Photo: BBC News
By Ian K, Columnist
While the media’s attention largely remains fixed on the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), al-Qa’ida’s most dangerous global affiliate is thriving in Yemen. Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is likely stronger now than at any point in its history, judging by its territorial expansion and surging operational tempo. Its recent successes pose an imminent threat to US interests, yet are underappreciated by the public.
AQAP has seized two provincial capitals and at least eight other major towns in southern Yemen since December 2015, giving it near-complete control of a 300 mile-wide swath of coastal plain from the port of Mukallah to the outskirts of Aden.[i] The group is implementing its own style of governance in newly-acquired territories and almost certainly is drawing on resources from these territories to bolster its strength and capabilities.[ii] Yemen’s internationally recognized government, consumed by the ongoing civil war with Houthi rebels and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in northern Yemen, has offered little-to-no resistance as AQAP advances across the south and east.[iii]
Yet AQAP’s leadership is not content with waging a mere domestic insurgency, no matter how successful it has been thus far. The group’s emir, Qasim al-Raymi, continues to espouse a worldview and strategic vision consistent with that of Osama bin Laden: in order to establish a caliphate, US influence must first be eliminated. AQAP released a video featuring Raymi in late December 2015 reaffirming that attacks against US interests were the group’s foremost priority. Raymi’s message implicitly criticized ISIL for prematurely declaring a caliphate before the “primary enemy” had been defeated.[iv]
There is little intrinsic value in arguing whether al-Qa’ida or ISIL poses the greater threat, and focusing on one at the expense of the other is folly. US media, political discourse, and the public writ large are too often guilty of having short memories and tunnel vision when discussing terrorism. Raymi is well positioned to take advantage of that shortsightedness.
The US Government has labeled AQAP al-Qa’ida’s most dangerous affiliate with good reason. The group exhibits sophisticated tradecraft and its ranks include Ibrahim al-Asiri, who is perhaps the jihadist world’s most innovative bombmaker. Moreover, AQAP has a long history of complex plotting and has consistently displayed the resiliency to bounce back when its operations are disrupted. AQAP was responsible for three separate threat streams targeting the US aviation sector between 2009 and 2012, including the infamous 2009 Christmas Day ‘underwear bomber’ plot. In 2013, intelligence of an AQAP-linked plot prompted the United States to temporarily close 22 diplomatic facilities throughout Africa and the Middle East. The group was also responsible for the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January 2015.[v]
The rise of ISIL, which many believe has claimed the mantle of global jihad, does not diminish the threat from AQAP. Nor, as some analysts contend, will AQAP’s expenditure of resources on the conflict in Yemen prevent it from pursing external operations. Its prowess for conducting external operations, dedication to striking the US, and growing strength within Yemen indicate that AQAP poses a more potent threat than ever—one that we ignore at our peril.
[i] Katherine Zimmerman, “AQAP Expanding behind Yemen’s Frontlines,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, February 17, 2016, accessed February 19, 2016, http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/zimmerman-aqap-expanding-behind-yemens-frontlines-february-17-2016.
[ii] Bill Roggio, “al-Qaeda seizes more territory in southern Yemen,” The Long War Journal, February 11, 2016, accessed February 19, 2016, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2016/02/al-qaeda-seizes-more-territory-in-southern-yemen.php.
[iii] Zimmerman, “AQAP Expanding behind Yemen’s Frontlines.”
[iv] Thomas Joscelyn, “AQAP leader says America is the ‘primary enemy,’” The Long War Journal, December 24, 2015, accessed February 19, 2016, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/12/aqap-leader-says-america-is-the-primary-enemy.php.
[v] “Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” Council on Foreign Relations, June 19, 2015, accessed February 19, 2016, http://www.cfr.org/yemen/al-qaeda-arabian-peninsula-aqap/p9369.