AQAP in Southern Yemen: Learning, Adapting and Growing

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 20

Armed fighters in Yemen (Source:

During the nearly two years of the Yemeni civil war, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has gone from an organization that was under pressure and struggling financially, to an organization that is larger, more formidable and better armed than it has ever been.

The civil war in Yemen is being fought between the Houthis and their allies – based in northwest Yemen – and a disparate mix of militias that nominally support Yemen’s internationally recognized government-in-exile in Saudi Arabia. Nineteen months of unrelenting conflict has reduced most of the country’s infrastructure to ruins, devastated an already weak economy and further impoverished the Middle East’s poorest nation.

Amid the conflict, AQAP has lost territory, most significantly the Yemeni port city of al-Mukalla, which was retaken by forces backed by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on April 24, 2016 (al-Jazeera, April 25). However, this loss of territory has not significantly diminished the group’s capabilities. On the contrary, AQAP, which has consistently proven itself to be a highly adaptable and deeply pragmatic organization, has benefited from having a much smaller territorial footprint. AQAP’s strategic retreat from al-Mukalla, and other parts of the governorate of Hadramawt, prompted it to once again recalibrate its tactics and organizational structure to take maximum advantage of what is an ideal operational space for a terrorist organization: a politically fragmented and desperately poor country.

Strategic Retreat

In March 2015, AQAP took over al-Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth largest city. This was soon after Saudi Arabia and its partners commenced Operation Decisive Storm. After the takeover of al-Mukalla, AQAP quickly established itself as a relatively benevolent power in the city and handed over day-to-day governance to a council of elders. During the year that AQAP maintained control of the city, the organization, for the most part, followed a strategy outlined by its now deceased former leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi. [1] The strategy advocated a gradualist approach to governance that adapted itself to the local political and strategic environment. This gradualist strategy was informed by the lessons learned from AQAP’s 2011 takeover of parts of the governorates of Abyan and Shabwa. There, it had tried (but failed) to quickly impose its understanding of sharia or Islamic law. The organization lost what local support it had. Its relations with critically important tribal elders frayed to the point where the tribes turned on them and, with the support of parts of the Yemeni Army and with some outside assistance, forced AQAP from its strongholds in Abyan and Shabwa.

AQAP’s gradualist strategy served it well during its yearlong occupation of al-Mukalla. It built on existing relationships with some members of the Hadrawmi elite and enjoyed limited support from the local populace. In most cases, this support was not for its militant Salafist ideology, but for AQAP’s ability to maintain relatively high levels of security and for its attempts to reestablish public services.

Beginning in January 2016, AQAP began moving forces and the heavy equipment that it had captured out of al-Mukalla. The equipment and forces were dispersed and repositioned in AQAP’s former strongholds in the governorates of Abyan and Shabwa. In April, forces backed by KSA and UAE reoccupied al-Mukalla in a battle that lasted a day. AQAP’s withdrawal from the city was hailed as a crushing defeat by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. KSA and UAE based spokesmen claimed that at least 800 AQAP fighters had been killed (The New Arab, April 25).

The withdrawal, however, was well coordinated and carried out well in advance of the city’s reoccupation. AQAP claimed it lost less than 10 fighters and declared that its withdrawal was to save civilian lives (Arab News, April 30). While AQAP typically has little regard for civilian lives, this declaration was likely partially true – sizeable civilian losses would have cost it the support and popularity that it had worked to build over the previous year. Additionally and most importantly, AQAP’s leadership saw that holding al-Mukalla in the face of Saudi and Emirati air power was neither tenable nor desirable.

AQAP’s leadership has time and again proven that it is able to quickly learn from the mistakes that it makes and from the mistakes that other terrorist organizations, such as Islamic State (IS), make. It is likely that AQAP was already beginning to see that the IS’ large territorial footprint and its increasingly conventional forces were becoming a liability. In Iraq and most particularly in Syria – where Russia intervened at the behest of the Syrian government – IS had already suffered considerable losses by January 2016.

While the loss of al-Mukalla was a blow to AQAP’s finances (AQAP collected a range of taxes and “tributes” in al-Mukalla, as well as running a lucrative fuel smuggling network), the loss did not diminish AQAP’s ability to project power and coordinate offensive actions against its enemies (Reuters, April 8). On the contrary, AQAP’s strategic retreat has enhanced its ability to project power and influence.

Blurring the Lines

AQAP’s phased withdrawal from al-Mukalla allowed it to leave the city with almost all of the weaponry that it had seized from military installations in and just outside the city. Most importantly, the withdrawal from al-Mukalla allowed AQAP to leave with its ties to many Hadrawmi elites intact.

The group’s yearlong occupation of al-Mukalla was something of a master class in governance and community engagement for the organization. The resources seized by AQAP – which included at least $100 million from the Yemeni Central Bank – allowed it to buy influence within numerous impoverished communities (al-Jazeera, September 16). Some of the money was used to fund aid programs, food distribution, and to pay the salaries of those working directly and indirectly for AQAP. During the year in which AQAP occupied al-Mukalla and much of the southern half of the vast governorate of Hadramawt, AQAP worked assiduously at refining its already well-developed community engagement strategy.

The leadership of AQAP has, since at least 2011, recognized the importance of building relationships with local communities. While it has often failed at this due to its heavy-handed tactics, it has incorporated the lessons it has learned in the previous five years. The organization now places an emphasis on “outreach” and engagement. Efforts include the payment of cash indemnities to the families of those killed in drone attacks, public works like the drilling and refurbishment of water wells, and even paying for those who need to travel for medical treatment. [2] AQAP is now effectively leveraging its community ties across south Yemen and its organizational efficiency to make itself a key player in the fight against the Houthis (sworn enemies of AQAP) and loyalists of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, as well as those core parts of the Yemeni Army that remain loyal to Saleh and his sons.

Forces under the command of AQAP and forces allied with it are active on the frontlines in Yemen’s civil war (BBC, February 22). [3] In particular, AQAP is playing a key role in the ongoing battle for the strategic city of Taiz and in the battle for the equally strategic town and governorate of al-Bayda. Both of these areas have long been viewed as chokepoints that, if controlled, facilitate access to northwest highlands and most critically, the capital of Sanaa.

AQAP’s relationship with the groups fighting against the Houthis/Saleh loyalists is complex. [4] It is likely that pro-government-in-exile militias tolerate AQAP because of its superior organizational efficiency and fighting skills. One of the key factors that has impeded the efforts of the pro-government militias is corruption and a lack of efficiency. Many of them are only nominal supporters of the deeply unpopular government in exile. A significant number of the men who have taken up arms have done so simply to earn enough to feed their families. As a result, the inability of their commanders to pay their salaries has caused militia members to look elsewhere for employment.

AQAP is one organization to which some of the men turn. It pays more (as much as $1,100 a month for senior fighters), it pays on time and its fighters are well supplied with arms and food. This stands in stark contrast with many of the disparate KSA backed pro-government militias and army troops that are poorly paid, if they are paid at all, and who often run short of critical supplies (New York Times, September 12). The lines between pro-government fighters and those fighting alongside AQAP are increasingly blurred. However, this is not to say that anything close to a majority of those fighting with the pro-government militias and reconstituted army units identify with AQAP’s militant Salafist ideology.

Just like many, if not most, of the men who join it, AQAP is an organization driven by pragmatism and a desire to survive. AQAP’s leadership has always been quick to spot opportunities for advancing the interests of the organization and ensuring its long-term survival; and that is the group’s first and foremost concern, trumping ideology.

Islamic State: From Enemy to Ally?

Sixteen months ago, IS posed a significant threat to AQAP. Following in the wake of its territorial gains in Syria and Iraq, IS threatened to metastasize in Yemen just as it has in Libya, the Sinai, Iraq and Syria. Some midlevel members of AQAP’s leadership switched their allegiance to IS, and the two groups fought a number of pitched battles in al-Shabwa and Hadramawt in 2015.

While AQAP, like IS in Syria and Iraq, has lost territory, there is a marked difference between how the two organizations have managed their retreats. As argued above, AQAP’s withdrawal from al-Mukalla was strategic. The withdrawal, just as was envisioned by AQAP’s leadership, added to rather than detracted from the organization’s prestige. In contrast, IS’ hyper-violent approach in the areas where it operates, including Yemen, has cost it much of the support that it briefly enjoyed.

The IS presence in Yemen has always been limited. IS allied operatives in Yemen have focused on small but deadly operations that primarily target government officials, those allied with the Houthis and, to a lesser degree, tribal and pro-government militias. As the power and influence of IS has declined in Syria and Iraq, so too has the influence and reach of IS in Yemen. While IS in Yemen continues to carry out small but deadly attacks, including a September 29 attack on a pro-government colonel in Aden, the organization is likely on the wane due to its tactics and its deteriorating finances (, September 29).

The weakness of IS in Yemen will not have gone unnoticed by the leadership of AQAP. AQAP, in comparison with IS in Yemen, is well funded, well placed and well-armed. It is AQAP that can now set the terms by which the two groups cooperate or quite possibly merge. There is a long history of such mergers in Yemen. AQAP itself is a product of a nearly two-decade long evolution that saw multiple jihadist groups merge and reconfigure themselves into organizations that were almost always more capable than their previous iterations.

While IS’ standards for recruits are generally lower than for those of AQAP, IS in Yemen undoubtedly has a number of skilled and committed operatives among its ranks. [5] These men – those who are, ironically, not too radical for AQAP’s tastes – could well find a home within the group. While it is too early to write off IS in Yemen as a spent force, at a minimum its weakness and more limited financial resources make it more likely to cooperate with AQAP in areas where their interests overlap (Middle East Monitor, September 9). While there is no hard open source evidence, patterns of activity may indicate such cooperation. The tempo of AQAP’s attacks in Aden has declined while attacks by IS are increasingly limited to the area in and around Aden. It is probable that AQAP now views IS as an ally of convenience that, when appropriate, can either be absorbed or eliminated. What is certain is that in addition to being driven by pragmatism, AQAP takes the long view of its war for territory and hearts and minds in Yemen.

Patience and Time

It is unlikely that members of the AQAP leadership read Tolstoy, but they readily incorporate his views on war. In War and Peace, the Russian General Kutuzov says of his troops who are outnumbered by Napoleon’s army, “they must understand that we can only lose by taking the offensive. Patience and time are my warriors, my champions.” [6] This approach to war is at the heart of AQAP’s evolving strategy. The current AQAP leadership, which is clearly more than able to absorb the losses inflicted on it by U.S. drones, is focused on what it sees as a multi-decade war where patience and time will do more than anything else to wear down their enemies.

While AQAP is certainly not opposed to taking and holding territory, it is not afraid to give it up when such a retreat is to its advantage. AQAP took heavy losses in 2013 when it attempted to defend its first self-declared emirate in Abyan. The air strikes, skillfully aided by the United States, and most especially ground forces made up of units from the Yemeni Army and tribal militias who knew the terrain and local actors, devastated AQAP, both its rank and file and its leadership. Just as it has in the past, AQAP learned from this experience and is now “like sand in the desert: always moving with the wind, but always accumulating.” [7]

AQAP’s proven ability to learn and evolve, combined with what are now ample funds and materiel, mean that it is able to further enmesh itself within communities, militias and urban populations that are subject to rapidly rising levels of poverty and insecurity. As was demonstrated in al-Mukalla, and to a lesser degree in other areas in the south that it continues to control, AQAP is able to set itself up as a viable and in some cases more efficient and effective alternative to the internationally recognized Yemeni government-in-exile. The civil war in Yemen, and the consequent fragmentation of what was already an incredibly complex political terrain, has provided AQAP with an abundance of opportunities to expand its organization and make itself even more resilient.

Looking Forward

Barring some kind of negotiated settlement, the civil war in Yemen is likely to continue, at least at a low intensity, for years. This is welcome news for AQAP. The war has already helped AQAP go from an organization that was struggling to one that is thriving. The dire humanitarian situation in Yemen – more than 80 percent of Yemenis are in urgent need of aid – will help AQAP fill its ranks with new recruits and allow it to continue to demonstrate its ability to act as a surrogate for the state by providing aid and security (The Guardian, March 2016).

Add to this the fact that Yemen, which was already awash in weapons, has seen a dramatic increase in the flow of weapons and materiel, largely from KSA and UAE. It is worth noting that, despite the war, prices for small arms in Yemen have plummeted in the last year. [8] Most significantly, the influx of arms has not been limited to small arms. More advanced weapons such as anti-tank missiles, which can easily be repurposed, have been provided to a range of militias, some of which fight alongside AQAP.

While AQAP is currently devoting most of its energies to fighting what it defines as the “near enemy,” namely the Houthis and their allies, there is little doubt that the organization will once again turn its attention to the “far enemy”, the United States and its allies. When AQAP’s focus returns to the far enemy, it will be better equipped, better funded and most importantly far more resilient.

The war in Yemen and the extraordinary destruction that it has wrought have created ideal conditions for an organization that has proven itself to be highly capable and adaptable. The future for AQAP has rarely looked brighter.




[1] See:

[2] Author interview with Yemen-based government official (September 2016).

[3] See: (Yemen: Under Siege, relevant footage begins at 08.00);; also based on author interviews.

[4] It is notable that Yemeni president in exile Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi appointed Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar as his vice president on April 3, 2016. The general’s ties to militant Salafist groups are well documented (The Guardian, March 21, 2011). Before al-Ahmar and former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh turned against one another, General al-Ahmar often acted as Saleh’s liaison to militant Salafist groups who were used as proxy fighters against first southern separatists and then the Houthis.

[5] See: Kilcullen, David, Blood Year: The Unraveling of Western Counterterrorism, Oxford University Press, 2016, p.204

[6] Tolstoy, Leo, War and Peace, Book 13, Chapter 17

[7] Author interview with Yemen-based analyst (September 2016).

[8] There is now such an abundance of Steyr AUG assault rifles (used by and provided by Saudi Arabia) in Yemen that the price for the rifle is generally under $50. Yemen’s always well supplied arms markets (the country has long acted as an arms emporium for the region) are now stocked with advanced weaponry like BGM-71 TOW missiles, 9M133 Kornet anti-tank missiles and a dizzying array of night vision equipment.