What is the link between Ansar al-Sharia and Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula?

The recent escalation of violence in Yemen underscores the terrorist challenge there. However, western policy will be unsuccessful if it conflates the international agenda of Al-Qa'ida with the local ambitions of Ansar al-Sharia.

By Benedict Wilkinson, Associate Fellow, RUSI 

Much has happened in Yemen in recent weeks.  The spate of events began in early May when, to the surprise of many, Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) released Issues 8 and 9 of the now infamous Inspire magazine despite the fact its editor and guiding force, Samir Khan, was killed alongside Anwar al-Awlaqi last year. The re-release of Inspire was followed quickly by what appears to have been a retaliatory US drone strike which killed Fahd al-Quso (a high-ranking member of AQAP) in Shabwa province and the highly-publicised disruption of a plot, modelled exactly on the modus operandi of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to attack the aviation industry.[1] Further US drone strikes in Yemen saw the killing of eleven militants on 12 May and two more on 17 May. More recently, Ansar al-Shariah, often described as an AQAP affiliate, attacked US civilian contractors who were training the Yemeni coast guard in the port of Hudaydah, before launching a major attack in Sana'a which left more than 90 dead.[2]

This escalation in violence poses crucial problems for western policy-makers and strategists, chief amongst which is the precise nature of the relationship between Ansar al-Shariah and AQAP. Throwing light on this relationship has major implications for US and UK policy towards Yemen, not only for the strategic logic of drone strikes but also on the way in which they tailor their humanitarian aid and security assistance appropriately.

The Relationship between AQAP and Ansar al-Shariah

Ansar al-Shariah has been waging an insurgency in the south and east of Yemen since their emergence in early 2011. The movement made considerable gains in the summer of 2011, capitalising on the security vacuum left by political instability when it captured Ja'ar and Zinjibar and established them as mini-Emirates. More recently the organisation has also been involved in social and humanitarian operations, providing free water and electricity, as well as abolishing taxes and setting up legal courts in an effort to improve its image in the eyes of the local population.  

There is some evidence that the link between AQAP and Ansar al-Shariah is a strong one, the latter fitting into the broader structure as an affiliate insurgent arm. Publications released through AQAP's propaganda wing, al-Malahim Media, frequently lay claim to Ansar al-Shariah's insurgent operations in the south and have long indicated a forthcoming operation in Sana'a (presumably the one carried out on 20 May).[3] Claiming and predicting attacks indicates something of AQAP's level of authority and control over Ansar al-Shariah. This is similarly supported by the attendance of two leading AQAP figures, Nasser al-Wuhayshi and Qasim al-Raymi, at a ceremony in which 73 soldiers, captured during an insurgent offensive in March, were released after negotiation with tribal leaders.[4] Most tellingly, however, was the statement made by Sheikh Abu Zubayr Adel al-Abab in April 2011 as the organisation was beginning to emerge:

The name Ansar al-Shariah is what we use to introduce ourselves in areas where we work to tell people about our work and goals, and that we are on the path of Allah.[5]

Clearly, then, there is a strong link between the two organisations, but - and this is the crucial point - we must not be beguiled into seeing them as one and the same, rather we should see them as distinct units working in ever-closer partnership. Both groups, for example, have unique and distinct leaderships: Nasser al-Wuhayshi is the long-standing leader AQAP and Abu Hamza al-Murqoshi is the relatively unknown leader of Ansar al-Shariah. Secondly, there is a significant difference in both targeting and modus operandi: AQAP, judging by the failed bomb plot, continues to wage a terrorist campaign against the West beyond Yemeni soil; by contrast, Ansar al-Shariah are predominantly an insurgent organisation seeking to occupy territory by attacking Yemeni security targets and by garnering local support through social services. The memberships of both organisations are also distinct: AQAP comprises two or three hundred individuals, with long-standing jihadi backgrounds who are ideologically committed to the cause; by contrast, Ansar al-Shariah's membership seems to combine elements of disgruntled tribal militia with former Afghan-Arab mujahideen and disaffected Yemeni youth. It is not clear to what extent the vast proportion of Ansar al-Sharia are ideologically motivated, but bearing in mind the organisation's penchant for 'nation-building', it would seem that local grievances outweigh the ideological imperatives.

Responding to AQAP and Ansar

The acceleration in violence has initiated an escalation in economic and security policy in and towards Yemen. Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi backed up his frequent statements that al-Qa'ida must be dealt with when he ordered military offensives against Ansar al-Shariah in Abyan province.[6] He has also spent a good deal of political capital in restructuring the military and security apparatus and removing those senior officials connected with the old regime, most notably sacking Ali Abdullah Saleh's nephew Amar from his position as the Head of the National Security Bureau.

Western and Gulf partners have supported these positive moves. Yesterday's Friends of Yemen meeting, preceded by a united call from seven major development agencies about Yemen's food and water scarcity, saw $4 billion of aid promised to tackle the failing country's instability and poverty.[7] The US continues to become more deeply involved in Yemen: drone strikes are now regular occurrences and the foiling of yet another plot through co-operation with Saudi intelligence suggests that Yemen remains very high on their list of priorities. It goes without saying that these are positive developments which, if the funds are disbursed as promised, have the potential to make a substantial difference to Yemen by reducing the threat of both AQAP and Ansar al-Shariah and alleviating the country's deepening humanitarian crisis.

However, the analysis provided above - that AQAP and Ansar al-Shariah are distinct organisations working in ever closer partnership - has ramifications. In the first place, the fact that AQAP has succeeded in co-opting and co-operating with an insurgent wing implies that is becoming larger and increasingly decentralised. Although it remains to be seen whether drone strikes can be effective against AQAP, at this stage it seems improbable. Strategically, drone strikes are designed to render an organisation helpless by decapitating its leadership; this seems unlikely to work against increasingly decentralised groups like AQAP, whose leadership is spread across its multiple wings. One hardly needs to add that drone strikes have historically caused local anger in Yemen and tended to drive local support away from the US and towards the groups they are trying to counter.[8]

The second implication centres around the problem of linking humanitarian aid to security threats. That is not to say that the two aren't bound up; humanitarian aid and stabilisation responses can, in the long-term, dilute support for organisations such as AQAP and Ansar al-Sharia and reduce the stability on which they capitalise. But in order to work, humanitarian aid must be distributed on the basis of local need rather than international security. To take one poignant example, US aid is currently focused largely in the south of Yemen, where Ansar al-Sharia is operating. Other provinces which contain the most entrenched poverty, particularly in the west, have been largely excluded. If aid is directed towards those areas that AQAP and Ansar al-Sharia occupy without solving the issue of terrorism, then aid is not only failing to deal with terrorism but will fail in its primary duty to tackle extreme poverty and to stabilise the Yemeni state.

Benedict Wilkinson is a RUSI Associate Fellow and a PhD Candidate at the Department of War Studies, King's College London

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI 


[1] Paul Harris and Ed Pilkington, '"Underwear bomber" was working for the CIA,' The Guardian 2012. Hugh Tomlinson, "At least 96 soldiers dead in Yemen suicide blast," The Times (London) 2012.

[2] Tom Finn, 'Sana'a suicide bomb attack kills more than 90,' The Guardian 2012.

[3] E.g. Inspire Magazine, Issue 9 p. 54f.

[4] The presence of Qasim al-Raymi is subject to conjecture, as the individual was masked.

[5] Amany Soliman, 'Online Question and Answer Session with Abu Zubayr Adel al-Abab, Shariah Official for Member of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) - 18 April 2011,' (International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, 2011).

[6] In early May, Hadi said 'The real battle against the terrorist al-Qaeda organisation has yet to begin and will not end until we have eradicated their presence in every district, village and position;' see, Elena White, 'Yemen President: war on al-Qaeda has not started yet,' Yemen Observer, 7 May 2012.

[7] Bureau of Public Affairs Department Of State. The Office of Electronic Information, 'US Government Assistance to Yemen,' U.S. Department of State 2012; Abigael Baldoumas and Kelly Gilbride, 'Where There's a Will: Tackling the humanitarian crisis in Yemen,'  .

8 Deborah Haynes, "Pressure on Britain over deadly drone attacks," The Times (London) 2012; Iona Craig, "US drone blitz on Yemen swells al-Qaeda's ranks," The Times (London) 2012.


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