al Qaeda, strives to create an Islamic caliphate through the unification of states in the Arabian Peninsula. [36] According to general Al Qaeda ideology, "Al Qaeda will mobilize four armies that will march from the periphery of the Muslim world to the heart of Palestine: one army from Pakistan and Afghanistan, one from Iraq, one from Yemen, and the last from the Levant.” AQAP asserts that it will form the army that will be sent from Yemen. [37] As outlined by Osama bin Laden, America and the West are Islam’s main enemies, and Saudi Arabia and Palestine are under "crusader Zionist occupation." It does not consider itself to be a part of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State, contrary to his claim to Yemen in 2014. [38]

AQAP also works to marginalize Shiites, especially the Houthis in Northern Yemen. The group accused Houthi insurgents of fighting to impose Shiite religious law in Yemen, an endeavor that AQAP believes Iran is backing. [39]

Size Estimates

AQAP is comprised of Yemenis, Saudis, and foreign fighters. [40] As of 2010, roughly 56% of the group was Yemeni, 37% was Saudi, and 7% was otherwise foreign. The group's fighters include veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and international recruits who attended religious schools in Yemen. [41]

Designated/Listed

AQAP's top leaders, Nasser al-Wuhayshi and Said al-Shihri, were designated under E.O. 13224, as was American-Yemeni recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki. These designations prohibit the supply of material support and weapons to AQAP and include immigration restrictions in an attempt to stop the flow of finances to AQAP. They also give the Department of Justice the necessary jurisdiction to prosecute AQAP members. [48] [49] All three were also listed by the UN on a list of individuals associated with Al Qaeda or the Taliban, subjecting them and the organization as a whole to asset freezes, travel bans, and an arms embargo. [50] 

Resources

Before Saudi Arabia's crackdown, AQAP received considerable funding from Islamic charities. Though the Saudis clamped down on charities by tightening money transfer rules, AQAP was also funded by cash donations from wealthy individuals, a process which is much harder to track. [51] AQAP has proved that it does not require considerable resources to be effective, as their tactics are often low cost, such as an October 2010 parcel bomb attempt, which was suspected of costing less than $500 to engineer and deliver. [52]

AQAP’s funding today primarily comes from robberies and kidnappings for ransom and, to a lesser degree, from donations from like-minded supporters. [53] AQAP is said to have extorted up to $20 million in ransom money as per 2013 estimates. [54]

Geographical Locations

AQAP is headquartered in southern and southeastern Yemen. [55] In 1996, after spending time training militants there, Osama bin Laden identified the country as an ideal location to base Al Qaeda, should he be ousted from the mountainous regions of Afghanistan, citing its tribal society, its mountainous geography, and its armed people. [56]

Targets & Tactics

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula resorts to both conventional and unconventional methods to attack its enemies and recruit members. The group makes use of IEDs, kidnappings, shooting attacks, mail bombs, and bombs on planes. The group has also dissuaded dissenters from rising up against AQAP by assassinating local officials who showed signs of disapproval. [57]

AQAP uses non-violent methods to garner international support and release threats. Publications like Inspire, AQAP’s English publication, and the Arabic-language magazine Sada al-Malahim (“The Echo of Battles”) are aimed at expanding AQ’s network and recruiting fighters. In particular, Inspire justifies campaigns of violence against the West and encourages lone wolf attacks by providing how-to manuals, bomb-making instructions, and contact information to enable recruits to connect to the Al Qaeda network. [58] AQAP’s leadership states that it is not necessary to carry out large-scale 9/11 attacks that require sophisticated planning and tactics. Instead, the group promotes conducting smaller operations, where less is at stake. According to them, if several attacks succeed, the cumulative effect will bring down the U.S. confidence in security and have negative impacts on its economy.[59]

In the region, AQAP targets foreigners and security forces as part of their scheme to overthrow Saudi and Yemeni governments and establish an Islamic caliphate. Abroad, the group also targets the United States, as seen with the Christmas day bomber who attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound flight. AQAP views Israel as one of its main enemies in the region, and also targets U.S. allies in Europe. For example, AQAP claimed responsibility for the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack. [60] The group also has attacked British diplomats in Yemen, asserting that their attacks are justified because Britain is "the main ally of America in the war against Islam" and "gave the Jews control over the land of Palestine." [61]

Political Activities

AQAP aspires to overthrow the Saudi Arabian and Yemeni regimes and establish an Islamic theocracy. Officially, AQAP refuses to engage with the Yemeni government. However, despite the counterterrorism efforts claimed by former President of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh who held office from 1990 to 2012, some experts believe that Saleh may have fueled jihadist threats by working with AQAP in order to ensure Western backing for his regime. [62] Further, in 2009 Saleh was accused of recruiting AQAP militants to suppress a southern rebellion movement in return for releasing jihadist prisoners.[63]

Major Attacks

  1. March 15, 2009: AQAP claimed responsibility for killing four South Korean tourists with a suicide bomb in the city of Shibam, southeast Yemen. (4 killed, 4 wounded).[64]
  2. March 18, 2009: AQAP claimed responsibility for a suicide bomber who targeted a South Korean delegation traveling to the airport in Sana'a to investigate the Shibam terrorist attack. The bomber walked in between the two vehicles but failed to kill to the delegates. (1 killed, 1 wounded).[65]
  3. June 12, 2009: AQAP abducted nine foreigners (four German adults, three German children, a British man and a South Korean woman) who were outside the city of Saada. Three were executed, the children were released, and the whereabouts of the others are unknown. (3+ killed, unknown wounded).[66]
  4. August 27, 2009: AQAP attempted to assassinate Saudi Assistant Minister of Interior for Security Affairs Prince Mohammed bin Nayef through a suicide bombing. Nayef was only slightly wounded and the bomber died in the blast. (1 killed, 1 wounded).[67]
  5. December 25, 2009: AQAP was accused of training Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, “the underwear bomber,” who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound plane by injecting chemicals into a package of pentrite explosive in his underwear mid-flight. (No casualties).[68]
  6. April 26, 2010: An AQAP suicide bomber detonated in front of the convoy of the British Ambassador to Yemen, Timothy Torlot. (1 killed, 3 wounded).[69]
  7. October 2010: AQAP militants shot two rocket propelled grenades at the car carrying Fiona Gibb, Britain's second highest ranking diplomat in Yemen. (0 killed, 3 wounded).[70]
  8. October 29, 2010: AQAP hid bombs in packages shipped from Yemen to synagogues in Chicago. The bombs were discovered aboard cargo planes in Dubai and London. (No casualties).[71]
  9. February 25, 2012: AQAP claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing that targeted Republican Guard troops camp in Bayda. (26 killed, unknown wounded).[72]
  10. May 21, 2012: A suicide bombing attack targeted a military parade in Sana’a (96 killed, 300 wounded).[73]
  11. December 5, 2013: An attack targeted a hospital at the Defense Ministry complex. No group claimed the attack initially, but AQAP issued an apology for the attack shortly after. (56 killed, unknown wounded).[74]
  12. January 6, 2014: AQAP attacked military bases in central Yemen in the town of Rada'a in Baydah province. (10 killed, unknown wounded).[75]
  13. October 16, 2014: A car bomb targeted Houthi areas in Yemen. (15 killed, 12 wounded).[76]
  14. January 7, 2015: Brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi, allegedly affiliated with and trained in Yemen by AQAP, attacked French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters in Paris. (12 killed, unknown wounded).[77]
  15. April 16, 2015: Taking advantage of the chaos in Yemen during the civil conflict between the Houthis, the government, and other Yemeni forces, AQAP seized the Riyan Airport near the city of Mukalla in southern Yemen. (Unknown casualties).[78]

Relationships with Other Groups

AQAP is loyal to AQ’s core leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan. [79] AQAP announced support for ISIS and offered advice to the group in a statement made on its website in August 2014. [80] In November of that year, however, AQAP declared Baghdadi’s caliphate illegitimate and refuted him after he claimed that Yemen was a part of his Islamic State, although it is likely that not all AQAP members support the decision to stand against ISIS. [81]

In April 2010, after AQAP officially established its base in Yemen, Somali government officials claimed that AQAP made contacts with Hizbul Islam and Al Shabab. Somali Minister of the Treasury Abdirahman Omar Osman stated that twelve AQ officials entered Somalia from Yemen to bring monetary assistance to bolster Al Shabab's recruitment capabilities. [82] The strength of the two groups' relationship is unclear; however, in February 2010 AQAP leader Said al-Shihri announced Bab el-Mandab Strait as a strategic target due to its high flow of oil transit traffic. He stated that AQAP "is looking to control the strait with the help of Somali mujahedeen to achieve global influence." [83] In addition, US officials believe that AQAP has shared its chemical bomb-making capacities with other militant groups, including Al-Shabab.[84]

Community Relationships

After being ousted from Saudi Arabia in 2006, some analysts claim that AQAP has depended on a strong relationship with the community in Yemen for recruitment and protection. Analysts cite high unemployment rates, high rates of poverty, and dwindling supplies of oil and water as reasons why Yemeni local tribes have reportedly provided a safe haven and fertile recruiting grounds to AQAP. AQAP has actively worked to win favor in local communities to weave the group into the fabric of Yemeni society. Such efforts include marrying AQAP members into local tribes and providing social and financial assistance to the country's areas plagued by abject poverty. AQAP provides services for the community such as digging wells, paying for medical treatments for locals, even paying monthly allowances to poor widows. [85] In addition, AQAP pays higher than market price for commodities such as goats. [86] In exchange for these services, some local tribesmen have allowed AQAP to recruit their sons and provided shelter for AQAP, blending insurgents into Yemeni local populations.

However, some analysts disagree about how deeply AQAP is entrenched in Yemeni society. For example, the New York Times has argued that the number of tribal leaders that have welcomed AQAP is very low, and asserts that several tribes have banished AQAP members from their areas. [87] Further, AQAP’s recruits have been historically small in number, in part due to the differences between AQAP’s ideology of violent jihad and the local culture’s way of handling conflict. [88]

AQAP has also attempted to appeal to a broad audience by exploiting local frustrations to attract new members. The group focused recruitment videos on corruption and the failing Yemeni government rather than global jihad. More recently, AQAP’s communications have been focused on unity against “enemies of Islam,” such as the U.S., Europe, and Iran, while also issuing messages that support al-Zawahiri. [89] AQAP has also been galvanizing Sunni Muslims in Yemen against the Houthis, who they claim are supported by Iran.


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