Of the more than 70 Al Qaeda franchises, the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been one of the most effective. It was the group behind the development of what became known as the “underwear” bomb and the attempt to deliver bombs to a Synagogue in Chicago using parcels sent by air freight in October 2010.
Given the enduring nature of the threat from AQAP and its reputation for innovation, it has been classified by the Department of State as the most dangerous of Al Qaeda’s franchises. It was therefore hardly surprising that it should claim to be behind the heinous attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris.
AQAP’s threat in the wake of the Paris attacks that similar attacks will occur throughout the West is one that will be difficult for Western intelligence agencies to easily dismiss. AQAP is bucking a trend — local military operations and concerted action by Western intelligence agencies, other Al Qaeda franchises in places such as Somalia and Mali have had to focus on survival. AQAP is the single franchise that continues to actively target the West while mounting operations within its host country.
Despite the ongoing American drone strikes (there were 13 confirmed in Yemen in 2014 that reportedly killed 82) AQAP has managed to use the unique geographic and ethnic tribal tapestry of the Yemeni security landscape to survive. The vast and desolate areas of the Hadramaut — Osama Bin Laden’s ancestral home — provide the perfect sanctuary for AQAP to enable them to create instability across Yemen. From this platform, in 2008 AQAP managed to establish footholds in other provinces across Yemen, such as Mareb and Abyan, adding to the problems faced by the government in the capital city of Sana’a.
The security situation in Yemen can be described as immensely challenging. And it’s been made more difficult by the insurrection in the north of the country led by the Huthis who follow the Shia school of Islam. They recently moved south from their northern strongholds and occupied Sana’a. Given that it was mainly inhabited by Sunnis, this has created a complex situation which has been actively exploited by AQAP.
Since September 21, 2014, AQAP has stepped up attacks across Yemen, including carrying out 27 attacks in the capital, 47 in Baydah and 75 in 12 other provinces. The most recent and graphic illustration occurred on January 7 when a car bomb targeted police recruits in Sana’a that killed 37 and wounding 68. This is now part of an established pattern of attacks by Non-State Armed Groups (NSAG).
In 2008, there were 33 NSAG attacks in the Yemen. These were initially focused in Sana’a and Hadramaut. Fifteen of these attacks — close to half — involved the use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IED). The most spectacular was the multi-phase attack by a suicide bomber in a car on the United States Embassy in the capital on September 17, 2014 in which 17 people were killed, including the six assailants.
In 2009, an inexorable spiral of violence began which created the highly unstable situation that exists today. That year, the number of attacks nearly quadrupled to 110. Twelve of those were caused by IEDs. The changing nature of the ratio of IED attacks to the overall number of NSAG attacks — down roughly ten percent — can be attributed to the increasing strength of AQAP on the ground.
As their foothold in Yemen increased, they felt they could challenge the security forces symmetrically, relying less on asymmetric tactics such as using IED. This had the benefit of reducing the risk to the local population from which AQAP was hoping to gain support. This is clearly part of a carefully planned strategy of attacks that are not random in nature. Clearly, in what is a mainly tribal society, AQAP is trying to avoid alienating Sunni tribes and avoid making the mistakes made by Al Qaeda in Iraq under the leadership of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq from 2004 until he was killed in 2006 in a targeted US strike.
A similar pattern of attacks emerged in 2010, including a high-profile attack on the British Ambassador’s car on April 26, injuring three people. The ambassador, Tim Torlot, survived, but the gradual decline in the security situation significantly worsened in the following two years as the fallout from the Arab Spring reached Sana’a.
The ousting of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who’d presided over a deepening economic and security crisis in Yemen for nearly 22 years, singularly failed to change the situation. Even looking at the situation on the ground objectively, it has worsened, mirroring similar circumstances in other Arab countries. And just like many other Arab leaders appointed in the wake of the dramatic changes that were catalysed by the Arab Spring, Western-backed President Abd Rabbuh Mangur Hadi, who came to power in February 2012, found it hard to stabilise a fractious country. A Yemeni major general and politician, he resigned after the Houthis seized the Republican palace on January 22, 2015.
In 2011, there were 179 attacks of which 35 involved IEDs. These figures increased to 210 attacks in 2012, 41 of which involving IEDs. During those two years, there also were 21 suicide bombings against targets including Yemen’s military and police forces and selected political and tribal leaders who stood against them. Wherever AQAP saw a threat to their existence, they tried to neutralise it. They also frequently used IEDs to attack oil pipelines in an attempt to damage Yemen’s export earnings. These were targets that avoided the civilian population.
This rapidly deteriorating situation suddenly deepened in 2013 when the total of NSAG attacks nearly tripled to 569 attacks, 115 of which involved IEDs. While the total of suicide bombings in 2013 remained similar to previous years, the ratio of IED attacks to the total number of NSAG attacks remained at around 20 percent of the total. In 2013, AQAP decided they also should target economic institutions, hatching what was subsequently described as “an elaborate plot to take control of ports and the Al Dhaba oil terminal.” This was foiled, however, by Yemeni intelligence services with help from the United States.
This increased pattern of terrorism was sustained into 2014 when total NSAG attacks in Yemen increased to 662. This surge also included a number of high-profile attacks directed against American facilities in Yemen. The embassy in Sana’a came under attack on September 27 when a “Lu-Type” rocket landed in the central compound, injuring guards at the site. A repeat attack on the embassy on November 27 involving IEDs. A third attack was directed at the US Ambassador himself, but it failed when IEDs planted outside the building where he was meeting Yemen’s President were discovered just before he left the meeting.
At this time, the Yemeni Army seemed impotent in the face of a rapidly unfolding crisis. Rapid efforts were made by the United States to shore-up the new government’s position with support for military training, but the rate at which the situation worsened was too overwhelming, especially as the Iranian-backed Houthis, an armed group in northern Yemen, surrounded the presidential palace in January, causing President Hadi to step down. Coupled to AQAP’s growth and influence, the situation has dealt a potentially serious blow to the war on jihadi terrorism.
At the beginning of the new year in the immediate wake of the attacks in Paris, this worrying state of affairs does not bode well. A military intervention by the West in Yemen is simply a non-starter. Even though Yemen risks being classified as a failed state from which major terrorist attacks can be launched against the West — repeating what happened when similar insecurity took hold in Afghanistan — no Western country is going to directly intervene.
Drone and air strikes and targeted actions by Special Forces seem the only options available. But they also carry inherent risks and may exacerbate the situation alienating more of the population and driving them into AQAP’s constituency. Such a situation would be dire. It would only help AQAP fulfil its claim to be ready to carry-out further attacks on the West and the West’s allies in the region like Saudi Arabia.
Dr. Dave Sloggett has more than 40 years’ experience analyzing international security issues. His most recent books are, Focus on the Taliban and, Drone Warfare. His report, Kenyan Fault Lines: An Unstable Divide Ideal for Terrorist Exploitation, appeared in the June/July 2014 issue of Homeland Security Today. He also recently wrote, The End of Al Qaeda — and the Emergence of a More Dangerous Jihad? and, Migration of Radicalized European Muslims to Syria to Engage in Jihad Widespread Problem, Study Shows.