Yemen's al Qaeda franchise isn't moving to create its own Islamic state quite yet. But the fact that it continues to thrive is ominous enough.
- By Peter SalisburyPeter Salisbury is a freelance journalist and analyst based in Sanaa, Yemen, whose work has appeared in the Economist, Financial Times, and Foreign Policy, among others.
SANAA — In late July, reports began to circulate that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) — described by the White House number as one of the world’s deadliest terrorist groups — had announced plans to set up its own "emirate," a miniature Islamic state, in Yemen’s east.
Citing a leaflet apparently circulated by the group in Hadramawt province in eastern Yemen, Reuters reported that AQAP had issued instructions on how women should dress and conduct themselves in public as part of its preparations for the installation of an Islamic state in the area. The report grabbed headlines. Analysts compared the group’s strategy to that of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, which now prefers to simply be known as the Islamic State (IS), which had staged an audacious takeover of Mosul in northern Iraq just a few weeks earlier.
There was just one problem with the story: It wasn’t true. According to a number of people with intimate knowledge of the group, the leaflets, widely distributed on social media, were fakes. They were not issued by AQAP, or by its sister organization Ansar al-Sharia, which in late July took to Twitter to deny distributing the leaflets and to demand that the flow of statements being made in its name be brought to a halt.
Issuing threatening guidelines on dress isn’t AQAP’s way of doing business, several people who study the organization closely tell FP. In fact, the group — which has drawn up a playbook for other al Qaeda franchises, offering advice like "you can?t beat people for drinking alcohol when they don?t even know the basics of how to pray" — is strongly focused on winning over the local population in the areas where it operates before trying to introduce its own interpretation of Islamic law. (That isn’t to say, of course, that members of the group aren’t capable of meting out their own, brutal form of justice, as they’ve shown on numerous occasions.)
But that doesn’t mean AQAP doesn’t have big plans for Yemen — or that the group isn’t considering a second run at creating its own administration there, possibly starting in Hadramawt, the ancestral home of al Qaeda’s founder, Osama bin Laden. And the continuing weakness of Yemen’s post-revolutionary state — above all the failure of the security forces to bring the organization to heel despite a widely heralded campaign against the group earlier this year — is still offering them plenty of opportunities to do so.
Since late July, AQAP has released at least four videos of attacks it has staged on military installations in Hadramawt, including a raid on the main airport on the province, as well as photos of an assault on a Saudi Arabian military outpost on Yemen’s southeastern border with the kingdom. AQAP has also allegedly engineered dozens of assassinations of security officials over the past year, along with a series of attacks on military checkpoints. And that’s not even to mention a December 2013 attack on the main defense ministry compound in Sanaa. That operation resulted in the deaths of 52 civilians at a military hospital inside the facility, prompting a rare apology from AQAP’s leadership.
Perhaps most importantly, AQAP has weathered a military assault that Yemeni leaders described as an "all-out war" when they launched it, with much media fanfare, in April of this year. The campaign has largely petered out without achieving any clear victories, sources with knowledge of the military’s current movement say, and Yemenis are not unaware of this: that is probably why gave as much credence as they did to the "emirate" leaflets. (The photo above shows Yemeni soldiers launching a rocket during a major offensive against AQAP in Shabwa province in early May.)
AQAP exploited a security vacuum created by unrest in the north of the country in 2011 to seize territory in the south, declaring the creation, for the first time, of a short-lived "Islamic emirate" there. In 2012, Yemen’s newly elected president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi decided to take the fight to the group, using the army and local militias to push AQAP out of the main cities and towns in the south. AQAP responded by retreating into the Yemeni hinterland, setting up a training camp in one remote region and expanding its presence in others. These remote bases were left largely undisturbed until the latest campaign began in April.
Sanaa hailed the military campaign as a major success. Government officials claimed that the assault had severely dented AQAP’s organizational capabilities, and that the group had been uprooted from its base areas. But many observers have come to question these assertions, especially when it comes to the extent to which the campaign has reduced AQAP’s capacity to wreak havoc.
In at least one area of the 2014 campaign, says Abdulrazzaq al-Jamal, a leading Yemeni AQAP analyst, the "assault" was staged. In his account, the government negotiated access to key areas with local tribes in Shabwah province, gradually setting up checkpoints among the main roads in the area but rarely coming into contact with AQAP members, who similarly negotiated an exit with the tribes, a claim repeated to FP on a number of occasions by people who have visited the area. ("Tell that to the families of soldiers that were killed in Shabwah," says a government official, responding to claims that there was very little actual fighting in the area. "The tribes pushed AQAP out of the towns but the army fought the militants in the area… [But] many militants escaped to Hadramawt.")
AQAP, according to the same sources, simply moved on, setting up shop in other parts of the country — most notably Hadramawt, where, according to local residents, it had a small footprint before 2014. Since the beginning of the year, they say, the group’s presence has become increasingly visible. "Al Qaeda wasn’t really here before," says Ahmed Bazaal, a journalist based in Seiyun, the biggest city in central Hadramawt, which lies at the heart of the Hadramawt valley, where AQAP has been particularly active in recent months. "But this year, especially in the Hadramawt valley, they have been more and more present."
Bazaal attributes the group’s presence to the lack of security in the area, a common complaint in Yemen, especially since the 2011 uprising, whose legacy has been overshadowed by infighting between former allies in the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, Hadi’s predecessor and Yemen’s president of 33 years. In Bazaal’s telling, known AQAP operatives walk the streets of Seiyun openly, with little fear of reprisal. Several people with knowledge of military operations in the area mutter, meanwhile, that senior military officers may well be helping the group achieve its aims. Hadi, who is overseeing a U.N.-backed political transitional period that is meant to end in elections in 2015, has struggled to manage Yemen’s many factions and impose government rule over a significant proportion of the country.
AQAP, meanwhile, has proven adept at exploiting the lack of government presence in areas like Hadramawt, learning to present itself as a viable and more attractive alternative to the government before attempting a takeover, Jamal says. Soon, he believes, AQAP will be ready to seize territory again. "I think people will be shocked when they see what they do next," he says. "I genuinely expect that soon some governorates will fall to AQAP. People expect that they will do this in Hadramawt, but AQAP never do what is expected of them and maybe they are looking elsewhere."
Hadi is unlikely to allow AQAP to put down roots for a third time in as many years without a fight, and rumors are rife in the Yemeni capital that a fresh campaign is planned in Hadramawt. A troop build-up is underway in the area to "counter the threat" of AQAP, the same government official says. But questions about the military’s ability to bring the group to heel — and how AQAP will react to a renewed assault — remain unanswered. Since the end of Ramadan last month, AQAP has launched attacks on the Yemeni army at least three times in Hadramawt. The most recent fighting took place around the town of al-Qatn, which, according to local media, AQAP is trying to take over.
In Seiyun, meanwhile, Bazaal says that locals have begun to ask the government to remove checkpoints and military installations from the area, fearful of another round of attacks inside the city. "People are scared, even to leave their houses during Ramadan, especially after the last attack [on the airport]," he says. "As long as the army and police presence here is weak, they will attack again."