Author’s Note: This is Part II 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 III will discuss the future of Yemen as it pertains to US counterterrorism efforts and the strength of AQAP, as well as possible courses of action AQAP could take as a result of ongoing US operations there.

On 16 September, Yemeni officials announced the conviction of three individuals accused of plotting to kill Yemeni President Hadi and other foreign diplomats—including the US ambassador to Sana’a.  Receiving varying sentences of one, five, and seven-year prison terms, three AQAP operatives were found guilty of surveilling, planning, and preparing to assassinate the president outside of his residence in Sana’a.

While AQAP was thwarted in their recent attempt to assassinate President Hadi, nearly 70 high-ranking Yemeni security and intelligence officials have not been as fortunate.  The purpose of this article is to highlight the success of AQAP assassinations in Yemen, identify a few of their TTPs, and discuss its effect on US foreign policy.

Men work in a shop while a poster of interim president Hadi hangs nearby
Men work in a shop while a poster of interim president Hadi hangs nearby.

Who’s on the Target List

As a security or intelligence official operating in Yemen, the risk of assassination (or at a minimum, being targeted or surveilled by terrorist operatives) presents an imminent threat.  Since 2012, “roughly 60 officials have been killed [in] Yemen,” nearly all of whom were intelligence officers or security officials who worked in the intelligence sector.

This is significant because it demonstrates AQAP intent to degrade Yemeni intelligence collection capabilities and the government’s understanding of the operational environment in Yemen. Given AQAP’s recent targeting of President Hadi, it is evident that AQAP targeting operations cast a wide net, which poses an even greater threat to US counterterrorism strategy in the country and region.

By targeting intelligence officials, AQAP is not only able to degrade the status and health of the Yemeni operational environment but also negatively impact US intelligence and targeting capabilities.  Due to the extensive intelligence-sharing relationship and joint nature of US-Yemeni military operations, AQAP maintains the ability to damage US counterterrorism efforts without ever having to directly target US personnel.  This is a benefit that AQAP leadership has not wasted any time exploiting, as evidenced by AQAP’s impressive targeting success rate.

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Areas of Influence graphic in Yemen, courtesy of CriticalThreats.org
Areas of Influence graphic in Yemen, courtesy of CriticalThreats.org.

Assassination TTPs and Analysis

During AQAP assassinations, operatives employ a number of tactics that include suicide bombings, improvised explosive devices, and direct fire assaults by gunmen (current events update: read about their most recent deadly attack on 20 September here).

The most frequent, lethal, and flexible tactic of these utilizes some type of assault by gunmen.  As recently as 7 September, this tactic was employed to assassinate two senior Yemeni intelligence officials in two different locations in Yemen.  Open source news reports that Colonel Omer Bin Amer, the Chief of Intelligence for Wadia district along the Saudi borders, was assassinated as he walked out of Al Qatn mosque following his Friday prayers. The second individual, retired intelligence officer Abdul Majid Al-Salami, was gunned down in similar fashion at or near his home in Huta, capital of the southern province of Lahj.

In both of these attacks, two masked gunmen were able to approach their targets quickly and unassumingly using motorcycles, whereupon they closed the physical gap and margin of error between themselves and their objectives.  Motorcycles are a common and efficient mode of transportation on the often congested streets of third world cities, and also allow for maximum flexibility when conducting an assault.  They are easily acquired, require very little expertise to handle, and are difficult to track or pursue following an attack.  Therefore, they present an effective option for transportation during assassinations.

According to reporting on the attacks, Col. Omer was shot at least three times in the head shortly after he had stepped out onto the street outside Al Qatn mosque. Similarly, Col. Abdul was shot within close range at or near his private residence, allegedly as he sat outside his home.  The close physical proximity required for such attacks demonstrates relatively high levels of proficiency on the small arms weapon systems employed in the attack.  The weapons used to conduct the attacks would likely be non-standard and easily transportable and concealable, for transportation and travel through densely populated urban areas.  While automatic weapons fire at close range would likely have produced the same fatal solution in these two attacks, the gunmen used well-aimed fire, which also demonstrates a level of discipline and skill that provides insight into the possible levels of training AQAP operatives receive.

The close proximity of the attacks also suggests that the gunmen possessed detailed knowledge of the colonels’ itineraries, routines, and movements.  From a personal security perspective, there are many metrics unavailable on open source reporting for analysis.  However, based on the outcome of these attacks, it is safe to assume that the protective security measures around colonels Omer and Abdul were virtually nonexistent or severely limited.  The personal security portion of these two attacks highlights a severely critical but nonexistent capability that could have prevented AQAP operatives from targeting the colonels successfully in the first place.

Aside from nonexistent or severely limited security measures, additional problems surround the colonels’ security situation, namely the extensive AQAP networks working against them.  It is likely that additional nefarious personnel (in addition to the assault team) comprising both passive and active AQAP supporters, assisted in facilitating these attacks.  Spotters, informants, surveillants, and other facilitators were no doubt necessary in order to identify any gaps in intelligence prior to executing the assaults.  Although it is possible the attack planning was conducted solely by the assault team and without any support personnel, it is more likely that active AQAP sympathizers or low-level personnel were employed to assist the assault team.

Regardless of any enemy capabilities, there are multiple opportunities to disrupt, degrade, or defeat any terrorist efforts to conduct an attack prior to its execution.  However, even with the most extensive security systems and measures in place, there is no guarantee that an attacker hell-bent on conducting an attack will be indefinitely deterred.

It is unfortunate in both of these attacks that AQAP operatives were able to identify, locate, surveil, plan, and conduct attacks against colonels Omer and Abdul without disruption from local, protective, or other security or threat detection capabilities.  Given Yemen’s high threat security environment, it is unlikely the Yemeni government is capable of providing sufficient or effective security training for its officials, at the cost of multiple assassinations.

The terrorist attack cycle.

Red Flag for US Officials in Yemen

The successful assassinations of almost 70 senior Yemeni intelligence officials highlight a major vulnerability in Yemeni security and protective measures, at both personal and institutional levels.  While appropriate security measures recently defeated AQAP operatives in their targeting of President Hadi, the majority of Yemeni intelligence officials are not provided with this same adequate protection.

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This vulnerability directly affects US officials operating in Yemen, due to the extensive intelligence-sharing relationships between US and Yemeni officials, as well as their placement and access to other US actors in the country.  If Yemeni officials are being actively targeted, surveilled, monitored, and attacked by AQAP operatives, there is no guarantee that the same operatives will not gain access to any US officials who happen to be working in some capacity with their Yemeni counterparts.

A prime example of this vulnerability occurred in 2012 when masked gunmen assassinated a Foreign Service national investigator who worked at the US embassy in Sana’a.  The official had been investigating a recent breach of embassy security, which had made him a high-profile target for assassination by AQAP operatives and other militants hostile to US interests in the country.

It is critical that Yemen places greater emphasis on the personal security of its officials, especially those that have extensive interaction with Americans in the country.  Without sufficient protection for its own officials, the operating environment in Yemen places Americans at greater risk of AQAP assassinations, whether they are by gunmen, IED, or suicide bomber.  The ability to detect, deter, or defeat AQAP assassinations directly impacts US ability to conduct effective counterterrorism operations in Yemen.