Author’s Note: This is the final instalment of a three-part series on AQAP in Yemen. Part I described the operating environment in Yemen, identified the basic capabilities and background information on AQAP, and summarized basic US counterterrorism efforts.  Part II highlighted the success of AQAP assassinations in Yemen, identified several E-TTPs, and discussed AQAP’s effect on US foreign policy.

Unlike the fast-approaching drawdown of US forces from Afghanistan in 2014, US counterterrorism efforts in the Arabian Peninsula are unlikely to show signs of slowing down.  Since 2009, following the Christmas Day bomber incident, the US has only increased its effort to remove senior AQAP leadership, operatives, local commanders, and even low-level fighters from the Yemeni battlespace.

While these efforts in Yemen will likely continue in support of ongoing joint US and host-nation counterterrorism operations, recent activity by AQ affiliate al Shabaab (AS) has highlighted the next regional gateway for AQAP in its efforts to export terror.  By establishing sufficient freedom of movement for terrorist planning and execution in Yemen, AQAP has recognized the benefits of providing significant regional support to affiliates it deems capable of further exporting core AQ’s ideology.

Due to close geographical proximity, extensive human terrain relationships, and pre-existing nefarious networks, AQAP has begun to shape the future of Yemen as it pertains to AQ’s strategic outlook.  It is through these factors that AQAP maintains even further relevance in the face of ongoing US counterterrorism operations.

Just Across the Pond

Yemen’s historic instability and high threat environment has enabled AQAP to create an operating environment in which freedom of movement throughout Yemen’s tribal regions is generally uninhibited (save for extensive US efforts to prove otherwise).

Because of this environment, AQAP has been able to solidify its regional and strategic objectives in support of exporting the core AQ ideology against the US and other western interests.  With a strong foundation and base of operations in Yemen, AQAP has funnelled extensive support to its closest geographic partner, and relatively young AQ affiliate, AS.  As AS demonstrated in its recent attacks in Nairobi, AS has proven itself capable of exporting terror beyond the typical confines of lawless Mogadishu.  The Westgate mall attacks are evidence of focused AS efforts to remain a relevant AQ affiliate, as well as AQAP efforts to bolster its regional partner.

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Al Shabaab fighters, courtesy of the Marka Times

According to open source reporting last year, the close proximity of Yemen and Somalia has directly contributed to AQAP’s ability to directly support and impact AS’ efforts to export terror.  It was reported that security forces had intercepted a boat carrying “weapons that were being smuggled from [AQ] militants in Yemen to fighters in Somalia…[to include] explosives, switches, rockets, guns, ammunition, and rocket-propelled grenades”, highlighting the advantages of having to cross only the Gulf of Aden in order to facilitate such support.  Additional weapons shipments have since been intercepted by security forces off Somalia’s northern coast, demonstrating significant collaboration between AQAP and AS, who has “worked closely with AQAP…[essentially] acting as a conduit to AQ.”

In addition to weapons shipments, open source reporting indicates AS members have received small arms weapons training and further weapons transfers in Yemen, prior to making the relatively short journey across the Gulf of Aden in order to return to Somalia for local terror operations.

Further evidence of AS’ relationship with AQAP and Yemen is the significant presence of AS strongholds and focused anti-government operations in the Puntland region of Somalia, specifically “footholds in [the] Galgala mountains west of Bossaso”.  The presence of AS in this region demonstrates AS’ reliance on logistics, lines of communication, and transportation routes between AQAP and AS.

Emphasizing Relationships for Business

As AQAP and AS continue to exploit the benefits of their close geographical proximity, the relationships between AQAP leadership and AS senior leaders remains a significant factor that bolsters the AQAP-AS terrorist nexus.

The strongest example of this relationship was revealed in a targeted killing attempt in 2011 by the US against two senior leaders of AS in Somalia.  Due to the senior leaders’ close working relationship with AQAP, the AS leaders were placed on the target deck in order to curb the future growth of any potential future interaction between the two groups.

According to open source reporting, the two senior AS members maintained “ ‘direct ties’ to American-born cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi”, who acted as the spokesperson for AQAP in Yemen and also founded and published AQ’s Inspire magazine.  While al-Aulaqi was eventually killed in a subsequent drone strike in Yemen in May of 2011, AS’ relationship with al-Aulaqi demonstrated a level of collaboration based closely on the networking and relationships of AQ senior leadership and that of its affiliates.

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Since 2011 this relationship has likely significantly increased, as AQAP becomes an even stronger force in Yemen and AS continues to receive extensive support in order to conduct continued terrorist operations.  AS’ ability to maintain its capabilities is a direct result of AQAP’s ongoing support of its mission in Somalia and the Horn of Africa, which is possible only because of the relationships between AQAP and AS leadership.

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

Not unlike the terrorist or insurgent activities in Afghanistan that are funded in part by criminal or nefarious networks, the ability of AQAP to export its ideology and support to AS also relies on a pre-existing network of nefarious activity.

Due to the close geographical proximity between Yemen and Somalia across the Gulf of Aden, the Puntland region of Somalia is a widely used exit terminal for refugees and human traffickers attempting to leave Somalia and enter Yemen.  This is significant because it provides a mobility corridor and transport network that AS and AQAP are able to exploit for their own gains.

The Gulf of Aden, courtesy of World Atlas

Using these pre-existing networks and corridors to travel between Somalia and Yemen, AQAP and AS possess no significant difficulties supporting, espousing, or spreading their ideology in either country.  With these networks, AQAP can further maximize its ability to provide AS with the support required to wage even more effective terror operations in Somalia.  This ability provides core AQ even greater motivation to maintain its footholds and freedom of movement in Yemen.

Fighting for Relevancy

As any terrorist group must do to ensure the relevancy of its ideology, AQAP and its leadership have identified the benefits of dedicating significant efforts towards supporting its regional affiliate and partner AS.

AQAP has recognized the benefits of geographical proximity, extensive senior leader relationships, and pre-existing nefarious networks in Somalia as the ideal gateway through which core AQ can exert even more concentrated terror efforts in the region.

While US efforts in Yemen will likely not diminish, AQAP’s ability to export the AQ ideology to Somalia provides US counterterrorism efforts with yet another capable affiliate that requires even more extensive US resources to defeat.

Thanks for listening.

Feature image courtesy of the SITE Intelligence Group.