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Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula: A Changing Strategy

Commentary, 9 November 2010
Americas, Terrorism, Europe, Middle East and North Africa
The recent emergence of Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is part of a history of terrorism and conflict originating in Yemen. The West now needs to work with the Yemeni government and Civil Society Groups to prevent further attacks by Al-Qa’ida.

The recent emergence of Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is part of a history of terrorism and conflict originating in Yemen. The West now needs to work with the Yemeni government and Civil Society Groups to prevent further attacks by AQAP.

 Benedict Wilkinson, Head, Security and Counter-Terrorism, for

Sanaa, Yemen

In the last twelve months, the threat of terrorism perpetrated by Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) located in Yemen has undergone something of a radical change. Following the unsuccessful attack of Umar Abdulmutallab on 24 December 2009, Yemen hit the headlines as the 'new Afghanistan', the 'new staging ground' for Al-Qa'ida and a 'mortal threat' to western security.[1] More recently, AQAP has been described as a critical and emergent terrorist threat in recent speeches by the Home Secretary and the heads of both MI5 and MI6. Further proof for this assessment was provided by the events of last weekend - in which ink-cartridges loaded with explosives were found on cargo planes whose final destination was the US. But despite the media frenzy, which witnessed the Chief of the Defence Staff refusing to rule out the possibility of military invasion, little has been said about the reasons behind the rapid emergence of AQAP as a significant threat outside the Arabian Peninsula.

Undoubtedly, AQAP does represent a threat to western interests, both at home and abroad - in its recent publications, the organisation has been absolutely clear about its intentions towards the US and its allies. But crucially, evaluations of the threat posed by AQAP tend to be conducted in an environment of short-termism and short-sightedness. To take one example, few commentators have made note of the long-standing presence of Al-Qa'ida-inspired terrorism in Yemen. In 1992, Al-Qa'ida conducted its very first operation by bombing two hotels in Aden at which American soldiers were meant to be staying.

Even before this, Yemenis represented a substantial portion of the foreign fighters involved in jihad against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In short, the recent emergence of AQAP is not an isolated event, but one element of a long continuum of terrorist activity originating in Yemen. All of which begs the question: What are the causes behind the recent changes in the new strategic direction of AQAP?

Yemen's Instability and an Emergent AQAP

In addition to the threat of Al-Qa'ida-inspired terrorism, Yemen has struggled with post-unification civil war, tribal unrest and, more recently, sustained and violent conflicts in both the North and the South. In sum, Yemen has a substantial history of terrorism, conflict and insurgency which has long caused instability and threatened to spill out over its borders.

This instability, caused by multiple episodes of violence, has been further compounded by the economic problems that continue to escalate as a consequence of Yemen's ever-dwindling resources and the subsequent impact on the financial sector. Although crude oil exports account for approximately 75 per cent of government revenue, oil supplies are diminishing rapidly. The World Bank estimates that, without significant political reform or new discoveries of oil, Yemen will cease to make a profit on its oil trade by 2016 or 2017. [2]  Fuel subsidies - which are expected to cost the government $2.2 billion in 2010 and, given the rapidly expanding population and demand for fuel, will continue to rise in the coming years - have contributed substantially to Yemen's financial difficulties.

Like its oil supplies, Yemen's water supplies continue to decline rapidly. Despite recent discoveries of water near al-Mukalla, Sana'a has the bleak prospect of running out of water in the next decade. Perhaps the biggest problem has been the lack of legal and political oversight of water usage and acquisition throughout Yemen, which has resulted in the private exploitation of water supplies. This, coupled with a population growing at an estimated rate of 2.7 per cent - one of the world's highest- further adds pressure on water and food resources.

Yemen's increasing instability and internal problems have provided AQAP with two opportunities in recent years. Firstly, the country's rapid decline towards failed statehood continues to weaken governmental control outside the major urban centres, providing safe havens for violent extremists to train, recruit and organise. Secondly and most importantly, Al-Qa'ida have begun to appropriate into their ideology many of the social and political grievances cited by large sections of the local population. Thus, the failing oil economy, problems of access to water and high levels of unemployment in the South have been deployed throughout Al-Qa'ida's rhetoric as justifications for violence against the state and against western interests at home and abroad.[3]

AQAP's Development and Strategy

AQAP was formed in January 2009 from the merger of two branches of Al-Qa'ida operating in the region: Al-Qa'ida in Saudi Arabia and Al-Qa'ida in Yemen. Ostensibly, the Saudi Arabian counter-terrorism campaign had driven the Saudi operatives over the porous Saudi-Yemeni border. The merger of the two organizations coincides with a significant change in strategy. Prior to the merger, the Yemeni and Saudi branches confined themselves to regional operations both against those associated with apostate regimes on the Arabian Peninsula and those associated with the West. Thus, in 2000, two militants drove a small dinghy into the side of the USS Cole harboured in Aden, killing seventeen US sailors. Between 2003 and 2006, the Saudi branch largely focused its attentions on elements of the regime in particular, and on members of its security and police services.

During the first months of 2009, however, the newly-formed AQAP underwent a change in strategic direction. Prior to the merger, both branches largely focused on targets located on the Arabian Peninsula, following it, there have been three attempted AQAP-linked attacks against the West outside the Gulf. Nidal Malik Hasan, a US Army major who had sustained e-mail contact with Anwar al-Awlaki, an AQAP ideologue, shot dead thirteen people at the U.S. Army base, Fort Hood. Just under two months later, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who had learnt Arabic in Yemen earlier that year, attempted to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 to Detroit. These attacks were, in turn, followed by the publication of AQAP's English-language magazine, 'Inspire', whose stated purpose is to attract and motivate western audiences with Al-Qa'ida ideology and to encourage their participation in jihad. The third and most recent attack, of course, was the Cargo Plane plot, in which AQAP sought to recreate a high-impact attack against western interests outside the Arabian Peninsula.

The origins of this strategic change are threefold. In the first place, Yemen's rapid decline towards failed statehood provided the organisation with the territory to train and operate as well as a whole host of grievances to aid recruitment. In the second place, the merger of the two organisations provided the expertise, finance and desire with which to raise the group's profile. In the third place, AQAP saw the opportunity to take on the responsibility for attacking the West whilst the U.S. and its allies were focused on restraining Al-Qa'ida's global operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In light of this strategic change, it appears that AQAP now has regional and global aspirations - the organisation is becoming genuinely 'glocalised'. AQAP will, in all likelihood, continue to conduct operations against government and western targets in Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula more generally as it has done since its formation. Crucially, however, the organisation has been equally assertive in describing two methods for attacking the west outside the Arabian Peninsula. In the first instance, the publication of Inspire indicates the desire to recruit westerners to the cause. The advantage of this scenario is that individuals recruited abroad, often maintaining low level contact with AQAP online, have a substantially reduced risk of discovery and arrest.

Although such attacks tend not to be spectacular, the tactic allows AQAP to maintain low-level pressure on western governments. In conjunction with low-level activity, AQAP will seek to conduct more complex and spectacular operations against the west - as the Cargo Plane bomb plot amply demonstrates. Such attacks raise the organisation's levels of legitimacy, their ability to recruit across the globe and, of course, apply further pressure to western governments to cede to their demands.

In the long run, the best way for defeating AQAP is by denying it the safe havens in which to operate and the grievances that aid recruitment. It is crucial that western governments work hand-in-hand with the Yemeni government and Civil Society Groups, to provide them with the financial assistance and training they need to defeat Al-Qa'ida, reduce conflict-induced instability and improve access to employment and basic services. Without concerted aid and development assistance, AQAP will continue to focus on the West both in Yemen and beyond.


1 David Randall and Andrew Johnson, 2010. "Yemen, the new crucible of global terrorism", Independent, 31 October 2010. Time, 2009. "Yemen: Al-Qaeda's New Staging Ground", December 28th, 2009. Daniel Dombey.

2 Christopher Boucek and Marina Ottoway, (eds), 2010. Yemen on the Brink. CEIP.

3 See, for example, AQAP's two recently published, Anglophone magazines, called Inspire.

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