Southeastern Yemeni city of Mukalla, 2014.
Since the beginning of Yemen’s civil war in 2015, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been manoeuvring to position itself as one of the strongest fighting groups in the country. It is now arguably one of al-Qaeda’s most important players. Although the mantle of notoriety has passed to ISIS, together with the focused efforts of policymakers, militaries, and the media, conflict has allowed AQAP to thrive, especially in Yemen’s south, where it has doubled down on its bid to assert itself.
In 2017, the group has conducted suicide attacks and car bombings on pro-government soldiers. Although the US targets AQAP in the country with drones and has issued a 5 million dollar reward for the capture of its leader, Qasim al-Raimi, the group survives and uses multiple tactics to recruit and proliferate its ideology. The high-stakes Yemeni civil war has become imbued with proxy warfare and geopolitics, with Iran backing the Houthis while battling with Saudi Arabia for regional influence. This mix has given AQAP room and land to rebuild.
Part of AQAP’s reinvention is its positioning as a more moderate organisation than ISIS. In a narrative prevalent across Muslim-majority conflict zones, according to which foreign forces are invaders of Muslim lands, AQAP, which mainly targets government installations and soldiers over civilians, can play on this global rhetoric to recruit. ISIS, which has a small presence in the country but has killed civilians, has been far more extreme than AQAP, although they share some long-term goals, such as establishing a state based on sharia law.
AQAP positions itself as a lesser evil. As in Somalia, where al-Shabaab, a group loyal to al-Qaeda, mainly targets the government and militaries and attempts to provide social services, AQAP tries to play a role in Yemeni society. While ISIS has gained the world’s attention for its global presence and recruiting power, AQAP has been able to learn from its and ISIS’ mistakes. As well as wreaking terror, the group in Yemen is trying to win hearts and minds.
Local issues add to AQAP’s pulling power. In Yemen’s south, the group filled the security void in which separatists, tribes, and government forces backed by foreign militaries fight each other. Although the group withdrew from the coastal city of Mukalla in 2016 in the face of a UAE offensive, AQAP reportedly looted multiple banks and profited from taxes, before removing itself from the city, claiming to be leaving to protect residents. The group moved to neighbouring provinces, beginning offensives on other areas and claiming the UAE was “the hired gun” of the United States.
By moving into less governed areas, AQAP has had the space to strengthen its ideology and base. In the absence of social services such as schools, hospitals, and aid supplies, the group is attempting to exert semblances of governance. For many years in Yemen, al-Qaeda has been a powerful force in politics, nationally and locally, integrating with native traditions. Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is now managing a fragile alliance with the Shia Houthi movement, used al-Qaeda to consolidate some of his power and reach in the country. AQAP has multiple links with tribes and power brokers, giving it greater legitimacy than other extremist groups.
AQAP’s long-term presence in Yemen has always been a barrier to security. Al-Raimi claimed in May 2017 that it was fighting alongside all Muslims in the country, including the Muslim Brotherhood and sons of Sunni tribes. Sectarian tension is one of AQAP’s greatest recruiting tools in Yemen. The success of the Iranian-supported Houthis in the north has allowed AQAP to spin its rhetoric into fighting and stopping the spread of this Shia movement. By feeding on these divides, and in the absence of attention, AQAP has revived al-Qaeda’s reputation and prospered. The group’s pragmatism has allowed it to adapt into Yemen’s political circles and work with other nonextreme Sunni Islamists. This provides AQAP with respect and legitimacy among Yemen’s influential tribal leaders and local politicians and some of the country’s populace.
This doubling down raises several issues. If the war against the Houthis, led by Saudi Arabia, ends in a Saudi victory, Riyadh may have to turn its attention to AQAP. On 3 October, the Saudi envoy to the UN called for renewed efforts at a political settlement in Yemen, but the government in Riyadh has given little indication that it will reduce its military campaign. If AQAP decides to fight both the Saudi-led coalition and a new Yemeni government, peace in the country will take longer to achieve. Even a Saudi- and internationally backed government must have the support of Yemen’s population, or the country risks a continuing civil war.
AQAP’s influence in powerful circles may prevent unity, and deals will have to be struck. Given the US position that al-Qaeda in Yemen is a threat to American security, direct arbitration with the extremist group is unlikely. A nuanced and localised approach must be taken if AQAP’s influence is to be reduced and rendered obsolete. Security and governance must be improved in rural regions and autonomous areas if a unified Yemen is to be restored. But with resources stretched in the fight against the Houthis and various militias, this looks improbable.
The strength of AQAP may also pose an international threat. Inspire, an English-language magazine that the group produces, is aimed at readers beyond the Arabian Peninsula. AQAP has threatened the US and uses American aggression, including airstrikes in Yemen, to rally militants. The group also uses the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar to give itself some legitimacy, by piggy-backing on pan-Islamic sympathy with the Rohingya. This is an aspect of radicalisation that AQAP and others capitalise on. The perceived absence of strong international action against injustices allows extremist groups to criticise the west and validate their worldview.
AQAP’s integration of a new figurehead, Hamza bin Laden, who recently released a message issuing a call to arms against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has given the extremist movement a fresh face. Bin Laden, the son of former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, has the pedigree and clout to unify jihadi movements and claim financial and physical support from benefactors. More recently, al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released a message calling for jihadis all over the world to stage attacks against the US. Zawahiri stressed the global nature of the movement despite the seemingly decentralised workings of his organisation. As ISIS disintegrates under international pressures, a rejigged international al-Qaeda may be the one to watch.
In Yemen, the civil war will not be solved without looking at AQAP. Yemenis and the international community must counter the group’s ideological recruiting power with nuance and through informed conversations with its supporters in the country. The Saudi-led coalition and the US should oppose AQAP’s political power in tandem with its military and insurgent abilities if there is any hope of containing violence in Yemen and beyond. The US sees AQAP as a threat and is using drones to counter it. Although this will harm the group physically, it will not stop it entirely. AQAP is not just an al-Qaeda partner in the Arabian Peninsula, it is a centre for propaganda and ideology, and is quickly becoming a structural role model for others.