Capitalizing on Chaos: AQAP Advances in Yemen
Publication: Terrorism Monitor
By: Michael Horton
The Jamestown Foundation
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has more men, is better equipped and funded, and holds more territory than at any time in its history. The only point at which the organization has enjoyed comparable strength was in the aftermath of the popular uprising against former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011. However, the conditions that allowed AQAP to seize and hold territory after the 2011 uprising are far more pronounced now than they were then. These include: disarray within the Yemeni Armed Forces, severe and increased poverty, economic turmoil, an absence of governmental authority, and widening sectarian divisions. All of these factors make Yemen — particularly southern and eastern Yemen — fertile ground for the expansion of AQAP.
In March 2015, Saudi Arabia launched “Operation Decisive Storm,” a campaign that ostensibly aimed at restoring the internationally-recognized but exiled government of Yemeni president Abd Raboo Mansur al-Hadi. Hadi and his government had fled the Yemeni port city of Aden for the safety of Saudi Arabia as Yemen’s Houthi rebels advanced. The Houthis — who refer to themselves as Ansar Allah (Supporters of Allah) — are a Zaidi Shi’a movement that has deep roots in northwest Yemen. They are now nominally allied with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and military forces loyal to him, but are believed by Saudi Arabia to be backed by Iran.
The resulting ten month-long naval blockade by Saudi and its allies and their thousands of airstrikes on civilian and military targets across the country have failed to dislodge the Houthis, who remain in control of the capital, Sana’a, and much of northwest Yemen. The airstrikes and the naval blockade have, however, succeeded in ravaging the poorest country in the Middle East. The United Nations estimates that more than eighty percent of Yemen’s population of 26 million are now in need of humanitarian assistance (UNOCHA, January 2016). Yemen’s already limited infrastructure has been decimated and what little central government control there was before the war no longer exists. Perhaps most seriously, the months of war are dismantling the social structures that have long provided Yemen with a measure of at least localized stability. This multi-front war in Yemen is a gift to groups like AQAP and the Islamic State. Both organizations thrive in areas where poverty and sectarian tensions are pronounced. AQAP, and, to a lesser degree the Islamic State, have consequently lost no time in capitalizing on the chaos in Yemen.
Filling the Void
The Saudi-led coalition succeeded in forcing the Houthis and allied forces to vacate Aden and the parts of southern Yemen that they briefly occupied. However, the coalition, and the exiled Yemeni government that it supports, failed to secure these areas, including the temporary capital of Aden. The Saudi-led campaign relies heavily on airstrikes and thus far has deployed only a limited number of ground troops, many of which are mercenaries (Middle East Eye, December 23, 2015; al-Bawaba, December 14, 2015).
The retreat of the Houthis and military forces allied with them from parts of southern Yemen left a vacuum that AQAP has been quick to fill. Shortly after the initiation of Operation Decisive Storm in March 2015, AQAP took over al-Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth largest city and the capital of Hadramawt governorate. AQAP has long maintained a presence in the Hadramawt and in the neighboring governorate of Shabwa. These are both areas where the Houthis have little or no influence. The elements of the Yemeni Armed Forces and security services deployed in Mukalla offered little resistance to the takeover. Following their takeover of Mukalla, AQAP advanced throughout the southern parts of Hadramawt. The only real resistance that AQAP faced was in the northern part of the Hadramawt where forces under the command of Major General Abdul Rahman al-Halili, commander of Yemen’s First Military District, blocked their advance.
While AQAP was halted in its attempts to push into the northern parts of Hadramawt, the organization is expanding across much of southern Yemen. AQAP has infiltrated its operatives into Aden where it enjoys a complex relationship with a matrix of anti-Houthi, separatist, and Salafi militias. During the four-month battle to evict the Houthis and their allies from Aden, which ended in July 2015, AQAP operatives worked closely with many of the militias fighting the Houthis, some of which were backed by the Saudis and the Hadi government. AQAP’s operatives, particularly at more senior levels, were far more experienced fighters than the often raw recruits that made up the bulk of the militias fighting the Houthis. AQAP has also effectively inserted its operatives into the bitterly contested city of Taiz. Houthi allied forces and a loose alliance of “popular committees,” pro-government, and Salafi militias are battling each other for control of the strategically and culturally important city. AQAP’s seasoned and increasingly battle-hardened operatives are comparatively well-versed in urban warfare, bomb making, and assassinations. While an overwhelming majority of those fighting against the Houthis and their allies are opposed to AQAP and its ideology, the need for well-trained and relatively disciplined fighters has likely trumped such ideological differences; some of those fighting against the Houthis increasingly view AQAP as a useful source of well-trained, disciplined fighters.
Beyond infiltrating operatives into large urban areas like Aden and Taiz, AQAP is also now holding more territory than it ever has in its history. As mentioned above, AQAP has occupied Mukalla since April 2015 (Yemen Times, April 6, 2015). In early December 2015, AQAP launched an offensive in the governorate of Abyan, located to the west of Hadramawt. AQAP last occupied parts of Abyan in 2011, when it took over the towns of Zinjibar and Ja’ar and declared Abyan to be an “Islamic Emirate.” By December 5, 2015, in a repeat of 2011, AQAP had secured the towns of Zinjibar and Ja’ar as well as the surrounding areas. Just as it has in other parts of southern Yemen, AQAP filled the void left by an absence of both government-controlled military forces and those controlled by the nominally pro-Hadi popular committees. In the latter’s case, the popular committee forces had successfully pushed Houthi and allied forces out of Abyan but subsequently moved onto the neighboring governorate of Lahej to resist a renewed Houthi offensive, leading to a power vacuum in Abyan.
Just as it has done in Mukalla, AQAP targeted key political figures in Abyan — and particularly those figures that cannot be easily co-opted or bought off. For instance, during its takeover of Zinjibar and Ja’ar, AQAP killed Ali al-Said, a mid-level commander within the Abyan-based popular committee (The National [UAE], December 3, 2015). The organization also targeted five other key tribal and militia figures. Despite the assassinations, AQAP’s commanders have largely implemented the same “light-footprint” strategy in Abyan that they have used in Mukalla (al-Jazeera, September 16, 2015). As will be explained below, this new light footprint strategy arises from the lessons that AQAP learned in the aftermath of its 2011-12 takeover of parts of Abyan.
Lessons Learned and a New Strategy
In June 2012, a coalition of tribal militias — referred to as popular committees — and units from the Yemeni Army forced AQAP to withdraw from the parts of Abyan that they controlled. The leadership of AQAP had, however, already learned a great deal from the year during which they held and—to some degree governed—territory for the first time. In May and August of 2012, the emir of AQAP, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, now deceased, wrote two letters to his counterpart in al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).  Here Wuhayshi sought to impart some of the lessons learned by his own organization in the preceding months.
Foremost among these lessons was the need for al-Qaeda to take a more gradual approach to imposing Sharia law and, in particular, to enforcing severe punishments for relatively minor offences. When AQAP took control of parts of Abyan and the neighboring governorate of Shabwa in 2011, the organization stoked local and specifically tribal anger when it flouted long-established tribal laws and traditions in favor of its own reductionist interpretation of Islamic law. As an example of this, AQAP sought to end the traditional trade in, and consumption of, the mild narcotic qat. Qat is viewed as halal, or permitted by many tribal religious authorities in Yemen, and is a core part of the Yemeni economy. AQAP’s prohibition therefore struck at both traditional and economic sensitivities.
AQAP’s heavy-handed approach to governance in Abyan and Shabwa through the qat ban and other comparable measures cost it critical local support. As a result, while units of the Yemeni Armed Forces played a key role in evicting AQAP from its strongholds in Abyan, it was tribal militias made up of men from the governorate that proved critical to defeating AQAP — at least temporarily.
Wuhayshi and his deputies — including the current AQAP emir, Qasim al-Raymi — used the lessons learned in 2011-12 to redesign their organizational structure and most importantly their approach to governing and holding territory. AQAP’s takeover and subsequent management of Mukalla are both clear examples of these changes.
AQAP’s takeover of Mukalla in early 2015 was swift and resulted in few casualties and relatively little damage to private property. In the days and weeks following their takeover, AQAP targeted those members of the local government and security apparatus who did not accept their authority. However, after they consolidated their hold on the city, AQAP’s leadership left the day-to-day governance of the city to a local council. As part of their effort to indigenize their organization, AQAP began referring to its members who operate in the Hadramawt — Mukalla is the capital of the governorate of the Hadramawt — as the “Sons of Hadramawt” (al-Jazeera, September 16, 2015). In addition, just as Wuhayshi counseled in his letters to the leader of AQIM, AQAP has maintained a relatively low profile in Mukalla. AQAP for instance provides security for the city and has undertaken some “public works” programs like repairing water mains and providing aid in the wake of the November 2015 cyclone. 
AQAP’s more recent campaign to retake Abyan in December 2015 appears to be of a similar design. Those members of AQAP who are active in Abyan refer to themselves as the “Sons of Abyan” and, apart from targeting a few key figures within the popular committees, the takeover has been relatively bloodless. Much as it has done in Mukalla, it is likely that AQAP will maintain its light footprint strategy and work to re-insert itself into the local governing structures in Abyan.
Out-maneuvering the Islamic State in Yemen
For all its advantages, AQAP’s light footprint strategy is replete with risks to the group. Foremost among these is AQAP’s potential to be perceived as lacking radical zeal by more hardline militants. . This perception could intensify what is already a simmering conflict between AQAP and Islamic State. Since the Houthi-led offensive and Saudi Arabia’s subsequent commencement of Operation Decisive Storm in March 2015, the Islamic State — which had only a limited presence in Yemen — has expanded. In March 2015, the group claimed credit for four suicide attacks on two mosques in Sana’a (al-Bawaba, March 20, 2015). These attacks killed more than 140 people; Islamic State claimed to be targeting what were predominately Zaidi mosques. However, as with the majority of mosques in north Yemen, the two mosques that were targeted were used by both Zaidis and Sunnis. Notably, AQAP condemned the bombing of the mosques (Middle East Eye, March 20, 2015).
Islamic State’s attacks in Yemen have largely been directed at targets associated with the Houthis. The militant Salafi ideology that Islamic State and AQAP embrace means that both groups view all Shi’a as heretics. While AQAP is also locked in a battle with the Houthis, its leadership has thus far been careful not to target mosques and other strictly civilian targets. This is not to say that AQAP is not just as brutal and dangerous an organization as Islamic State; however, AQAP takes a pragmatic view and, following its 2011-12 experience, is keenly aware of how important it is to not lose the still limited local support that it enjoys. For instance, local support is critical for maintaining supply chains and evading detection.  AQAP is therefore engaged in a delicate balancing act: it must restrain itself and its operatives so as not to alienate and anger local people in the areas that it has nominal control over yet it must also prove that it is as dynamic and “Islamic” as Islamic State.
In addition to the lessons that AQAP learned from its 2011-12 attempt to hold territory, the tactics of Islamic State in Yemen have also forced AQAP to moderate its own tactics. AQAP therefore appears to be pursuing something of a “middle way” in Yemen. Its light footprint strategy allows it to hold territory and enables it to claim that it is making progress toward establishing the caliphate that al-Qaeda (and Islamic State) desires. Yet at the same time, the strategy means that it is able to make the most of its still limited, albeit rapidly increasing, resources. For example, by leaving day-to-day governance to local councils, it is able to effectively co-opt local and regional stakeholders while being able to focus on battling the Houthis and Houthi-allied forces, which remain the primary threat to AQAP.
The Near or Far Enemy?
The debate about whether to pursue the near or far enemy remains contentious within both al-Qaeda central and AQAP. AQAP has a history of pursuing both the near enemy in the Yemeni state and now the Houthis and the far enemy in the West. Since the beginning of the civil war in Yemen, AQAP has focused most of its efforts on attacking the near enemy. The Houthi offensive that saw the Sana’a takeover in September 2014 also put considerable pressure on AQAP. With their allies in the Yemeni Army, the Houthis pushed south into al-Bayda, Abyan, and Shabwa areas where AQAP has long operated and exerted influence. The Houthis and their allies were initially successful at pushing AQAP out of these areas, to the extent that many of AQAP’s operatives fled east to the Hadramawt, where they subsequently regrouped.
The Houthis’ push into the south however inflamed what were minimal sectarian divisions and helped — at least to some degree — bolster local support for AQAP and the Salafist militias that fought alongside them. With the entrance of Saudi Arabia and its allies into the war in March 2015, AQAP was therefore able to rapidly regroup and seize large amounts of military hardware and cash from Yemeni Army installations, and banks – in particular, the Yemeni Central Bank branch in Mukalla.
AQAP’s counter-offensive against the Houthis and allied forces has been its primary focus in the eleven months since Saudi Arabia entered the war. Only now does AQAP arguably have the operational room and resources to again focus on the far enemy. Most worryingly, AQAP now enjoys more resources and operational freedom that it ever has before. However, with parts of the country, namely Taiz, Lahej, and al-Bayda still being bitterly contested by a host of militias and state-backed forces, AQAP’s short-term focus is likely to remain on the near enemy.
In addition to now having considerable resources and operational freedom to carry out attacks on the far enemy, AQAP may also be motivated to at least partially renew its focus on the far enemy by Islamic State. The Islamic State’s attacks in Yemen have focused on sectarian and high profile targets, including a deadly attack on the governor of Aden, the temporary headquarters of the Yemeni government in exile, and the presidential palace in Aden (al-Jazeera, December 7, 2015; al-Arabiya, January 30). These attacks are audacious and belie the fact that Islamic State’s branch in Yemen is still — relative to AQAP — a small organization. While AQAP has made significant progress in terms of seizing territory and growing its organization, it has generally eschewed high-profile attacks in favor of fighting along more traditional lines. This is a key part of its light footprint strategy but the lack of high profile attacks also leaves it vulnerable to criticism from hardcore members of the jihadist community. An attack on a Western target, whether that be in Yemen or abroad, would demonstrate the fact that AQAP remains a dynamic force that is still committed to and capable of “global jihad” and thus reassure its hardline supporters who might otherwise be attracted to Islamic State.
The ongoing civil war and the destruction wrought by eleven months of aerial bombardment by Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners ensure that Yemen will remain fertile ground for the growth of both AQAP and Islamic State over both the medium and long-term. Terrorist organizations by their very nature are predatory, adaptive, and thrive in power vacuums like the one that exists throughout much of Yemen. AQAP in particular has proven itself to be highly resilient and capable of learning from its mistakes and modifying its organizational structure accordingly.
The ability to learn and evolve has been clearly demonstrated by AQAP over the last two years. Despite drone attacks that have successfully targeted some of its senior leaders, AQAP has retained and improved upon its ability to interface with local stakeholders, plan and participate in relatively complex offensive operations, and perhaps most importantly, it is also learning how to govern through proxies.
Over the medium and even long-term, AQAP’s future in Yemen looks secure. While it may be compelled to take a more combative approach to confronting Islamic State, this is unlikely to significantly weaken AQAP. The only real potential threat to AQAP’s expansion in Yemen are stability and assertive and efficient governance at the local and federal levels. However, neither stability nor the formation of an effective government appear likely. Even when the war in Yemen does end, AQAP will continue to benefit from the destruction of the country’s armed forces, infrastructure, and perhaps most importantly, the intensifying hatred between rival political and religious groups.
Michael Horton is an analyst whose work primarily focuses on Yemen and the Horn of Africa.
 In December 2013, AQAP apologized to the Yemeni people for what its own communique described as a “brutal” attack on the Yemeni Ministry of Defense and the hospital inside the ministry. The attack left 56 dead. AQAP took full responsibility for the attack and promised to pay blood money to the relatives of the dead.
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Photo Image: AQAP members in Yemen (source: YouTube) supplied in the original article by The Jamestown Foundation