Founder’s Death a Blow to AQAP, but not Fatal

Commentary by Hussam Radman

When Qasim al-Raymi mourned his predecessor and lifelong friend, he said the 2015 US drone strike that killed Nasir al-Wuhayshi had fulfilled the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leader’s dream of martyrdom. Following Al-Raymi’s own death in a US military operation this January in Yemen, his assassination has stirred debate about whether AQAP can survive without this charismatic and capable leader, who had been the last surviving member of the group’s founders. Al-Wuhayshi’s view on such matters was clear in remarks he made about five years before his death: “America is wrong if it thinks it has won by killing this (or that) commander. Jihad continues until Doomsday!”[1]

Doomsday may be optimistic, but a painful blow is not necessarily a death blow. AQAP has been regressing since 2016, and this may worsen with the death of Al-Raymi. His newly appointed successor, Khalid Batarfi, also known as Abu al-Meqdad al-Kindi, is first-generation Al-Qaeda, having fought alongside Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. He is, however, Saudi, and Al-Wuhayshi and Al-Raymi had succeeded in Yemenizing AQAP, allowing it to create social incubators and safe havens across the country. A non-Yemeni could disturb the group’s ties with the tribal community in which it moves. Still, Al-Raymi’s management of a pivotal transition within AQAP through a series of decisive, strategic and operational changes has maintained the organization’s unity and provided resilience. Ultimately, Al-Raymi prevented a split within AQAP (as happened to Al-Qaeda in Syria) or its disintegration (as happened to the Islamic State group), and the group can draw on the strategy he left behind to survive.

It’s only with Al-Raymi’s death that Nasser al-Wuhayshi’s era ended. Both men played vital roles in the group’s ideological establishment. They studied together at the Faculty of Sharia and Law at the University of Sana’a, and both joined the jihadists in Afghanistan in the early 1990s. At the time, Al-Wuhayshi was Osama bin Laden’s secretary while Al-Raymi recruited and trained fighters at the Al-Ansar camp in Pakistan in support of the Taliban.[2] After the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Al-Raymi and Al-Wuhayshi both ended up back in Yemen — reunited in a Sana’a prison. They participated in a dramatic prison escape in 2006[3] and, in 2007, set up what would become known as Al-Qaeda in the Southern Arabian Peninsula with Al-Raymi as spokesperson and military commander.[4] Upon integrating with Al-Qaeda’s branch in Saudi Arabia, AQAP was born. Al-Raymi successfully recruited Yemenis and Arabs as was evident in 2011, when AQAP launched widespread operations against Yemeni army posts.[5]

When Al-Ramyi succeeded Al-Wuhayshi as the group’s leader in 2015, AQAP was facing four existential threats: Severe divisions in the jihadi community, resulting in a bloody conflict with the Yemeni branch of the Islamic State group; infiltration by Saudi intelligence combined with US military operations; the rise of UAE-backed southern separatists as political players in the south and the shift of internationally recognized Yemeni state institutions to Aden, ending the vacuum of authority in southern Yemen; and Houthi expansion of control in critical areas of central Yemen.[6]

Al-Raymi responded to these challenges by strategically repositioning within Yemen. After controlling Mukalla in Hadramawt governorate – Yemen’s fifth-largest city – for a year, but facing a UAE-led campaign to retake the city, AQAP notably withdrew in April 2016. The group also withdrew from other urban areas following the Saudi- and Emirati-led military coalition’s campaign that retook Shabwa, Lahj, Abyan and Aden governorates from Houthi forces. Meanwhile, he restructured the organization, ending security breaches by purging suspected spies. He also rearranged his jihadi priorities, shifting the group’s emphasis from being an Islamic emirate to being a revolutionary organization. (In jihadist terminology, this reflects reversing course from “jihad of empowerment” to a “jihad of defiance.”)[7] Al-Raymi also benefited from the Islamic State’s lack of local understanding and ideological inflexibility, allowing AQAP to dominate the local jihadi scene.

Beyond managing these shifts, AQAP as an organization draws resilience from its ideological coherence. To Al-Qaeda, the blessed time of the caliphate has not yet come and must be prepared for through jihad, armed struggle, and by reforming society through implementing sharia, Islamic law. Therefore, the fall of the emir or emirate does not represent a catastrophe to Al-Qaeda’s ideology because the group’s essence is its “jihadi-revolutionary” project — creating a faithful and just society by ridding it of nonbelievers. This differs from IS, which derives its religious legitimacy and ideological attractiveness from the establishment and expansion of a caliphate and inauguration of a caliph; once that caliph’s authoritarian influence ends, the caliphate ends.

In shifting priorities, Al-Raymi instilled a strategic approach that provides another source of stability. It can be summed up in several points: First, the safety of the organization is more important than gains on the ground, in authority or in finances. Second, strategic concealment within Yemen can shift the nature of internal operations toward defensive purposes, such as defending AQAP positions in Al-Bayda against the Houthis, and must coexist with operational expansion outside this arena. For example, the group can strengthen its cooperation with Al-Qaeda branches in Somalia and Afghanistan during these times or strike against Western targets, even if that means so-called “lone wolf” attacks because the group itself cannot carry out strategically significant attacks. Third, slowing the pace of recruitment, reducing top commanders’ movements and increasing covert work is acceptable to avoid Saudi and American infiltration. However, this may not have been entirely effective; The New York Times reported that the CIA learned of Al-Raymi’s location through an informant in Yemen, allowing the US to track Al-Raymi with surveillance drones.[8] 

Al-Qaeda’s organizational structure is independent, its connections firmly rooted and it enjoys a degree of institutionalization. So while losing an emir can temporarily disrupt the flow of information and orders and hurt morale, it is unlikely to bring down the system. Furthermore, the unstable security situation in southern governorates since the August 2019 infighting among the anti-Houthi coalition has eased pressure on AQAP. The fallout weakened Security Belt forces in Abyan and resulted in the defeat and dispersal of the Shabwani Elite Forces in Shabwa – the two most significant local parties combating terrorism in each area. These developments created an environment for the return of jihadi organizations, providing them safe havens and allowing more freedom of movement to AQAP leaders and members in Abyan, Al-Bayda, Shabwa and Marib governorates. The extent and nature of the consequences of Al-Raymi’s death on AQAP cannot be predicted, but rapid extinction is not one of them. Batarfi may not enjoy the sort of automatic local protection his Yemeni predecessor did, but Al-Raymi left AQAP positioned to survive as an institution.

Hussam Radman is a journalist and Sana’a Center research fellow who focuses on militant Islamist groups and southern Yemeni politics.

This commentary appeared in The War Over Aid – The Yemen Review, January/February 2020.


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 diplomatic, political, social, economic, military, security, humanitarian and human rights related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally. 


Endnotes

  1. Nasir al-Wuhayshi, “Series of Concepts, [AR]” AQAP internal publication, circulated in 2019, p. 12.
  2. Atwan, Abdel Bari. “After bin Laden: Al Qaeda, the Next Generation [AR], (Beirut: Dar al-Saqi, 2013), www.books.google.com.cy/books?id=uVppDgAAQBAJ&pg=PA1910&lpg=PA1910&dq=كيف+هرب+الريمي+والوحيشي+من+السجن&source=bl&ots=aWQ2REYNOQ&sig=ACfU3U2_aL9C_ZJ9hRc3p6GzPVgCVKjM4Q&hl=ar&sa=X&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=كيف%20هرب%20الريمي%20والوحيشي%20من%20السجن&f=false
  3. Ibid.
  4. “Qasim al-Raymi.. the fall of al-Qaeda’s strong man in Yemen [AR],” Islamist Movements, February 8, 2020, https://www.islamist-movements.com/52060
  5. “Al-Raymi, the man behind the explosive parcels and the theory of soft killing [AR],” Al-Bayyina Center for Wahhabist Research and Studies, September 15, 2019, http://elwahabiya.com/
  6. For further information, see: Hussam Radman, “The harvest of Yemeni jihad: 2017 … a year of rebuilding [AR],” Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, January 28, 2018, https://sanaacenter.org/ar/publications-all/analysis-ar/5292?fbclid=IwAR1MPU6rYxiNOTeQ2OpYeiM1YjxHjKRkp1aD7fIO3QWZ-TQhnumH496xzFY
  7. Naji Abu Bakr, “Management of Savagery [AR],” online publication, 2004.
  8. Rukmini Callimachi, Eric Schmitt and Julian E. Barnes, “U.S. Strikes at Leader of Qaeda in Yemen,” The New York Times, January 31, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/31/world/middleeast/qaeda-yemen-alrimi.html
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