Beginning in February, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and its proxies launched sequential offensives against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in the southern Yemeni governorates of Hadramawt and Shabwah. The latest offensive, Operation Sweeping Torrent, was launched on March 7 with the objective of clearing AQAP from the governorate of Abyan, a longstanding stronghold for the organization. The UAE and the security forces it backs in Yemen claim to have successfully cleared AQAP from large swaths of all three governorates.
If such claims are even partially true, what does this mean for AQAP and its future operations in Yemen? How will AQAP’s leadership and its rank and file respond to the Emirati-backed offensives? Will increased pressure on it by the Emirati-backed militias prompt AQAP to rethink its strategies? Might AQAP be goaded into adopting the largely failed punishment strategy of Islamic State (IS), a maximalist approach that alienated most of those IS wanted to rule and left it overextended and exposed? Or will it continue to model an organization like the Taliban, which, albeit brutal, has successfully woven itself into the very fabric of Afghanistan?
As an organization, AQAP has previously confronted the question of whether it should become more radical and implement a punishment strategy, or whether it should be more measured in its use of violence and adapt itself to the very local and particular socio-cultural environments in which it operates. For the most part, the leadership and its operatives have answered by pursuing a gradualist strategy that has de-prioritized the enforcement of AQAP’s radical interpretation of Islamic law in favor of accepting established understandings of tribal and Islamic law. At the same time, AQAP has successfully exploited the many opportunities for inserting its operatives and forces into Yemen’s layered and increasingly complex war.