Though eclipsed in international attention by the Syrian civil war, AQAP has long been one of the most prolific and effective jihadi groups in the world. AQAP has had international reach since its formation, while remaining rooted in its Yemeni heartlands.
Al-Qaeda has always been closely associated with Yemen. The Arab units in the Afghan jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s – which proved the seedbed of al-Qaeda and other jihadi groups – contained a large contingent of Yemenis. Many of them returned to Yemen peacefully after 1989, some to be co-opted by the government. Others stayed with Bin Laden in the newly formed al-Qaeda after 1989, first in Sudan and later in Afghanistan; others returned to their homes to await further orders.
Al-Qaeda has always been closely associated with Yemen.
Such orders were not long in coming: the first known al-Qaeda attack was carried out in Aden, a globally strategic port in southern Yemen, in 1992. US troops were stationed in the city en route to their humanitarian mission in Somalia. Bin Laden – furious at the presence of US troops in the Arabian Peninsula and focused on a Prophetic injunction to "expel the infidels from the Arabian peninsula" – was determined that a significant attack would force a withdrawal. On 29 December that year, a Yemeni cell detonated bombs at two hotels, killing an Austrian tourist and a Yemeni hotel worker. The US troops were staying elsewhere.
Though the American troops left Aden shortly afterwards, the attack did not presage a general withdrawal from the peninsula. In 1998, the US negotiated an agreement to use Aden as a refueling point for its navy. This provided al-Qaeda another opportunity to strike. After a failed attempt in 1999, an operation was launched against the USS Cole when she docked for refueling in October 2000. The attack killed 17 US sailors (and the two bombers) and almost sank the ship.
Meanwhile, al-Qaeda's base was growing in Afghanistan. But as 9/11 approached, Bin Laden started to send recruits back to their home countries to set up cells in preparation for the crackdown that would follow. Each cell had its own emir (commander), and was semi-autonomous, but reported back to al-Qaeda Central (AQC). Some remained in Afghanistan, however, including Bin Laden's personal secretary, Nasir al-Wuhayshi. He fought with al-Qaeda at their Tora Bora cave redoubt, before fleeing to Iran where he was arrested. In 2003 he was extradited to Yemen, where he remained in prison until 2006.
In Saudi Arabia, the al-Qaeda members who had made it back from Afghanistan were active. A simultaneous attack on three Western compounds in May 2003 killed 30 people. The Saudi government countered the group's ensuing campaign of violence with a mixture of military assault and deradicalisation programmes, largely suppressing it by late 2005.
In the aftermath of 9/11, President Saleh of Yemen flew to the US, afraid the US government would attack Yemen in response to the atrocity, and pledged cooperation in the war on terror. Despite some successes by the Yemeni cells of al-Qaeda, its leader, Abu Ali al-Harithi, was tracked down by November 2002 and killed in a US drone strike. The Yemeni government cornered Harithi's replacement a year later and took him alive.
They used their time in prison to plan their resurgence.
With most of its members in prison, al-Qaeda in Yemen appeared to be defunct. US attention focused elsewhere, and the Yemeni government was distracted by an unrelated insurgency in the north (see our backgrounder, 'What is the Houthi Movement?'). However, an unintended consequence of the government's co-optation of Afghan veterans in the early 1990s was that the Political Security Office (PSO, the internal intelligence and security service) was riddled with jihadi sympathisers. Many of the Yemeni al-Qaeda prisoners were held together at a PSO prison, where they were reunited with Wuhayshi. It seems likely that they used their time to plan the group's resurgence.
Twenty-three prisoners, including Wuhayshi, also planned their escape. According to the official narrative, in February 2006 the group used their spoons and plates to tunnel 50 metres to the mosque next to their prison. It is, however, widely thought that they must have had help from within the PSO.
The group's experience of the government crackdown was utilised to create a much more potent organisation. Under the leadership of Wuhayshi, the group reorganised, and quickly started to launch new attacks. After a failed attack on oil installations in 2006, the reconstituted organisation initially focused on foreign interests within Yemen, with attacks on Spanish, Belgian, and Korean tourists and the US embassy through 2008 and 2009. In its justifications for the attacks, the group repeatedly emphasised the injunction to "expel the infidels from the Arabian Peninsula."
In November 2009, the rump of the Saudi branch of al-Qaeda merged with the Yemeni organisation to form al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a group with ambitions far beyond Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The group sprang back into international consciousness with the attempted bombing of a plane over Detroit in December 2009. This was followed in 2010 with two attempts on the lives of successive British ambassadors, and an attempted bombing of synagogues in Chicago via bombs hidden in printer cartridges.
In May 2010, AQAP released a statement laying out its goals, including the expulsion of "Jews and crusaders" from the Arabian Peninsula, the creation of a caliphate, the implementation of Sharia and the "liberation of Muslim lands." The turmoil in Yemen that accompanied the Arab uprisings of 2011 presented the group's best opportunity to achieve these goals. In May 2011, a statement described AQAP's aims to seize "all administrative, political, economic, cultural, monitoring, and other responsibilities" in the country.
Through 2011 and 2012 it battled with security forces in south and central Yemen, to the point of seizing cities (though never for very long) and destroying army bases. However, AQAP has never let go of its ambition to have reach across the world. In July 2010, it started to produce Inspire, an English-language magazine that sought to provide ideological backing, encouragement and practical advice to individuals who wanted to carry out attacks in the West or join AQAP in Yemen. In May 2013, the magazine claimed that it had inspired the murder of a British soldier in London, and other issues have called for "jihad on America."
Indeed, international appeal has long been a significant part of AQAP's strategy. The December 2009 attempt on the US airliner over Detroit was carried out by a Nigerian who had travelled to join the group. Major Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 in a shooting at Fort Hood in 2009 was linked to Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American preacher who formed a significant part of AQAP's western-focused propaganda until his death in a drone strike in 2011.
In 2013, Wuhayshi was appointed 'General Manager' of the global al-Qaeda network.
While AQAP dropped from international prominence with the worsening situation in Syria, it remained a key part of the global jihadi movement. In early 2013 Wuhayshi was appointed 'General Manager' (or second in command) of the global al-Qaeda network; this was likely a strategic decision in order to tie in the movement's most successful affiliate amid divisions in the jihadi movement in Syria. Wuhayshi was killed in a US drone strike in Yemen in June 2015, delivering a massive setback for AQAP and the broader al-Qaeda leadership, with some analysts suggesting that the impact of Wuhayshi's death could be likened to the death of Osama bin Laden. The news of his death was confirmed by AQAP in a video statement that also announced the appointment of Qasm al-Rimi as the group's new leader.
However, ISIS' split from al-Qaeda and later declaration of a caliphate fractured the jihadi movement across the world (see our backgrounder, 'What is ISIS?'), and AQAP was no exception. Amid what were believed to be divisions within the group, for a long time it made no public statement on the split, though it appears finally to have come out against ISIS.
Supporters of ISIS have mounted a challenge to AQAP's dominance of the jihadi landscape in Yemen by carrying out a number of attacks on Shia mosques in the country. Despite these efforts by ISIS, AQAP remains relatively unaffected by the group's growing presence there.
AQAP was brought into the international spotlight once more on 7 January 2015, when Saïd Kouachi and Chérif Kouachi attacked Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine. The group claimed responsibility for the attack that killed 12 in Paris. Prior to that incident, the magazine's editor Stephane Charbonnier had appeared on AQAP's most wanted list, published in its Inspire magazine.
The advance of the Houthi movement in Yemen has had an impact on AQAP, which views Zaydi Shia (the sect that the Houthis are drawn from) as heretical. AQAP has been involved in operations against the movement for several years. A bombing on the same day as the Charlie Hebdo attack in France in January 2015 targeted the movement, killing 38 people and injuring 66 in Sanaa, Yemen. In both July and August 2016, AQAP suicide attackers killed at least 10 in each incident, the first targeting military checkpoints, and the latter soldiers loyal to the Yemeni president.
Against the backdrop of the Saudi-led coalition's fight against Houthi militants in Yemen, AQAP has been steadily gaining ground. In April 2015, AQAP took control of the port city of Mukalla, seizing government buildings and taking money from the banks. The group soon passed control to a civilian council, a practice repeated in both Zinjibar and Jaar after they were captured in December 2015. At the peak of the group's territorial expansion in February 2016, the group was in control of nine Yemeni towns and focused its aims on consolidating relationships with locals and financial gains.
Following AQAP's territorial gains, the Saudi-led coalition targeted the group and caused it to suffer territorial and human losses, including retaking the group's major port stronghold of Mukalla in April 2016.
The Saudi-led coalition's attacks on AQAP continue, as do US efforts. A US raid on 29 January 2017 – the first of Donald Trump's presidency - resulted in the death of 14 militants, a US navy seal, Anwar al-Awlaki's eight-year-old daughter, and possibly many more civilians.
AQAP has used the Yemen conflict both as cover for territorial gains as Saudi and Yemeni forces are otherwise occupied, and also as a way to exploit the deep north-south divide in the country to fuel sectarian anxieties. Framing itself as the Sunni vanguard against the perceived Houthi Shia threat, AQAP has tried to garner greater support from among Yemen's predominantly Sunni population.
Since its resurgence in 2006, AQAP and its predecessors have largely operated from the tribal regions of south and central Yemen. There has been a significant effort to integrate into tribal structures, hampering efforts to defeat the group. So long as the reach of the Yemeni government does not stretch into the tribal areas, and provided AQAP does not succumb to internal divisions or alienate their hosts, the group's capacity to wreak destruction in Yemen and abroad is unlikely to diminish.
This article was originally published on 9 January 2015. It was updated on 10 February 2017.