TSG IntelBrief: Profiling al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula Part 1
August 14, 2013
Bottom Line Up Front
• Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the product of a 2009 merger between al Qaeda’s Yemeni and Saudi branches, is considered the terrorist organization’s most dangerous franchise.
• In August 2013, AQAP created international concern when an intercepted “conference call” between the leaders of al Qaeda and AQAP pointed to an imminent catastrophic terrorist attack against Western targets.
• AQAP’s demonstrated skill in bomb-making and the concealment of explosives is of great concern to government counterterrorism services.
• Nevertheless, with the governments of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen cooperating in the counterterrorism arena, AQAP’s vulnerabilities might be exploited and its operational capabilities significantly degraded.
Today’s IntelBrief is the first of a two-part series that will offer our readers a detailed profile of an organization that is looming at the center of Middle Eastern-based terrorism: al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In this first installment, The Soufan Group will provide an overview of the group’s history, operational capabilities, and its former ties to Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who became a widely influential extremist personality and the target of a US drone strike in 2011.
As of mid-August 2013, among al Qaeda’s worldwide affiliates, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)—operating from its bases in Yemen’s ungoverned tribal regions—continues to pose the most significant terrorist threat to the region as well as to Europe and the United States.
AQAP is the product of a 2009 merger of al Qaeda’s Yemeni and Saudi branches. The Yemeni branches were formed in the early 1990s when hundreds of mujahideen returned to Yemen after fighting the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. A later wave of fighters returned to Yemen following the overthrow of the Taliban government in Afghanistan in late 2001. Following a crackdown by Saudi authorities in 2004, a further wave of al Qaeda operatives fled to Yemen. All these fighters then proceeded to establish sanctuaries among a number of Yemeni tribes, particularly in several provinces bordering Saudi Arabia. AQAP is currently estimated to number about 1,000 operatives, as well as thousands of followers throughout Yemen.
AQAP’s predecessors have a long history in terrorism, and several operations carried out by the organization in its current form have also gained it worldwide notoriety for its “strategic vision” and technological innovation in carrying out lethal attacks. One of the first large scale attacks carried out by AQAP’s predecessors involved the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole that took place in Yemen’s southern port of Aden. Terrorist attacks that followed incorporated the use of concealed explosives that were designed by Ibrahim Asiri—the organization’s master bomb maker—that were undetectable by traditional screening methods. Although these attempts ultimately failed to kill their intended targets, they nevertheless demonstrated exceptional technological sophistication. Over time, the organization has demonstrated a strong—and worrisome—track record for developing new tactics and explosive devises to exploit vulnerabilities in an adversary’s antiterrorism measures.
All of this came to a head in early August 2013 when the United States and Yemeni governments reportedly intercepted communications between Ayman al-Zawahiri and Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the leaders of al Qaeda and AQAP, respectively, that pointed to imminent attacks by AQAP against Yemeni and Western targets.
AQAP Lethal Attributes
What makes AQAP so dangerous is its success in exploiting the instability resulting from Yemen’s fractured, impoverished, and fragile conditions to consolidate its power base in the country’s ungoverned regions. AQAP’s strength also derives from its leaders’ domestic tribal connections, local resentment against the central government, and the appeal of its extremist jihadist ideology. That ideology espouses the goal of purging Muslim countries of Western influence and replacing secular “apostate” governments—especially those in Yemen and Saudi Arabia—with fundamentalist Islamic regimes operating under strict sharia law. The group intends to achieve these goals in part through attacks that target not only Western interests in the region, such as embassies and energy facilities, but also the far enemy on the US homeland.
AQAP’s political front is Ansar al-Sharia (“Partisans of Sharia”), an umbrella organization of Yemeni Islamists that had its beginning following the May 2011 Battle of Zinjibar. At the height of the uprising between opposition elements and government forces loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, AQAP forces took advantage of the upheaval to gain control of the southern town of Zinjibar (the provincial capital of the province of Abyan), as well as its surroundings in the southern Yemeni province of Shabwa (the hometown of the Yemeni American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki). The victorious Islamist forces labeled themselves as Ansar al-Sharia, and regarded this breakthrough as the starting point for creating Islamist emirates throughout Yemen. Ansar-al-Sharia’s control over Zinjibar, however, was short-lived as the Yemeni army, assisted by local tribal forces, succeeded in regaining control of it three months later.
Extremist Western Jihadists Linked to AQAP
The most prominent Western extremist linked to AQAP was Anwar al-Awlaki, the 40-year-old American-Yemeni cleric who became one of the most influential English-speaking jihadi preachers among Western Islamist extremists in the West. After living in the United States, and then briefly in the United Kingdom, al-Awlaki returned to Yemen in early 2004 and, as a member of the influential Awlaki tribe, lived in his ancestral village in the southern province of Shabwa with his wife and five children.
Within AQAP, al-Awlaki became its chief propagandist. He also assumed an operational role that involved attack planning and the recruitment of new operatives (including those from the West who had reached out to him, such as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and Major Nidal Hassan).
Al-Awlaki was killed in a US drone attack in the mountains of Yemen in September 2011 along with Samir Khan, another homegrown American jihadi extremist who left the US for Yemen in 2009, where he became the publisher of AQAP’s Inspire magazine. (Note: Part of AQAP’s widespread notoriety stems from its publication of the English-language Inspire magazine, which was launched in July 2010 following the arrival of Samir Khan, a prolific producer of extremist jihadi online magazines in America. Later issues of the magazine reportedly inspired the Tsarnaev brothers to carry out their bombing of the Boston Marathon in mid-April 2013.)
Next Up —
➣ In the second part of this series, The Soufan Group will present a detailed rundown of AQAP’s leadership as well as our strategic assessment of the group’s near-term prospects.
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