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.

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.”