Author’s Note: This is a three-part series on AQAP in Yemen. Part II will cover recent AQAP activity at the tactical level, to include assassinations, TTPs, leadership information, and its effect on US foreign policy.  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.

As the US pursues joint counterterrorism operations in various hotspots around the globe, a brutal shadow war in Yemen against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has consistently remained at the forefront of US efforts. Assassinations, targeted killings, drone strikes, bombings, and lawlessness are the frequently referenced terms used to describe this war.

The purpose of this article is to describe the current operating environment in Yemen with respect to its stability and condition, identify the basic capabilities of and appropriate background information regarding AQAP, and describe the status of ongoing counterterrorism efforts in Yemen.

The Operating Environment

In Yemen, there are no holds barred.  As the Arab world’s poorest country (with a poverty rate of over 50%), security issues such as political unrest, organized and violent crime, tribal clashes, secession movements, sectarian violence, and terrorism infest the country.

The key to AQAP success is a direct byproduct of Yemen’s political instability and security issues. These problems have provided AQAP operatives and other nefarious actors with the freedom of movement necessary for the facilitation, support, and operational capacity to conduct extensive terrorist activity, its most deadly threat.

In 2011, after 33 years of clinging to power, Yemen’s elected president Ali Abdullah Saleh was finally forced to resign due to significant demonstrations, political discord, and extensive sectarian violence that plagued the country. Having assumed the presidency following a civil war in 1994, Saleh had consistently dealt very aggressively with the messy sectarian violence and politics in Yemen, but to no avail.

Currently, under the leadership of interim president Abdo Rabo Mansour Hadi, Yemen continues to struggle with the same domestic unrest, protests, sectarian violence, and  extensive AQAP threat within its borders that Saleh faced.  As recently as Monday 9 September, open source news reported at least 42 people were killed in the past 10 days as a result of sectarian violence between various Sunni and Shia tribes.

As Hadi works to consolidate governmental control over Yemen’s fractured territory, the Yemeni government must work even harder to contain the damage done by Saleh while he was still in office.

A prime example of this effort was demonstrated in late August, when the Hadi administration issued a public apology to southern separatists and northern Shia Muslim rebels for various wrongs committed against them by the Saleh regime. This statement apologized for “[the] repeated military campaigns that [Saleh] had launched against rebels there between 2004 and 2010,” which ultimately “paved the way for Saleh to step down after months of unrest.”

AQAP: Al Qaeda’s Most Deadly Franchise

It was out of Yemen’s historic instability and high security threat environment that Al Qaeda formed its most capable, deadly, and successful franchise.  Primarily based in the tribal regions of Yemen outside the capital of Sana’a and government control, AQAP easily constitutes the most globally networked and capable AQ affiliate.

The most notable AQAP activities include the Christmas Day bomber in 2009, an attempt to send explosive-laden packages to the United States in 2010, and the launch of AQ’s Inspire Magazine, “an AQAP-branded, English-language publication,” published with the intent of targeting Western audiences specifically (the Boston bombers referenced Inspire for its bomb-making instructions) with AQ propaganda.

According to the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), AQAP (and its predecessor, AQY—Al Qaeda in Yemen) originally targeted “local, US, and Western interests in the Arabian Peninsula, but is [now] pursuing a global strategy.”  This global strategy is clearly evident in the recent high profile attacks conducted by AQAP since its official conception in January of 2009, following the prison break of 23 AQ operatives from a Sana’a prison in February three years prior (prison breaks of radical Islamist fighters, sound familiar?).

Nasir al Wuhayshi, current AQAP emir.
Nasir al Wuhayshi, current AQAP emir.

The NCTC also reports that AQAP operatives have conducted “near-simultaneous suicide attacks [in September 2006] against oil facilities in Yemen…multiple small-arms attacks on foreign tourists, a series of mortar attacks against the US and Italian Embassies in Sana’a, the presidential compound, and Yemeni military complexes” and many others.  Throughout its relatively brief existence, AQAP has wasted no time establishing itself as an organization more than capable of orchestrating and conducting high-profile terrorist attacks against the US and Western interests.

Headed by one of UBL’s closely trusted associates, Nasir al Wuhayshi, AQ (under direction of Ayman al-Zwahiri) has also recognized AQAP’s previous successes and future prospects and therefore nominated Wuhayshi as AQ’s “general manager.”   This appointment is significant in that it identifies AQ’s emphasis on AQAP’s ongoing terror efforts against Western interests, and also positions Wuhayshi in a strategically and physically significant location, “where [he] is able to coordinate the activities of AQ’s robust affiliates in the heart of the Middle East and Africa in their ongoing efforts to target the West.”

Ongoing Counterterrorism Efforts

The US has been aggressively targeting AQAP since the 2009 Christmas Day bomber incident. Primarily using targeted killings in an effort to remove senior AQAP leaders, operatives, local commanders, and even low-level fighters from the battlespace, the US launched anywhere between 42 and 54 drone strikes in 2012, over 20 strikes in 2013, and has killed an estimated 591-807 militants (estimates vary).

Al-Qaeda’s bastions of power: Somalia and Yemen

Read Next: Al-Qaeda’s bastions of power: Somalia and Yemen

Density of US drone strikes in Yemen, courtesy of the New America Foundation.

As recently as last month, the Long War Journal reported that the US launched two drone strikes in Yemen in a 24-hour period, killing an alleged 11 operatives in known AQAP areas of operation. These strikes took place amidst the recent closure of over 20 US Embassies and Consulates across the Middle East and Africa on 7 August.  This occurrence demonstrates the significant effect that AQAP operations and ongoing US counterterrorism efforts have on the overarching US strategy and security posture in the region.

These efforts are also part of a three-pronged US strategy in Yemen, which includes “combating AQAP in the short-term, increasing development assistance in the long-term, and organizing international support for stabilization efforts.” Given the intensity of recent targeted killings, and the ongoing attempts by AQAP to target Western interests both in the region and globally, it remains to be seen whether or not US efforts are producing effective results.

Increased Situational Awareness

The content above only scratches the surface of the basic knowledge needed to understand the complexity of the issue, and serves first and foremost as a primer to fuel further interest and research surrounding the ongoing war.  In order to obtain an even clearer picture of the situation in Yemen, we recommend the following resources:

Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) – An excellent summary and clear background information on AQAP, to include its history, leadership, funding, US policy, and environment in Yemen.

Long War Journal – A tally of US drone strikes in Yemen against AQAP since 2002.

Stratfor – Great analysis on the persistence of AQAP amidst the continuous efforts of US counterterrorism operations.

New America Foundation – Good data pool on the Obama administration’s covert war in Yemen, to include: attack dates, location, leadership targeted, etc.

National Counterterrorism Center – AQAP-specific summary and background from the NCTC.