Al-Qaeda in Yemen appears weaker now than at almost any point since its Saudi and Yemeni branches united to form Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in 2009. The group’s fortunes peaked in 2015 when it established a proto-state in the eastern port city of Mukalla, taking advantage of the security vacuum and increasing sectarianism as Yemen’s civil war spiraled into an internationalized conflict. But the past five years have seen it steadily decline. Today, AQAP is no longer able to govern enclaves, hold territory or even operate effectively in the shadows. Its frequency of operations is less than 10 percent that of its guerrilla peak in 2017. However, it would be premature to write off the group.
AQAP’s current decline is the result of a barrage of challenges that the jihadis have faced, both external and internal. The external pressures have come from international counter-terrorism efforts that intensified after 2016 when AQAP was ousted from Mukalla by Emirati forces and their local allies. That was less a defeat than a strategic decision to withdraw to avoid urban warfare and heavy losses.
The UAE’s subsequent recruitment of local forces in key areas across the south ramped up the pressure on AQAP, not only combating it but also disrupting its recruitment and retention abilities. AQAP’s irritation and concern at the creation of these UAE-backed southern forces was clear in at least four statements released by the group in 2017, warning local tribes against siding with the new forces.
In some areas, AQAP was able to capitalize on resentment generated by the UAE’s increasing influence in the south, its backing of the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) formed in 2017 and human rights violations committed by the UAE-backed forces in the name of security. Overall, however, AQAP was successively degraded and, by late 2018, its operational activity was largely limited to Al-Bayda and Abyan.
AQAP has also suffered from internal pressures at the hands of informants and agents provocateurs recruited from or planted within the jihadi movement itself. By late 2017, the organizational damage wrought by relentless US drone strikes was crippling. AQAP’s leaders estimated that over 400 jihadis had met their deaths as a direct result of betrayal, and they took drastic measures. AQAP banned militants from using mobile phones and the internet and launched a sweeping investigation into the spy problem.
AQAP’s internal investigation was showcased in a documentary series titled “Demolishing Espionage,” which ran from 2018-2020 and was designed both to win sympathy and act as a deterrent. Ibrahim al-Banna, a veteran Egyptian jihadi with nearly three decades of experience building Al-Qaeda’s networks in Yemen, including among the Houthis, was placed in charge of the investigation. Five feature-length videos (an introduction plus four episodes) reveal in considerable detail how jihadis and their family members, including children, succumbed to blackmail, fell for honey traps, peddled information, placed trackers and sold out their brethren. The extent of the problem was so bad that, in late 2019, AQAP decided to offer an amnesty and full anonymity for all informers who came forward, confessed and repented.
AQAP also uncovered a deliberate internal disinformation campaign designed to stir up rivalries, sow suspicions and stoke tensions. This occurred on two levels: inside the broader jihad movement between AQAP and Islamic State in Yemen (IS); and inside AQAP itself.
The early wave of enthusiasm enjoyed by IS in 2014-2015 soon fizzled out, and the rivalry between AQAP and IS became fierce. AQAP’s strong networks, cultural attunement and longevity in Yemen gave it the upper hand over IS, particularly after the latter was all but wiped out following US air strikes on its two training camps in Al-Bayda in October 2017. A few months later, however, a new incarnation of IS emerged whose sole purpose appeared to be provoking AQAP rather than battling Houthi forces. By mid-2018, the AQAP-IS rivalry had erupted into an open war in Al-Bayda that dragged on for nearly two years and absorbed most of their energies.
By late summer 2020, the remnants of both AQAP and IS were largely cleared from Al-Bayda following a Houthi offensive, which was portrayed as a counter-terrorism operation. The ‘success’ of the Houthi operation likely relied on a combination of conspicuous killing and covert dismantling in the case of IS, coupled with a negotiated exit for AQAP, whose fighters shifted to Marib or headed south to lie low or join new battlefronts flaring up between government and STC-affiliated forces.
The upshot of these various external and internal pressures faced by AQAP – the infighting, suspicion, high leadership turnover and organizational paralysis they brought – is that AQAP has fragmented. The most high-profile rift came to light when news leaked out of the desertion in 2019 of a large group of AQAP militants led by Mansur al-Hadrami, AQAP’s commander in Qaifa who had been sacked, and Abu ‘Umar al-Nahdi, AQAP’s former emir in Mukalla. Disputes were rumored to revolve around controversial operational decisions, including some that appeared to favor pro-government Islah-aligned militias, and doubts over the veracity of spying charges that saw well-respected colleagues executed. The rift was serious enough for AQAP to address it directly in May 2020 in an unprecedented 18-page statement, its longest ever.
Whatever the truth behind this and other rifts, what is clear is that serious internal disagreements over priorities and loyalties have boiled over, and that Khalid Batarfi, who succeeded Qasim al-Raymi as AQAP’s overall leader in early 2020 after the latter was killed in a US strike, has proven a controversial leadership figure.
It is likely that AQAP, weakened and fragmented, is now making common cause with more mainstream militias active in the Yemen war, whether by pragmatic choice or practical necessity. There are several areas in which jihadi interests overlap with assorted political, economic and criminal interests. These include profiteering from the war, stoking tensions in the Saudi-led coalition, spoiling democratic ambitions, scuppering the 2019 Riyadh Agreement and squashing hopes of a separate southern state, which jihadis see as a man-made border dividing the umma and a throwback to the godless days of socialism.
As a result, AQAP has become harder to define. Accordingly, the AQAP label today tends to be attached to a broader range of actors, both by the media and by those on the ground. It no longer necessarily signifies a coherent group organized around a religious ideology, but is more an umbrella term for disparate fragments that have aligned with various militias serving predominantly political and economic agendas. In other words, various parts of AQAP appear to have been instrumentalized by the warring parties. However, it is difficult to draw straight lines between jihadi splinters and specific warring parties, largely because loyalties are fluid and all actors in Yemen suffer from deep internal factionalization.
The existence of any such links is, of course, hotly denied by AQAP’s official media arm. In September 2021, it released a lengthy booklet protesting AQAP’s complete independence from any state, government or proxy (with one notable and highly topical exception: “the general organization (Al-Qaeda central) is linked to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”). The fact that AQAP felt compelled to issue this rebuttal and re-state its independence “in light of the many questions about AQAP raised both by new members and outsiders” suggests that there is a case to answer and a perception among some, both inside and outside the jihad movement, that the group has forged tacit alliances in a bid to survive.
AQAP’s core goals remain unchanged and were firmly restated in its September 2021 booklet: to expel unbelievers from Muslim lands and, ultimately, to establish a caliphate. Moreover, while AQAP’s capacity to attack the West may be limited, its ambition to do so remains resolute, with the United States topping its list of enemies. This was clearly articulated in its latest video, released in October 2021, “Message to the American People: You Have Yet to Understand the Lesson”.
There is no doubt that AQAP is in bad shape, but this is no time for complacency. AQAP has been written off before: in 2012 after it was forced from its small ‘emirates’ in Abyan and Shabwa; and again in 2016 after the collapse of its proto-state in Mukalla and an intense year of drone strikes that saw the group hemorrhage its top military and spiritual leaders. But AQAP has a habit of surviving. It evolves, learns and adapts. While jihadi fighters can be killed or removed, jihadi ideology cannot. Hence the threat is never truly eliminated, only managed.
Perversely, a cease-fire could provide the catalyst for a comeback. After seven years of conflict, and in some areas many more, cycles of revenge are entrenched and it is unclear to what extent military and political leaders speak for or control local forces on the ground. If the hoped-for peace talks are not fully inclusive, or if those selected for inclusion do not hold genuine sway among the populations they claim to represent, then AQAP could seize the opportunity to resurge. It has a strong track record of harnessing local grievances and spinning them to fit its global jihadi narrative. It would therefore be wise to consider AQAP as more dormant rather than defeated.
Elisabeth Kendall is a senior research fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Oxford University’s Pembroke College. For an in-depth analysis of the current threat from AQAP, see Kendall’s article in the September 2021 issue of the CTC Sentinel of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover political, social, economic and security related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.
- AQAP Statement, “Statement to Our People in the Coastal Area of Hadramawt regarding the Recent Unjust Military Campaign” (“Bayan ila Ahli-na fi Sahil Hadramawt Hawla al-Hamla al-‘Askariyya al-Ghashima al-Akhira”), April 25, 2016.
- Statement by Ansar al-Shari’a in Hadramawt, “Message to Our People in Hadramawt” (“Risala ila Ahli-na fi Hadramawt”), March 16, 2017. Statement by Ansar al-Shari’a in Abyan, “Advisory Statement and an Apology” (“Bayan Nasiha wa-I’dhar”), August 17, 2017. Statement by Ansar al-Shari’a in Shabwa, “To Our People in Shabwa” (“Ila Ahli-na fi Shabwa”), August 22, 2017. Al-Malahim Media, video message from Khalid Batarfi, “To Our People in the South” (“Ila Ahli-na fi al-Janub”), July 2017.
- Al-Malahim Media, “Secrets, Dangers and the Departure of the Best” (“Asrar wa-Akhtar wa-Rahil Akhyar“), December 2017 (released January 27, 2018).
- AQAP Statement, “General Announcement to Jihadist Brothers on the Arabian Peninsula” (“Ta’mim li-l-Ikhwa al-Mujahidin fi Jazirat al-‘Arab”), December 3, 2017.
- Al-Malahim Media, “Demolishing Espionage” (“Hadm al-Jasusiyya”), September 2018, October 2018, January 2019, October 2019, February 2020.
- Ibrahim al-Banna, interrogation interview transcript, “al-Jarida tanfaridu bi-Nashr Nass al-Tahqiqat ma’ Qa’id Istikhbarat al-Qa’ida fi al-Yaman”, al-Jarida (Kuwait), November 4, 2010. https://www.aljarida.com/articles/1461872365163265500/
- AQAP Statement, “Statement of the AQAP Security Committee” (“Bayan al-Lajna al-Amniyya li-Tanzim Qa’idat al-Jihad fi Jazirat al-‘Arab”), November 2019.
- Elisabeth Kendall, “The Failing Islamic State within the Failed State of Yemen” Perspectives on Terrorism 13/1 (February 2019). https://www.universiteitleiden.nl/binaries/content/assets/customsites/perspectives-on-terrorism/2019/issue-1/kendall.pdf
- “US forces conduct strike against ISIS training camps in Yemen,” U.S. Central Command, October 16, 2017.
- Muslih al-Muhajir, “The Truth of What Happened in the Land of Qayfa between al-Baghdadi’s Kharijites and Ansar al-Sharia” (“Haqiqat ma hasala fi Ard Qayfa bayna Khawarij al-Baghdadi wa-Ansar al-Shari’a”), al-Badr Media, July 27, 2018.
- For more on the nature of the Houthi relationship to the Islamic State in Yemen after 2018, see Elisabeth Kendall, “ISIS in Yemen: Caught in a Regional Power Game”, NewLines Institute, July 21, 2020. https://newlinesinstitute.org/isis/isis-in-yemen-caught-in-a-regional-power-game-2/
- ISIS-linked al-Taqwa media, “The Great Desertion of al-Qa’ida Organization in Yemen” (“al-I’tizal al-Kabir li-Tanzim al-Qa’ida fi al-Yaman”), February 6, 2020. The same pro- and anti-Islah faultline is hinted at in AQAP’s own statement, “Wa-la takun li-l-Kha’inin Khasim-an”, May 11, 2020, pp. 5-6.
- Sawt al-Zarqawi Telegram wire, Series “Al-Qa’ida under the Microscope” (“Al-Qa’ida Tahta al-Majhar”), April 26-27, 2020.
- AQAP Statement, “And Be Not an Advocate for Traitors” (“Wa-la takun li-l-Kha’inin Khasim-an”), May 11, 2020.
- For an overview of the main militia groupings in Yemen’s fragmenting war, see Gregory Johnsen, “The end of Yemen”, Brookings, March 25, 2021. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2021/03/25/the-end-of-yemen
- Al-Malahim Media, AQAP: Definition, Goals, Project, Principles, Policy (Tanzim Qa’idat al-Jihad fi Jazirat al-‘Arab: al-Ta’rif, al-Ahdaf, al-Mashru’, al-Mabadi’, al-Siyasa), September 2021.
- Al-Malahim Media, “Message to the American People: You Have Yet to Understand the Lesson” (“Risala ila al-Sha’b al-Amriki: Lam Tafhamu al-Dars Ba’du”), October 2021.
- Elisabeth Kendall, “Twenty Years After 9/11: The Jihadi Threat in the Arabian Peninsula”, CTC Sentinel 14: 7 (September 2021), https://ctc.usma.edu/twenty-years-after-9-11-the-jihadi-threat-in-the-arabian-peninsula/