AQAP REBOUNDS IN YEMEN AMID AIRSTRIKES
Early on April 2, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighters launched a surprise attack in al-Mukalla, eastern Yemen’s main port and the main city in Hadramawt province. The militants, armed with explosives and RPGs, freed over 200 inmates from the city’s prison, attacked local government and military buildings, looting a large number of weapons, and robbed a bank. They then established checkpoints on roads leading to the city, effectively sealing it off from the rest of the country (Yemen Times, April 6). Only two government fatalities were reported, suggesting that most security services had already departed the city or had decided not to fight (Saba News, April 2). The following day, AQAP fighters reportedly gave sermons in the city’s mosques (Yemen Times, April 6). Following this, AQAP fighters—now reportedly rebranding themselves as the “Sons of Hadramawt”—on April 16 seized Mukalla’s al-Rayan Airport and the nearby al-Shihr oil terminal, reportedly with some cooperation from local, mainly Sunni, tribes (Mukalla Star, April 16). The exact situation on the ground remains unclear however.
Meanwhile, in Yemen’s southwestern Abyan province, some AQAP fighters have reportedly sided with forces loyal to the internationally-recognized president, Abdu Rabbu Mansur Hadi, in order to fight the Shi’a Houthi rebel movement, the main target of ongoing Saudi-led airstrikes. “We are fighting along with Hadi’s popular committees as a means to defend our land in Abyan, and because we share a common goal of killing the Houthis and any soldiers loyal to them,” one AQAP leader, was reported as saying (Yemen Times, April 8). Separately AQAP, through its @ASNewss Twitter account, claimed responsibility for a suicide car bomb attack on a police station in southern Shabwa governorate and for assassinating a senior security official in the western city Hodeidah on April 16 (MENAFN, April 12; 26Sep.net, April 16).
These events, evidence of AQAP’s growing confidence, are liable to have significant long-term impacts. Many of those released from al-Mukalla prison were imprisoned jihadists, whose presence will bolster the group. These included Khaled Batarfi, a leading AQAP member who had been the head of AQAP operations in Abyan and al-Bayda provinces until his arrest in 2011 (Saba News, March 17, 2011). After his release, Batarfi was photographed in the governor’s mansion while standing on a Yemeni flag and making the one-finger “tawhid” gesture popularized by the Islamic State (Mukalla Star, April 13). In addition, the group’s seizure of guns and money is likely to increase the group’s capabilities further. Meanwhile, AQAP’s siding with Hadi’s forces in Abyan, a stronghold for various jihadist groups since the early 1990s, vividly indicate that AQAP is actively using Saudi airstrikes to entrench its own influence in that area, apparently aided by the willingness of Hadi’s beleaguered supporters to ally with whoever they can. Marginally offsetting such developments, AQAP said that a drone strike on April 12 killed Ibrahim al-Rubaish, a Saudi national and former Guantanamo Bay detainee who was one of the group’s leading members (al-Jazeera, April 15). Al-Rubaish’s death is likely to be a significant, if only temporary, blow to the group.
There is also some evidence that AQAP is mending relations with Hadramawt’s powerful tribes, whose reaction to recent developments has been notably muted. On April 5, three days after AQAP captured al-Mukalla, the Hadramawt Tribes Confederacy (HTC), an alliance of the main local tribes, issued a statement merely denying that they “had signed an agreement” with Ansar al-Shari’a, the name under which AQAP has operated since 2012, and “firmly rejecting” any (unspecified) plans to destabilize the region (HTC, April 5). Some days later, on April 12, the alliance issued a marginally stronger statement thanking the “Arab coalition force” for their support for Yemen and pledging to uphold “security” in Hadramawt region, although without specifically committing to fight the Houthis or AQAP (HTC, April 12). These ambiguous statements suggest the tribes—while opposed to the Houthis and traditionally heavily bankrolled by the Saudis—are somewhat indifferent to both Hadi and AQAP, although they are possibly holding out for additional Saudi bribes or political concessions from Hadi. Indeed, Hadramawt tribes have little love for Hadi, whose forces killed one of Hadramawt’s most respected tribal leaders—Shaykh Saad bin Habrish al-Hamoomi—in an unprovoked attack in December 2013, triggering weeks of unrest (Yemen Times, December 5, 2013). Meanwhile, areas of Hadramawt outside al-Mukalla have been calm in recent days, suggesting that AQAP appears unwilling to provoke the tribes unnecessarily (Mukalla Star, April 15). AQAP’s alleged local rebranding as “Sons of Hadramawt” may be a further effort to avoid antagonizing these tribes, who themselves are likely to view the current unrest as a chance to advance their own regional agenda, and who are liable to regard AQAP less a potential threat than as potential pawn. In this context, AQAP’s further expansion—ironically under the cover of U.S.-supported Saudi airstrikes and even through working with forces loyal to the country’s internationally recognized president—seems likely to continue.
SPANISH ISLAMIC STATE ARRESTS ILLUSTRATE CONTINUING RECRUITMENT
Spanish police on April 8 arrested 11 men suspected of links to the Islamic State in a series of raids in Barcelona, Spain’s second largest city, and in other locations in Catalonia (El País, April 9). The group reportedly included five Moroccans, five ethnic Spanish converts to Islam and one 17-year-old Paraguayan who had recently converted (El País, April 8). A Spanish prosecutor was quoted as saying that the group was “directly linked” to the Islamic State. The group had allegedly already sent four other individuals to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but three—all from Barcelona—were arrested in December in Bulgaria while en route (El País, December 19). The police reportedly said that the group had the potential to carry out attacks in Catalonia, but that the group posed no threat as it was under constant surveillance. However, according to other reports, the group’s plans were well advanced and involved a plot to attack Jewish targets and to kidnap and behead a member of the public (Times of Israel, April 10). The leader of the group was Antonio Saez Martinez, a 40-year-old ethnic Spanish hairdresser, who converted to Islam in an attempt to conquer his alcoholism, leading to him to growing a beard and reinventing himself as a hardline Salafist (El Mundo, April 12).
The location of the arrests in and around Barcelona underlines the strong Salafist presence in some parts of Catalonia. For instance, following the arrests, Spanish Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz said that of the 98 mosques in the country known to promote a strict form of Salafism, 50 are in Catalonia (Catalunya Radio, April 8). This enduring correlation between jihadism and Salafist activism underlines the role of hardline Salafism in creating sectarian and intolerant “mood music” in Muslim communities that jihadists can easily exploit. In addition, in Terrassa, the city north of Barcelona where Antonio Saez Martinez lived, the immigrant population is estimated at over 40 percent and the local Muslim population at 20,000, creating a potentially fertile recruiting ground for Salafi and jihadist activists, particularly given Spain’s high levels of unemployment (El Mundo, April 12).
Women from the Barcelona area have also been drawn to the Islamic State. For instance, on March 7, police arrested Samira Yerou, a Moroccan citizen living in Barcelona, as she arrived at the city’s airport from Turkey, where she had been detained on suspicion of seeking to help Islamic State recruits cross into Syria (Ministry of Interior, March 7). In April, she was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison (RTVE, April 10). Six others were arrested in the Catalonia region in mid-March for recruiting for the Islamic State, allegedly creating “complex virtual framework” for online radicalization through Twitter and Facebook (El Mundo, March 15). Likewise, in December 2014, a 25-year-old Chilean woman living in Barcelona, Peña Orellana, was one of seven people arrested for allegedly recruiting individuals to the Islamic State, primarily through social media (La Cuarta, December 17, 2014).
Although there have been no attacks by Islamic State supporters so far in Spain, future attacks cannot be discounted. For instance, a June 2014 Spanish-language video released online by Islamic State members, apparently in Iraq or Syria, directly threatened Spain, with the speaker saying: “We are living under the Islamic flag, the Islamic caliphate. We will die for it until we liberate those occupied lands, from Jakarta to Andalusia. And I declare: Spain is the land of our forefathers and we are going to take it back with the power of Allah” (El Mundo, July 1, 2014). This reflects that although Spain is a lesser member of the international coalition against the Islamic State, the country occupies a central and disproportionately prominent position in the imaginations of a wide range of Islamists, from al-Qaeda to the Muslim Brotherhood, on account of its former role as a Muslim colony, whose medieval Christian reconquest is regarded as a lasting affront (El País, October 8, 2014). As a result, while Islamic State activity seems to be currently focused on recruiting fighters to Iraq and Syria, it is entirely possible that in time the group may shift toward attacking Spain itself.