Attacks on Oil Industry Are First Priority for al-Qaeda in Yemen

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 5

Over the past six months, al-Qaeda in Yemen’s strategy has become increasingly clear. It aims to strike at both Yemen and Western countries— particularly the United States—by attacking them at their most vital and vulnerable points: oil and tourism. For Yemen the danger is clear. Oil revenues account for roughly 75 percent of the nation’s budget, while tourism remains one of the few legitimate areas of growth for an economy that is headed for failure. But this strategy is also calculated to hurt the West by targeting Western citizens and striking at oil production in the Arabian Peninsula. No longer is there a clear distinction, at least for al-Qaeda in Yemen, between attacking what is often referred to as the near enemy or the far enemy; instead it has devised an approach to simultaneously attack both. This strategy—which is more overarching than it is detailed—also allows for fighters to remain in Yemen instead of traveling to Iraq or Afghanistan, which is effectively decentralizing the front.

The January 18 attack on a tourist convoy in the eastern governorate of Hadramaut that resulted in the deaths of two Belgians and two Yemeni drivers is the most recent example of this strategy put into practice. Within days, al-Qaeda in Yemen claimed credit for the attack in a phone call to the independent weekly al-Wasat (January 23). The Yemeni government has questioned al-Qaeda’s involvement, claiming that the caller was a “well known fraud” (NewsYemen, January 24). Even prior to the claim of responsibility, Yemen was suggesting that it might not be al-Qaeda (al-Hayat, January 23), but most Yemenis remain convinced that the attack was at least inspired by—if not the direct work of—al-Qaeda.

The attack came days after al-Qaeda in Yemen released the first issue of its online journal, Sada al-Malahim (The Echo of Battles) on January 13. An interview with Saudi fighter Abu Hamam al-Qahtani reveals that targeting oil supplies in the Arabian Peninsula is a priority for al-Qaeda as well as a reason for fighters to remain in the Arabian Peninsula instead of traveling to Iraq or Afghanistan.

The journal also demanded the release of al-Qaeda members being held in Yemeni prisons. According to an al-Qaeda in Yemen communications officer identified as Ahmad Mansur, there are roughly 220 fighters in Yemen’s prisons (al-Wasat, January 30). Both the nature and tone of the statement resemble one that al-Qaeda in Yemen released on the eve of last July’s attack on a caravan of Spanish tourists in Marib (al-Jazeera, July 3, 2007). The practice of making a statement calling for the release of its colleagues followed by an attack is emerging as a pattern in the second phase of the war against al-Qaeda in Yemen.

This second phase began in February 2006, when 23 militants escaped from a political security prison in San‘a. These militants—under the leadership of Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the head of al-Qaeda in Yemen—have formed the core of al-Qaeda in Yemen’s second generation, which has made clear its opposition to the policy of negotiation and non-aggression favored by its older colleagues (see Terrorism Focus, August 14, 2007). Since then this younger, more radicalized group has attempted coordinated suicide attacks on oil and gas facilities in Marib and Hadramaut, assassinated a government official in Marib, attacked a tourist caravan in Marib and carried out this most recent attack in Hadramaut.

This history as well as the articles and interview in Sada al-Malahim make clear that the first priority for al-Qaeda in Yemen is oil, but when this proves too well protected to be feasible it moves on to the softer target of tourists. The third category of targets is those Yemeni officials it believes responsible for either the torture or death of al-Qaeda members (al-Hayat, May 1, 2007).

Effectively combating this strategy will require the same level of dedication and cooperation that Yemen and the United States demonstrated in the first phase of the war against al-Qaeda in Yemen from 2000 to 2003. In November 2002, the two allies were able to assassinate the then head of the organization, Ali Qaid al-Harithi, and arrest his replacement, Muhammad Hamdi al-Ahdal, a year later. If the al-Qaeda communications officer is to be believed, al-Qaeda in Yemen has grown significantly—from 80 fighters to roughly 300—since the United States invaded Iraq (al-Wasat, January 30). Combating this renewed strength on the part of al-Qaeda in Yemen will require an effective alliance between the United States and Yemen.