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.