The Two Faces of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula
About a decade ago, four men sat down in front of a video camera in a safe house in Yemen and started to record. They were there, they said on the video, to announce the formation of a new group: al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or, as we have come to call them, AQAP.
Over the past 10 years, AQAP has become one of al-Qaeda’s most worrisome affiliates, carrying out attacks at home and abroad, from seizing territory in Yemen to putting bombs on planes bound for the United States. In 2010, shortly after the group was founded, the State Department estimated that AQAP had “several hundred” members. That number jumped to a “few thousand” in 2011 and then to “four thousand” in 2015. This year, the department put that estimate in the “low thousands,” although the United Nations put the number of AQAP fighters at 6,000 – 7,000. The upward trend largely holds true for the number of attacks the group has claimed. For the past two years, I tracked AQAP as part of the U.N. Security Council’s Yemen Panel of Experts. In both 2016 and 2017, AQAP claimed more than 200 attacks, a significant increase from the group’s early years when Yemen was relatively stable and AQAP was more focused on striking the West. But the numbers are misleading. AQAP may be bigger now, but it isn’t stronger. It may be carrying out more attacks, but it isn’t more of a threat.
At issue is what I call the two faces of AQAP: the domestic insurgency and the international terrorist organization. These two strands have always coexisted in AQAP, as they have for most terrorist groups. But the two are often conflated into one overall picture of the group. We hear AQAP and think of international terrorism, not the domestic insurgency. This failure by journalists, analysts, and officials to distinguish between AQAP’s two sides leads to a mistaken impression of the threat the group represents to the West.
This is why numbers don’t tell the whole story. AQAP’s domestic reach and recruits have grown significantly in recent years, but the international terrorist side has withered. The group might look and sound more dangerous than ever, but it is actually a much different organization today than it was a decade ago. Like most terrorist groups, AQAP is a complex organization doing multiple things at once, laying sewer pipes and building bombs. When we only look at one aspect of the organization we risk misunderstanding who they are, how they operate, and what they can accomplish.
A Two-Front Campaign
Within a year of the 2008 video release, AQAP had nearly assassinated Saudi Arabia’s then-deputy interior minister and managed to smuggle an underwear bomb onto a U.S.-bound flight that, but for a soggy fuse, could have been disastrous. Next came a pair of parcel bombs, rumors of surgically implanted explosives, and fears of laptop bombs on airplanes. Full-body scanners at airports and laptop bans on some international flights last year were the result.
But AQAP was also active inside Yemen, fighting the local government and working to connect with tribes. Twice in the past few years, the group has seized and attempted to administer territory in Yemen, essentially creating its own mini-states, complete with police forces and ruling councils. Both times AQAP lasted about a year before withdrawing in the face of government or international military offensives.
In an effort to deny AQAP a sanctuary from which to plot and launch attacks against the West, the United States initiated an extensive bombing campaign. Using naval warships, planes, and drones, the United States has conducted more than 300 strikes in Yemen over the past 10 years, resulting in hundreds of deaths. Of the four men featured in that late 2008 video, only one is still active in the organization. Two, the former head of AQAP and his deputy, were killed in U.S. strikes, while a third recanted and returned to Saudi Arabia not long after recording the video. The United States has killed Anwar al-Awlaki and, if recent reports are to be believed, Ibrahim al-Asiri, the group’s most widely known bomb-maker, as well. There have been successes in the war against AQAP but no lasting victory. AQAP has been weakened, but it hasn’t been destroyed.
AQAP’s Overseas Activities Dwindle
The first reason the group’s international terrorist side has been weakened is the rise of Islamic State, or ISIL. As I describe in my book, at the height of Anwar al-Awlaki’s popularity in 2011, Yemen was a destination for international recruits looking to join a jihad. But ISIL and its caliphate stole much of AQAP’s thunder — and many of its potential recruits — and the organization is now feeling that shortfall.
Combine the lack of skilled recruits with the dramatic increase in U.S. strikes over the past few years, which appear to be much more targeted than they once were, and AQAP is losing more top leaders than it is capable of replacing. In 2015, for example, the United States killed the then-head of AQAP, Nasir al-Wihayshi, who was once Osama bin Laden’s aide-de-camp in Afghanistan. Wihayshi’s replacement, Qasim al-Raymi, also has experience in Afghanistan but lacks both his predecessor’s leadership skills and his strategic patience. Al-Raymi is an understudy, better suited to carrying out orders than giving them. Absent an influx of new talent, this is what AQAP’s leadership increasingly looks like: backups forced into starting roles.
The third factor is what AQAP does have: foot soldiers. These are the local Yemenis who bolster the domestic insurgency side of the organization but do little to help the international terrorist side. AQAP has always had a lot of local fighters in its ranks, but after the Houthis — a Zaydi Shi‘a group supported by Iran — took control of the state in 2015, that number jumped significantly. (In a sign of how messy the current war in Yemen is, AQAP is also fighting both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which entered the war to fight the Houthis.)
When the war started, many outside observers — myself included — believed that the longer the fighting lasted, the more recruits AQAP would gain and the greater a threat it would become. We were half-right. The fighting has increased AQAP’s numbers but hasn’t made the group more of a threat to the West. The domestic insurgency side of AQAP is thriving, but the international terrorist side has withered. This is also why the U.N.’s estimate of 6,000-7,000 members is accurate but misleading. By conflating AQAP’s two sides into a single snapshot, we misrepresent the group as well as the threat it represents.
AQAP is both a domestic insurgency and an international terrorist organization, and it has to be combated as such. U.S. strikes and the allure of ISIL have combined to weaken the international side, but as ISIL retreats and the fighting in Yemen continues, these losses can easily be regained. In a sense, one of the two streams feeding AQAP has been cut off, but what is needed now is to shut down the other. Without eradicating what is left of AQAP, its domestic insurgency side, there remains a risk that the group will be able to resurrect its international terrorist side.
In many ways, defeating the domestic insurgency requires more nuance and tact than crippling the international terrorist side. It can’t be done through drone strikes and SEAL raids. Many of the Yemenis who have joined AQAP are also members of local tribes. Rather than simply taking these local fighters out, what is needed is the creation of off-ramps to get them out of the organization.
The Associated Press recently reported that the United Arab Emirates has been either paying members of AQAP not to fight or hiring them to fight alongside U.A.E.-backed forces. Giving cash to the organization would be problematic, but assuming the United Arab Emirates was only handing out money to local foot soldiers to flip allegiances, that is something different and worth examining more closely. In a cash-strapped society like Yemen, particularly one in the midst of multiple overlapping wars, armed men often gravitate to the highest bidder. Flipping those who can be flipped will go a long way toward shutting down AQAP’s local recruiting stream.
Contrary to the picture painted by the numbers, AQAP is the weakest it has ever been. Decimated by drone strikes and challenged by rivals, its international terrorist side is a shadow of its former self. Only its domestic insurgency side — bolstered by Yemen’s messy war — is growing. If this side can be reduced and contained, AQAP can be defeated. But if it is allowed to remain and continue to grow, the group may be able to resurrect the international side of its organization and become a global terrorist threat once more.
Gregory D. Johnsen is a resident scholar at the Arabia Foundation and the author of The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia. From 2016 to 2018 he was a member of the Yemen Panel of Experts for the U.N. Security Council.