The roots of the current protracted and brutal war engulfing Yemen, the worst in the countries history, are multi-faceted and deep-seated. The on-going conflict and failures of the peace talks are leading to entrenched schisms in the very social fabric of the country. One of the main benefactors of this has been Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The organization’s deep roots in the country has greatly benefited them and goes a long way in explaining their dominancy of Sunni Jihadism in Yemen over other players such as ISIS. They have earned success by increasingly showing the tendencies of a Neo-Jihadist organization, which appears to mark significant tactical shift. This has enabled them not only to seize land, but govern it as well; their self-declared emirate is styled as a popular haven and shelter from the on-going war and has a level of popular local support. Through both a long-standing strong historical connection, and a very modern, carefully calculated campaign, AQAP have increased their presence and influence in the country and have successfully capitalised on the chaos of the ensuing war.

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AQAP: Historical Ties in Yemen

The existence and overall success of Jihadism in general in Yemen can be attributed to wide a number of factors including, a predominantly rural population, rugged terrain, geostrategic location, proximity to Saudi Arabia, weak governance and famously independent tribes((A False Foundation: AQAP, Tribes and Ungoverned Spaces in Yemen, Combatting Terrorism Centre (2011), 15.)). The emergence of Neo-Jihadism in the country is a relatively new phenomenon, however it is one that is closely related to these factors. Neo-Jihadism is a diverse, syncretic form of global organization and interaction that has evolved from Islamic Jihadism and is unique to the early-twenty-first-century. It marks a distinct shift from traditional Jihadism drawing in new factors such as the development of regional ambitions, an increasingly offensive rather than defensive strain of jihad, and a focus on stoking sectarian tensions with assumed governance over areas under their influence.

A key factor in understanding the modern growth of AQAP, both in support and influence, is the deep historical roots that al-Qaeda holds in the country. Early links to the modern form of Neo-Jihadism that exists today can be traced back to Mujahideen fighters who returned to Yemen in the 1980s after fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. The returning Mujahideen were joined by other Arab veterans of the war, including Osama bin Laden himself, who advocated a central role for Yemen in global jihad. This influx of fighters was utilized by Ali Abdullah Saleh, then President of North Yemen (YAR), who fostered jihad by dispatching the Yemeni Mujahideen to fight the Soviet-backed Yemen Socialist Party of South Yemen (PDRY) in a bid to force a preferential unification of the two countries(( Osama bin Laden reportedly cited his efforts to oust the Yemen Socialist Party from southern Yemen as the very genesis of al-Qaeda, suggesting that al-Qaeda’s emergence was the product of an idea that “germinated ten years ago in the earth of Yemen”(( A False Foundation: AQAP, Tribes and Ungoverned Spaces in Yemen, Combatting Terrorism Centre (2011), 19.)).

In 1990, jihadists who had trained under bin Laden in Afghanistan formed what was essentially a precursor to AQAP, Islamic Jihad in Yemen. Only a few years later, a further predecessor, al-Qaeda in Yemen (AQY) was formed. Jihadists have a long and established history in the country stemming from these early fighters. In fact, the first ever al-Qaeda attack against United States occurred in the southern city of Aden in 1992 when U.S military personnel were bombed in the Gold Mihor and Movenpick hotels(( This failed plot against US soldiers represents AQY’s humble beginnings in Yemen.

Then in October 2000, a new phase of AQY was launched with an attack on the American warship, the USS Cole. Two AQY fighters detonated several hundred pounds of plastic explosives from a small skiff next to the USS Cole, moored in the port of Aden. The enormous blast claimed the lives of seventeen U.S. servicemen and injured nearly 40 others. The incident earned immediate infamy for the group at both a national and international level.

This new international attention included that of the United States. When launching the Global War on Terror (GWOT), George W. Bush used the bombing of the USS Cole as evidence that the threat of terror was not a singular event, such as 9/11, but one that has and continues to threaten the United States. This new focus on Yemen led to a lull in al-Qaeda activity due to a combination of coordinated US drone strikes and a string of arrests of al-Qaeda leaders. It is widely believed not only did Saleh cooperate with President Bush but also that he “stoked the jihadist threat to ensure Western backing for his embattled regime,”(( much like he had done with the Mujahideen in the 1980s.

The Saleh regime was facing multiple problems at the time from both a rising Shia Houthi insurrection in the North to increased calls for succession from the Al-Hirak movement in the South. Then in November 2005, in quick succession Yemen was suspended from the USAID program costing the government $20 million and then aid from the World Bank was also slashed from $420 million a year to $280 million. The reasoning for this was mainly attributed to rampant corruption within the Yemeni government(( The beleaguered and cash-strapped regime did not view a resurgent AQAP as a prominent threat to country and in fact the idea of AQAP being back in business “played well for Saleh because it required the Americans and the Saudis to deal with him – and more importantly to fund and arm his regime”((Scahill, Jeremy, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, Perseus Books, (2013))). Whether or not Saleh played a role, a few months later in February 2006, al-Qaeda was essentially reborn in Yemen as twenty-three convicted terrorists, including the groups current leader Qasim al-Raimi, escaped from a prison in Sana’a. In 2009 their influence grew again as the two al-Qaeda branches of Yemen and Saudi Arabia merged to form al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  

A Distinct Change of Tactics: Becoming Neo-Jihadist

The resurgence and merger of AQAP can be characterised as a kind of rebirth, which led to a distinct change of tactics. AQAP began to shift away from traditional jihadist tactics employed by al-Qaeda central and began to adopt those of more modern Neo-Jihadist organisations. One of these shifts was born out of an increasingly weak and over-centralised Yemeni government that was steadily losing its grip on areas of the country. AQAP retained its central al-Qaeda ideology of attacking the ‘far enemy’ (United States), but was now also pursuing a local agenda as attacks on Westerners and oil facilities imposed economic pressure on a struggling central government already starved of foreign investment and tourist revenue((A False Foundation: AQAP, Tribes and Ungoverned Spaces in Yemen, Combatting Terrorism Centre (2011), 40.)). The group also began to develop an increasingly regional outlook turning its focus to Saudi Arabia and calling for the downfall of the ‘apostate’ Saudi regime with its close U.S ties. These threats intensified as many Saudi jihadists assumed leadership roles in AQAP and by 2010, calls to overthrow the Saudi royal family were easily one of the most commonly voiced concerns((A False Foundation: AQAP, Tribes and Ungoverned Spaces in Yemen, Combatting Terrorism Centre (2011), 48-49.)).

The next shift came with a joint media revolution and mass recruitment drive. AQAP began publication of a bi-monthly magazine entitled, Sada al-Malahim (The Echo of Battles), which is tailored to a Yemeni audience and ties in both glorification of the group’s activities as well as offering theological support. This was also followed in July 2010 by ‘Inspire,’ which is an English language online version(( The group made great efforts to alter their image in the eyes of the Yemeni public, both in order to attract recruits and to preserve their legitimacy. In an increasingly fractured society, fraught various internal pressures and grievances, AQAP carefully crafted, and continues to generate, a discourse in which it is seen as defending the interests of ordinary Yemenis from the likes of corrupt officials. It displays an impressive talent for “assimilating broadly popular grievances into a single narrative in which jihad remains the only solution to the country’s multiple crises”((A False Foundation: AQAP, Tribes and Ungoverned Spaces in Yemen, Combatting Terrorism Centre (2011), 41.)). AQAP has successfully positioned itself “not as an organisation distinct from, but rather a reflection of the local population and the global community of subjugated Muslims,”((A False Foundation: AQAP, Tribes and Ungoverned Spaces in Yemen, Combatting Terrorism Centre (2011), 44.)) which has increased its popularity and recruitment numbers exponentially.

The final shift comes from the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict and how AQAP have sought to exploit this. Yemen has historically never been particularly plagued by sectarian tensions with political, economic and tribal divides being more prominent. However sectarian discourse was seen as an innovative and effective way of drawing more fighters into the ranks of both sides of the civil war. Neo-jihadist organisations such as ISIS and increasingly AQAP have been the most influential in exacerbating this atmosphere of sectarian polarisation. AQAP has traditionally steered away from promoting sectarian violence and from launching takfiri style militancy like ISIS. However as AQAP organisation adapts and competes with ISIS, it has managed to construct a narrative that “presented the Houthi takeover of Sana’a as a Shia plot to seize control of Yemen, invoking an increasingly sectarian rhetoric that called for Sunnis to protect themselves from ‘Iranian’ outsiders”((Yemen: Stemming the Rise of A Chaos State, Chatham House (2016), 23.)).

The Civil War: Gains and Losses

The civil war that erupted in February 2015, which has engulfed the country, has been decades in the making and was brought on by a combination of different interconnected factors. The corrupt and increasingly fractured central government proved unable to control regions beyond the capital, unable to aid in the development of key public services and unable to adapt to a more inclusive model of governance for the various grievances held by people across the country. These various strains meant that the state essentially collapsed under its own weight. As the power struggle raged in the North West, the Houthis took over Sana’a and a security vacuum was created in the southern regions. This presented an opportunity for AQAP, allowing them to expand into the southern and eastern governorates.

The ensuing chaos of the war along with the deep roots that AQAP took the time to cultivate means that the group was able to to make striking gains and quickly established themselves as a formidable force. AQAP was quick to solidify these gains and sought to mirror the success of ISIS. The group declared, along with affiliated group Ansar al-Sharia, the establishment of an Islamic emirate. At its height, the quasi-state spanned 600 km of prime strategic coastline and came with $100 million in looted bank money with a further $2 million more coming in everyday from port taxes and oil revenues(( AQAP rose to its richest and most powerful position since the group’s inception with lightening success.

This self-declared Islamic emirate in its complete form, with the port city of Al-Mukalla forming its jewelled capital, lasted roughly a year before the Saudi-coalition forces led a campaign in April 2016 to recapture the city. In a popular move, AQAP chose to retreat from the city to spare the residents the battle. AQAP are reportedly still generating revenue from the lost regions due to being interconnected into complex smuggling routes and still involved in taxing fuel delivered illicitly to the Arabian Sea coast(( At the time of writing, AQAP is said to have returned to their historical bases in Abyan and Shabwah provinces, and are reportedly planning a counterattack on the lost areas((Yemen: Stemming the Rise of A Chaos State, Chatham House (2016), 34.)).

Neo-Jihadist Governance: Popular Havens?

AQAP have proven successful in the current conflict after capturing territory and appear to have learnt from previous mistakes. The late AQAP emir, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, advised his Algerian counterpart in the summer of 2012 that, based on AQAP’s experiences in Abyan, meeting the people’s basic needs was the first step in governance(( Their main priority after seizing territory was restoring what residents sought most: stability and normality. AQAP immediately began a massive campaign of repairing damaged infrastructure and providing basic public services for people. In a further populist move, AQAP abolished payroll taxes for all citizens deeming the practice un-Islamic, and even offered to repay back-taxes from when the area had been under government control. This effort was clearly one to undermine the states legitimacy(( Furthermore, the group delivered much needed supplies to hospitals and attempted to fund the reopening of universities in order to placate the population.

A key aspect in this plan is to for these dawa to remain in public view. The group ensures that every move is broadcasted, acting as positive propaganda for the group and its governance. They have sent out dispatches through social media and Alathir, their local news agency, to spread the word of the popular haven they are attempting to create(( This planned and calculated campaign has proven highly successful. Although it is unclear how many supporters are strict ideological purists, given the choice between the Houthi–Saleh dominance, the anarchy of the over centralised state or the stability and prosperity of AQAP rule, many are “tempted not by AQAP’s ideology but by its new brand of governance”((Yemen: Stemming the Rise of A Chaos State, Chatham House (2016), 34.)).  

The other key player in the area is rival Neo-Jihadist organisation ISIS who are also seeking to gain a foothold and establish part of their grand caliphate in Yemen. So far the group remains very much in its infancy, due to not possessing the complex historical ties of AQAP and therefore carries the perception of being a foreign group. At most, ISIS can claim regular sectarian bombing attacks and the existence of seven wilayats (provinces) of pro-ISIS groups including Sa’ada, Sana’a, al-Jawf, al-Bayda, Taiz, Ibb, Lahij, Aden, Shahwah, and Hadhramaut, which in no way rivals the level of control AQAP holds(( When compared to AQAP, the lack of success of ISIS can be attributed to uncompromising nature and sheer brutality of their rule. In comparison, AQAP practices a less cruel form of governance and recognises and adapts to the needs of a population who is already brutalised by war.

Current Outlook and Future Prospects

Due to the recent striking successes of Neo-Jihadism in the country, there has been an increase in national and international efforts to combat their ascendancy. The greater security threat posed by AQAP forced the Saudi-led coalition to drive it out of Mukalla. Increased ISIS bombing attacks have also led to a more substantial security presence on the coast. The United States has also redeployed “a small number” of troops to the area in April 2016 stating they are going to stay for the foreseeable future and has over recent months ramped up its drone campaign against the group(( However despite these efforts, both groups benefit from their fluid organisational structure and ability to easily blend with the local population making them notoriously difficult to target.

The U.S State Department estimates that as of June 2015 there are around 4,000 AQAP members in Yemen(( 395.)). This is a staggering quadrupling of the groups’ numbers in a year, as estimates put the group at around 1,000 fighters in 2014. The estimates for 2016 are expected to be even higher die to the progression and the increasingly deteriorating situation surrounding the war. Additionally, there have also been reports that less than a month after being forced out of some Southern towns, AQAP have slowly been encroaching back into their old spheres of influence. Reports of fighters returning to the cities of Jaar and Zinjibar are widespread, as AQAP seek to slowly reintegrate their militants((

One of the main problems in combatting of Neo-Jihadist organisations is not the lack of appropriate military response to their growth, but the inability or outright refusal of state actors to alter the conditions in which they thrive. At the time of writing, the Kuwait peace talks have yielded few results and have been postponed until mid-July. Continued elite infighting and the dead-ended peace process not only gives AQAP the opportunity to produce propaganda to reinforce their claims of superiority. In fact, the constant inaction effectively continues to reinforce AQAP’s claim to power, as an increasingly divided and war torn society looks elsewhere for new solutions.

It is imperative that a political solution is found to the current conflict and one that importantly involves all levels of society and attempts to address all existing grievances. The new state will need to immediately offer assistance to a disaffected population brutalised by years of conflict. As such the returning of security, basic public services and infrastructure will be key to drawing support away from Neo-Jihadist organisations and redressing the long-standing issues caused by the war.