Antonino Occhiuto, an analyst at Gulf State Analytics
Despite recently suffering setbacks, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remains a major player in war-torn Yemen and a major regional and global threat. As recently as 2015, with all eyes on the rise of Daesh, AQAP was able to orchestrate the Charlie Hebdo massacre in central Paris—the first jihadi terrorist attack in Europe since 2005. A new leadership, ongoing fighting in Yemen, and AQAP’s core characteristics leave the terrorist organisation capable to strike on multiple fronts.
New Leadership and Challenges
In February 2020, Washington announced it had killed AQAP’s leader, Qassim al-Rimi in a drone strike. Al-Rimi represented a significant target for U.S. authorities. He was one of the few remaining Al-Qaeda leaders predating the 11 September 2001 attacks. Following initial efforts to re-group and re-organise, AQAP’s new commander, Khalid bin Umar Batarfi, inherits an organization on the back foot.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and U.S. counterterrorism campaigns have depleted both AQAP and Islamic State (ISIS) fighters in Yemen through targeted assassinations and the promotion of mass desertion. In 2016, the UAE also led international efforts to expel AQAP from Al-Mukalla, the largest city controlled by the group in Yemen, and brought tribal actors into Arab coalition-supported security structures against the jihadists. AQAP statements and sermons warning local tribesmen that they will be targeted if they cooperate with those militias reflect the pressure this move has put them under.
Gregory Johnsen, author of The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia, argues that Batarfi was entrusted to lead AQAP’s efforts to rebuild for two major reasons. “First, he is from the Arabian Peninsula”, writes Johnsen, which means he is better able to understand and exploit local conditions. “Second,” says Johnsen, “Batarfi has extensive international jihadi credentials. He trained and fought in Afghanistan prior to September 2001, assisted fighters traveling to Iraq following the U.S. invasion in 2003, and helped lead AQAP’s push to seize territory in southern Yemen in 2010 and 2011.”
Before assuming the leadership, Batarfi was key to Al-Rimi’s plans to take advantage of the chaos in Yemen caused by the fighting between pro-government forces and the Iran-backed Houthis, whose coup in the capital and expansion across Yemen had plunged the country into warfare. More worryingly for the U.S., Batarfi was already in charge of the group’s external operations when AQAP claimed responsibility for orchestrating last year’s deadly shooting at U.S. Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida.
Batarfi has an in-built advantage to his position: eradicating AQAP from Yemen will take much more than some successful military operations by the group’s opponents. AQAP’s success was never much related to its military strength. Rather, AQAP was successful in securing hospitality and endorsement from key towns by winning the complicity of tribal leaders and passive toleration from local populations. To date, the branding of its cause, community development projects, and youth engagement have all played an equally important part in AQAP’s patient integration strategy, which targeted local communities throughout Eastern and Southern Yemen.
To underscore the importance of AQAP’s local strength in Yemen it is worth noting that ISIS, which relied overwhelmingly on bold military operations to inspire fear and support but produced little in the way of culturally specific narratives and did not engage in community engagement, failed to establish itself in a durable way and failed to displace AQAP. It appears sections of ISIS in Yemen—most of which originate as splinters from AQAP—are currently being re-absorbed by AQAP.
Historically, Yemen has functioned as the ideal sanctuary for AQAP and its militants due to its territory and geographical position. The sparsely populated, dry highlands characterising the interior in Central and Eastern Yemen facilitate hiding and guerrilla tactics. Yemen’s long a porous border with Saudi Arabia makes the country the perfect launching point to attack one of the organisation’s primary enemies: The House of Saud. For instance, AQAP’s first operation outside Yemen was an August 2009 suicide bombing in Saudi Arabia that attempted to assassinate the Kingdom’s security chief, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.
Last year, the UAE announced its decision to draw down some forces from Yemen. The counter-terrorism mission has continued, notably with the arrest of ISIS’s Yemeni leader, Muhammad Qanan al-Sayari (Abu Osama al-Muhajir), in June 2019, but questions have been raised about the efficacy of the Coalition mission going forward. Batarfi and his organisation is likely to prove a longer-term and more dangerous enemy than ISIS. AQAP will also undoubtedly seek to exploit any faltering in coordination between Saudi Arabia’s military and UAE-trained local forces that have kept AQAP at bay. AQAP is further likely to attempt to recruit more Yemenis to its cause while revamping the organisation’s mission against the Al-Saud family.
Another fortunate development for Batarfi is the reintensification of hostilities between Yemen’s government and the Saudi-led Arab coalition on one side, against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels on the other. Both of these forces have regularly targeted AQAP—and been targeted by AQAP terrorists. That their energies are now diverted against each other rather than AQAP provides Batarfi some space to regroup. In this context, Yemen’s Al-Jawf, Marib, and Bayda provinces—where AQAP retains the strongest networks and most influence among the tribes—are the areas to watch for AQAP’s revival.
Lastly, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has affected state capacity all over the world by reducing the available resources for security operations, is likely to have a significant effect on Yemen, where the state was already plagued with troubles. It is possible that Batarfi could shift his ambitions, depending on how bad things get, and exploit the instability in Saudi Arabia—or even the West—caused by the coronavirus to launch external terrorist operations.
International jihadi terrorism is in constant state of evolution and AQAP has already demonstrated in the past that terrorist groups that might appear defeated have been able to develop new techniques and to maintain or even increase their appeal and emerge as powerful foes once again. With global and regional powers increasing their focus on other priorities, Yemen continues to offer significant opportunities for AQAP to reverse its military misfortunes on the ground and, possibly, in the months ahead, revive its terrorist sleeper cells around the world.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.