Will al Qaeda Be the Great Winner of Yemen’s Collapse?
Big gains and great challenges await the world's most dangerous al Qaeda affiliate.
Amid the chaos and suffering of Yemen’s ongoing, and quickly internationalizing, civil war, one clear winner seems to have emerged: al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the al Qaeda affiliate with the closest relationship to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The group, which U.S. officials have long labeled the most dangerous offshoot of the core al Qaeda organization, could be set to find an even more comfortable operations base from which to launch terrorist attacks and claim territory. Just this week, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter warned, “AQAP has seized the opportunity of the disorder there and the collapse of the central government.”
On the other hand, maybe not. AQAP is in flux. The Yemeni civil war and Saudi Arabia’s intervention in it offer AQAP many opportunities, but they also pose many pitfalls and could dramatically reorient the organization in ways it has long sought to avoid.
What separates AQAP from other al Qaeda affiliates is the group’s willingness to strike outside Yemen and the Middle East, even making attempts inside the United States and Europe. Since the group formed in 2009, most of its attacks have focused on the Yemeni government. However, U.S. officials have tied it to sophisticated attempts to bomb American airliners in 2009 and 2010, and the group produces Inspire, a stylish English-language online magazine that regularly features anti-Western content, including calls for lone wolves to attack in the United States and detailed instructions for how to make or acquire the weapons to do so. AQAP also took credit for the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris in January, and the attackers trained with the group in Yemen.
The group appeared to suffer setbacks in 2012 when Yemeni government forces under President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who had recently taken power from Ali Abdullah Saleh, retook several cities and other areas that had been AQAP strongholds. At the same time, an active U.S. drone campaign kept the group on the run.
Now that Hadi’s government has fallen to the Houthi rebels and civil war has engulfed much of the country, counterterrorism efforts against AQAP have eased. U.S. officials rightly fear that the group will enjoy greater freedom of action: Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, warned on Sunday that “the pressure has been taken off AQAP.” The Washington Post reports that as violence escalated, the United States pulled its military and intelligence personnel from the country, and our Yemeni counterterrorism partners are now in disarray. Last Thursday, AQAP conducted a massive prison break (the usual adjective before “prison break” is “daring,” but given the chaos this one seemed pretty easy), freeing many cadres and at least one senior leader. AQAP militants subsequently took control of the port city of Mukalla, where the prison is located. The group now reportedly controls the checkpoints at all five entrances to the city as well as the governor’s palace, the central bank, a military base, and several other key local government facilities. Armed tribesmen are trying to launch a counterattack to retake the city and drive out the jihadis but have so far been unable to get past AQAP’s checkpoints.
But even if AQAP is making impressive gains, it’s not necessarily springtime for the jihadis. The group is now operating amid an all-out civil war. Although we often think of civil wars providing safe havens for terrorists, in reality war zones can be dangerous for terrorists as well as civilians. The warring factions are armed and large, and it will be hard for AQAP to stay neutral, as it must protect its supporters and guard its own areas of operations.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for AQAP is the growth of the Islamic State and its potential influence among Yemeni jihadis. How much support the Islamic State enjoys in Yemen is unclear, but the movement’s prominent role in Iraq and Syria and impressive propaganda have excited jihadis around the world, while its embrace of sectarianism seems well-suited for the anti-Houthi struggle in Yemen. Houthis are Shiite Muslims of the Zaydi sect. Although the Zaydis are often seen as doctrinally closer to Sunni Islam than to the Twelver Shiites of Iran, in today’s environment no one seems to care. In March, the Islamic State bombed Zaydi mosques in Yemen, helping transform the civil war into a broader sectarian conflict. This challenge will put pressure on AQAP to join the sectarian fight against the Houthi “apostates” or risk been seen as irrelevant.
However, the influence of Zawahiri may constrain AQAP from engaging in Islamic State-style sectarian attacks and extreme violence, as has been the case with al-Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s official affiliate in the Syrian civil war. Zawahiri has long urged his affiliates to avoid attacks against Shiite Muslims and has opposed the brutal treatment of civilians in areas under jihadi control. Indeed, it was partly his disapproval of such tactics that led him to disavow the Islamic State in February 2014.
And despite the fierce competition between the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front for recruits and resources in Syria, thus far Nusra has resisted the temptation to up the ante against Shiites and civilians. If AQAP chooses to go this route in Yemen — and its decision to issue a statement emphatically denying involvement in the bombing of the Zaydi mosques by the Islamic State and expressly stating that AQAP remains “committed to the guidelines of Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri” suggests for now it will — it may find itself struggling to attract new recruits and to prevent its current members from defecting to the more sectarian Islamic State. On the other hand, AQAP could see its support among the Yemeni people increase as the Islamic State’s savagery begins to make AQAP look like the “good guys” (or at least the “slightly less bad guys”).
AQAP may even end up fighting against the Islamic State and its sympathizers in Yemen. In Syria, the rivalry between al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State exploded into a bloody internecine battle that killed hundreds of fighters on both sides. Historically, such competition between terrorist groups often produces extreme violence, as each group tries to outdo its rivals either in the use of violence or through dramatic attacks that capture public attention. Of course, it’s hard to be more violent than the Islamic State. Indeed, the Charlie Hebdo attacks can be seen in this light, as an attempt by al Qaeda and its supporters to stay relevant in the competition for the soul of jihad that is taking place not only in Yemen but around the world.
One key uncertainty in assessing what comes next for AQAP is Saudi policy. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia opposes al Qaeda in general and AQAP in particular, as the latter has targeted Saudi security forces and, in 2009, even tried to kill Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, who is now in charge of Saudi military operations in Yemen. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has a history of working with Salafi-jihadi groups and may believe they are the lesser of two evils in the war against the Houthis, whom the Saudis believe are puppets of Tehran. Tehran has armed and otherwise assisted the Houthis, but the scale of Iranian involvement remains unclear. For the Saudis, the temptation to aid all the Houthis’ enemies, no matter how nasty, will grow should Saudi military operations stagnate.
How AQAP is prioritizing its enemy list is unclear. It has condemned the Islamic State’s mosque bombing, but not the Saudi intervention. Trying to sit out the civil war is likely to prove impossible for AQAP, but entering the fray is both politically and militarily risky. It will certainly seek to exploit the civil war to expand its influence and control on the ground, but AQAP is likely to find that opportunity and danger go hand-in-hand.
Daniel Byman is a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. @dbyman